A Masterpiece of Hoysala Temple Art
Located 24 miles east of Mysore in Karnataka, India, the Keshava Temple in Somanthapura is a shining example of Hoysala architecture. Although not as famous or as big as the Belur – Halebidu temples, it is as stunningly beautiful and ornate. Built in 1258 CE, more than 100 years after the Belur – Halebidu temples, it is a testament to the continued patronage of arts, crafts, and temple building by the Hoysala rulers.
As the name suggests, the Somanathapura Keshava Temple is dedicated to Keshava, one of the numerous titles of Krishna, who is also the eighth avatar of Vishnu. An unusual feature of this temple is its three garbhagrihas (sanctum sanctorum). Standing inside each garbhagriha is a beautiful sculpture of Krishna, and towering above it is an ornate shikhara (conical-shaped tower) with a kalasa (inverted pot-like structure) at the top. Because of the three garbhagrihas, it is known as the trikuta temple. Note: With a single garbhagriha, the Belur Chennakeshava Temple is an ekakuta temple, and with two garbhagrihas, the Halebidu Hoysalesvara Temple is a dwikuta temple.
A bit of history
The history of the Somanathapura Temple and details of its construction is well documented in several Hoysala and Vijayanagara inscriptions. The area around the present-day Somanthapura, located on the banks of the Cauvery River, was under the Chola rule before the Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana captured it in 1117 CE.
According to an inscription (see the stele in the image), Somanatha, a Dandanayaka (military leader) serving under King Narasimha III (1254 – 1291 CE), took the permission from him to build a temple and established an agrahara (see the note below) and named it Vidhyanidhi Prasanna Somanathapura (Treasure of knowledge, Auspicious Somanathapura) for this purpose. Somanatha also allotted grants for the maintenance of the temple.
Note: In ancient India, agrahara is an area allocated for religious purposes by the king or the nobility to provide housing for the people (typically Brahmins) who maintain the temple.
The temple was consecrated in 1258 CE. However, it is not clear when the building of the temple began and ended. It is believed that it took 68 years to complete.
During his expedition to the south in 1311 CE aimed at grabbing precious treasures from the temples and monuments, Malik Kafur – a general under Allaudin Khilji, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate – plundered this temple and left it badly damaged. The temple then underwent significant renovations and modifications in the 15th century during the Vijayanagara period. Later in the 20th century, the erstwhile princely state of Mysore took a keen interest in this temple and renovated it further.
Unlike the Belur – Halebidu temples, it is not an active temple because of the damaged idols in the garbhagrihas. It is now maintained by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India).
The entrance to the temple complex is through the Mahadvara (great door) located on the east side. As you can see from the image, Mahadvara has a doorway with a pavilion on each side. Extending these pavilions is the eastern wall of the prakara (a protective wall enclosing the temple). Erected inside the left pavilion is a stele inscribed with the dates and details of the construction of the temple.
The temple is surrounded by the galleries on the south, west, and north sides. Attached to the galleries are 64 mini shrines, which are empty because the invading armies of Malik Kafur destroyed the sculptures and looted the treasures underneath them.
The Keshava Temple is on a star-shaped platform called Jagati, with only one entrance, which is on the east side. The approach to the doorway is through two flights of steps. The first flight of steps is from the floor to the platform, and flanking it are two mini shrines with missing idols. The second flight of steps is from the platform to the doorway.
The facade of the temple is not as ornate as Belur – Helebidu temples because most of the original facade was destroyed during the Malik Kafur attack. As you can see, the replaced elements of the facade are of different color from the rest.
The architecture of the temple is a harmonious blend of the southern Dravida and northern Nagara styles and is known as the Vesara style. The conical-shaped tower, known as shikhara (a.k.a vimana), above each garbhagriha follows the Nagara style design, and the front portion of the temple follows the classic Mantapa style design.
The temple is symmetrical about the east-west axis. In other words, the south-side layout is a mirror image of the north side (and vice-versa).
