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The mid-13th century Kesava temple at Somnathpura is the best-preserved example of an unusual temple style developed under Hoysala patronage, and mostly built in South Karnataka. Evolved from Late Chalukyan archetypes, Hoysala temples are compact, with low towers and complicated floor plans (often with triple santcuaries opening into a common mandapa) and profuse decoration on the outer walls. The Chalukyan style developed on somewhat similar lines under Kakatiya patronage in North Andhra. Somnathpura belongs to a smaller set of Hoysala temples where the outer wall decoration becomes spectacularly ornate.

South Vimanam
Each pyramidal four-storeyed vimanam rises from a star-shaped eave with a sharply-cut lotus-fringe. Angled projections along the tower are intricately sculpted, with candrasalas and images of seated dwarfs and musicians. A deep recess separates the last storey from the dome-like summit.

Porch Screen
The temple is entered through a porch that leads to the columned mandapa. The upper walls of the porch have rows of perforation. Several friezes of sculpture decorate the rest of the wall. Uppermost is a frieze of erotic scenes, each scene flanked by double pilasters, followed by a row of dieties, each framed by pilasters with pediments. A narrow panel below this has mythological scenes, including a samudra-manthan panel. Next is a lata scroll, followed by a row of warriors on foot and horses.

Vishnu and Ganesa
These two panels on the south-east, seen first during a pradakshina, are also among the most beautiful in the temple. The first shows Vishnu sitting in lalitasana on the coils of Ananta. The seven hoods of Ananta cover his head, while miniature attendants are placed below. On the left is an Nritya-Ganapati image. Both figures are richly encrusted with tassels, jewels and crowns, and stand beneath overhanging trees and angled eaves with lotus fringes. In the wider Vishnu image, the eave, projection, and hamsa-yali friezes are star-shaped.

Projections on the south wall have images of Nritya-Saraswati, Vishnu in dvibhanga, and Venugopala. In the (inauspicious) niches are placed images of celestial maidens, also richly embellished, and holding Vishnu and Lakshmi attributes.

This portion of the south wall has images of Gayathri, Vishnu seated in padmasana, a rare Nritya-Lakshmi, and Brahma. The moulded base of each projection has a plaque signed by the artist. Signed sculpture is common in Hoysala temples but rare elsewhere. At Somnathpura, the name Malitamma appears in 40 images, sometimes shortened to Malli or simply Ma.

Vishnu Avatars
This portion of the wall has images of Vishnu avatars, including Narasimha (centre) and Varaha (left). Six ornamental friezes run along the lower part of the wall. These are, from bottom, processions of elephants, riders on horses, scrollwork, mythological scenes, makaras and hamsa. The mythological panel contains scenes from the Ramayana on the south sanctuary, Mahabharata on the north, and Bhagavata-Purana on the west.

This panel on the south-west, one of the finest compositions in the temple, shows Indra and Shachi on Airavat. Indra holds a thunderbolt in his left hand. The plaque below this image is not signed but filled with scrollwork. To the left is an image of Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda, while on the right is an anthropomorphic image of Matsya avatar.

Vishnu and Lakshmi
This damaged "wide" panel on the north shows Vishnu seated in lalitasana with Lakshmi on his lap. The left half of the image is missing but Vishnu can be identified by the mace he holds in his left hand and the kneeling Garuda image at the bottom-left. Lakshmi holds a pot-of-wealth and her foot rests gently on a lotus. Both images are adorned with elaborate crowns and jewelry. The plaque below the image is not signed but filled with scrollwork.

This broken image on the north-east shows a youthful Devi standing on the buffalo, as she thrusts her trisula into Mahisha, while gently holding his head with another hand. Inspite of the violence, her face retains the surreal calm of all Hoysala dieties. Her vahana, the lion, crouches over a body at the bottom-right.

Porch and Shrine
The four friezes at the bottom (elephants, men-on-horses, scrollwork, and mythology) continue from porch onto the shrine. Above this the porch has two more panels of framed figures, separated by a band of scrollwork, and finally the pierced screen. The shrine on the other hand has yali and hamsa friezes, and above, a series of sculpted figure panels. The eave with lotus fringe is present on both porch and shrine.

South Ambulatory
The wide pradakshina-patha around the temple (seen left) is raised on a moulded star-shaped plinth. This complicated outline is carried onto the walls, eave, and vimanams. Fully-carved elephants project from the plinth. A pillared ambulatory with small shrines runs around the rectangular compound.

Photos and Text © Amit Guha