“The construction of this temple was caused by Somanatha”, the notice-board put up by the Archeological Survey of India informs us at the entrance. That mild syntax glitch aside, the ASI has done a fair job at the Channakeshava temple at Somnathpur.
Built around 1268 AD, during the reign of the Hoysala king, Narasimha II, the Kesava temple presents the connoisseur with the best of Hoysala architecture in a compact, one-day package. To the purist, Somnathpur is perhaps a more complete representation of Hoysala art, than its much bigger and more famous cousins at Halebidu and Beluru, a hundred miles to the west.
Not many people know that the Halebidu-Beluru temples are generally incomplete. They don’t have the vimana (or gopuram) on top. Somanthpur does, and while its vimana doesn’t tower over you, unlike the gopurams of Tamil Nadu, it is imposing all the same.
Walk around slowly, pause at an exquisite sculpture, admire the lathe-turned stone pillars, turn your eyes upward to the sixteen intricately carved ceilings, and as Whitman would put it, simply ‘stand and stare’. Each of the ceilings depicts a banana flower in different stages of growth.
Somnathpur is one of the few temples in India where you can walk right into the sanctum sanctorum with your digcam and snap away at the idols. Try and locate the names of the sculptors, carved at the base of each statue. Ruvari Mallithamma, a famous temple sculptor of the time, sculpted most of the statues.
Somnathapur, until recently, was a good place for a quiet Sunday visit, especially if you like ancient temples. That said, the placid beauty of this historic Hoysala temple is rapidly being ruined by greed and neglect.
You will find patches of poorly done repair work all over the temple, junk and debris randomly dumped inside the courtyard, and the jarring sight of a solar panel placed right on top of the gopuram. Couldn’t they find a more discreet place to put it?
Once, you could park your vehicle under the shade of a nearby tree and stroll across Somnathpur at leisure. Now, there’s an unwashed thug breathing stale booze on you, demanding a hefty parking fee. There’s no parking lot though. You still have to look for parking space on your own. If you’re lucky, you might be given a receipt for the absurd parking fee extorted from you.
The local villagers were a benign, friendly lot, once upon a time. Now, you will find yourself being harassed by hawkers and beggars of all kinds. Even the ASI clerk who issues the entry ticket to you is a surly fellow who rudely informs you that camera tripods are not allowed, and will not tell you why.
Good luck with the stray dogs that infest the place. And try not to look at the urban slum that surrounds the immediate vicinity of the temple.
Best time to visit: Any time, but it does get hot during April-May.
Bottom-line: Visit Somnathpur only if you appreciate medieval Indian temple architecture and are capable of ignoring all the trouble and general filth you will be subjected to. And visit it just once. The residents of Somnathpur will ensure that you wouldn’t want to visit again.
Cheers … Srini.