Temple Tales from Somnathpur

It took us a while to get into the temple premises. The temple is a protected monument and maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Tickets for entry to such places now require scanning an ASI QR code. Our phone network happened to be unusually slow causing some unnecessary delay, testing our patience, and sufficiently frustrating us.

As I entered through the doorway after reading the description displayed at the entryway, my jaws literally dropped. The magnificence of the temple caught me off-guard. I knew about this temple but hadn’t expected such stunning architectural brilliance. “How did I never happen to come here before!”, I couldn’t help wondering, having stayed in Bangalore for more than a decade now. This reaction was triggered off just at the very first glance. As we walked around exploring the temple, every corner only left us even more astonished.

Pic 1: The mantapa on entering through the doorway adorned with lathe turned pillars, which happens to be a typical feature of Hoysala architecture.

The 13th century Keshava Temple, also known as Chennakesava Temple, is located in a small town called Somnathpur in the Mandya district of Karnataka. It is at a distance of about 140 Km. from Bangalore and just about 35 Km. away from Mysore. Situated in the banks of River Cauvery, the temple was built by Somanatha, a celebrated army commander of the Hoysala Dynasty. He established the town of Somnathpur, which he named after himself.

The temples built during the rule of the Hoysalas are unique in their intricate sculptures and great story telling. The temples of Belur and Halebidu are said to be the best ambassadors of Hoysala architecture. I haven’t been there yet but have heard a lot about their spectacular grandeur. I had no idea that Somnathpur Temple belonged to the same league and was another masterpiece of Hoysala architecture.

Pic 2: The Western and Southern Shikharas. Notice the star-shaped elevated platform on which stands the temple.

The temple is carved from soapstone and is dedicated to Lord Krishna in the three forms of Keshava, Janardhana, and Venugopala. The main temple is at the center of a courtyard, built on an elevated star-shaped platform which, I learnt is one of the unique aspects of Hoysala temples. Surrounding the courtyard is a pillared corridor that has several chambers all along. Perhaps they would have housed deities at that time, they are empty now.

Pic 3: The pillared corridor that surrounds the courtyard.
Pic 4: The pillared corridor from another angle. Notice the chambers all along.

The temple wall on the exterior has intricate carvings and sculptures depicting stories from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also Bhagavata Purana. The exquisite attention to detail that has clearly gone into these carvings was mystifying to say the least. The dancing Goddess Lakshmi, the angry Lord Ganesha, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the four headed Lord Brahma, the intricate Mahisashura Mardini – just to name a few. The meticulous carvings also depict battles, folklore, music, dance, and much more. The stories in carvings are in a clockwise direction, thoughtfully designed as it is the same as the direction of a pradakshina or circumambulation.

Pic 5: The fascinating and exquisitely detailed sculptures on the exterior wall.
Pic 6: The magnificence of these sculptures are a delight to the eyes.

After spending a decent amount of time walking around the temple admiring the detailed carvings, we stepped inside. The inside of the temple is just as fascinating. The magnificent ceiling with all the intricate ornate carvings and miniature sculptures is simply amazing. A guide, who was with another group, explained that the ceiling constitutes of 16 finely carved symmetrical squares, some of which are depictions of the Lotus flower at different stages of development. The main idol of Keshava is situated on the sanctum sanctorum while Janardhana and Venugopala  are on either side. According to ASI, the original Keshava idol went missing and has been replaced. The idols of Janardhana and Venugopala are damaged.

The temple is not functional and is not used as a place of worship anymore, the idols being broken and desecrated by invaders of that age and time. It stands as a monument today bearing testimony to the superior craftmanship of the artists and sculptors of the bygone Hoysala era.

Pic 7: The extraordinary craftsmanship is like a poetry unfolding.
Pic 8: One can spend hours examining the details that have gone into these carvings.

I am a nature person and usually get disengaged very easily with things that are lifeless. Museums and places of architectural significance as not quite for me. That explains why I overlooked visiting this place earlier. However, when it comes to such intricate artwork it’s a different story altogether. My mind weaves stories thinking about the artisans, their unparalleled creativity, the lives of people at that time – the royalty, the commoners, their festivals, their triumphs and hardships, and so on and so forth. It’s mind-boggling and fascinating.

Now, I can’t wait to explore the Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebidu. Had it not been for the pandemic, I would have long been on my way. Smitten by Somnathpur Keshava Temple, I was curious to know about the other Hoysala temples in the state of Karnataka. I learnt that there are 137 Hoysala temples of significant value in the state. Quite a number that is, isn’t it!

Ambling Around Kanyakumari

It was Christmas time of the special year of 2020 when a whimsical decision took us to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian mainland. We were all set to explore the coastal part of Karnataka but landed in Tamil Nadu instead. This was my third visit to Kanyakumari – first time as a 9-year old with my father, second time with a friend 8 years ago, and this time with my sisters. I had never thought I would be visiting Kanyakumari again, but it happened.  

