Was it an ear of maize?

HISTORY


The Somanathapura temple is said to have been consecrated in 1268 ADSituated on the banks of the Cauvery, 140 km from Bangalore, Somanathapura is a deceptively typical village – fields of millet and sugarcane line the roads, cows loll about, dust swirls and everyone stops to stare when you step out of the vehicle. Yet, its architecture sets it quite apart from any ordinary village and its legacy once excited passionate debate in academic circles.

The hamlet dates back to the 13th century, when Somanath, a general in the army of Hoysala king Narasimha III, established an agrahara here called Vidyanidhi-prasanna-Somanathapura. He also built the magnificent Keshava temple here, consecrated in 1268 AD.

Legend of Jakanachari

This star-shaped temple with three shikaras is enclosed in a rectangular courtyard lined with a cloistered perimeter. Writing about this temple in 1916, eminent historian R Narasimhachar, narrates a legend associated with it. It is said that when the temple was completed, it looked so beautiful that the gods themselves coveted it and lo, the temple began to rise towards the heavens. Horrified, the sculptor, the legendary Jakanachari, hastily mutilated some of its images and the temple came back to earth! More than 700 years after it was built, it is still easy to see why the gods might covet the temple: every square inch is intricately, lavishly, painstakingly carved with all manner of gods, people, animals and plants immortalised in stone.

At the base of the temple is a gay procession of more than 150 elephants, each an individual creation: like people, each differs from its neighbour in some aspect. The elephants symbolised strength – figuratively, they bore the temple on their backs. Above is a layer of animated horsemen wielding swords, lances or daggers, many trampling an enemy underfoot.

Some historians have actually used these friezes to learn more about the Hoysala army, including the types of weapons used, chariots, emblems, banners and even tactical manoeuvres.  Next up are layers of decorative foliage, the mythical makaras and a frieze depicting scenes from the epics and puranas. The southern shrine illustrates scenes from the Ramayana, the northern the Mahabharata and the western, scenes from the Bhagavata purana. Following these is like having a book come alive: sages meditate, armies clash, miniscule fish swim in rivers, a tiny Rama shoots a galloping deer and nearby sits a miniature ten-headed Ravana!

At shoulder height is a second tier of sculptures, the temple’s piece de resistance. Here, stunningly ornate gods and goddesses gaze benignly from vertical panels. Being a Keshava temple, images of Vishnu in his various forms predominate, though there are scattered appearances by other gods. An intricately carved Saraswati, holding a veena and a book, graces a panel only a few sculptures away from a benevolent Vishnu.

Elsewhere is a joyous dancing Ganesha.

The maize row...

Among these panels, look out for several figures holding what appears to be an ear of maize. These sculptures were at the heart of a raging controversy among some academics some years ago. It began when two researchers from the University of Oregon proposed that the carvings in Somanathapura indicated that maize was grown in India in pre-Columbian times. The catch is that maize is believed to have been unknown outside the Americas until Columbus’ time; the temple predates this by a few hundred years.

If maize was indeed being grown here before Columbus, it would mean people were crossing the oceans between the Old and New Worlds a lot earlier than previously believed.  There followed a flurry of heated exchanges (academically speaking) at the end of which the Somanathapura maize idea was refuted on linguistic, agricultural and religious grounds. Detractors clarified that what looks like maize is actually, in some instances, muktaphala, a mythical fruit bearing pearls, while in other cases it is a treasure horn that Vishnu is often shown with. It may also be sorghum, or even just a stylised pomegranate.

Muktaphala, maize, or pomegranate, the sculptures are mesmerising. Some put down the artistry of the Hoysala sculptors to the material they worked with – chloritic schist, a grey-green stone that is relatively soft when mined but hardens on exposure, and so lends itself to carving.

But what is a medium without a master? Although legend has Jakanachari working on the temple, evidence points to a master sculptor of the kingdom, Mallitamma.

Unlike the anonymous artisans of today, Hoysala artistes signed their creations. Many wall panels and friezes carry the names of the sculptors. Mallitamma, who sometimes signed as Malli and who had already worked on several temples before Somanathapura, has to his credit 40 of the sculptures in Somanathapura. Some of the others who worked here are Ballayya, Chaudayya and Bamayya.

Stagnation...

An inscription found in the temple suggests that a little over 200 years after it was founded, the agrahara in Somanathapura had gone to decay and needed an infusion of royal largesse to revive it. Was the temple also affected by the downturn in fortunes of the associated settlement, I wondered. Today, the village around the temple seems to have stagnated while the temple itself is carefully maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Another attraction is the Cauvery that flows nearby, about a kilometre from the village.

Locals consider it a waste of a tourist’s time to visit the river here instead of at Srirangapatna or at T Narsipur.

But in fact, an excursion to the river may be rewarding especially because hardly any tourists venture beyond the temple. In some seasons, you might find the river full of young men busy mining sand from the riverbeds. But at other times, you can take a quiet coracle ride in the peaceful waters with the help of a local fisherman.

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