The turn of the 2nd Millennium A.D. witnessed a marked resurgence of temple building traditions in South India furthering the new styles and techniques developed in the latter half of the first millennium when cave temples gave way to towering monuments of granite and sandstone. Though this era was mired in dynastic feuds between the Chalukyas of Kalyan and Cholas of Thanjavur, heralded the decline of Gangas of Talakad and beheld the rising Hoysalas of Dwarasamudra (present day Halebid) temple architecture reached new heights surpassing the glory of the bygone days. Kings and nobles showered patronage on gifted artisans and architects commissioning grants and lands for building temples. These temples which were the center of religious and social life also served another purpose of ensuring that the legacy of the Kings survived for a thousand years long after the winds of time razed their pompous kingdoms to dust. Today some of these temples lie forlornly in quiet villages sitting on the shore of a placid lake and reminisce of their heydays; the bustling capitols of the yore have lost their sheen but the temples still stand steadfast narrating the tales of proud Kings who have been forgotten.
Somanathapur is a non-descript village located 30kms from the heritage city of Mysore. However its narrow muddy lanes and lush green paddy fields harbor a well kept secret – the Kesava Temple. Dating back to 1268 A.D it is a classic example of Hoysala architecture and is considered to be one of the most striking Hoysala temples matching in poise and beauty to the Chennakesava Temple in Belur and Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebid.
The monument is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India and a nominal entry fee is charged for all visitors. Here on a weekend one can observe a teeming crowd consisting of school children seemingly on a picnic, foreign tourists, pious devotees, enthusiastic photographers and budding historians. Historically this temple was revered by the Maharajas of Mysore and records show that even in the late 1880s and early 1900s various dignitaries visited this marvel of human engineering and craftsmanship.
The temple is accessible from the eastern side by a doorway, in a high boundary wall, which opens into a gallery running around the temple. The sight of the shining black towers rising against the cloudy blue sky is a delight; though watching the rain wash over the sculpture studded walls during the monsoons is equally enjoyable. A flight of steps descend to the stone-paved courtyard surrounding the temple which is raised on a raised platform (Jagati). Another flight of steps rise to the platform and then to the intricately carved entrance flanked by heavily ornamented Dwarpalas (Gate-keepers). The doorway leads to a dark closed hall supported by rounded pillars bearing minute carvings. A narrow vestibule connects the hall to the three shrines dedicated to Vishnu in the form of Kesava, Venugopala and Janardhana. The ceilings are covered with sculptures of gods and goddesses, blooming lotus flowers, stories from epics and mythical beasts.
A soothing calm permeates the surroundings complimented by the filtered sunrays creeping through the perforated stone windows bathing the hall in a dim light. One can sit on the stone benches which are projections on the outer wall and escape into the nothingness experiencing a fleeting moment of unadulterated peace.
This temple, as all other Hoysala temples, is truly remarkable for the thousands of sculptures which adorn the outer walls rendered possible by the use of soapstone as a building material. Soapstone has a unique quality – it is soft when mined and becomes hard on exposure to air thus making it possible to be carved into meticulous idols and shapes. A circumambulation of the temple gives an insight into the skill and precision of the erstwhile artists as not an inch is spared with carvings spread over the outer walls of the star-shaped cella, hall and the towers. An eave runs along the outer wall separating the upper section decorated with towers on pilasters and the lower half covered by images of myriad gods, goddesses and demi-gods. Vishnu resting on Shesh Nag in Baikuntha, Krishna playing his flute, Lakshmi with Narasimha, Durga slaying the demon Mahisasura and Saraswati playing the Veena are some of the noteworthy sculptures. Six friezes also run along the temple walls depicting birds, riders atop elephants and horses, makaras (mythical aquatic beasts), floral designs and tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata. One can spend days analyzing and understanding the significance of these artistic relics as they not only reflect upon the religious aspect of that era but also shed light on the social norms and how creative expressions evolved over time.
Visiting the temple is being led down the annals of history though the grandeur has been swallowed by the forces of nature and man. The stoic sculptures on the walls stare into the past and hark back to a period when a vibrant settlement flourished in this region and the sweet water of Cauvery nurtured the hopes of budding artists who aspired to leave their mark on this world. And although these nameless dreamers have long since been gone their ambitions live on unfazed by the incessant march of time.