Apsaras of Belur

Apsaras of Belur
Apsara at Belur Temple

            Accompanied by a tourist guide we were approaching the main entrance of  Belur Temple. The guide pointed out at a stone image on the right and said ' This is the young man called Sala who fights and kills a lion (or tiger) to save his Master Sudatta Charya. “Hoy, Sala” in the Kannada language means “Strike Sala” which became the name of the dynasty The pictorial representation of this incident became the insignia of the Hoysala empire too.  A statue of Sala fighting the lion welcomes you at the entrance of Chennakesava temple at Belur.                        

The temple was built during the rule of Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala dynasty in 12th Century AD. To commemorate the victory over Cholas, Chief Architects  ‘Amarashilpi Jakanacharya’ and his son ‘Dankanacharya’ were assigned the job.

Chennakesava temple also known as Vijayanarayna temple is popular for exquisite fine carvings, sculptures, and motifs on its outer walls. The most famous are the ones among these are the 42 well-carved bracket figures known as Apsaras (Madanikas, Shilabalikas, or Salabhanjikas). 38 of these are placed outside the temple while 4 of them could be found inside the temple.

Our guide holding a mirror in hand pointed out at one of the idols on the wall which seemed like damsels - Apsara kanyas landing from heaven. Yes, it is Apsaras, ( Madanikas)   he confirmed. Though I had visited earlier a few times, it was limited to darshan of Lord with a customary  Pradashina of the temple and walkout. King Vishnuvardhana’s Queen Shantala Devi was considered to be the epitome of perfect feminine beauty and the iconic sculptures of Apsaras were created by portraying the queen as a model. She was well-versed in music and Bharathaatyam dance, popularly known as Natyarani - Queen of Dance. Every Apsara figure is unique and depicts a Bharatanatyam posture with a story in it, with intricate details of costumes and ornaments. It is worth mentioning here that a though Queen was a follower of Jainism, she an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva.

There are 42 Madanikas or Bracket figures on the corner out of which 38 are outside the temple and 4 are inside in the ceiling of the temple. Each figure is unique and portrays an attractive dancing form.

They represent beautiful damsels in various moods representing feminine charm and grace, this perhaps is one of the best creations of the Hoysala sculptors of the Belur temple. There are a total of 40 pillars on the outer walls, each with a bracket figure of dancing girls (38 in total on outer walls). These sculptures are fine in filigree work and exceedingly ornamented.

Out of the 38 Madanikas on the outer walls, I've written a photo feature on 25 and all the 4 interior Madanikas.

Each one of these Madaniks is given a number to represent their a location which I'll be publishing along with there photo.

Starting from the most popular among all the Madanika's, The Darpana Sundari, which is right at the main entrance of the temple.

A lady holding mirror in her left hand and looking at her beauty in it.

A parrot sitting on the fore palm of a lady's right hand. It looks like talking to her pet.

A bird sitting on the canopy behind, she is aiming her arrow at the bird. 

A monkey is pulling the edge of her saree. She is going to beat it with a twig of a tree made out of the same stone.

A lady is dancing stylishly by bending her body into three portions, one from the waist downward, other from the waist to the chest and another upwards. This is said to be the most difficult one, so far no other dancer has been able to exhibit. This is apparently one of the most difficult postures to achieve in Bharathnatyam 

she is dressing her hair after a bath. The attendants are holding flowers and toiletry. This Apsara has washed her hair and is squeezing the water out of it. This depiction is seen on a sculpture inside the temple too. 

she holds in her left hand a drum and she is playing upon it with her right hand. 

She is playing on her flute. Her maid on the left side is sitting to the tune of the flute.

Her hands and legs are in dancing mudra. A Carving creeper type and above her left shoulder. You can see a jackfruit and a fly on it. A lizard is planning to hunt the fly. You can see the natural pose of the Lizard.

She is singing with time. 

She is a violinist. She is standing holding the instrument (Rudra veena?) in her left hand. Her maids are arranging for a concert.

    She is plucking a mango with her right hand.

    She is practicing her dance. Her maids are helping her by playing on their instruments. 

    The figure illustrates the epic story of God Vishnu who took the form of Mohini.

    She holds in her left-hand palm leaves and holds the right hand in speaking pose.

    she is returning from her dinner and is about to retire for rest.

    The expert musician is playing on her violin, which is in the form of a snake. This Apsara is holding a ‘Nagaveena’. A veena with one end shaped like a snake.

    She is fully dressed and has put on all sorts of ornaments on her body. She is looking at her beauty in pride through a mirror. This apsara is called Abhimani the proud one. Symbolizing someone who has a lot of pride in her beauty and is also very conscious of it. The sculpture at the left (at her feet), holds up a mirror but is looking away – kind of telling her ‘woman, reality check’. 

    she is dancing imitating the play of flying a kite. Look at her standing pose. She is standing as if she is pulling the string of the kite using both her hands. But in other view looks like an IMAGINARY FLUTE - This one has an imaginary flute in her hand.

    She has a beard & mustache like a man. She looks neither male nor female. She is dancing holding a drum in her left hand.


    On entering inside the temple in the Navaranga there are four pillars at the center with four bracket figures on top of each pillar,

    A lady holds a creeper in her right hand. A parrot is sitting on the fore palm of her left hand. She looks as if she is having a conversation with the parrot. She is having a bangle on her right hand and can move up and down.

    She is dancing. See the canopy behind. She is wearing a gem just above the middle of the forehead.

    She wears on her forearm, a good number of bangles, which give an impression of moving to and fro.

    She is wringing her hair to squeeze the water after her bath. You can see the drops of water collected at the tip of her hair.

    There is no second thought that the most magnificent masterpieces of Hoysala sculpture are the Apsaras or Shilabalikas at Belur. The extravagant beauty, the intricate workmanship, and perfection of idols. The idols are splendors of Hoysala architecture forever!

    Each one of the figures here may be taken as a representation of art in various forms Each idol is the embodiment of beauty and workmanship. The sculptures carved on the brittle soapstone are so delicate and gives the impression that its highly impossible to create them on stone. It is noteworthy to mention that the female features, like breasts and hips, are often exaggerated. Frequently these sculpted figures display complex hairdos and an abundance of jewelry.

    The outer wall of the temple is no less in beauty and has various sculptures The exterior walls have carvings of every god in the Hindu religion and some from Jainism, Avataras of Lord Vishnu, and beautiful women, scenes from epics, Mythology, Horses, Lions, Elephants, and other various forms.

    The Stone and Copperplate inscriptions at the temple say that it has been identified that more than 40 sculptures were assigned the work to an artist  Ruvari Mallitamma. Other prominent craftsmen were Dasoja and his son Chavana from Balligavi (in Shimoga district), who made 4 and 5 idols of Apsaras respectively. (Balligavi was the hometown of  Queen Shantala ). Malliyanna and Nagoja were the experts in creating animals and birds in the sculptures while Chikkahampa and Padari Malloja took the credit for some of the sculptures inside the temple. The delicate jewelry carvings are the most eye-catching piece of art.

    The inner premises of the temple is filled with pillars with rotatable pillars with engineering skills and with delicate carvings. Most of the carvings in the ceiling portray the Natya Shastra and dance moves.

    You should not miss the idol of Natyarani Shantala - an epitome of beauty and dance, the most graceful dancer of the dynasty in the ceiling. You will be awestruck to see her with bangles, worn, have movement, and are detachable even today. !