The Hoysaleshvara temple in the village of Halebidu, in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, is one of the most sculpturally elaborate buildings in South Asia. Dancing images of gods, goddesses, and celestial beings—carved in high relief into locally sourced blocks of schist used to build the temple—enliven the dynamically zigzagging exterior walls. Processions of elephants, cavalries of horses, and visual narratives wrap their way around the structure, beckoning viewers to follow along. From afar, the temple appears as a vast expanse of sculpture. Up close, the minutely carved details of its walls draw you in, filling your field of vision.
Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the Hoysaleshvara temple was built around 1120 C.E., with some additions made in later decades. At that time, Halebidu—then called Dorasamudra—was the capital city of the Hoysala dynasty, which held political power in the region between c. 1000 and 1346. The Hoysaleshvara was one of the first temples to be built in the city, and it remained one of the most prominent. Then, as now, visitors must have been impressed by its monumentality and sculptural abundance—it is the largest surviving temple of the Hoysala period, and it was the first to display an innovative design that epitomizes what art historians now call the Hoysala style.
The design of the Hoysaleshvara temple’s exterior walls is divided into three parts. On the bottom are eight sculptural friezes (horizontal bands of imagery) depicting elephants, lions, vines, horses, narratives, makaras (mythical aquatic creatures, sometimes identified as crocodiles), and hamsas (geese). Above them is a succession of large figural images, carved into blocks more than five feet in height, representing Hindu deities, divine musicians and dancers, and other celestial beings. Along the top are schematic images of temple towers supported on pillars, separated from the figures below by an overhanging eave carved in a motif of jeweled garlands. This three-part design is seen on the western, northern, and southern sides of the temple, and on the central section of the eastern side. Along most of the eastern side, stone screens fill the space between the narrative friezes and the roofline.
When the Hoysaleshvara temple was built, this design was completely new. Some temples built later in the Hoysala kingdom, such as the Keshava temple at Somanathapura (below), exhibit the same three-part design—this represents one variety of the Hoysala temple style.
Another variety, seen in the Bucheshvara temple at Koravangala (below), features figures of deities and images of temple towers but does not include the base of sculpted friezes.
In both varieties, the prominent figures lining the temples’ exterior walls are the hallmark of the Hoysala style. Before the early twelfth century, this kind of imagery was absent from the region’s temples, and the style appears to have been developed to mark the Hoysalas’ presence and political authority. 
Patronage of a merchant and a king
The name Hoysaleshvara—which means “lord (ishvara) of Hoysala”—signals the temple’s connection to the royal family. This connection is also borne out by the temple’s prominent location within the capital city, not far from the Hoysala palace (the palace no longer survives, but stone fragments from its compound walls indicate where it once stood). Yet the inscription that records the temple’s dedication in 1120 identifies the primary patron not as a king but as a merchant named Ketamalla, who sponsored the temple’s construction. Carved into a stone stele over seven feet tall that may once have stood just outside the temple (now kept at the Archaeological Museum in Halebidu, not pictured here), the text of the inscription states that Ketamalla had the temple built in honor of his patron, King Vishnuvardhana Hoysala. The king, in turn, granted land to the temple—agricultural proceeds from this land would support the temple’s activities well into the future. 
Ketamalla’s partnership with King Vishnuvardhana attests to the prominent position of wealthy merchants in the Hoysala kingdom.  Both traders and royals had an interest in the prosperity of the Hoysala state. The construction of the Hoysaleshvara temple—a monumental building with a striking new design—within the capital city was one way of asserting the prestige and growing power of the Hoysalas and their associates.
A double temple to Shiva
The Hoysaleshvara temple is actually a double temple to Shiva: While it is a single, unified building, it was designed as two temples, standing side by side, joined by a common hall. Each side has a sanctum (garbha-griha) that enshrines a linga: a non-figural, pillar-like form with a rounded top that embodies the divine presence of Shiva. To believers, Hindu gods and goddesses are present within the images—including lingas—that represent them. Because of the infinite nature of the divine, these deities can manifest in more than one place at once.
Directly in front of each sanctum is a small chamber called an antarala. This intermediary space connects the sanctum to a nine-bayed hall, called a ranga-mandapa, with a circular platform at the center of its floor. Slightly raised, these platforms may once have functioned as stages for devotional dance and music performances presented in honor of the god.
The ranga-mandapas also accommodate devotees visiting the temple for darshan—the act of seeing and being seen by god. Only priests enter the sanctums to present offerings to the god, including flower garlands, delectable foods, ablutions of scented water, and light from oil lamps. Inscriptions carved into the temple’s interior walls and pillars record donations of such offerings throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, from both men and women identified with various social classes and professions.
