November 24, 2015

Sri Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, Somnathpura, Karnataka

“From the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, either as a force or as an intelligence.

When the memory of the first races felt itself overloaded, when the mass of reminiscences of the human race became so heavy and so confused that speech naked and flying, ran the risk of losing them on the way, men transcribed them on the soil in a manner which was at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural. They sealed each tradition beneath a monument.

And not only the form of edifices, but the sites selected for them, revealed the thought which they represented, according as the symbol to be expressed was graceful or grave. Greece crowned her mountains with a temple harmonious to the eye; India disemboweled hers, to chisel therein those monstrous subterranean pagodas, borne up by gigantic rows of granite elephants.”
– Victor Hugo (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, 1831)

Poetry in stone (V4.0) - Sri Prasanna Chennakesava Temple

In the unbelievably tranquil tiny village of Somnathpura not very far from the elegant city of Mysore exists the majestic Prasanna Chennakesava temple, chronologically the last and visually the most remarkable exemplar of Hoysala architecture and an epitome of highly symmetrical, immaculately designed and imaginatively embellished sculptural magnificence. Dedicated to the mythological Lord Keshava/Krishna, an ostentatious playboy-strategist-statesman-cowherd-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived some 5,000 years ago and is regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment, the architecturally outstanding and artistically unequaled triple-celled (“trikutachala”) temple seated on its perfectly symmetrical juxtaposed star-shaped platform (“jagati”) venerates the “Venugopala” (“The hypnotic cowherd flute-player”), “Janardhana” (“He who bestows worldly success and spiritual liberation”) and “Kesava” (“He of the beautiful long hair”) aspects of the Lord respectively in its three highly embossed, excellently ornamented individual shrines. In their literature and folktales, the Hoysalas (reign AD 1026-1343) traced their historic lineage to the Yadava clan of north India which claims genealogical descent from Lord Krishna himself – therefore the conspicuous overabundance of exceptionally splendid shrines and vividly bejeweled sculptures throughout the historic land of Karnataka revering the mythical deity.


As if traversing a mysterious mythical barrier delineating the reality from the fantastical, a strangely verdant world presents itself to a visitor as soon as s/he steps within the wire mesh-demarcated physical boundary of the painstakingly landscaped lawn surrounding the temple. Vividly colored flowers mesmerizingly flutter against the gentle breeze and butterflies drunkenly flit around in arbitrary patterns from one shrub to another, flawless white egrets traverse the unfluctuating spread of the grass carpet in search of grub and overhead large hornbills with majestic beaks swoop from the immense spread of the gnarled branches that envision to block out the entire sky somewhere in the future. Several massive flame-of-forest trees compose the boundaries of the lawn while rows upon rows of neatly manicured hedges eventually terminate in an enormous acacia tree that benevolently shelters in its cool shadow the simplistic gateway of the temple’s enclosing rectangular courtyard whose boundaries in their turn are composed of strikingly symmetrical colonnades.

Indian Grey Hornbill - Another of nature's wonders

Step through the gateway and one literally feels unreservedly humbled in the face of indescribably gorgeous sculptural grandeur – not only is the sheer variety and noteworthy ornamental nature of the artworks and sculptures adorning every conceivable surface of the shrine unmentionably vast and beyond description, but furthermore, overawing every person that beholds the small shrine, here at least, unlike the more grander, unmatched Hoysala specimens at Belur and Halebidu (refer Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple complex, Halebidu and Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex, Belur), the layered pyramidal spires crowning the three individual shrines, meticulously proportioned and exquisitely detailed with a spellbinding miniaturization of precisely-defined flourishes, insignificant deities and mythical creatures, are still existential and exceedingly well-preserved.

