Exploring the unique beauty of an architectural wonder built by the Hoysalas, which was destroyed by Malik Kafoor's army in medieval times.
Shefali Vaidya is a writer, photographer, newspaper columnist and mum to triplets, who loves to travel.
Old temples have fascinated me since I was ten years old. I was on a school picnic to the only surviving stone-built temple in Goa, the Tambdi Surla temple. The exquisite carvings, the perfect symmetry, the spare, ascetic beauty of the towering Shikhara and the cool, soothing touch of the stone had enthralled me even at that age. I was smitten.
Since then, I have visited many ancient temples in India. All my friends and relatives know of my fascination with temple architecture and keep suggesting temples for me to visit. 'If you are interested in old temples, you MUST visit Somnathpura,' my brother-in-law told me once, in a tone that brooked no arguments. This was not the first time I had heard of the Somnathpura temple either. Somnathpura temple is supposed to be one of the best surviving examples of Hoysala architecture.
The Hoysalas, a dynasty that ruled over the fertile Kaveri basin for almost 400 years, were known for their prolific temple-building. They are supposed to have built over 900 temples during their reign, out of which over 100 temples have survived the ravages of time. Hoysala temples are built from locally available soapstone or chloritic schist, a stone that is extremely soft and easy to carve when it is freshly quarried. It hardens over time as it is exposed to the elements. Because of this unique quality of the stone, all Hoysala temples are adorned with exquisite, detailed carvings.
Early Hoysala temples had a marked Chalukyan influence, but over the years, other features and innovations were added to the temples, making the Hoysala temples unique. Some of the most famous Hoysala temples are the Chenna Keshava temple of Belur and the Hoysaleshwara temple in the ancient Hoysala capital of Halebidu in Hassan district. Somnathpura temple was among the last of the great Hoysala temples to be built. It was not built by a King, however. According to an inscription housed in the temple complex, this temple was built in 1268 by Somanatha Dandanayaka, a powerful Hoysala general, who controlled this region during the reign of King Narasimha III.
There is a saying in Kannada, ‘the Belur temple, you must see from the inside, the Halebidu temple, you must see from the outside, but the Somnathpura temple you have to see both from the inside as well as outside’.
I started from Bengaluru at 6 in the morning for Somnathpura. My cousin, who was on vacation from the US was accompanying me on this trip. This was her first visit to a Hoysala temple and I could feel her excitement. It took us a while to get out of Bengaluru. The swollen, ever expanding city had left its ugly mark on the surrounding countryside as well. Remnants of old polythene bags fluttered from trees like festoons and roadsides were lined with mounds of garbage. It was only after Chennapatna, the town famous for handmade wooden toys, that I started to really appreciate the stunning beauty of rural Karnataka.
We were travelling along the edge of the Kaveri river, as it snaked its way through Southern Karnataka. The river has made this region fertile for centuries, making it an ideal base for several dynasties. The Gangas ruled the Kaveri basin in the 5th century, followed by the Cholas and the Hoysalas. When the Hoysalas declined, this region fell under the rule of the Vijayanagara empire of North Karnataka, followed by the Wodeyars of Mysore and later, Tipu Sultan.
As our car left Chennapatna behind, we were greeted with the pleasant sight of green paddy fields and coconut trees. We passed little villages dotted with cheerfully painted mud houses and red tiled roofs. Local farmers were gathered at small tea-shops, their white Mundus hitched up to their knees, handkerchieves tied around their heads in Karnataka style. When we reached Somnathpura, it was a little after nine. The temple lies in the middle of a small, nondescript village full of tiny houses painted in gay colours. The village was abuzz with sounds of everyday domesticity. Women swept the yards outside their houses, their bangles tinkling softly as their hands moved the brooms. A man gargled loudly. I could hear the high-pitched voices of children, as they chanted something in Kannada, from a school building that shares a wall with the temple compound.
The driver parked the car outside the temple complex. We entered a large walled compound with an impeccably kept lawn. There was a ticket counter on the right. ‘This is not a living temple. No worship happens here. This is a monument. Therefore, you have to pay to see it,’ informed the chatty young man behind the counter. Clutching our tickets we marched towards the temple. There was an outer wall that encloses the temple premises. Near the wall, there was a stand for footwear. We removed our shoes and stepped on the paved stone floor with our bare feet. The floor was pleasantly warm to touch. A guide materialised from somewhere, handed me an ID card and said, ‘My name is Ramakrishna. I am a tourism department approved guide.’ Ramakrishna accompanied us to the doorway that leads to the temple compound. As we caught the first glimpse of the Somnathpura temple, both my cousin and I gasped simultaneously in awe. The temple rose before us like a radiant lotus carved in stone, bathed in the honey-tinted light of the morning sun.