Just like the other Hoysala temples, the mantapa (covered hall) in front of the garbhagrihas conforms to the navaranga design. The navaranga is a 3×3 grid of nine rectangular sections. The middle section of the navaranga is known as the sabhamantapa (community hall). An ante-chamber, known as antarala, separates each garbhagriha from the navaranga. The porch in front of the navaranga is called the mukhamantapa.
As mentioned earlier, the temple has garbhagrihas in three cardinal directions, i.e., south, west, and north. All three garbhagrihas are equal-sized chambers, each with a statue of Krishna in the middle and an ornate doorway in front. The relief on the lintel of each door depicts a mini version of the statue standing in the garbhagriha.
The south in the garbhagriha is dedicated to Venugopala, the west to Keshava, and north to Janardhana. All three are a form of Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. The south and north garbhagrihas have the original statues, whereas the west garbhagriha has a replica of the original.
The statues in the south and north garbhagrihas are monolithic sculptures carved from Krishna Shilé (black stone), which is available in plenty in Karnataka.
South – VenuGopala
Standing inside the south garbhagriha on the star-shaped platform is an exquisitely carved life-size statue of Venugopala, a form of Krishna portrayed as a divine flute player. Venu means flute and Gopala means one who protects of cows.
As you can see from the image, Venugopala is standing gracefully with his legs crossed. He has elegantly bent his well-proportioned body to allow him to raise his hands to position the flute (which is partly broken) perfectly at the mouth level.
Venugopala is elegantly dressed with a beautiful skirt-like dress and is wearing jewelry all over his body. He is wearing bracelets and arm rings on his hands, anklets on his legs, beautiful necklaces around his neck, and an udiyana (waist chain) around his waist. There is a looped thread, known as yajnopavita, hanging across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist. It is a symbol indicating the person wearing it has mastered Vedas and undergone the Upanayana ceremony and is worn by gods and deities.
Venugopala is standing on a star-shaped pedestal. Carved at the center is a relief depicting kneeling Garuda, who is Vishnu’s vehicle. Surrounding him are cows and gopikas (cow herding girls who are associates of Krishna) listening to his music.
West – Keshava
Keshava is also another name for Krishna. Kesha means hair, and Keshava is the one who has long uncut hair.
The original statue went missing, most likely after the attack by Malik Kafur. The currently installed statue is a replica built by using the Keshava relief carved on the lintel of the doorway as a reference. As you can see, the quality of the craftsmanship of the statue is inferior compared to the sculptures on the other two garbhagrihas. It also appears to be smaller.
Keshava is a chaturbhuja (i.e., one who has four arms). He holds shanka (conch) and padma (lotus) with his right hands and holds chakra and gada (mace) with his left hands. These are the signature objects that are part of Vishnu’s iconography (Read under Vishnu with Standard Iconography for more info ).
North – Janardhana
The image shows the sculpture depicting Janardhana, a manifestation of Krishna, standing inside the north garbhagriha.
Just like Venugopala and Keshava, Janardhana is also another name for Krishna. Jana means people and ardhana means to worship. Janardhana means the one who is worshiped by the people.
Just like Keshava, Janardhana is chaturbhuja (i.e., one with four arms) and is holding four standard emblems of Vishnu, shanka, padma, gadaa, and chakra. Notice that the order in which Janardhana is holding these objects is different from Keshava.
Like Keshva and Venugopala, Janardhana is wearing a beautiful skirt-like dress and jewelry all over his body. He is wearing bracelets and arm rings on his hands, anklets on his legs, finely carved necklaces and garlands of gems/flowers around his neck, an udiyana (waist chain) around his waist, and a looped thread, known as yajnopavita, hanging across the chest from the left shoulder to the waist.A finely carved crown adorns Janardhana’s head, which has a halo around it. Just like the other two statues, the Kirthimukha monster is at the top.
Notice his torso closely. It appears like the face of a cow (i.e., the nipples look like its eyes, and the belly button looks like its mouth). This is to indicate Janardhana is a gopala, i.e., protector of cows
As in the case most of the sculptures in this temple, there are two female figures at the bottom. Each is holding a lotus bud/ corn cob with on one hand, and a kalasa (pot) with the other.