Kanyakumari, known as Cape Comorin during British rule in India, is an ancient city that finds mention in accounts of Marco Polo and Ptolemy. It is the meeting point of Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean.

Pic 1: Sunrise at Kanyakumari. Vivekananda Rock Memorial & Thiruvalluvar Statue seen in the distance

Kanyakumari for me has been synonymous with two things – first, the tranquility at Vivekananda Memorial Rock; second, the deep ocean waters that sometimes appeared blue, sometimes green, and sometimes a combination of both. Oh yes, I mustn’t forget the amazing sunrises and sunsets. However, there’s much more to Kanyakumari, which I discovered this time.  And, the credit goes to fellow blogger Sugan, for all the recommendation and guidance.

Pic 2: Sunset at Kanyakumari. This picture was clicked in 2012.

Vattakottai Fort

Built in 18th century during the reign of Travancore kingdom, Vattakottai is a coastal fort. Vattakottai fort, which translates as circular fort is a protected site, maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Built for coastal defense, the fort is constructed of granite blocks. The walls are carved with motifs of fish, that is said to be characteristic of the Pandya Kingdom.

Pic 3: The unassumingly simple architecture of granite stones at Vattakottai Fort

The most alluring aspect of Vattakottai Fort is its perfect scenic location, with the sea on one side and the hills of western ghats on the other. This coupled with the black sands of the sea beach overlooking the fort makes it extremely attractive. A part of the fort extends into the sea and that reminded me of Diu Fort, which I had visited 2 years back. The latter however is much bigger and is much more fascinating.

Pic 4: Nothing beats the scenic location of Vattakottai Fort.

Bhagavathy Amman Temple

Kanyakumari derives its name from Goddess Kanya Kumari. The virgin goddess, also known as Kumari Amman is believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga. Bhagavathy Amman Temple, dedicated to the Devi, is a 3000-year-old temple that finds mention in the epics of Ramanyana and Mahabharata.

Pic 5: A glimpse into the hallway of the 3000 year old Temple. Photography of the idol is not allowed.

Intrigued, after having read about the interesting myths and legends of the Devi in a book – from her love for Lord Shiva to the marriage that did not happen, her nose ring that had confused sailors leading to shipwrecks – I had always wanted to visit the temple. (You can read the legend in detail here ).

The glittering diamond nose ring is the most fascinating aspect of the idol. The sparkle of this nose ring had been mistaken as a lighthouse causing ships to crash on the rocky coast. As a result, the door facing east has been permanently shut and is opened only on special occasions.

Temple of Mayi Amma

It’s a very tiny nondescript temple on the beach, hardly noticeable unless you know about it. We happened to chance upon it. Again, I had read about Mayi Amma in a book. She was a saint, who would literally walk on the surface of the ocean waters and meditate on a rock for hours together completely oblivious to the hot sun. Her disciples constituted a pack of dogs. She hardly ever spoke to anyone but was revered by the locals. The temple has a couple of her black and white photographs. She is said to have taken samadhi in 1993.

Pic 6: A throwback picture with my sister and friend at Kanyakumari in 2012.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Thiruvalluvar Statue

Situated around 500 meters away from the shore, Vivekananda Rock Memorial is a mammoth rock where Swami Vivekananda had meditated and attained enlightenment. This rock memorial constitutes the main attraction at Kanyakumari. People all over the world visit Kanyakumari mainly to see Vivekananda Rock Memorial

Vivekananda Mandapam and Sripada Mandapam are the two main structures at the memorial. The latter is said to be a place where Goddess Kanya Kumari had meditated for Lord Shiva. This is ratified by the presence of a foot mark on the rock, which supposedly belongs to the Devi. Consequently, the rock where the memorial stands is known as Sripada Parai (Sripada means Devi’s feet in Sanskrit and Parai means rock in Tamil).

Pic 7: Vivekananda Mandapam, which also has a meditation hall.
Pic 8: At Sripada Mandapam

Thiruvalluvar Statue or Valluvar Statue is located on another rock just a little away from Vivekananda Rock Memorial. It is the 41-metre-tall stone statue of Tamil poet and philosopher, Valluvar. Entry to this statue was closed at that time and hence we could not go up to the statue. However, the view from Vivekananda Rock Memorial was good enough.

Pic 9: Thiruvalluvar Statue as seen from Vivekananda Rock Memorial. This picture was clicked in 2012.

Besides these places, we also visited Padmanabhapuram Palace located 30 Km. away from Kanyakumari. I have written about that in my next post.

Do visit my previous post on Manapad beach, which is another place we visited during our Kanyakumari Trip.

Kanyakumari, I will be back again! So what if I have already visited you three times! There are places that I couldn’t cover this time and so I must go again.