The unprepossessing town of HASSAN, 118km northwest of Mysore, is visited in large numbers because of its proximity to the Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid, both northwest of the town, and the Jain pilgrimage site of Sravanabelagola to the southeast. Some travellers end up staying a couple of nights but with a little forward planning you shouldn’t have to linger for long, as the town is a busy and fairly unappealing sprawl of concrete. Set deep in the serene Karnatakan countryside, Belur, Halebid and Sravanabelagola offer considerably more appealing surroundings.
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Now little more than a scruffy village of brick houses and chai stalls, HALEBID, 32km northwest of Hassan, was once the capital of the powerful Hoysala dynasty, who held sway over south Karnataka from the eleventh until the early fourteenth centuries. Once known as Dora Samudra, the city was renamed Hale-bidu, or “Dead City”, in 1311 when Delhi sultanate forces under the command of Ala-ud-Din-Khalji swept through and reduced it to rubble. Despite the sacking, several large Hoysala temples survive, two of which, the Hoysaleshvara and Kedareshvara, are superb, covered in exquisite carvings. Note that Belur has superior facilities to those found in Halebid, making it a far better base for exploration of the Hoysala region.
BELUR, 37km northwest of Hassan, on the banks of the Yagachi River, was the Hoysala capital prior to Halebid, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Still active, the Chennakeshava temple is a fine and early example of the singular Hoysala style, built by King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 to celebrate his conversion from Jainism, victory over Chola forces at Talakad and his independence from the Chalukyas. Today, its grey-stone gopura, or gateway tower, soars above a small, bustling market town – a popular pilgrimage site from October to December, when busloads of Ayappan devotees stream through en route to Sabarimala. The Car festival held around March or April takes place over twelve days and has a pastoral feel, attracting farmers from the surrounding countryside who conduct a bullock cart procession through the streets to the temple.
The sacred Jain site of SRAVANABELAGOLA, 49km southeast of Hassan and 93km north of Mysore, consists of two hills and a large tank. On one of the hills, Indragiri (also known as Vindhyagiri), stands an extraordinary 18m-high monolithic statue of a naked male figure, Gomateshvara. Said to be the largest freestanding sculpture in India, this tenth-century colossus, visible from kilometres away, makes Sravanabelagola a key pilgrimage centre, though surprisingly few Western travellers find their way out here. Spend a night or two in the village, however, and you can climb Indragiri Hill before dawn to enjoy the serene spectacle of the sun rising over the sugar cane fields and outcrops of lumpy granite that litter the surrounding plains – an unforgettable sight.
Sravanabelagola is linked in tradition with the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta, who is said to have starved himself to death on the second hill in around 300 BC, in accordance with a Jain practice. The hill was renamed Chandragiri, marking the arrival of Jainism in southern India. At the same time, a controversy regarding the doctrines of Mahavira, the last of the 24 Jain tirthankaras (literally “crossing-makers”, who assist the aspirant to cross the “ocean of rebirth”), split Jainism into two separate branches – svetambara, “white-clad” Jains, are more common in north India, while digambara, “sky-clad”, are usually associated with the south. Truly ascetic digambara devotees go naked, though few do so away from sacred sites.
The monuments at Sravanabelagola probably date from no earlier than the tenth century, when a General Chamundaraya is said to have visited Chandragiri in search of a Mauryan statue of Gomateshvara. Failing to find it, he decided to have one made. From the top of Chandragiri he fired an arrow across to Indragiri Hill; where the arrow landed he had a new Gomateshvara sculpted from a single rock.