Hoysala architecture – Part 1 – Somnathpur

It was an oblivious stall at the far end of the Bengali association’s Durga-Puja celebration venue (Dusherra) that caught both Rohini’s and my attention. It was a stall put up by Karnataka tourism board where a bored lady was idling nonchalantly, waiting for someone remotely interested to turn up to whom she could hand over a few pamphlets and be done with her duties. We rescued her and got a whole bunch of pamphlets for us to look at later on.

To say that we both were blown away by some of the temples and their architecture that we saw on those pamphlets is too little. We were particularly impressed with the one detailing Belur and Halebidu and the Hoysala architecture. Thus began our plan to visit them all.

Apparently there are three major sites of Hoysala architecture:

  • Halebidu
  • Belur
  • Somnathpur

We decided to begin with the closest and smallest of the lot – Somnathpur.

Somnathpur is a quaint small village at the outskirts of Mysore (approx 35 kms from Mysore en-route Sivasamudram). It is famous for the Keshava temple built by a commander named Soma serving under the Hoysala ruler Narsimha.

This temple is apparently not as big or famous as the other two Hoysala sites, and thus, thankfully, is less frequented by visitors despite being near to Mysore. More details about the temple can be found here at Wikipedia

Just like any Hoyasala architecture, this temple is a marvelous piece of artwork and is known for its symmetrical shape. The Hoyasalan temples are all built on a raised platform called jagati The platform (or Jagati) of this temple is star shaped. On top of jagati the temple walls have been created in a layered fashion each layer symbolizing a particular facet of the Hoyasala empire belief.

The base layer consists of Elephants depicting strength. The second layer of horses depicts speed, the third one of carved patterns depicts beauty. While the fourth layer of religious fables depicts culture, the fifth layer depicts art as it consists of an innovative pattern of an imaginary animal whose a mix of pig, human, rhino, pig and crocodile.

The walls are adorned with sculptures of deities made in soap-stone (it is easier to carve out intricate patterns on soap stone).

The Hoyasala rulers must have been true connoisseurs of art for the artistic vision and attention to detail shown in some of the sculptures of Keshava temple are purely awe inspiring and can stand on their own against any of its contemporaries of the west.

The artisans seem to have been given full creative freedom. For instance, look closely at the Vishnu and Lakshmi sculpture below. You’d note that the lotus has been provided to add sense of balance as Lashmi is smaller than Vishnu and needs to rest her feet somewhere. Also note that the lotus is titling to the right due to her foot’s weight and the creative vision of the artist to have included an elephant to support the tilting lotus. Some creativity!

The whole complex is full of such marvelous creations. Another example is that of the Airawat elephant of Indra. Closer inspection will reveal that the elephant is not an ordinary one and has got 4 tusks.

No amount of praise is enough to appreciate the emphasis on details. Every deity has its own set of jewelery, the finger nails are visible and proportions are right.

Some samples below:


Another typical Hoyasalan architectural influence is the lathe turned support pillars in the garbha-grihas (sanctums). I was amazed to find that use of lathe was a common practice even in Eleventh century.

The Keshava temple of Somnathpur has 3 identical sanctum-sanctorums where 3 forms of Vishnu were worshiped – Keshava, Janardhana and Venugopala. Presently the idol of Keshava is missing (some say it was stolen, others claim that Mughals destroyed it). The Archeological Survey of India has brought another idol of Hoysalan architecture from another site and placed it in the vacant spot.

If I were to write about every thing that I admired in the temple and its architecture, it’d run into many pages. Sufficient to say that lots of good information is available on the web about Somnathpur and the Hoysalan architecture (click on the links)

Please visit them and learn about the fabulous yet relatively unknown art form of India.

We on our part plan to cover the remaining two places in near future. Keep visiting this space to see updated details about them as and when they come.

Till then, you can have a look at few more images of Somnathpur in my gallery here. I’m updating the space with photos as soon as I am finding time to process.

Those of you interested in finding the route to the place, refer to the map below:

View Larger Map

4 Comments

  1. Aashica

    Have been to Belur-Halebid when i was younger and loved it. Will read your article in leisure soon

  2. Aashica

    Thanks Keku..Nice write up and great photos as usual. And beautiful work as well – Belur Halebid has very beautiful layered work as well (the elephants, horses, etc which you described), and actually looks similar to the Somnathpura one – not very high Gopuras, and a similar Jagati [From what i remember]. Go check it out.

  3. loved the last photo of ganesh. looks surreal.
    have already been 3 times to somnathpur and I still think there is lots more to photograph!
    being a photo-blogger myself, a few suggestions – try taking out the white border, or at least reduce it or use some other colored border. the text is too white and a little distracting, you could sober it down a little. The header is also bright, you could change that too. The rest is fine.
    Happy Photography!

  4. Keshav

    Thank you both for your feedback.

    @Aashica – Yes, Halebidu and Belur are on the cards.

    @ Anoop – Thanks for the feedback. Will try to reduce the glare of the white and green.

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