Chennakesava Temple, Somanathpura (Wikimedia Commons) 
Snapshot
  • How the sculptors of this temple in Karnataka stayed true to the stories of Srimad Bhagatvatam.

In the 13th century, Somanatha a Dandanayaka, a general of Hoysala King Narasimha III, founded a small town Somanathapura.

The town followed the cherished Hindu principle of making a temple as the central node.

The temple so built at the centre of Somanathapura was the Chennakesava (beautiful Kesava) temple.

In the year 1268 CE, the temple was consecrated along with an installation of a community of scholars and archakas. This was called 'Vidyanidhi Prasanna Somanathapura' according to the inscription.

The inscription provides an interesting dimension about contemporary Hindu society. It speaks of the lineage of Soma thus:

In the race born from the feet of Brahma arose Rudra who was a minister of king Hermadi, lord of Kalyana; his son was Mailaya-nayaka; his son, Heggada-nayaka, who was also a subordinate of the lord of Kalyana, to him and his wife Revala was born Soma.

We also come to know that Rudra was also known as ‘Rudra-Nayaka Ganda-Pendara’.

Malaiya Nayaka who had the title Gayi-Govala, served the Chalukyan king Jagadekamalla.

According to the inscription, the agrahara established in Somanathapura was so scholarly that 'even the parrots of the agraharas could be heard discussing mimamsa, tarka and vyakarana.’

Somanathapura Chennakesava temple , Karnataka Somanathapura Chennakesava temple , Karnataka

The temple, exhibiting ‘'trikutachala order' is considered one of the finest examples of Hoysala architecture.

The main sanctum sanctorum of the east-facing temple houses the three forms of Vishnu--Kesava, Gopala and Janardhana.

The outer wall of the main temple is raised on a Jagati or cosmic platform. The lower part of the outer wall shows various bands depicting various historical scenes, ornamental bands and depictions from the Ramayana, Srimad Bhagavata and the Mahabharata.

The Bhagavatam panels start with Maha Vishnu reclining on his Sheshanaga or Adisesha with Mahalakshmi pressing his feet. On either side are shown earthly, natural scenes.

The corresponding narrative would be Mother Earth coming to Maha Vishnu to ease her pain because of the burden of adharmic activities of humans on earth.

Maha Vishnu on the celestial milk ocean reclining on Adishesha with Lakshmi pressing his feet. Maha Vishnu on the celestial milk ocean reclining on Adishesha with Lakshmi pressing his feet.

In the panel below, Vasudeva is leaving the prison Kamsa had put him in, carrying his new-born child in his arms. Yamuna was in flood. There was heavy rain. And so, Adisesha is seen forming an umbrella over Vasudeva’s head.

Vasudeva with infant Sri Krishna leaves the prison Kamsa had put him in. Vasudeva with infant Sri Krishna leaves the prison Kamsa had put him in.

The next panel shows Vasudeva reaching Gokulam of Nandagopa and exchanging the child for Yashoda’s daughter. Gokulam can be identified here by the depiction of cows.

Vasudeva ready to swap infant Sri Krishna with Yashoda’s new-born girl child. Vasudeva ready to swap infant Sri Krishna with Yashoda’s new-born girl child.

The next panel shows Kamsa (at the right) trying to kill the girl child and (moving left-ward) the child becoming the multi-armed ferocious Goddess Durga, warning Kamsa that the child destined to kill him is alive and well.

A terrified Kamsa is also depicted as having fallen down.

A ferocious feminine form arises before the infant-killer to announce his doom. A ferocious feminine form arises before the infant-killer to announce his doom.

Another panel depicts Putana, the demoness who was sent by Kamsa to kill Krishna.

She offers her poison-coated breast to the infant and Krishna sucks the life out of her along with the milk, and liberates her.

Sri Krishna giving salvation to Puthana: she got what even great Rishis could only dream. Sri Krishna giving salvation to Puthana: she got what even great Rishis could only dream.

In a panel, Krishna is shown kicking the cart wheel --- the depiction is so true to the verse in the Bhagavatam: 'The cart underneath He was put was hit by His delicate feet that were as tender as a new leaf. It turned over so that all the bowls, plates and the sweetness they contained fell to the ground, the wheels and axle got dislocated and the pole was broken.'

He kicked the cart down with His tender feet. He kicked the cart down with His tender feet.

Another panel shows Brahma hiding the cowherds and cows and calves whom he had immersed into a sleep-like state. However, he is bewildered to see the same number of boys and cows and calves still with Krishna.

Krishna, through his yoga-maya, had expanded into multiple forms. Brahma gets humbled. This episode of the Bhagavata is elaborately depicted.

The humbling of a creator deity before an all-pervading Unity that manifests through diversity is an important darshana of Hindu spirituality that has been shown through such Puranic illustrations.

