The stunner at Somanathapura

Keshava Temple is illustrated as the pinnacle of Hoysala Dynasty’s passion for details

Keshava Temple, viewed from the entry in the east. Photos by author

In a small village on the left bank of the Cauvery, defying the ravages wrought by both man and the elements, stands one of the most exquisite monuments built during the Hoysala rule in the region.

The Keshava Temple at Somanathapura was built in 1268 CE by Somanatha, who was a dandanayaka under the Hoysala King Narasimha III.

A dandanayaka was a high-ranking provincial officer, equal in rank to a minister, and usually discharging military and judicial duties, apart from the collection of revenue from the province.

It was usual for high-ranking functionaries to commission the building of temples, aided by generous grants from the ruling house, with only rare instances where the ruler was directly involved in temple construction.

There are other temples at Somanathapura, for instance, the Panchikeshwara style of temples, also commissioned by Somanatha, and believed to be memorials for himself and his relatives, as well as the others in various states of ruin, but the centrepiece, both in terms of its relatively intact state and architectural magnificence, is undoubtedly the Keshava Temple.

Time table

Temple-building under the Hoysala dynasty began in the early part of the 12th century, even while they were feudatories under the later Chalukyas, and continued for nearly a century and a half. Though temples in various idioms were built during Hoysala dominance, the idiom that is invariably associated with the Hoysala style is the Vesara, a hugely evolved form of the Karnata Dravida, or the Dravida style pioneered in Karnataka under the Badami Chalukyas between the 6th and the 8th centuries.

Ajay Sinha, in his book Imagining Architects, traces the slow but dramatic transformation of the Vesara from simple Dravida forms through experiments in several small temples in Aihole and neighbouring regions during the 10th and the 11th centuries.

The Keshava Temple stands in a large rectangular enclosure bounded by a cloistered wall with small enclosures, which might have once contained images.

Entry into the enclosure is through a porch. The temple, in the manner of several other Hoysala temples, stands on a raised platform, which serves as an ambulatory for devotees.

The platform echoes the plan-form of the superstructure, and is buttressed by images of elephants, nagas and yakshas at intervals. Entry into the temple is from the east, into a long mantapa, part of which is covered by pierced screens. The western half of the mantapa leads into three sanctums, facing north, east and south.

The image of Keshava in the main east-facing sanctum is missing, and now replaced with a later icon. The south-facing shrine contains an icon of Janardhana and the north-facing sanctum houses an image of Venugopala.

The interior of the mantapa is modulated by rows of typical Hoysala-style columns, 18 in all, and lit by the light filtering in through the pierced screens. The ceiling has been divided into 16 square bays, each of which has been delicately carved with intricate patterns.

Chloritic schist, the stone used for construction in this and most other Hoysala temples, even if softer than the granite and sandstone used earlier, seems to have been pliant as clay in the hands of the Hoysala artisan. The exterior of the temple is no less a testimony to the skills and talent of these artisans.

The exterior of each of the sanctums is a 16-pointed star in plan. The walls step up from an elaborate plinth, executed in six horizontal bands which run all around the structure, with courses of elephants, horses, floral patterns, scenes from myths, makaras and hamsas stacked one over another.

A large portion of the wall above the plinth is occupied by large images of deities and their attendants, carved deeply, almost in the round. Above these large images, a short eave, called chadya, runs all across, and above this is a row of miniature temple spires, or shikharas.

In these miniature spires, the Hoysala artisans have given free expression to their mastery over various forms and their distinct geometries, and one can spy northern nagara shikharas too, among the multitudes which throng this course. The stellate geometry of the temple provides a large amount of surface area to cover with a profusion of carved images, geometrical motifs and miniature shrines, and what Fergusson once remarked about an expanse of wall on the west face of the Hoysaleshwara Temple at Halebid, that one can witness “a greater amount of skilled labour than was ever exhibited in a like space in any other building in the whole world”, is probably true of the Kehsava Temple as well.

Above this, the row of miniature shrines is the true eave of the temple, from which rise the three towers crowning the three sanctums, making the temple a trikuta, a plan-form commonly encountered in Hoysala temples.

On the underside of the eaves are carved rafters, an echo of wooden construction, which formed the inspiration for much of Indian architecture in stone. The spires, which rise in four talas, or tiers, over the sanctums, carry upward the stellate modulation of the walls, and the manner in which the complex geometries they generate as they taper towards the crowning stupi, have been treated by the sculptors is pleasing to the eye.

Many of the principal artisans involved in the construction of Hoysala temples have left their signatures on various parts of the temple, and the Keshava Temple is no exception.

Who’s that man?

Prof S Settar, who has studied this temple in great detail, has identified the signatures of 20 artisans. Among them, the name of the artisan Mallitamma features at least 60 times, mainly on the northern shrine of the trikuta.

Mallitamma was a popular artisan during the Hoysala period, with his name engraved on six different temples.

This artisan, who makes an entry into history by carving the ceilings of the Amriteshwara Temple at Amritapura in 1196 CE, seems to have been the main artisan who worked on the Somanathapura Temple.

Considering the long interval of 72 years between the Amritapura and Somanathapura temples, some architectural historians feel that the signature indicates a guild founded by Mallitamma rather than the direct involvement of the venerable veteran himself.

The project was probably executed by several guilds in collaboration with each other. There are small differences in the treatment of the central shrine of the trikuta and the other two, most notably in the row of miniature shikharas, those of the central shrine larger and resting directly on the chadya, while those of the other two are smaller and held aloft on pilasters, suggesting the handiwork of different guilds.

There are some who find the sculptures of this late phase of Hoysala architecture, exemplified by Somanathpura, too stylised and stiff. But, as the art historian Gerard Foekema says: “There are temples with better sculptures, and there are temples with better architecture, but taken as a whole, this is the most impressive Hoysala monument in existence.”

As I stood gazing at this architectural marvel during my last visit, it suddenly struck me that I was beholding nothing less than the final product of nearly seven centuries of evolution of temple form on Karnataka soil.

The weakened Hoysala dynasty succumbed to conquest in the early 14th century, but no temples of such magnitude and magnificence were constructed by the Hoysalas after Somanatha’s venture at Somanathapura. And when the construction of temples resumed under the Vijayanagara dynasty in the mid-14th century, the idiom they turned to was the Dravida form from Tamil country, and the sun had set on the glorious Karnata Dravida tradition of temple-building forever.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.)

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