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Somnathpur - Envy of the Gods

The Gods themselves were so taken in by the excellence of perfect design and delicate craftsmanship of the Kesava temple, that they tried to steal it from earth.

The three towers of the Prasanna Channa Kesava temple at Somnathpur were aglow in the early morning light with a group of Indian and foreign tourists alighted under the huge umbrella tree in front of the shrine. They had come a half hour earlier than the scheduled opening of the temple. The resourceful guide anticipating complaining murmurs, took control of the situation and ordered for them Mysore’s steaming filtered coffee from the neighbouring tourist hotel Mayura. As the visitors began to savour the celebrated brew, he engaged them by narrating the very interesting legend associated with the temple.

This temple is the creation of the master architect and sculptor Jakanachari who left his wife and son to travel in his quest for a living and fame. Eventually, he approached the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana, a patron of the arts, who employed him to create this marvel of a temple. The excellence of his perfect design and delicate craftsmanship became the envy of gods who employed him to create this marvel of a temple. The excellence of his perfect design and delicate craftsmanship became the envy of the gods who wanted to teal it. They caused the shrine to rise heavenward. Shocked and angry, Jakanachari thought that the only way he could retain the structure on he ground was to make it a little imperfect. He instantly disfigured some of the carvings on the outer walls. Once the gods found that the perfection was marred, they coveted it no longer and allowed it to sink to the ground. In the process, its traditional flagstone got dislodged from its original position and since then stands to the left of the main entrance.

The Kesava temple at Somnathpur, a somnolent village 45 kilometers from Mysore, is one of the most famous Hoysala temples in Karnataka, the two others at Belur an Halebid being equally famous. The Somnathpur temple built in AD 1268 is considered an example of the fully evolved style of Hoysala architecture. The Hoysalas were a mighty marital race who ruled large parts of presentday Karnataka between 1100 and 1320 AD. They bequeathed some of the great masterpieces in temple architecture and sculpture. Their reign was noted for its peace and a leisurely life and so they were able to encourage talent of all kinds. They also encouraged a healthy sense of competition between artisans who were allowed to sign their names below their creations something unheard of before their times and this served as an incentive. The Hoysala ruler commissioned the building of temples as an act of thanksgiving after their victories in the battlefield. Victory then imbued art with incredible intricacy.

From the fine inscription on the slab at the entrance porch of the Kesava temple, we learn that Somnatha, a high ranking officer under the Hoysala king Narasimha III (AD 1254-1291) established the village as an agrahara or rent-free settlement to the people in the surrounding areas. He then named it Somnathpur after himself. He had this Vishnu temple constructed in it in AD 1268. It is situated in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by an open veranda which contains 64 cells. It stands on a raised platform about three feet high, which closely follows the contour of the structure and is supported at angled by figures of elephants facing outwards.

The temple is a trikutachala or three-called, star-shaped structure, the main cell facing east and the other two, north and south respectively. All these cells are surmounted by three elegantly carved towers which are identical in design and execution. The front elevation with the three towers presents an imposing appearance and has inspired craftsmen to design silver and gold caskets on this model.

An important feature of the Kesava temple is that it is squat and on a refreshingly human scale. Here, there is no universal vaulting pyramidical tower like in other South Indian temples. There is no need for one to crane one’s neck and use field glasses to view the marvelous carvings that proliferate on the towers walls. As the three towers are somewhat dwarfish, the elaborately carved sculptures on them can be viewed at eye level.

The outer walls of the temple have a number of railed parapets running the whole way round the shrine. They contain, beginning from the bottom, running friezes of beautiful scrulptures of caparisoned elephants, charging horsemen, swans, mythological beasts and scrolls. Besides, there are more running friezes depicting themes from the Indian epics, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagvata Puranas. There are turreted niches with small images of lions separating them. Above them and below the eaves are perforated screens.

The outer walls are an art connoiseur’s delight. They contain elaborately carved sculptures of Vishnu and other deities-as many as 194, of which 114 are female figures. The gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are represented by the majority of figures of Vishnu and his many incarnations such as Narsimha, Varaha, Hayagriva and Venugopala. There are also elegantly sculptured figures of Brahma, Siva and Indra seated with his consort Sanchi on the elephant Airavata. There is an exceptionally beautiful figures of Saraswathi, the goddess of learning and of Durga as Mahisasuramardhini.

A unique feature of the Kesava temple like all other Hoysava temple, is the fact that the images on the outer walls bear on their pedestals the names of the sculptors who carved them, like Mallitamma, Baleyan, Choudeya and Yelamasaya. Forty sculptures bear the name of Mallitamma alone and, he must have been, obviously, the master craftsman. These signed works of art glow with elaborate ornamentation very characteristic of Hoysala sculpture. Many sculptors, equally skilled and even more renowned, have preferred anonymity of authorship. It is noteworthy that nowhere in the temple do we find the name of the legendary Jakanachari, the man who is supposed to have constructed the temple. It is the opinion of many scholars that there was no master builder by the name of Jakanchari.

Fergusson in his description of the Somnathpur temple speaks of the elegance of outline and marvelous elaboration of detail that characterizes it. Its height seems to be only about 30 feet which, if it stood in the open, would be too small for architectural effect, but in the center of an enclosed court and where there are no objects to contrast with it, it produces an everlasting impression of grandeur.

Says workman in his Through Town and Jungle: If any parts can be called finer than others, the palm must be given to the three stellate towers. Not a square inch of their surface is without decoration. These towers absolutely captivate the mind by their profusion of detail and perfection of outline; and there is no suggestion of superfluity in the endless concourse of figures and designs. To construct a building of less than 35 feet in height, load it from bottom to top with carvings and produce the effect not only of beauty and perfect symmetry but also impressiveness, shows supreme talent on the part of the architects.

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