A jewel in the Hoysala crown

Last Updated 21 April 2014, 15:54 IST

The Keshava Temple in Somanathapura is an artistic marvel with intricately carved statues and walls, writes Gouri Satya.

Some four-five decades ago, this temple in the small village of Somanathapur stood in a serene and peaceful rural setting. 

Banana plants, the natural beauty of which the Hoysala sculptors have harvested fully to enhance the sculptural richness of their temples, were common on the vast lands made fertile by the Ganga of the South, the Cauvery, running close to the temple.
Greenery spread all around, the swaying crops of paddy added charm to the setting. 
Amidst this nature’s gift, a leisurely look at the marvel of this Keshava Temple, studying its intricate details with a keen interest was most satisfying. 

Turning tourist-centric, this place has a new look today. 

A well-laid-out garden and fencing welcomes a visitor to the temple. 
Tourists and students come in hordes. 

Entry is no longer free. It is ticketed and visiting hours are set. Somanathapura of the 50s or 60s was different from today’s 


Changes are inevitable. 

Old order must change. 

Somanathapura is no exception to this. 

It is no longer the old charming tiny village. But still, that cannot be a reason to skip this place, for the 13th century Keshava Temple stands in all grandeur as a perfect example of the celebrated Hoysala architecture.

The mighty rule

Reigning over a period of three centuries, Hoysalas built temples of multiple cells around a common mantapa for the deities they patronised. 

Unlike the Dravidian temples of one sanctum sanctorum for the presiding deity, the Hoysalas built temples from one sanctum sanctorum to five. 

This enabled the artistes to indulge in elaborate carving leaving no space vacant. Thus, every inch in these temples exhibits intricate carving. 

Each temple stands out as a master representation of the Hoysala style of architecture that set a new trend in temple carvings to be emulated by the subsequent temple builders. 

Somanathapura Temple stands as a model to this.

It is a three cell, trikutachala – an ambitious structure with three towers that retain their identity but yet merge into a single expressive unit.

Somanathapura Temple was among the last to be built by the Hoysalas.
The architecture they evolved had reached its zenith, when this Keshava Temple was built and hence it stands as a splendid example of glorious fruition of the Hoysala art and architecture. 

It stands out as an exemplary work of gifted craftsmen and their rulers or noblemen who patronised them to build these sculptural marvels, with religious passion and divine dedication.

The trikuta’s outer walls are a virtual treat for any visitor.

Visual depiction of the three great epics – Ramayana, Bhagavata and Mahabharata is elaborately laid out. 

It is running poetry on stone, each epic unfolding around the exterior walls of every tower.

When one epic ends, the doors are seen shut and the next epic begins to unfold.

One must have a thorough knowledge of the epics, its incidents and stories, to connect each frieze and admire the depth of knowledge of the craftsmen in infusing life to those incidents on the soft soapstone that hardens after exposure. 

Legend says...
As one enters the temple, the well-preserved inscription on the left of the 
doorway details the construction of the temple and grants made to it. 

It reveals that the Keshava Temple was built in 1268 AD by Somanatha, a Dandanayaka, serving under his master Narasimha III (1254-1291). 

The commander named this Agrahara, which he had establish
Friezes of elephants, horses, floral design, epic stories, mythical makara and swan run through the adhishtana. Above them, are carvings of gods belonging to Vishnu and Shiva pantheon, a couple of them compelling a look of admiration and awe. 

However, the temple is dedicated to Vishnu.

Lifting his trunk, the four-armed Ganesha is dancing joyously in an attractive posture.
Not to be left behind, there is an eight-armed Saraswathi immersed in dancing to the music of the veena, she is so gracefully playing with her fingers. 

The three-bearded Brahma, the invisible among the trinities as an eternal creator and hence deprived of worship like his two associates, Vishnu and Shiva, is another figure that draws attention. 

Not just these three, there are others worth seeing for their exquisite workmanship, a few bearing the name of the sculptor. 

The Keshava Temple is famous for its three pyramidal towers. They majestically stand out for their overwhelmingly rich ornamentation.

The three vimanas make the temple strikingly impressive and attractive from every angle. 

The ceiling in the interior has bhuvaneswaris offering artistic presentation of lotus and banana plants, besides decorative patterns.
The shining lathe-turned pillars in the navaranga are exquisitely finished with precision that can be found in most of the Hoysala temples. 
What impresses most is the idol of Krishna on the left side cell. He stands under a honge tree. A native tree of multi-usage, it is known for its fragrance in flowery season.

Its canopy offers excellent shade and its seeds offer oil that was regularly used for lighting purposes in houses and temples till about a century ago.

 No wonder, this avatar of Vishnu chose to stand underneath a well-spread honge. 

There is also a sculpture of Murali Krishna.

The cows are lost in the divine music that is flowing from the godly music instrument, the flute of Krishna. Gopika strees stand with folded hands in reverence. 

Rishis are watching with admiration. 

On the prabhavali, are the ten incarnations of Vishnu.

If you stand quietly in the cell and imagine the flute-playing Krishna in your mind and nothing else, you may hear the soothing soft tunes of the godly music that takes you to a different world. That is the kind of commendable work done here.

In the opposite cell, stands equally impressive Janardhana, another form of Vishnu. 

The main cell dedicated to Keshava has no image of the Lord, who should have been presiding over this place.

 His absence has made this a dead temple. There is no worship and the bells do not ring here. There is no chanting of mantras. 

As the main idol is missing, even Krishna and Janardhana are not worshipped. 

Humbled at the display of the exquisite art work that transcends one to a divine world, I humbly prostrate before the vacant cell, praying to the missing Keshava, but pervading all over in the cosmic universe, to create the same void – shunyata in me and elevate me to the realm of Brahma, the god of enlightenment, the ultimate aspiration of all spiritual seekers.

(Published 21 April 2014, 15:54 IST)

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