The Hoysala Empire was a Kannadiga power originating from the Indian subcontinent that ruled most of what is now Karnataka between the 10th and the 14th centuries.
The capital of the Hoysalas was initially located at Belur, but was later moved to Halebidu.
The Hoysala rulers were originally from Malenadu, an elevated region in the Western Ghats. In the 12th century, taking advantage of the internecine warfare between theWestern Chalukya Empire and Kalachuris of Kalyani, the Hoysalas annexed areas of present-day Karnataka and the fertile areas north of the Kaveri delta in present-day Tamil Nadu.
By the 13th century, they governed most of Karnataka, north-western Tamil Nadu and parts of western Andhra Pradesh in the Deccan Plateau.
The Hoysalas claimed to be of the Yadava lineage and had a legendary origin story. According to their inscriptions, their mythical founder, Sala (also known as Poysala), performed a miraculous act of bravery by killing a tiger, hence earning the name “Hoysala,” which means “the one who strikes.”
This legend is more symbolic than historical, but it became an important part of the Hoysala identity.
The early history of the Hoysalas is not well-documented. Still, they gradually gained prominence in the region by serving as vassals to various larger South Indian empires, including the Chalukyas and the Cholas.
Over time, the Hoysalas asserted their independence and began to establish their kingdom.
The most significant period of Hoysala rule occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries under notable rulers like Vishnuvardhana, Ballala II, and Veera Ballala III.
During this time, they built many impressive temples, showcasing their patronage of art and culture.
The Hoysala architectural style, known for its intricate sculptures and finely detailed carvings, reached its zenith during this period.
Prominent Rulers of the Hoysala dynasty
Nripa Kama II (963–966 CE): Nripa Kama II is considered one of the early rulers of the Hoysala dynasty. His reign marked the beginning of the Hoysala rule in the region.
Vinayaditya (968–1008 CE): Vinayaditya expanded the Hoysala kingdom and consolidated its power. He played a significant role in the dynasty’s early development.
Ereyanga (1008–1048 CE): Ereyanga, also known as Marasimha I, continued to expand the Hoysala territory. He was an important ruler in the dynasty’s history.
Veera Ballala I (1048–1098 CE): Veera Ballala I is one of the most renowned Hoysala kings. His reign saw the construction of several famous Hoysala temples, including the Chennakesava Temple at Belur.
Vishnuvardhana (1111–1152 CE): Vishnuvardhana is one of the most notable Hoysala kings. He expanded the kingdom and is credited with patronizing the construction of many Hoysala temples, including the Chennakesava Temple at Belur and the Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu.
Narasimha I (1152–1173 CE): Narasimha I continued the dynasty’s patronage of art and architecture. He was known for constructing the Kesava Temple at Somanathapura.
Ballala II (1173–1220 CE): Ballala II was another significant Hoysala ruler who continued the dynasty’s patronage of art and architecture. He faced conflicts with the Kakatiya dynasty and the Yadavas of Devagiri.
Vira Narasimha II (1220–1235 CE): Vira Narasimha II, also known as Narasimha III, succeeded Ballala II. His reign witnessed conflicts with the Chola dynasty and other neighboring powers.
Vira Someshwara (1235–1263 CE): Vira Someshwara faced challenges from external invasions during his rule. The dynasty began to decline under his leadership.
Narasimha III (1263–1292 CE): Narasimha III was one of the last significant rulers of the Hoysala dynasty. His reign marked a period of decline, with the dynasty gradually losing power.
The kingdom was divided into provinces or regions, each administered by local governors or chiefs who were appointed by the king.
The kingdom was divided into provinces named Nadu, Vishaya, Kampana, and Desha, listed in descending order of geographical size.
Below the provincial level, there were local officials responsible for revenue collection, law enforcement, and administration.
Revenue officials, known as Gavundas, were responsible for assessing and collecting taxes from the agricultural sector.
Senior ministers, called Pancha Pradhanas, ministers responsible for foreign affairs, designated Sandhivigrahi, and the chief treasurer, Mahabhandari or Hiranyabhandari conducted top-level government affairs.
Dandanayakas led the armies while Dharmadhikari served as the chief justice of the Hoysala court.
Local officials, known as Nyayamurtis or Nyayadhishas, presided over the local courts and helped in the administration of justice.
The king had the ultimate authority in legal matters and often played a role in the dispensation of justice.