Ceiling carved with mesmerizing patterns
The ceiling of the navaranga has 16 finely-carved rectangular sections, i.e., the navaranga has nine sectors, and the mukhamantapa (porch) has seven sections. The ceiling within each section – which is enclosed by beams placed on top of pillars – is a finely carved vault cut from a single stone.
The theme of the carvings is different phases of a blooming lotus bud. The lotus bud at is surrounded by a variety of geometrical patterns at different levels.
The images below show the lotus bud is at the center surrounded by several geometrical patterns carved at different levels of the conical shape. The pattern at the outer most level is an octagon.
Like many other Hoysala temples, the temple stands on a star-shaped stone platform, known as Jagati. The stone exterior wall surrounding the temple is ornate with a repertoire of stunningly beautiful artwork and sculptural reliefs.
Each garbhagriha is surrounded by a circular outer wall and above the outer wall is a conical-shaped tower with multiple levels of densely carved reliefs. As you can see from the image, the outer wall has three sections:
- Base – Six bands of continuously carved friezes
- Middle – Sculptural reliefs. It appears as though each sculpture is within a shrine.
- Top – Decorative carvings just below the eaves. typically craved like the tower of a shrine
Attached to the outer wall are pillars with sculptural reliefs of gods and goddesses and other deities and do not appear to be carved in any particular order or following any story line.
Because this is a Vishnu temple, the majority of the reliefs are related to Vishnu, including the standard iconography of Vishnu depicting him with four hands, each with his signature objects and some of Vishnu’s ten avatars.
Vishnu with Standard Iconography
Vishnu, one of the Trimurti , is the supreme god who preserves the order and maintains harmony in the universe. Vishnu is typically depicted as a man with four arms, each holding one of the following four objects:
- Shanka : It is a conch shell named Panchajanya that emerged as a by-product during the Samudra Manthana. It was responsible for the creation of the panchabhootas (five elements), which are: water, fire, earth, and sky. When blown, it produces giant primeval sound.
- Chakra: It is a disc-like weapon named Sudarshana (which means a good view). The disc has serrated edges. When fired, it spins and moves with a rapid force to destroy evil and then returns to Vishnu.
- Gada: It is a mace named Kaumodaki and represents strength
- Padma: It is a sacred lotus flower that represents beauty, purity, and evolution
The order in which Vishnu holds his objects vary. With four hands, there are a total of 24 combinations, and sometimes a combination indicates a particular form of Vishnu.
As you can see from the image, Vishnu is standing on a padma peeta (lotus pedestal) mounted on a base. Engraved into this base is an inscription, written in the Halegannada (Old Kannada) script, which reads as Mallithamma. It is the signature of Ruvari Mallithamma, the most prolific carver of sculptures in the Somanathapura Keshava Temple and many Hoysala temples built in his time.
Ashtabhuja Vishnu (Eight-Armed Vishnu)
As mentioned in the previous section, carvings of Vishnu with standard iconography depict him with four arms, but this relief has eight. Notice that two of them are missing.
Besides his signature objects, shanka (conch), and padma (lotus), Vishnu in this relief is holding a beautifully carved dhanush (bow) and a bāna (arrow) with his left and right hands, respectively. The two missing hands at the bottom likely carried his other signature objects, chakra and gadā.
Notice that Vishnu’s two hands in front do not carry any objects. They do, however, make specific gestures, known as mudras. In Hinduism and Buddhism, each mudra has a name and meaning and symbolizes the state of mind and intentions of the person making it.
As you can see from the image, the palm of one of Vishnu’s right hands is upright and faces outwards. This gesture is known as Abhaya Mudra, which symbolizes fearlessness and reassurance. The palm of one of his left hands faces upwards, with its fingers slightly pointing downwards. This gesture is known as Vara Mudra (a.k.a Varada Mudra), which symbolizes charity and compassion.
