During my last trip around Mysore I wanted to explore Chennakeshava temple of Somanathapura. I was traveling light with just Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L USM Lens on Canon EOS 7D. being 1.6x crop camera it was not really giving me the ultra wide view but a normal zoom view of 25-56 mm at f/2.8. I also had my 70-200mm in case I wanted to shoot tele. I also carried 1.4x tele-converter with which I can extend my reach to 340mm range. This is my compact travel setup. Since it was a family holiday trip I did not want my photography overburdening them.
Somnathpura is a scaled down version of the magnificent and grandiose Chennakeshava temple at Belur. It is serene, uncrowded, under rated, and very well maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The most stunningly carved stone temple dedicated to Keshava was built here in A.D.1268, by Somanatha Dandanayaka, an illustrious General of the Hoysala king Narasimha III (1254 – 1291 A.D.). The village is hence named Somnathpura after the general.A stone tablet stands inside the temple main gate contain inscriptions in ancient Kannada script containing details of about the construction of the temple as well as details of grants for maintenance.
It is the one of the grandest temples of Hoysala architecture and apart from a shrine dedicated to Lord Keshava, there are two more shrines on either side of Keshava shrine dedicated to Venugopala and Janardhana. The three shrines together are known as Trikutachala and are interconnected. Even though it resembles other famous Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebid, this is the only major Hoysala temple with intact Vimana left. Both the temples of Belur & Halebid had lost that.
Somnathpur is 32 kms from the Bangalore – Mysore highway main road (SH 18), one has to take a left turn driving from Bangalore towards Mysore (Signboard is there stating the name and distance) the road condition is average; narrow with thin traffic and occasional patches of potholes and unmettaled portions. From Mysore, take the Bannur road. Somnathpura is less than 10km from Bannur. It should take just a half hour from Mysore.
The east facing temple stands out like a marvel against the backdrop of an ordinary village. It stands on middle of a walled compound encircled by a verandah with 64 cells which once housed 64 idols which were transported by British to their museum during their rule. Now Archaeological Survey of India is restoring these structures which are in a dilapidated state.
The temple is a piece of exquisitely carved architecture on stone, the garden around the temple is pretty well maintained. The outside walls of the main temple is covered with intricately carved out figures in stone, scenes from Ramayanas, Krishnas life, Vishnu, Narasimha with Lakshmi, incarnations of Vishnu, Goddesses like Lakhsmi and Saraswati, scenes of daily life people, Scenes of war, riding on horse & elephant. There are 194 images in all and around 40 of them have been carved by master sculptor Mallitamma. The other sculptors who worked in this temple were Ballayya, Chaudayya, Bharmayya, Kamayya and Nanjayya etc. These are the very few Indian examples of signature of sculptors on these sculptures.
The stone used for temple is chlorite schist which is a type of soft variety of soapstone. Soapstone is largely composed of the mineral talc and rich in magnesium. A unique property of soapstone very useful in making sculptures is that it is initially soft when under the ground and hardens gradually over the years when exposed to the atmosphere. Therefore, during the time of building the temple, fresh soapstones were used to ease the carving process. They hardened in course of time.
The Temple is built up on a raised platform consisting of a 36-pointed star base. The outer walls are divided into different layers the lower layer contains the scenes of daily life like people riding elephants etc while the middle ones contains exquisitely curved gods and goddesses. Some of these idols are damaged (like broken arms etc). The three garbha grihas / sanctum sanctorum have carved Vimana or towers. The grilled windows are carved intricately in stone and the outer wall has panels of elephants, plants, flower creepers, gods and goddesses, scenes depicting Ramayana and Mahabharatha. All the three shrines have a 16 pointed stellate (star-shaped) design and their towers follow the same pattern. Hence the whole structure looks like a rhythmic progression of well decorated projections and recesses. The number of points make the towers look circular.
In side the main temple there are three sanctums of Keshava, Janardhana and Venugopala. The Main Idol of Keshava is missing and replaced by another Vishnu idol of Hoysala style from nearby village. The idols have been made very beautifully with immense attention on ornaments, body posture and other aspects. These are one of the very few sculptures in the whole temple that have their noses intact. A sad but common feature seen in the temple is that the noses of most of the forms have been chipped out by the invaders during the 1311 A.D and 1326 A.D muslim invasions. It is said that their plan was to render the temple an inactive one because generally Hindu deities which have been damaged are not worshiped. Hence no pooja is performed in the temple. Even the animal forms have not been spared by the invaders. Trunks of elephant etc. which show power have also been truncated.
The inner hall has carved designed pillars and a beautiful ceiling. The ceilings, the pillars, the doors and the idols are exquisitely carved and a sight to behold. The pillar outside the temple is a huge lamp post which used to guide neighboring villagers about the location of the temple more like a light house beacon.
There is a red little post box hanging on a big tree in side the temple campus with a notice that the letters posted there will get a special cancellation mark of the temple.
Travel tips: Reach early to the temple so that you can avoid loads of tourists who land there at around 10AM onwards. Also the sun heats up the rock and walking barefooted is painful or wear thick socks as one has to leave his shoes outside the main gate. Carry torchlight for viewing the designs inside the temple.