The defeat of the Jain Western Ganga Dynasty by the Cholas in early eleventh century and the rising numbers of followers of Vaishnava Hinduism and Virashaivism in the twelfth century mirrored a decreased interest in Jainism. Shravanabelagola and Kambadahalli represent two notable locations of Jain worship in the Hoysala territory.
The decline of Buddhism in South India began in the eighth century with the spread of Adi Shankara’s Advaita philosophy. Dambal and Balligavi constituted only places of Buddhist worship during the Hoysala time.
Shantala Devi, queen of Vishnuvardhana professed Jainism yet commissioned the Hindu Kappe Chennigaraya temple in Belur, evidence that the royal family tolerated all religions.
During the rule of the Hoysalas, three important religious developments took place in present day Karnataka inspired by three philosophers, Basavanna, Madhvacharya and Ramanujacharya.
While scholars debate the origin of Virashaiva faith, they agree that the movement grew through its association with Basavanna in the twelfth century. Some scholars argue that five earlier saintsRenuka, Daruka, Ekorama, Panditharadhya and Vishwaradhya founded Virashaivism, a sect that preaches devotion to Lord Shiva.
Basavanna and other Virashaiva saints preached of a faith without a caste system. In his Vachanas he appealed to the masses in simple Kannada, writing “work is worship” (Kayakave Kailasa).
Madhvacharya took a critical stance toward the teachings of Shankaracharya, arguing for world as real rather than illusion. Madvacharya upheld the virtues of Lord Vishnu, propounding the Dvaita philosophy (dualism) while condemning the “mayavada” (illusion) of Shankaracharya. He maintained a distinction between Paramathma (supreme being) and the dependent principle of life.
His philosophy gained popularity enabling him to establish eight Mathas (monastery) in Udupi. Ramanujacharya, the head of the Vaishnava monastery in Srirangam, preached the way of devotion (bhakti marga) and wrote Sribhashya, a critique on the Advaita philosophy of Adi Shankara.
Those religious developments had a profound impact on culture, literature, poetry and architecture in South India. Scholars wrote important works of literature and poetry based on the teachings of those philosophers during the coming centuries.
The Saluva, Tuluva and Aravidu dynasties of Vijayanagar empire followed Vaishnavism, a Vaishnava temple with an image of Ramanujacharya stands in the Vitthalapura area of Vijayanagara. Scholars in later Mysore Kingdom wrote Vaishnavite works upholding the teachings of Ramanujacharya.
King Vishnuvardhana built many temples after his conversion from Jainism to Vaishnavism. The later saints of Madhvacharya’s order, Jayatirtha, Vyasatirtha,Sripadaraya, Vadirajatirtha and devotees (dasa) such as Vijaya Dasa, Gopaladasa and others from the Karnataka region spread his teachings far and wide.
His teachings inspired later day philosophers like Vallabhacharya in Gujarat and Chaitanya in Bengal. Another wave of devotion (bhakti) in the seventeenth–eighteenth century found inspiration in his teachings.
Hoysala society in many ways reflected the emerging religious, political and cultural developments of those times.
During that period, the society became increasingly sophisticated. The status of women varied.
Some royal women became involved in administrative matters as shown in contemporary records describing Queen Umadevi’s administration of Halebidu in the absence of Veera Ballala II during his long military campaigns in northern territories.
She also fought and defeated some antagonistic feudal rebels.
That in stark contrast to the literature of the time (like Vikramankadeva Charita of Bilhana) that portrayed women as retiring, overly romantic and unconcerned with affairs of the state.
Records describe the participation of women in the fine arts, such as Queen Shantala Devi’s skill in dance and music, and the twelfth century Vachana poet and Virashaiva mystic Akka Mahadevi’s famed devotion to the bhakti movement.
She constituted both a pioneer in the era of Women’s emancipation and an example of a transcendental world-view.
Temple dancers (Devadasi), well educated and accomplished in the arts, commonly danced in the temples. Those qualifications gave them more freedom than other urban and rural women restricted to daily mundane tasks. As in most of India, the institute of the Indian caste system prevailed in Hoysala society.
Trade on the west coast brought many foreigners to India including Arabs, Jews, Persians, Chinese and people from the Malay Peninsula. Migration of people within Southern India as a result of the expansion of the empire produced an influx of new cultures and skills. Royal patronage of education, arts, architecture, religion, and establishment of new forts and military outposts caused the large scale relocation of people.