As with the other Vishnu sculptures, he is standing on a padma peeta (lotus pedestal) accompanied by two small female figures located at the bottom.
Majestic Maha Vishnu seated on Adishesha
Seated majestically on a cushion formed by Adishesha, a seven-headed mythical serpent, is Maha Vishnu, a form of Vishnu represented as a supreme being. This beautifully carved sculptural relief is mounted on the outer wall surrounding the south garbhagriha.
As you can see, Adishesha has created a beautiful throne for Maha Vishnu by stacking up his soft coils to form its cushion and raising his seven-headed hood as its canopy.
It appears that Maha Vishnu is in a relaxed mood, indicated by his pleasant facial expression and informal way of sitting. As you can see, one of his left hands gently rests on the knee of his elevated left leg with its foot placed above the coils, while one of his right hands, which firmly rests on the coils, supports the weight of his body that is leaning slightly to his right.
Adishesha is known by many names, including Shesha, Sheshanaga, and Ananta. Hidden in these names are two interesting mathematical concepts, remainder and infinity. In Sanskrit, shesha means one that remains (i.e., remainder), and ananta means endless (i.e., infinity). In other words, Shesha will prevail even after the end of the universe, and Ananta will exist for eternity.
Check the similar images in other temples:
– Vishnu seated on Adishesha – A beautiful sculpture carved in the mukhamantapha (veranda) of Cave – 3 of rock-cut caves of Badami .
– Vishnu reclining on Adishesha – An intricately carved relief on the outer wall of the Belur Chennakeshava Temple
The sculptural relief on the left depicts Lakshminarayana, a form of Vishnu presented with his consort Lakshmi, and is one of the most beautiful sculptures in the temple. As you can see, Vishnu (as Narayana) is seated leisurely on his throne with his consort Lakshmi on his lap. This relief is mounted on the outer wall of the north garbhagriha.
Lakshminarayana is a combination of two names, Lakshmi and Narayana. Narayana is another name of Vishnu, and it means one who dwells on the water. In Sanskrit, Nara means water and Ayana means dwelling. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu lives on the cosmic ocean.
As you can see, three of Vishnu’s four arms are missing, and the remaining one holds a gadaa (mace). Lakshmi is holding a kalasha (pot) with her left hand and lotus (top part is broken) with her right hand. Her right leg is gently resting on a lotus cushion, and her other leg is resting on Vishnu’s lap with the half-padmasana pose. Lakshmi’s vehicle, an elephant, is standing next to the lotus cushion. Vishnu’s vehicle, Garuda, is kneeling with the folded hands (namaste gesture) at the left end. Notice that his head is missing.
As per the signature at the bottom of the Lakshminarayana sculpture, Mallithamma is the carver. His attention to detail is striking. For instance, the top part of the lotus cushion is carved with a slight bend to indicate that Lakshmi is resting her leg on it.
The relief on the right is also about Lakshminarayana. In this relief, Garuda, who has a human-like body with a bird-like face, carries a smaller version of Lakshminarayana with his left hand. As you can see, Garuda is dressed elegantly and wearing fine jewelry all over his body. Adorning his head is an intricately carved mukuta (crown).
Dashavatara – Ten Incarnations of Vishnu
According to Hindu mythology, whenever there is a crisis in the universe, Vishnu, the preserver, intervenes to restore order and maintain harmony by manifesting himself in different forms, sometimes human and sometimes anthropomorphic. These manifestations (or incarnations) of Vishnu are known as avatars. The Dashavataras are the ten standard avatars, according to ancient Indian texts, including the Puranas, although there is no complete agreement on the eight and ninth avatars.
The avatars of Vishnu are spread across all four yugas (epoch), which are, Satya, Treta, Dwapara, and Kalki. Here is the list of all ten avatars:
- Matsyavatara – Anthropomorphic – Human body with the fish face. See the image on the left.