Moreover, such is the attention to the minutest of ornamental details that the extraordinarily accomplished craftsmen-sculptors introduced in their craft that one can be forgiven for believing that the patterns and mythological lores are carved not in stone but in wax or wood! The entire superstructure is composed of dark green/blue-black hued chloritic schist (soapstone) which is extremely easy to chisel into ornately detailed patterns in its original form but transforms to tremendously resilient, unmalleable stone once exposed to the elements for years. Interestingly though, the fascinating sculptures here are significantly more richly jewel-encrusted despite their considerably smaller dimensions relative to their counterparts at Belur and Halebidu.

A world in its own

Also, except for a visual representation each of Goddess Saraswati (the ethereally beautiful patron of arts, music, learning and knowledge) portrayed here ecstatically dancing while deftly playing her Veena (Indian string instrument) and a ten-armed Goddess Durga (a fierce manifestation of primordial feminine energy) piercing the body of buffalo-demon Mahishasura with her intimidatingly long trident while straddling a particularly realistic buffalo, all depictions here are strictly those of Lord Vishnu and his numerous anthropomorphic incarnations, mythological divine aspects and legendary followers. And while the larger sculptures layering each angle and protruding corner are exemplars not only of unparalleled sculptural art, but also of excellent ancient mythological fables that even precisely specify how a deity is to be visually depicted and which weapon and which facial expression and bodily movement symbolically represents what action and which boon-bestowing capability, the most enthralling are of course the outstanding individualistic horizontal friezes comprising the base of the temple’s external ornamentation – the six layers, punctuated by miniaturized discontinuous depictions of tales from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, are respectively composed of charging elephants, mounted horses, floral scrolls of foliage and variegated creepers interspersed by fearsome “Kirtimukha” (the ferociously wide fanged, lion-like face of an all-consuming demon conceived and originated out of thin air by Lord Shiva, the God of death and destruction, to destroy other mightier demons), mythical “Makara” (entities possessing the body of a fish, the face and tusks of an elephant, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a peacock) and beautiful swans respectively symbolizing insurmountable stability, matchless agility, formidable strength, unchallenged might and elegant grace.

Mythology articulated in stone

The temple’s front face possesses, instead of the larger sculptures, tiny scroll bands of numerous perceptibly different geometric and floral patterns followed in their turn by diminutive decorative circular or star-shaped pillars supporting in their midst an extravagant mesh work of small arched alcoves inset with tens of thousands of inconsequential deities, celestial dancers and divine devotees.

The most spellbindingly realistic and artistically evocative statues are however those of the celestial guards that flank the entrances – draped with extremely fine jewelry and headgear that one would have been hard pressed to even be able to carve in soap and yet those tremendously skilled sculptors of yore crafted in stone, the marvelous figures, bearing divine chakras (serrated spinning disc weapons) and conch shells and wrapped with layers upon layers of extraordinarily delicate jewelry, are embossed upon layers of elaborate foliage and geometric patterns once more culminating into fierce Kirtimukhas, miniature Makaras and tantalizing floral patterns.

Those sculptors, these details, such polish!

The multitudes of sculptures and scroll work lend testimony to the incomparable skill of the architects and artists who were themselves so impressed and overjoyed by their own creations that they disregarded ancient Hindu architectural customs that prohibit artists and sculptors from signing their work – thus come to light the names, sovereign-bestowed titles and places of origin, but not the achievements and lives, of Ruvari Mallitamma, Masanithamma, Chameya, Chaudeya, Nanjeya, Rameya, Pallavachari and Cholavachari. A huge inscribed stone tablet records the commissioning of the temple in AD 1268 by Somanatha Dandanayaka, the illustrious Commander-in-Chief of Emperor Narasimha III (reign AD 1263-92), within the small village he had established and christened after himself as “Somnathpur Agrahara”. In and about the temple are several other inscriptions as well dated from AD 1269 to 1550 recording its substantial embellishment by private individuals and the endowment of the revenue of several villages for its maintenance by later sovereigns.

Sculptural extravaganza!