In South India, towns called Pattana or Pattanam and the marketplace, Nagara or Nagaram, the marketplace served as the nuclei of a city. Some towns such as Shravanabelagola developed from a religious settlement in the seventh century to an important trading center by the twelfth century with the arrival of rich traders, while towns like Belur attained the atmosphere of a regal city when King Vishnuvardhana built the Chennakesava Temple there. Large temples supported by royal patronage served religious, social, and judiciary purposes, elevating the king to the level of “God on earth.”
Temple building served a commercial as well as a religious function, open to all Hindu sects.
Shaiva merchants of Halebidu financed the construction of the Hoysaleswara temple to compete with the Chennakesava temple built at Belur, elevating Halebidu to an important city as well.
Hoysala temples, although secular encouraged pilgrims of all Hindu sects, the Kesava temple at Somanathapura being an exception with strictly Vaishnava sculptural depictions.
Temples built by rich landlords in rural areas fulfilled fiscal, political, cultural and religious needs of the agrarian communities. Irrespective of patronage, large temples served as establishments that provided employment to hundreds of people of various guilds and professions sustaining local communities as Hindu temples began to take on the shape of wealthy Buddhist monasteries.
Although Sanskrit literature remained popular during the Hoysala rule, royal patronage of local Kannada scholars increased. In the twelfth century, some scholars wrote works in the Champu mixed prose-verse style but distinctive Kannada metres became more widely accepted. The Sangatya metre used in compositions, Shatpadi,Tripadi metres in verses(seven and three line) and Ragale (lyrical poems) became fashionable. Jain works continued to extol the virtues of Tirthankaras (Jain ascetics).
The Hoysala court supported scholars such as Janna, Rudrabhatta, Harihara and his nephew Raghavanka, whose works endure as masterpieces in Kannada. In 1209, the Jain scholar Janna wrote Yashodharacharite, the story of a king who intends to perform a ritual sacrifice of two young boys to a local deity, Mariamma. Taking pity on the boys, the king releases them and gives up the practice of human sacrifice. In honor of that work, Janna received the title “Emperor among poets” (Kavichakravarthi) from King Veera Ballala II.
Rudrabhatta, a Smartha Brahmin (believer of monistic philosophy), represents the earliest well known Brahminical writer. Chandramouli, a minister of King Veera Ballala II, became his patron. Based on the earlier work of Vishnu Purana, he wrote Jagannatha Vijaya in the Champu style relating the life of Lord Krishna leading up to his fight with the demon Banasura.
Harihara, (also known as Harisvara) a Virashaiva writer and the patron of King Narasimha I, wrote the Girijakalyana in the old Jain Champu style describing the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvati in ten sections. One of the earliest Virashaiva writers independent from the Vachana literary tradition. He came from a family of accountants (Karanikas) from Halebidu and spent many years in Hampi writing more than one hundred Ragales (poems in blank verse) in praise of Lord Virupaksha (a form of Lord Shiva). Raghavanka had been the first to introduce the Shatpadi metre into Kannada literature in his Harishchandra kavya, considered a classic even though it occasionally violates strict rules of Kannada grammar.
In Sanskrit, the philosopher Madhvacharya wrote Rigbhshya on Brahmasutras (a logical explanation of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas) as well as many polemical works rebutting the doctrines of other schools of Vedas. He relied more on the Puranic literature than the Vedas for logical proof of his philosophy. Vidyatirtha’s Rudraprshnabhashya represents another famous writing.
Hoysalas combined Vesara and Dravida style and developed new Hoysala style.
The temples are characterized by their star-shaped or stellate (star-like) design and highly detailed sculptures, depicting various deities, mythological scenes, and intricate floral motifs.
The Hoysalas primarily used soapstone (chloritic schist) as their primary building material. This soft stone allowed for intricate carving and detailing.
Important features of this style are
The Hoysala temples generally bears one or more shrines. The temples are classified as
ekakuta (one shrine),
dvikuta (two shrines),
Trikuta (3 garbhagrihas) etc.
The shrine of the Hoysala temples are generally seen in stellate shaped though sometimes staggered square plan is visible.
A cuboid cell, the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) houses a centrally placed murti (enshrined icon) on a pitha (pedestal).
The shikhara (superstructure), rises over the garbha griha and together with the sanctum they form the vimana (or mulaprasada) of a temple.
They are not very high.
Some represents hybrid of Nagara and Dravida style and some pyramidal.
A ribbed stone, amalaka, is placed atop the shikhara with a kalash at its finial.
An intermediate antarala (vestibule) joins the garbha griha to an expansive pillared mandapa (porch) in front, chiefly facing east (or north).
