On the busy Bengaluru-Mangaluru highway, villages and towns whiz past without leaving an impression. Almost midway on the route is Hassan, a middling city and district headquarters with all the trappings of urbanity—bustling streets and shopping malls. But for visitors, it is the gateway to three of the state’s magnificent heritage sites.
About 50 km to Hassan’s northwest are the twin sites of Belur and Halebidu. Going back at least nine centuries, Belur is known for its stunning Chennakeshava Temple built by Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana, who made it his capital. It was built to commemorate the victory of the Hoysalas over the Cholas. According to legend, it took three generations and 103 years to finish the massive architectural project, with Veera Ballala II completing the work started by his grandfather.
About 15 km from Belur is Halebidu, the second capital of the Hoysalas. It was originally known as Dwarasamudra and flourished as the capital of the Hoysala Empire during the 12th and 13th centuries. At its zenith, the area was incredibly prosperous, evident from the magnificent Hoysaleswara Temple, which was destroyed by the marauding armies of Malik Kafur and then Mohammad bin Tughlaq.
The figures of mortals and immortals are larger when compared to Belur and are beautifully chiselled in shining black stone. Halebidu has several beautiful Hoysala temples and Jain shrines. Of these, the famous Kedareshwara and Hoysaleswara temples were built in the 12th century and form the mainstay.
In complete contrast to these carved temples, Shravanabelagola is known for its massive statue of Gomateshwara standing atop a hill, visible for miles and accessed by nearly 700 steps carved into rocky hillock. Built by the last Rashtrakuta king and his general Chavundaraya, the statue is over 1,000 years old and is a sacred place for Jains. On the hill are many other smaller temples and monuments.
Every 12 years, the Mahamastakabhisheka (anointation) is a sacred event and attended by lakhs of devotees. On the Chandragiri hill are over a dozen monuments and temples with exquisite carvings and work with some pre-dating the Gomateshwara statue. Especially fascinating are a couple of cave temples, a statue dedicated to Bahubali’s brother Bharatha and the gigantic mahasthambha (flag pole).