A well-paved path leads from the iron gate through a well-kept garden to the temple. We tread on the path gingerly as it has been raining lightly and the sky is still overcast. As we step on the threshold of the entrance, what we see takes our breath away. In a moment of magic, the clouds seem to have cleared and the sky which had been a dull grey is now a vibrant blue. But what has our attention riveted is the stone structure that stands in front of us. It is a massive stone structure which looks like a song of symmetry, a painting given birth by the loving strokes of an artist on a canvas of vibrant blue. We are standing in front of Chennakesava Temple in the now nondescript town of Somanathapura. The temple stands as one of the best examples of the exquisite Hoysala architecture and also possibly one of its last offerings to the world.
A proud reminder
Chennakesava Temple stands as a proud reminder of the artistic finesse of its builders. The vandalism by marauding invaders of history has taken its toll, but the intrinsic beauty of the temple still bewitches with a haunting charm. The temple stands on a raised platform and confirms to the trikuta style that is a characteristic of the Hoysala architectural style of temples. Trikuta here refers to the temple consisting of three shrines. The temple was originally dedicated to the worship of three forms of Lord Krishna — Venugopala, Janardhana and Keshava. It is indeed sad to note that the main idol of Keshava is missing and the idols of Venugopala and Janardhana are damaged. The temple is no longer a place of worship but a place of wonder for students of arts and architecture as well as lay connoisseurs.
Chennakesava Temple consists of the main shrine which is squarish in dimension juxtaposed with smaller shrines on either side. The shrines have three vimanas and together present a perfect symphony in stone. The outer walls of the temple are a beautiful theatre that gives free rein to the imagination and artistic abilities of the sculptors of yore. The silent stone walls covered with scenes from the great Indian epics, scenes of war, Hindu deities, even to this day, sing out in silent rhapsody to interested visitors.
The marvellous plan of the temple incorporates many corridors as well as strategically placed niches that give free rein to the creative outpourings of the artists of the Hoysala kingdom. Though the carvings on the outer wall are symmetrical, the monotony of perfection is broken by the spice of variety with each row revelling in a different pattern. As you gaze at the intricate beauty of the carvings, the perfection and precision of the sculpture and carvings leave you awed. As you turn your gaze away reluctantly from these gems of artistry, you are riveted to the ceilings which are also ornamented with beautiful patterns.
Legacy of a kingdom
The Hoysala empire that held sway over most of what is Karnataka today, as well as parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for well four centuries, has left behind a rich legacy of art and architecture. Today, over a hundred temples spread across the state of Karnataka are a beautiful testimony to the patronage and nurturing of architecture by the Hoysala kings. The temples of Belur and Halebidu are synonymous with the Hoysala temple architecture, and the Somanathapura temple is also a part of this elite list of temples. These temples seem to sing the glory of the rich culture and heritage of the Hoysala period to this day.
Chennakesava Temple in Somanathapura was built in the year 1268 AD according to a stone inscription in Kannada that can still be seen in the temple premises. The temple was built during the reign of the Hoysala king Narasimha III by a commander in his army named Somanatha. The commander who had established a small town called Somanathapura (named after himself) took the king’s permission for constructing a temple and the rest is literally history.
The temple of Chennakesava in Somanathapura transports you into a different world. One gets lost in a glorious chapter in the history of Karnataka, a chapter that is embellished by the timeless beauty of its architecture.
As you move around the complex of Chennakesava Temple, which stands in stony silence today, the mind conjures up images of how the temple must have been in its heyday. The massive complex full of men, women, and children flocking to worship their deities, dressed in their colourful best. Womenfolk with hair bedecked with fragrant flowers walking kids hurriedly towards the sanctum sanctorum, the stone walls of the temple resonating with the sounds of bells and drums, Vedic chanting rising to the skies along with incense smoke. It is with reluctance that you shake off the haunting images and make your way out of Chennakesava Temple, one of the last of the Hoysala poems in stone.