Belur and Halebid may be bigger but Somnathpur temple is the most complete and symmetrical
CRAFTED TO PERFECTION The Somnathpur Temple
The temple reminds me of Angkor Wat,” the German tourist tells me. He, his pretty companion and I are the only three visitors at noon, marvelling at the beauties of this paean in stone to Lord Vishnu at Somnathpur. Despite
the searing heat, I feel my spirits soar when I see the perfectly executed structure lovingly lavished with sculptural detail. No wonder the legend of Somnathpur speaks of the gods coveting this masterpiece and trying to draw it heavenward. This temple buzzes with creative energy. What makes it even more of a surprise that it lies in a little village that seems lost in a somnambulistic trance.
It was nearly 800 years ago, in 1268 A.D., that Soma – officer to the Hoysala king Narasimha III started construction of a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu in His three forms — Kesava, Venugopala, and Janardhana — in the village named after him. And so the Prasanna Chenna Kesava temple came to be. This is Hoysala art at its finest. The temple has been referred to by historians as “the most complete and symmetrical, although the smallest,… of the three temples in Karnataka” (the other two being Belur and Halebid).
The huge polished granite slab at the Mahadwara, the great entrance, is a treasure for, in beautifully engraved old Kannada, it gives details about the construction of the temple and the rulers who contributed to its completion and upkeep from the 13th to the 16th Century A.D. Under the three lavishly decorated towers/ shikaras were installed large idols of Vishnu in his three forms. They are wonderfully crafted, so intricate are the carvings that it seems they have been fashioned from wood or bronze and not stone.
Worship is not offered here as the idols of Venugopala and Janardhana have suffered damage and the idol of Kesava is not the original one. Krishna’s large hoop earrings and the cows that listen ecstatically to the music from his now broken flute are lyrical outpourings in stone while the majestic Janardhana in the opposite shrine holds his mace, conch and chakra in awe inspiring majesty. There is absolute stillness in the interconnected shrines, for the Germans after a quick appreciative look have left me alone, to commune with the gods and art. The interior of the temple’s ceiling is divided into many parts and each ceiling has a different design, intricate and beautiful.
The temple is star-shaped, mounted on a pedestal with stone elephants holding up the corners; most of them have disappeared today. The outer walls are decorated with innumerable depictions of Lord Vishnu, each perfectly fashioned. Other gods, goddesses and elegant damsels are also portrayed under umbrellas of foliage and elegant shikaras. The image that especially appeals to me is that of Lord Indra on Airavata with his consort Sachi seated in a cute basket-like howdah. The figure of Mahishasuramardhini is striking. A signed masterpiece by Mallitamma, the image of the devi sports a careless, triumphant smile while she pushes the demon’s head aside. The bottom rows of the parapet walls have friezes of elephants, rows of mythical makaras, battle scenes, musicians…
There are 64 cells on the verandah running on all three sides of the temple, which is set in the middle of an open courtyard. I try to avoid the heat by walking around the corridor and find, amazingly, the sculptures can be seen vividly from the distance.
The ASI has put up smooth lawns on the entrance to the temple but they mar the ancient feel of the monument. The accredited guide who is passionate about the temple bemoans the fact that Somnathpur is not as well advertised as the other tourist attractions around Mysore. I cannot help feeling secretly thankful for, at this site, one gets the peace and quiet that helps one link with the past and feel recharged to face the humdrum of the present.
P.S. Somnathpur completes the Hoysala sculptural pilgrimage trilogy. But beware if you are assailed by pangs of hunger as the nearby town yields hardly any decent eatery.
It is best to go with a packed lunch while heading for the village, which is 45 km from Mysore.
Writing on the stone
What made the Indian sculptor who created poetry in stone, stucco or metal leave his works unsigned?
And what made the Hoysala artists at Somanthpur, Belur and Halebid inscribe their names on some of their creations? One felt disappointed to learn from experts that there was no sculptor called Jakannacharya, who is generally considered to have built these temples and that it could be only a corruption of the word “Dakshinacharya”, “sculptor of the southern school”.
What streak of individualism so different from the norm of Indian sculptural tradition made these artists inscribe their names on their creations — Malitamma, Chaudeya, Baleya, Masanitamma... Ah! The thrill of the byline.
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