The enchanting T-shaped superstructure is divided internally into three exactly identical, incredibly narrow sanctums facing the central hallway, each possessing a singular sculpture portraying the Lord’s aforementioned aspects and heralded by massive astonishingly impressive doorjambs and resplendently ornate divine guards crafted from lustrous granite. Each mesmerizing idol is so thoroughly detailed and finely polished that it lustrously shimmers golden-brown in the warm mellow glow of the numerous incandescent bulbs that illuminate the incredibly dark interiors since the minute streaks of sunlight tracing their way in through the formidably set entrance and the numerous miniscule cross-shaped openings in the ornamental stone latticework that defines the magnificent temple’s walls prove to be grossly insufficient. The darkness further accentuates the forbiddingly straight vertical and horizontal lines that define the numerous deftly designed stone patterns carved into the heavy set walls, but it also succeeds in blurring the methodically detailed nature of the numerous ornately carved concave stone roofs that grace the enchanting rectangular hallway preceding the sanctums and culminate into unequaled patterns fairly realistically reminiscent of the development and blossoming of a massive banana bud.

Soothing sacredness

Except for two stellar-shaped ones immediately adjacent the entrance, all the tantalizing pillars that support the extensively conceived, immensely heavy roof are lathe-turned polished to spotless brilliance and passionately decorated with ornate strings of sculpted trinkets and meshwork patterns. It is compelling to notice how the relatively straightforward interiors were transformed into an artistic extravaganza along the exteriors by those matchlessly accomplished sculptors and consummate craftsmen through the employment of numerous angles and recesses in cohesion with hundreds of thousands of sculptural curves and miniaturization art in collaboration with an unequalled understanding of light and shadow play. Not to be easily outdone by the physically larger and regally patronized shrines at Belur and Halebidu, here were constructed at each protruding vertex of the plinth (“jagati”) smaller ornate sculptures of caparisoned elephants, insignificant deities and serpent divinities.

Impossibly detailed

Sadly though, despite witnessing such incomparable visual extravaganza and sculptural grandeur, I left the shrine slightly dejected – it being a Sunday and therefore a vacation for post offices and furthermore, there not being any significant information on the internet apprising passionate philatelists that a letter/post card dropped in the small red postbox nailed to the aforementioned massive acacia tree outside the temple enclosure will be stamped with a special commemorative cancellation depicting a pictorial profile of the shrine, the enthusiastic amateur philatelist in me (further goaded by an innate, much despised tendency to collect and hoard souvenirs!) could not help feeling crestfallen about not having on me an envelope and consequentially not being able to post a letter from here.

The last of its kind

Open: All days, 8.30 am – 5.30 pm
Location: Somnathpura, 35 kilometers from Mysore
How to reach: Infrequent private buses ply between T. Narsipur and Somnathpura villages (12 kilometers – 20 minutes – Rs 10/person). Regular government buses are available from Suburban bus stand, Mysore to T. Narsipur bypass flyover (35 kilometers – 30 minutes – Rs 15/person) from where one can walk to T. Narsipur village bus stand. The roads between Mysore and T. Narsipur, although terribly pockmarked, wind through vast water-logged paddy plantations that alluringly glisten soothing blue-green early morning and brilliant blinding green in the afternoon.
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 5; Foreigners: Rs 100; Free entry for children up to 15 years of age.
Photography/video charges: Nil
Note: The temple is still fervently revered by faithful pilgrims and footwear is not allowed within the central courtyard. The same can be deposited (for a miniscule sum of Rs 2/pair) at the makeshift counter near the humble gateway.
Relevant Links -
Other Hoysala temples in Karnataka -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple complex, Halebidu
  2. Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex, Belur
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sri Pataleshwara Temple, Belur
Other monuments/landmarks in/around Mysore -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Church of St. Joseph and St. Philomena
  2. Pixelated Memories - Mysore Palace
  3. Pixelated Memories - Seringapatnam
  4. Pixelated Memories - Sri Chamundeshwari Temple
Suggested reading - 
  1. - Permanent Pictorial Cancellations: Karnataka
  2. - Somnathpura
  3. - Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura

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