Poetry of Stones- Hoysala temple I: Somnathapur

Legend has it that Sala was on a hunting mission at the Sahaya mountains when he heard the cires “Poy Sala” – “Strike Sala” by a saint who literally cried a tiger while performing his religious rites in the temple of the Goddess Vasantika at Angadi (now known as Sosevuru). On hearing this, Sala diligently performed his duties and stabbed the tiger. The incident was recounted and renamed as “Poysala”, now corrupted to Hoysala. This led to the birth of the Hoysala emblem. Sala has been identified as the first historical figure or progenitor of the Hoysala family. For more than three centuries, the Hoysala of the Yadava descent ruled a major portion of southern Karnataka.

It is during the 12th century under the reign of Vishnuvardhan, that the Hoysala dynasty flourished in terms of political, military and cultural activites. Rise of Vaishnavism under the tutelage of Ramanujacharya, transformation of traditional art and rise of the dynasty came together in a beautiful symphony during this period.

Architectural Charcateristics:

The Nolamaba (late 8th – 11th century) and Western Ganga (350 CE – 1000 CE) dynasties – predecessors of Hoysalas in Southern Karnataka – constructed both Hindu and Jain temples inspired by Tamil heritage. In contrast, the Hoysala rulers were influenced by the Western Chalukyan architecture and employed their craftsmen as well. An abundance of figure sculpture covers almost all the Hoysala temples, a fact that is largely facilitated by the use of Soapstone, which allows fine detailing and clarity alongwith durability. Overall, the Hoysala style is said to depict a harmonious blend of the southern Dravida and northern Nagara styles and is known as the Vesara style.

Most Hoysala temples have a plain covered entrance porch supported by lathe turned (circular or bell-shaped) pillars sometimes carved with deep fluting and moulded with decorative motifs. The temples may be built upon a platform raised by about a metre called “jagati.” The jagati, apart from giving a raised look to the temple, serves as a Pradakshinapatha for circumambulation around the temple as the garbagriha (inner sanctum) lacks such a feature. The jagati follows a star-shape design and the walls of the temple follow a zig-zag pattern, a Hoysala innovation. After completing circumambulation on the jagati, one enters the mantapa or the prayer hall. The mantapa has a highly ornate overhead lintel at the entrance called a makaratorana (makara, an imaginary beast and torana, an overhead decoration). The vimana, also called the cella, contains the most sacred shrine wherein resides the image of the presiding deity. Depending on the number of shrines (and hence number of towers), the temples are often classified as ekakuta (one), dvikuta (two), trikuta (three), chatushkuta (four) and panchakuta (five). Most Hoysala temples belong to the ekakuta, dvikuta or trikuta categories.

This post commences a multi-part series in dedication to this unique symphony of human ingenuity.

The Kesava Temple, Somnathapur

Vesara style of construction – The conical-shaped tower, known as shikhara (or vimana), above each garbhagriha follows the Nagara style design, and the front portion of the temple follows the classic Mantapa style design.

Somanathapur was once known as Gangavadi under the reign of Ganga of Talakad. During the 11th century, the region came under the rule of the Cholas of Adigaiman, and later became a part of the Hoysala dynasty under the rule of Vishnuvardhana in 1116 AD. After the fall of Hoysalas, the region was taken over by the Vijayanagara empire and finally the Wodeyars of Mysore. During his expedition to the south in 1311 aimed at grabbing precious treasures from the temples and monuments, Malik Kafur – a general under Allaudin Khilji, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate – plundered this temple and left it badly damaged. Because of the damaged idols in the sanctum, this is not an active temple.

An inscription on a slab found in this temple states that it was Soma (Somanatha) a celebrated general of Hoysala king Narasimha lll (A.D 1254-1291), who established the village as an agrahara, a rent-free settlement of brahmins and named it after himself. He commissioned this temple in A.D 1268 and dedicated it to Lord Prasanna Chennakesava, a form of Lord Vishnu. While smaller in stature and fame as compared to its other famous “siblings”, the temple is still an architectural tribute to intricate sculptures, star-shaped floor plan common to all Hoysala temples built over a raised platform. Measuring approximately 215 ft by 177 ft, the main temple is surrounded by a pillared cloister. At present, the cells in the cloister mandapa surrounding the Kesava temple are fifty-six in number and are empty. However, once upon a time, they were known as sixty-four subshrines with various forms of Lord Vishnu enshrined in it.

Attached to the outer walls are pillars with sculptural reliefs of gods and goddesses and other deities. Thankfully, there is no particular order or storyline depicted here. Thankfully because the workmanship is so exquisite that trying to follow a storyline would have been simply taxing as a visitor. It is said that there are as many as 194 large images of Gods and Goddesses inscribed on the outer walls of the shrine, out of which 114 are female and 80 are male. Some of the sculptures have an inscription engraved at the base, written in Halegannada which used to be the old Kannada script. It is said that these are the signature of Ruvari Mallithamma, the most prolific sculpture artist of that era.

As a Vishnu temple, majority of depictions are various forms of Vishnu and his incarnations. The standard iconography of Vishnu is depicted with four arms, each holding one of the four objects – Shanka (a conch shell named Panchajanya, responsible for creating the five elements), Chakra (a disc with serrated edges named Sudharshan), Mace (named Kaumodaki), and Padma (the sacred lotus). The order of holding the objects often vary. Sometimes a particular combination indicates a particular form. I have tried to identify and list down few of the famous incarnations of Vishnu, and some of the more popular forms as quoted by the guide.

Beyond the exquisite Vishnu depictions, there are other gods, goddesses and deities that can be found on the temple walls.

The temple of Somnathapura is known as the finest example of trikutachala shrine, that is, a shrine with three sanctums. The main sanctum is facing east, while the other two are opposite to each other, facing north and south respectively.

All the three sanctums share a common navaranga or the central hall, which is supported by four pillars at the center with a raised platform. The ceiling of the navaranga is ornamented with finely-carved 16 rectangular panels (i.e. the navranga has 9 sectors while the porch or the mukhmantapa has 7 sections. It is said that theme of each panel looks like a stage of blooming of lotus bud.

Pro Tip:

Somnathapur is at a distance of 1 hrs (35 km) away from Mysore. I had made Mysore as my base for 5 days owing to the Dussera celebrations, hence I decided to combine Somnathapur and Srirangapatnam as a day trip and rented a car.

Unlike the remaining Hoysala temples, the temple at Somnathapur is not an active temple. There is no restriction to photography inside or outside. Compared to the other Hoysala temples, this is less popular amongst the local tourist circuit as well.

The Hoysala series:


Majority of the stuctural references in this post has been the oral recitations of a tour guide from the temple captured as Voice notes. If anyone is interested in using the images, please hit me up and attribute.

Related (and not-so related) Posts:



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