"There is a stillness and
everlastingness about the past, it changes not and has a touch of
eternity," wrote Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru in his "Discovery of
India." These words somehow hold true when one arrives at Somnathpur,
a tiny village on the banks of the Kaveri, 140 kms, south-west of
Bangalore. Here in this everlasting rural stillness, like a milestone to
eternity, stood one of the last and the grandest of Hoysala monuments -
the Kesava Temple built 740 years ago.
In the dust and turmoil of history, India was witnessing the Golden Age of the mighty Cholas, Pandyas and the Hoysalas. The last named dynasty which ruled Karnataka for nearly 350 years, was founded in 1006 A.D., soon after the collapse of the Ganga Dynasty.
By the year 1268 A.D., the year in which the Kesava temple at Somnathpur was built, the Hoysala rule had completed 260 years. The riches and splendour of the Hoysala court were already evident in their grand temples at Belur and Dvarasamudra (present day, Halebid).
Coming to the temple at Somnathpur, one need not search far for its history. An inscribed stone slab, in old Kannada, at the entrance says it all. The reigning monarch was Narasimha III (1254-91 A.D.) whose full regal title runs into a sizeable paragraph: "Sri Vishnuvaradhana, Pratapa Chakravarti, Hoysala Bhujabala, Sri Vira Narasimha, Maharajadhiraja, Raja Paramesvara, Sanivarasiddhi, Giridurgamalla etc.
The temple, however, was not built by the king but by his celebrated army commander, Somnath. Some year ago he had founded a village on the left bank of the Kaveri River, which he named Somnathpur, after himself. Now in a bid for further immortality, Somnath petitioned the king to grand him the permission and resources for his project of setting up a grand temple to glorify Hoysala craftsmanship.
The king not only bestowed Somnath with his largesse, but also sanctioned an annual grant of 3,000 gold coins for the temple's upkeep and maintenance. All these facts are duly mentioned on the slab and appear as though to have happened yesterday!
Soon work began. The best sculptors in the realm were commissioned for the task. There came sculptors whose wizardry with the hammer and chisel was almost legendary. Among them was the famous Mallitamma. Then there were sculptors: Ballayya, Chaudayya, Bharmayya, Kamayya and the Nanjayya. Of the 194 carved images on the outer walls, Mallitamma's contribution was forty. We know this because all the sculptors have signed their works - a practice unusual for its times, but also evident in Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid.
For the inscription on the stone slab, it becomes fairly evident that the magnificent temple was completed and consecrated in 1268 A.D. The shrine stands in the middle of a walled compound, around which runs an open verandah with 64 cells. The temple itself, stellar in shape, has three profusely carved pinnacles with a common Navranga and stands on a raised platform. The three sanctums once housed beautifully carved idols of Kesava, Janardhana and Venugopala. Today the idol of Lord Kesava is missing, but the other two still adorn the sanctums in their original form.
Interestingly, the earliest Hoysala monarchs were Jains. It was the great Vishnuvardhana (1108-42) who embraced Vaishnavism under the influence of the celebrated Vaishnava reformer Ramanuja. Later Hoysala rulers even became Saivites. But general tolerance of all faiths was typical of their rule. The Hoysala Dynasty finally came to an end around 1346 A.D. when the Vijayanagar Empire rose to power. Today Somnathpur is like any other Lackadaisical Indian village surrounded by farms of millet and sugarcane. Not as famous as Belur and Halebid, the Hoysala temple at Somnathpur, however, is truly unique in design, perfect in symmetry and the stone carvings are remarkable marvels in stone.