Somnathpur – Memoir of a heartless invasion.

So, the story goes like this. The king of Hoysala dynasty – Narasimha III entrusted his army commander Somanatha to build a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, back in around 1250 A.D. Somanatha looked around for an ideal location and found this stretch of fertile land on the banks of river Kaveri (Cauvery). He built a town, brought in people and made it a settlement. He named the town founded by him after himself – Somanathpura or somnathpur.

After he had the settlement ready, he brought in Brahmins and marked out dedicated piece of land for them to build their agraharas. Amidst the agraharas, he sought to built a great temple dedicated to Lord Keshava, an incarnation of Vishnu. The king happily gave him the permission to use the royal resources to build the great temple.

Thus, started the work on the temple which is another masterpiece of Hoysala architecture. About 500 people started the work. Sadly, Somanatha couldn’t see the final structure. It is said the temple work was completed during his third generation grand kids. It took 68 years in total for the complete temple to be built. The chronicle of the the temple history was inscribed on a 7 feet tall stone at the entrance, The inscription is in old Kannada script.

Inscription in Old Kannada script
The headstone has the miniature versions of the three idols in the Garbhagriha.

The temple is surrounded by high walls. Outside the wall there is a ‘deepasthambha’ or the lamp column.

Inside the high walls is the main temple. The four sides of the temple are cloistered. The cloister has a total of 64 smaller sanctums. Each of them had idols in it when it was built. Today, all of them are empty. Records say about 6000 statues were there in Somnathpur temple, most of which have been lost or destroyed. Some of them are kept on the cloister on one side of the entrance.

The whole temple is built on a raised platform which is stellar shaped and was built using soapstone.

The main entrance to the temple faces east. Just outside the entrance there are two ‘Dwarapalaka‘ on either sides.

The ‘Dwarapalaka’ shrines on either sides of the steps

The main temple has a ‘trikuta’ structure, which means there are three sanctum sanctorums or ‘Garbhagrihas‘ which are similar and each has three different idols. Each of these has a corresponding ‘Shikhara‘ on top. The entrance to the temple building leads to a hall with typically designed pillars or columns which are characteristic of the Hoysala architecture.

Since there is no worship in the temple anymore, photography is allowed inside too. The ceiling is intricately carved into 16 sections. Each one depicts a lotus bud in the various stages of opening. The final one being a fully opened lotus flower. Each of the floral stages are surrounded by beautifully carved musicians, lotus buds, hooves of cows and horses.

The main Sanctum has the idol of Lord Chennakeshava or Keshava. The idol seen today is not the original one. In 1326, the original one is said to have been completely destroyed. There is marked difference in this one and the other two idols in the other Garbhagrihas.

On the left side of the main sanctum is the sanctum of Venugopala.

On the right side is the shrine of Lord Janardhana. All three of them have intricately carved entrances.

The outer walls of the temple building is also intricately carved with idols of elephants and horses, flowers, scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata, different incarnations of Vishnu, and various other motifs. Each of the gopura has ‘Makara pranala’ or a channel for water and other liquids used for pooja to flow out of the shrines. Some of the statues even have the names of their sculptors – chief one being Mallithamma followed by Masanathamma, Bhameya, Chameya and many more.

Beluru and Halebidu are said to have similar and grander Hoysala architecture. A must on the list after this.

Daily offerings and prayers happened in this temple for about 43 years after it was constructed. The Brahmins in the surrounding agraharas were very devout and made sure that the temple activities happened without any hindrance.

Now the story of destruction. Malik Kafur was Alauddin Khilji’s trusted slave and a eunuch in all senses. Destroying Hindu and Jain temples was like an entertainment for him. By Khilji’s orders he plundered and destroyed lots of temples in South India. In 1811, he raided the Chennakeshava temple. The weird way he chose to destroy the temples was to disfigure each of the idols. He knew that none of the temples would keep disfigured idols and the worship will stop. That is what exactly happened. After his raids, the worship and prayers in this temple stopped and never resumed till date.

If you look the main idols in the three sanctum sanctorums, you can see either a toe of the idol destroyed, one of the fingers or nose disfigured. The destruction is really subtle. You need to observe very carefully to spot it. Enough to stop the worship, without spending any energy in mass destruction! Once in the temple, I really felt rising hatred towards the people who took the trouble to patiently do such subtle destruction, just so that the temple was no longer functional. Wish they had more religious tolerance. I cannot comprehend how can you destroy something when you can’t make anything close to it. Could Khilji and his eunuch have been more villainous? Our pages of history have so many of such negative characters but I wish they had let alone all these monuments which were the result of the hard work of so many artisans and sculptors that too in an era where there was absolutely no technology to make things easier.

I sat on the cloister watching the temple which was in ruins in some ways. I wish the stones could speak, they might have stories of so many generations to tell, from the time the first stone was laid to the Malik Kafur set foot on this holy premises.

Then there were school kids out on picnic who watched in amazement as their teacher explained them the history and architecture of the temple. The temple was a pretty picture on a bright sunny day.

Outside the temple gate, there are well manicured and well kept lawns.

There are a couple of shops selling refreshments and souvenirs outside the temple premises. A few minutes if you walk towards the village and fields along the muddy lane outside the temple, you reach the banks of river Kaveri or Cauvery. None of the tourists expect the river to be flowing this close, so I couldn’t find anyone and it was completely deserted. Thankfully still plastic free because of it! The whole village offered a postcard worthy view with its lush green fields, flowing river and mountains in the backdrop. Even the ride to Somnathpur was through beautiful lush green fields. It is about 135 kms from Bengaluru via Mandya. The whole route was postcard worthy, one that would soothe any restless soul!


With mixed feelings I bid adieu to this grandeur of the Hoysala kingdom, with a silent prayer to God to send no more Khiljis!!