Depiction of the humbling of Brahma by Sri Krishna. Depiction of the humbling of Brahma by Sri Krishna.
Creator deity subdued before Sri Krishna. Creator deity subdued before Sri Krishna.

The ‘Kaliya Nardhana’.

Krishna dancing on the hood of Kaliya; this panel shows the boys and calves frolicking by the river and then Sri Krishna dancing on the serpent with the serpent maidens asking for mercy.

Krishna spares Kaliya.

Kaliya Nardhana Kaliya Nardhana
A closer look at Kaliya Nardhana. A closer look at Kaliya Nardhana.

Aghasura, elder brother of Putana, took the form of a gigantic snake and with an open mouth lay waiting.

Cowherds with their cattle walked into his open mouth thinking that it was a cave. Krishna seeing this entered the serpent and then took His magnificent form, killing the serpent demon and liberating the swallowed cowherds.

Shri Krishna kills Aghasura, an Asura, in the form of giant serpent swallowing the cowherds. Shri Krishna kills Aghasura, an Asura, in the form of giant serpent swallowing the cowherds.

Krishna also stopped the puja to Indra and made the Yadavas worship the Govardhan mountain.

Then his clan and cattle face the wrath of Indra. But Krishna lifts the Govardhan mountain and protects them. Indra is subdued.

Govardhan Puja: Shri Krishna makes his people worship the Govardhan mountain rather than  Indra. Govardhan Puja: Shri Krishna makes his people worship the Govardhan mountain rather than Indra.
Govardhandhari: Sri Krishna lifts the mountain to protect the cowherds from the fury of Indra. Indra is humbled. Govardhandhari: Sri Krishna lifts the mountain to protect the cowherds from the fury of Indra. Indra is humbled.

One day, Balarama was tired, so Krishna sat by his side and started pressing his legs.

At that time they were attracted by the sweet fragrance of palm fruits. However, the palm-tree forests were under the control of Dhenukasura who was in the form of a ferocious donkey who killed anyone who came in there attracted by the fragrance.

Balarama and Krishna proceeded to the palm-tree forest and started gathering the fruits. When Dhenukasura came charging Balarama caught hold of him and slayed him. The panel below depicts this scene.

Killing the hoarder Dhenukasura to share the bounty of nature. Killing the hoarder Dhenukasura to share the bounty of nature.

Kamsa was bent on killing Krishna and sent the demon Keshi --- who came in the form of a ferocious horse.

Creating havoc and spreading fear all along, Keshi roared like a lion and charged towards Krishna.

Krishna penetrated Keshi's mouth with his hand, knocking off his teeth. Then Krishna expanded his hand muscles and the demon choked to death.

Kesava slaying Keshi, the Asura in the form of a horse.  Kesava slaying Keshi, the Asura in the form of a horse. 

Pralambasur, another Asura, decided to slay Balarama through a trick.

As the cowherds were playing mock-fights, they announced that the defeated should carry the victor on their shoulders. Pralambasura got defeated by Balarama. So he carried Balarama on his shoulders. Soon he started running, assuming his true demonic form.

Balarama struck Pralambasura with the might of Adishesha that he was, and the demon died with a broken head.

Balarama kills Pralambasura who attempts to kidnap Balarama. Balarama kills Pralambasura who attempts to kidnap Balarama.

The following panel depicts Krishna and Balarama on their way to Mathura. Krishna forcibly takes good garments from Kamsa’s washer-man. However the garland-maker Sudamana gives the Yadava heroes Krishna and Balarama the garlands and other ornaments out of love and devotion.

The person on the right with a hunched form and with the foot of Sri Krishna on the foot of that form suggests it could be a depiction of Trivakra Kubja. But the absence of a feminine form as well as the big basket on the head argue against such an identification.

Attendants of Kamsa and their differing attitude towards sharing the common riches. Attendants of Kamsa and their differing attitude towards sharing the common riches.

Kuvalayapeeda was the royal yet savage elephant who Kamsa was nurturing for perhaps this specific event to encounter with Krishna. The elephant was at the gate of the Danuryagna venue and it charged at Krishna and Balarama.

Krishna overcame the elephant and killed it.

Kuvalayapeeda the royal elephant of Kamsa being slayed by Sri Krishna. Kuvalayapeeda the royal elephant of Kamsa being slayed by Sri Krishna.

Then the divine heroes entered the ritual platform where the colossal bow was kept. Krishna took it like ‘an elephant taking a sugarcane’ and broke it easily. Then Balarama and Krishna battled the wrestlers Mushtika and Chanura.

The ritual bow kept by Kamsa taken and broken by Shri Krishna. The ritual bow kept by Kamsa taken and broken by Shri Krishna.