Hoysala temples are known for their unique features. The Jagati or the platform on which the temples are built is always star-shaped. The temple is built layer by layer, the first seven layers are always horizontal, followed by vertical panels. The number of Shikharas or spires vary depending upon the number of deities worshipped in the temple. Somnathpura is a Vishnu temple where three different forms of the deity were worshipped. The temple has three spires, making it a tri-kuta temple. ‘The Keshava temple of Somnathpura is considered to be the finest surviving example of Hoysala architecture.' The guide was saying, but I could hardly hear him, so blown away was I by the perfection of the temple’s proportions, its precise symmetry and the sheer abundance of sculptural details.
Ramakrishna explained to us the symbolism behind the sculptures - the bottom most layer is of elephants, signifying strength, followed by a row of flowers - for beauty. Flowers are followed by horses and horsemen, signifying valour and speed. The next layers consist of small rectangular panels depicting scenes from the Ramayan and Mahabharat, as well as panels of musicians, dancers, ordinary people as well some erotic sculptures. ’The lower levels of the temple depict ordinary, day-to-day life. When we enter the temple, we are supposed to leave these trappings behind and focus on the divine. Therefore, the sculptures depicting Gods and Goddesses are placed at these higher levels’, explained the guide, as our eyes followed the exquisitely carved vertical panels that had sculptures of Gods and Goddesses.
The sculptures were truly breathtaking. There were beautiful panels of Ugra Narsinha, dancing Ganesh, a gorgeously carved Saraswati, several sculptures of standing Vishnu, each one adorned head to toe with ornaments carved delicately out of the stone. Ancient Indian temples rarely have the names of sculptors inscribed anywhere, but Hoysala temples are different. Many of the panels had the master sculptors inscribe their names at the base of the panel. Malitamma was one such master sculptor. The expression on his Mahishasur Mardini’s face was a complex potpourri of emotions. As we craned our necks to take in every detail of the carvings, from the exuberantly carved floral border to the fine details of the ornaments on the figures, my cousin remarked with a feeling of wonder in her voice, ‘I have seen ancient Greek architecture, sculptures by Italian masters and Roman temples, but nothing compares to this.’ I merely smiled. I had been Hoysala-ed before. I knew that feeling.
It is unfortunate that many of these exquisite sculpture have had to bear the brunt of the malice of Muslim invaders. Many sculptures have their hands chopped off or their noses defaced.
Ramakrishna kept saying, ‘invaders from outside destroyed these Murtis’.
Finally, I asked him, ‘Who were these invaders? They had names, right?’
‘Yes, it was Malik Kafoor’s marauding army’, he replied.
‘Why don’t you say so then?’ I demanded.
He smiled a rueful smile. ‘We are not supposed to, as per government guidelines madam,’ Ramakrishna replied.
The exterior of the temple was so rich in architectural details that we did not feel like venturing inside, but when we did, it was like stepping into another world. There was no electricity, and the inside of the temple felt cool and serene. Like all Hoysala temples, Somnathpura too had exquisitely carved ceiling panels and superbly polished lathe turned pillars. The ceiling was divided into several parts and carved into various phases of the blooming banana flower, a symbol of fertility. The three Garbhagrihas were pitch dark. However, a security guard who had followed us inside shone his torch resourcefully. Vishnu was worshipped here in three forms, Keshava in the main chamber, flanked by a beautiful flute-bearing Venugopala to the left and Janardhana to his right. The idol of Keshava is ‘ not original Madam... original one stolen by British,’ the guide informed us.
‘I will show you something fantastic,’ Ramakrishna said, as he shone his torch on the midriff of the exquisitely carved black stone Vigraha of Janardhana. ‘In olden days, Shiva and Vishnu worshippers used to fight with each other. This is a Vishnu temple, but the sculptor of this Vigraha was a Shiva-bhakt. So, see what he did to remind him of his favourite God’.
The beam of the torch lingered lovingly on the midriff of the serenely smiling Janardhana and we saw what Ramkrishna was trying to show us, the face of Shiva’s bull, Nandi, looking at us, formed out of Janardhana’s chest, navel and the curve of his stomach.
Somnathpura is not a living temple, I was told. No worship happens here because the Vigrahas have been damaged. But I folded my hands and prayed respectfully, not just to Lord Vishnu the preserver, but to the creators of Lord Vishnu, these master sculptors who created such enduring poetry out of stone!
How to go there
Somnathpura is located near Mysore, at a distance of less than 30 km. It is a great one-day trip destination, if you start from Bengaluru. The Karnataka State Tourism Department (KSTDC) runs bus tours on weekends and holidays in the season from Bangalore and Mysore. If you are taking your own car, you can even combine it with Thalakadu, a nearby place that has a complex of Shiva temples partially submerged under sand. There are also regular trains between Mysore and Bengaluru.
Where to Eat
Maddur, about halfway between Bengaluru and Somnathpura is a great place for a pit-stop. There is a good Adiga’s as well as Maddur Tiffany’s, that sells great Maddur Wadas.