Shrines to multiple deities
Smaller shrines line the temple’s interior walls, on the western side of both ranga-mandapas, and at the midpoint of the hall that connects them. These shrines were built to house various gods and goddesses, but the sculptures they once contained are no longer present. Shiva may have been the most important god of the Hoysaleshvara temple, but he was not the only deity worshipped there.
Directly to the east of the enclosed temple, within two open pavilions, are two large bull sculptures wearing garlands, jewelry, and bells. Both represent Nandi, Shiva’s vahana. It is typical for a vahana to face the main sanctum, and because the Hoysaleshvara temple is designed as two temples standing side-by-side, there are two Nandis facing each sanctum of the double-temple. The two Nandis gaze upon the two lingas—like human visitors to the temple, they too take darshan of Shiva.
Behind the southern Nandi, another shrine houses a standing male figure wearing elaborate jewelry and holding two lotuses. This is Surya, the sun god. His seven galloping horses, led by a charioteer who personifies dawn, are carved into his pedestal. Like Nandi, he looks toward the linga—toward Shiva. In Karnataka, many Shiva temples have a similar layout, with a Surya shrine and a Nandi pavilion standing on axis with the temple’s main sanctum.
An elaborately carved panel above the temple’s southern doorway bears an inscription that attributes the sculpture to an artist named Kalidasi and lauds him with honorific titles. Two makaras with exuberantly curling tails frame the composition. At the center is Shiva, identifiable by his trident (trishula) attribute.
Dancing, he tramples a figure that symbolizes ignorance. The Hindu gods Brahma (with a beard and four faces, three of which are visible) and Vishnu flank him, standing under arches framed by tower-topped pillar motifs. Their smaller scale and subordinate position signal that in this temple, Shiva reigns supreme.
Dated to the reign period of King Narasimha I, this panel is a later addition to the temple, but its recognition of the sculptor Kalidasi is part of a pattern seen throughout the Hoysala period. Temples built in the Hoysala kingdom commonly feature artists’ names (typically carved in the lower margins of a sculptural panel). These inscriptions attest to the status of Hoysala artists, whose names were important enough to carve in stone.
Nearly every surface of the Hoysaleshvara temple is covered in finely detailed sculpture. Deities wear gem- and pearl-studded crowns, necklaces, and other jewelry. Gently curling vines encircle leafy tendrils or tiny figures.
The narrative frieze leads viewers through various episodes of the two great epics of ancient India—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—and the story of Krishna (Krishna is the eighth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu; he lived as a human) from the Bhagavata Purana (a devotional text about Vishnu).
Some of the large figural blocks tell stories too. One particularly detailed example depicts Krishna holding up Mount Govardhana to shelter his community from torrential rains. This representation of an episode from the life of Krishna bursts with life. The mountain in the upper register is home to monkeys, birds, multiple types of trees, and even a hunter aiming an arrow at a boar. Snakes (nagas) emerging from the mountain’s base are associated with water and rain. Below, flanking Krishna, rows of musicians, figures with herding canes, and cattle wait out the storm.
Walking around the Hoysaleshvara temple, we are met with seemingly endless visual details such as these to notice and enjoy. During the Hoysala period, as today, visitors to the temple must have appreciated the building for its beauty, marveling at the artistic skill on display and delighting in the visual representations of familiar stories and beloved deities.
Notes: Another prominent Hoysala-style temple from this period is the Chenna-Keshava temple in Belur, a city about ten miles southwest of Halebidu. Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu in 1117 and sponsored by King Vishnuvardhana, the Belur Chenna-Keshava temple’s design was also new at the time of its construction. It aligns most closely with the less sculptural variety of the Hoysala style, although a frieze of elephants is carved into the base of the building.  This inscription is published in Epigraphica Carnatica (New Series), vol. 9 (Mysore: University of Mysore, 1990), pp. 243–8, 691–5 (inscription number Bl. 261).  Daud Ali explores the relationship between merchants and the Hoysala court in “Between Market and Court: The Careers of Two Courtier-Merchants in the Twelfth-Century Deccan,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53, no. 1/2 (2010): pp. 185–211.
Daud Ali, “Between Market and Court: The Careers of Two Courtier-Merchants in the Twelfth-Century Deccan,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53, no. 1/2 (2010), pp. 185–211.
Kelleson Collyer, The Hoysala Artists: Their Identity and Styles (Mysore: Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, 1990).
Katherine E. Kasdorf, “Forming Dōrasamudra: Temples of the Hoysaḷa Capital in Context” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2013).
H. Krishna (ed.), “Halebid,” Archaeological Survey of Mysore, Annual Report for the Year 1930 (Bangalore: Government Press, 1934), pp. 33–61.
Settar, The Hoysaḷa Temples, 2 vols. (Dharwad and Bangalore: Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University and Kala Yatra Publications, 1992).