- Kurmavatara – Anthropomorphic – Human body with the turtle fave. See the image on the right
- Varahavatara – Anthropomorphic – Human body with the wild boar face. See the image on the left below
- Narasimhavatara – Anthropomorphic – Human body with the lion face and claws. See the image on the right below
- Vamanavatara – Human
- Parashurama – Human
- Rama – Human
- Krishna – Human
- Buddha Human
- Kalki – Human – Kalki is riding a galloping white horse
The avatars of Vishnu are spread across all four yugas (epoch), which are, Satya, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali. The first five avatars occurred during the Satya Yuga, the sixth and seventh during the Treta Yuga, and eight and ninth during the Dwapara Yuga. The last avatar hasn’t occurred yet. According to Hindu mythology, the Kalki avatar will appear at the end of Kali Yuga.
The outer wall around the south garbhagriha has the first four avatars of Vishnu shown.
In this avatar, Vishnu manifests himself into a half-fish half-human form to save humanity from the Maha Pralaya (Great Flood). According to the story, Vishnu appeared before King Satyavrata, also known as Manu, in a half-fish half-human form warning him of a Maha Pralaya that would occur for seven days and destroy all forms of life. To save them from from the deluge, he instructed Manu to build a boat to hold all kinds of life forms. Manu then built a gigantic boat and held pairs of living creatures and plants and seeds. When the deluge began, Vishnu appeared again in the half-fish half-human form to help Manu. Using Vasuki as the rope, he towed the boat safely to the mountains in the north, i.e., Himalayas.
The story of Noah and the great flood in the Bible is strikingly similar to the Matsyavatara story. Numerous cultures in the world also tell similar stories.
The iconography of Vishnu in Matsyavatara has two forms: 1. Upper half-human and lower half-fish 2. Fish face and the rest human-like. The iconography of the sculpture shown in the image follows the second form. It portrays him with the face of a fish and the body of an Ashtabhuja (eight-armed) Vishnu. Notice that three of his hands are missing. The two of his remaining hands hold lotus and chakra, his signature objects. The rest hold an akshamala (rosary) and a book. He is wearing an elegant dress and beautiful jewelry. He is adorned with a finely carved mukuta (crown) on his head with a halo behind it.
In this avatar, Vishnu assumes half-man half-turtle form during the Samudra Manthana (Churning of the Ocean of Milk), which was a collaborative effort by devas (demigods) and asuras (demons) to produce amrita, the nectar of immortality. Using the seven-headed snake called Vasuki as the rope and Mount Mandara as the churning rod, the devas and asuras tugged Vasuki to churn the ocean for thousands of years to produce amrita. Vishnu assumed the form of a turtle and went under Mount Mandara to enable churning.
As you can see from the image, Vishnu has the face of a turtle. The rest of the body is human with four hands, two of which are holding chakra and shanka, his signature objects. The other two are holding an egg-like object known as Hiranyagarbha, or the cosmic golden womb. In Sanskrit, hiranya means golden, and garbha means womb. According to both the Rigveda and Yajurveda, Prajapathi, an deity who eventually became a form of Brahma, was born from this womb. However, they differ in what he created. The Rigveda says the Pajapathi created abstract entities like mana (mind), kama (desire), and tapas (austerity). As per the Yajurveda, he created the sky, earth, seasons, devas, asuras, etc.
Varahavatara and Narsimhavatara
Varahavatara and Narasimhavatara are related. Vishnu slays an evil asura named Hiranyaksha with Varahatara and then kills his brother Hiranyakashipu with Narasimhavatara.
Varahavatara is the third of the ten avatars of Vishnu. Varaha in Sanskrit means wild boar. In this avatar, he assumes the form of a wild boar and rescues Bhudevi (Mother Earth) from an evil demon named Hiranyaksha, who was tormenting her.
In Narasimhavatara, Vishnu has a man’s torso with a lion’s face and claws. Narasimha in Sanskrit mean lion-man. He adopted this body to kill an asura named Hiranyakashipu, who wanted to take revenge on Vishnu for killing his brother Hiranyaksha in his previous avatar, i.e., Varahavatara.
Other incarnations of Vishnu
The incarnations in the two images emerged during the Samudra Manthana.