Hoysala temples have features of both open (outer mantapa) and closed mantapa (innner mantapa).
The ceilings of the mantapa are highly ornate bearing mythological figures and floral design
The mantapas of Hoysala temples have circular pillars. Each pillar bear four brackets in the top with sculpted figures.
The temple may be approached via entrances with gigantic gopurams (ornate entrance towers) towering over each doorway.
In the prakaram (temple courtyard) several minor shrines and outbuildings often abound.
The vimanas are either stellate, semi–stellate or orthogonal in plan.
Vimana in Hoysala temples are plain inside while outside is profusely elaborated.
Unique feature is horizontality which is visible in lines mouldings etc.
Large scale use of moulding is a unique feature which are visible in walls and pillars.
Base of pillars and the capital of pillars both are characterised by beautiful mouldings.
Most of their temples in Bhumija style.
In this style miniature shikara is carved on the outerwall of the temple.
The intricately carved banded plinths, a distinguishing characteristic of the Hoysala temples, comprise a series of horizontal courses that run as rectangular strips with narrow recesses between them.
The temples themselves are sometimes built on a raised platform or jagati (which is used for the purpose of pradakshinapatha (circumambulation)) leaving a broad flat surface all around the temple.
These are noted for their extremely fine, delicate, and detailed carvings executed on smooth chlorite schist on walls and ceilings.
An abundance of figure sculpture covers almost all the Hoysala temples.
Examples of Hoysala temples are.
Channakeshava temple at Beluru
Hoysaleshvara temple at Halebidu
Keshava temple Somnathpura
They constructed Jain Basadis also.
Eg. Savathi Gandhavarana Basadi at Shravanabelagola.
Hoysala artists have won fame for their sculptural detail, whether in the depiction of the Hindu epics, Yali (mythical creature), deities, Kirthimukha (Gargoyle), eroticism or aspects of daily life.
Their medium, the soft soapstone, enabled a virtuoso carving style.
Their workmanship shows an attention paid to precise detail. Every aspect down to a fingernail or toenail has been created perfectly.
Kirthimukhas (demon faces) adorn the towers of vimana in some temples.
Sometimes the artists left behind their signature on the sculpture they created.
The sthamba buttalikas refer to pillar images that show traces of Chola art in the Chalukyan touches.
Some of the artists working for the Hoysalas may have been from Chola country, a result of the expansion of the empire into Tamil speaking regions of Southern India.
The image of mohini on one of the pillars in the mantapa (closed hall) of the Chennakeshava temple represents a fine example of Chola art.
Wall panels present general life themes such as the act of reining horses, the type of stirrup used, the depiction of dancers, musicians, instrumentalists, rows of animals such as lions and elephants.
The Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebidu presents perhaps the best depiction the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in temple art.
The Hoysala artist handled erotica with discretion.
They avoided exhibitionism, carving erotic themes into recesses and niches, generally miniature in form making them inconspicuous.
Those erotic representations associate with the Shakta practice.
The temple doorway displays heavily engraved ornamentation called Makaratorana (makara or imaginary beast) and each side of the doorway exhibits sculptured Salabanjika (maidens).
Apart from those sculptures, entire sequences from the Hindu epics (commonly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) have been sculptured in a clockwise direction starting at the main entrance.
Depictions from mythology commonly appear such as
the epic hero Arjuna shooting fish,
the elephant-headed God Ganesha,
the Sun God Surya,
the weather and war god Indra, and
Brahma with Sarasvati.
Also Durga frequently appear in the temples, with several arms holding weapons, in the act of killing a water buffalo (a demon in a buffalo’s form) and Harihara (a fusion Shiva and Vishnu) holding a conch, wheel and trident.
Decline of the Hoysala dynasty
The Hoysala dynasty faced external threats from the Delhi Sultanate and internal strife among the nobility during the late 13th century.
By the early 14th century, the Hoysala kingdom had weakened, and it was eventually absorbed by the Vijayanagara Empire in the early 14th century.
The Hoysala dynasty’s architectural and artistic legacy continues to be celebrated in Karnataka and beyond. Their temples are popular tourist attractions and are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The dynasty’s contributions to South Indian culture and temple architecture remain highly regarded in the fields of art and history.
The Hoysala dynasty left an indelible mark on the cultural and architectural heritage of South India. Their temples, characterized by their exquisite craftsmanship, continue to be admired by art connoisseurs and visitors to the region.