Scintillating poetry in stone

Sculpting legacy

Scintillating poetry in stone

One of the few remaining temples of the Hoysala era, the Chennakesava Temple in Somanathapura is a fine example of grandeur and beauty of Indian architecture.Chitra Ramaswamy delves into the history of this magnificent temple and what makes it exquisite...

It’s early November and the Karnatakan air is redolent with the scent of winter blended with the aroma of its lush villages. We are on our way to visit the Hoysala era Chennakesava Temple, also referred to as Kesava Temple at Somanathapura on the banks of the River Cauvery. It lies cheek-by-jowl with a sleepy and nondescript village, squired away a mere 140 km from Bangalore. 

The Hoysalas were a mighty martial race, who established their dynasty in 1006 AD, and held sway over large parts of present day Karnataka for 350 years. This period saw temple-building activity reach a feverish pitch, with several hundred temples dotting the landscape of Karnataka. They extended the Chalukyan architectural style, blending it with the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan styles. However, most of these structures became victims of marauding invaders and vagaries of nature, leaving barely a ton of them in good state of preserve. The Keshava Temple at Somanathapura survives in all grandeur and is one of the three most magnificent structures of the period that bears testimony to the architectural and sculptural brilliance of the artisans of the times.

The temple at Somanathapura, best known for its structural design, is considered an example of the fully evolved and the finest embodiment of the innovative style of Hoysala architecture. It was built during the reign of King Narasimha III in 1268 AD by Soma, a Dandanayaka or ‘commander’ under the king, lending his name to the town. Its main architect-sculptor was the famous Ruvari Malithamma, a local artist, who was well-known for his expertise in ornamentation.

Timeless beauty

No sooner do we approach the temple complex, we experience an almost eternal and ethereal stillness and freshness in the air. A narrow gateway opens into a vast, verdant lawn dotted with stone figurines. The temple stands in the middle of a walled compound circumscribed by an open verandah with 64 cells, built in perfect proportion in the distinctive Hoysala style. The trikuta or triple-shrine temple is built on a star-shaped jagati or platform with a superstructure above each shrine. In keeping with the Hoysala style of temple building, the tall towers or gopurams that characterise most South Indian temples are conspicuous by their absence. 

The exceptionally detailed friezes adorning the temple walls, the embellished lathe-turned pillars and dome-shaped ceiling of the assembly hall leading to the sanctum sanctorum, are exquisite. The domed-ceiling is replete with carvings of multi-petalled lotuses and buds of the banana tree. The stellar-shaped house of worship has three elaborately carved pinnacles, each housing the shrines of Kesava, Janardhana and Venugopala — all considered to be different forms of Krishna or Vishnu. Idols of the flute-playing Venugopala and Janardhana, flank the central idol of Kesava, believed to be a copy of the original Kesava idol that had been carried away by the Britishers. 

Attention to detail

It is apparent that the sculptors of the time had a sound understanding of the interplay of light and shadow on the carved walls and used this knowledge to stunning effect in their carvings. Its walls follow the angles of the platform, which is abundantly spacious to enable devotees circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum. At the same time, it has ample space to allow tourists and art lovers to move around to savour the life-like sculptural delights that its walls contain. The walls are veritable picture galleries with a profusion of carvings that are intricate and aesthetic in equal measure. The sculptors of the times exploited the soft chlorite schist (soapstone) abundantly found on both sides of the Tungabhadra to splendid effect, sculpting miniature figures in minute detail. This is clearly noticeable in every theme that is depicted — be it episodes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the plethora of deities, or the daily life of the royals and the commoners.

The outer walls have friezes that are arranged in six thematically ordered horizontal bands skirting the entire temple. The lowest tier portrays a procession of elephants, symbolic of strength, holding aloft the entire structure. Horsemen riding to battle, floral motifs, episodes from the scriptures, makaras — the mythical creatures with attributes of seven animals, and graceful swans, make up the remaining five horizontal ribbons of copious carvings. The carvings of the makaras are particularly interesting: they have legs of a lion, body of a pig, an elephant’s trunk, monkey’s eyes, cows’s ears, crocodile’s mouth and the peacock’s tail! 

Larger figurines bedeck the upper reaches of the wall, sharing space with cornices, turrets and eaves. One can surmise by the nature of activities sculpted on the walls that the communities of the times were affluent. While members of the royal family are seen riding in richly decorated chariots, commoners and soldiers have horses, elephants and camel-drawn vehicles for their mount.

As we leave the temple complex, we salute the artists of the times who have epitomised on stone in breathtaking brilliance, the beauty and bliss of timeless spirituality, of India’s culture and the essence of its ancient architecture.

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