Dhanvantari is the god of medicine in Hindu mythology. According to the Bhagavad Purana, he is an incarnation of Vishnu, who emerged with a pot of amrita during the Samundra Manthana .
As you can see from the image, he is carrying a kalasha (pot) with his right hand and a bowl with medicines with his left hand. His two missing hands most-likely carried shanka and chakra.
Mohiniavatara is a female avatar of Vishnu and just like Dhanvantari, she also is a by-product of Samudra Manthana (Note: Moha means Infatuation or crush. Mohini means a seductress).
Once the churning produced amrita, asuras cleverly stole all of it. When Vishnu realized that asuras have amrita, he appeared as a young beautiful woman, a femme fatale, who enticed asuras and successfully grabbed amrita back from them and gave it to the devas.
Other gods, goddesses and deities
Brahma and Sarasvati
In Hindu mythology, Brahma is responsible for the creation and is one of the Trimurti (Hindu Trinity) and the other two being Vishnu and Shiva. He is typically shown with four heads, each facing a cardinal direction, and four hands.
This relief is carved on a pillar on the exterior wall surrounding the south garbagriha. As you can see from the image, Brahma has three heads (the assumption is that the fourth head [facing east] is not visible), and four hands, two on each side, and each carrying an object.
He is carrying a spoon (used for pouring ghee into the yagna pyre) and japamala (prayer beads) with his right hands, a kamandala (water jug) and a book (Vedas) with his left hands.
Although Brahma is the creator in Hindu mythology, he is not worshiped as widely as Vishnu or Shiva. There are very few temples dedicated to Brahma in the world. The Brahma Temple in Prambanan (in Yogyakarta, Indonesia) is one of the few temples dedicated to Brahma. The other well-known Brahma Temple is in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India.
Sarasvati is the goddess of knowledge and learning. Sarasvati means one that flows. During the Vedic times, she was the deity represented the Sarasvati River, an ancient river that used to flow in the northwest region (present-day Afganistan and Pakistan) but dried up 3000 years go. Later texts associated her with Brahma and made her his consort.
The relief shown in the image is not the usual representation of Sarasvati. Her standard iconography shows her playing the veena, a sitar-like musical instrument. She is typically shown with two hands and occasionally four, and in this relief, however, she has eight hands (three of which are missing). Instead of the veena, she is holding a talegari (book made of palm leaves) with two of her hands. The talegari indicates that she is the goddess of knowledge and learning.
It appears from Sarasvati’s stance that she is dancing with a traditional Indian dance move. Accompanying her are the two musicians at the bottom (one of them is missing).
Indra and Surya
The image on the left shows a beautifully carved sculptural relief depicting Indra, the king of Swarga and devas (demigods), seated majestically on his vehicle Airavata, a white elephant, with his wife Indrani (also known as Sachi) seated behind him.
This sculpture is mounted on the outer wall surrounding the southern garbhagriha As you can see from the image, Indra is wielding his signature weapon Vajrayuda (Thunderbolt) with his right hand and holding a lotus bud with his left hand.
The sculptural relief shown on the right depicts Surya, i.e., the Sun, as a god. As you can see from the image, Surya is holding a lotus flower with his right hand. Although the top part is missing, the object in his left hand is also a lotus flower. The lotus flowers are part of the standard iconography of Surya and were used to identify this sculpture. At the bottom of this sculpture are his consorts Saranyu and Chhaya, who are twin sisters.
Check these pages for other Surya sculptures.
- Statue of Surya standing in the Nandi Temple in the Prambanan Temple complex in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
- Surya bas-relief carved into the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal, Karnataka, India
- Statue of Surya standing in the shrine behind the Nandi Mantapa situated inside the Hoysaleswara Temple complex at Halebidu in Karnataka, India
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Bracket Figures
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga
– Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Garbhagriha Outer Wall
– Kappe Chennigaraya Temple
– Badami Cave – 1, Badami Cave – 2, Badami Cave – 3, Badami Cave – 4
– Durga Temple at Aihole
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