Journey Through Karnataka’s Heritage Sites

For the Christmas vacation of 2015, the initial plan was to go somewhere far away, outside Karnataka. But plan A did not work out somehow. So here was the plan B – why not visit some nearby tourist places of Karnataka that we have been postponing visiting for years. A day before the visit, we decided, our 2/3 days journey would start with Shravanabelegola, then on to Shringeri through Belur and Halebeedu.

So, early one morning towards the close of 2015 we hit the road, me – the driver, Subha – my wife as the mentor and Dipayan – our 13 year old son as the official navigator and photographer.

Our first destination was Shravanabelagola which is about 160 kms from Bangalore. As I learn that some years back the statue of Gommatesvara at Shravanabelagola was voted overwhelmingly in a Times of India poll as the first of the seven wonders of India, I wonder, “how come I have missed such a wonderful site even though I have stayed in Karnataka off and on for over 10 years.”

Shravanabelagola

Belagola means white pond and shravakas are Jain seekers. As the place is famous for both, it is named as Shravanabelagola. There is a beautiful pond- even though no more white – in the middle of the town which is flanked by two hills Vindhyagiri and Chandragiri.

On Vindhyagiri stands the majestic monolithic 57 feet high statue of Gommatesvara. There is no alternate to climbing barefoot or with socks the 650 odd steps to reach the sacred footstep of Lord Gommatesvara. Of course there are palanquin bearers for those who cannot climb. To reach the top, it takes a leisurely half an hour. There is no need to hurry. It would be better to take frequent breaks not only to stabilize breath, but also to appreciate the surrounding views as you climb. And of course to click those selfies to share on the social media.

As you climb up the Vindhyagiri Hill you can have a bird’s eye view of the Shravanabelagola town and the Chandragiri Hill across the town. It is here at Shravanabelegola that the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta Maurya lived the last years of his life after converting to Jainism. On Chandragiri hills are a number of memorials to various Jain monks and a temple.

While climbing up the hill, you have the feeling that you are rising above the mundane affairs of the world and the majestic statue standing high on the mountain radiating bliss is inviting you to rise above the worldly worries and obtain the peak of bliss and innocence.

As one reaches the top of the hill through the winding steps one cannot but stand in awe of the magnificent statue of Gommatesvara Bahubali. Let it not be identified with the fictionalized character Bahubali of the eponymous multilingual movie.

When the movie Bahubali was released it drew protests from the Jain Community. May be, I think rightly so, they feared that the movie will evoke wrong associations and ideas concerning Jain History which is already misrepresented on many accounts by the scholars of Indian History.

On the rocks on both the hills are a large number of Kannada inscriptions that have survived the ravages of time for a thousand years. These have provided valuable information to the historians and archaeologists. However to me what was of special interest was the story of Bahubali written on a large board.

The story of Bahubali

Bahubali is the son of the first Jain Tirthankar – Rishavdeb who was the king of Ayodhya before entering into ascetic life. Rishavdeb had one hundred sons and two daughters through his two wives. Prominent among the sons were Bharat and Bahubali. Before renouncing worldly life, Rishavdeb crowned Bharat as the king of Ayodhya and Bahubali as the king of Taxshila. Other 98 sons were also made kings of various remaining provinces.

Bharat was highly ambitious. After subjugating 98 brothers he wanted Bahubali to surrender his kingdom. But Bahubali, which literally means the strong armed, would not consent. So war became inevitable. Fearing large scale devastation, the learned from both the sides, suggested a novel method – instead of the armies of both the sides engaging in battle, let there be a duel between the two brothers. Perhaps, it was keeping in line with the Jain principle of Ahimsa or where total Ahimsa was not possible to go for minimum collateral damage. Bharat was defeated in all the three rounds of the duel. But instead of being humbled, the defeat only infuriated him more and he sent his special weapon, known as Chakraratan – a wheel bestowed with magical powers, to kill Bahubali. To everyone’s surprise the weapon could not even touch Bahubali.

At first Bahubali was enraged. However, a sudden realization dawned on him and made him wonder about the futility of war and the craving for worldly gains. Thus, humbled in victory, Bahubali gave away his kingdom to Bharat and set on the journey of self-discovery. He engaged in deep meditation in the standing posture for such a long time that creepers grew over his legs. With a little help from Rishavdeb, Bahubali finally became enlightened.

Awestruck, as I climb down the Vindhyagiri, I cannot but agree with what the famous journalist Vir Sanghvi had written in an article after visiting Shravanabelagola – “It is a sobering thought that around 500 years before Michelangelo created his David, Indian craftsmen had created a statue that is much more beautiful and far more impressive. ….. Long before the European Renaissance and long before the great structures of the medieval era – such as the Taj Mahal – were created, India had a cultural heritage that was the envy of the world”.

The head anointing ceremony

Every 12 years, the head anointing ceremony known as Mahamasthakabhisheka is performed in an elaborate ritual where in the idol is bathed in sacred liquids like sandal paste, milk, ghee, turmeric paste etc. The grand ceremony, that draws millions of people, culminates with the showering of flowers from a helicopter. The next one is scheduled to be held in February 2018.

The message of Gommatesvara Bahubali

Bahubali, the strong armed one, stands alone, naked, innocent and majestic radiating bliss and peace atop mount Vindhyagiri to announce to the world that to patronize non-violence requires unsurpassed strength. It is not a sign of meekness and weakness. Defeat need not always humble someone. Real victory is victory over one’s own negative tendencies and ignorance.

Belur and Halebidu

Our next destination on the heritage tour was Halebidu which is at a distance of about 80 Kms from Shravanabelagola. We reached there by lunch time, hungry enough to devour whatever was on offer. So we did not mind the shanty hotel near the Hoysaleswara temple offering typical south Indian Thali.

Belur and Halebidu bear the testimony to not only the grand and distinct architectural style as the Hoysala style of architecture, but also the ravages done to a culturally advanced society by the barbaric Muslim invaders from time to time. A UNESCO study says that out of the 1500 temples built by the Hoysala rulers, only 100 survive today. Many temples were destroyed by the army of All-ud-din Khilji led by his general – Malik Kafur.

Belur was the first capital of the Hoysala Rulers whose empire spread all over Karnataka and some of the neighboring states. During their reign from the 10th to 14th century AD, art, architecture literature and spiritual practices thrived due to generous patronage of not only the rulers but also the influential citizens. In addition to the places of religious rituals, the temples served as centers of art and culture and sometimes even as courts. The Hoysala style attempted to achieve grandeur in ornate design with profusion of intricately carved stone sculptures, in contrast to the temples of other styles built to grand size , both vertical and horizontal.

The Chennakesava temple at Belur was commissioned in the early part of the 12th century by King Vishnuvardhana. The Vaishnavite Temple was earlier known as Vijayanarayana Temple to commemorate the victory of King Vishnuvardhana over the Chalukyas, as one legend goes. It is said that the Saivite Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu was built by prominent merchants to rival the Chennakesava Temple in grandeur and glory. However after the completion of the temple it was dedicated to King Vishnuvardhana, who shifted his capital to Dwarasamudra which was later on called as Halebidu meaning the Old City. Some say King Vishnuvardhan was converted to Vaishnavism from Jainsim and his wife Shantala was also a Jain. Nevertheless, she patronized many Hindu temples. Overall, it is seen that during the Hoyasala period, a highly culturally and intellectually developed plural society developed making immense contribution to Indian and Kannada art, culture and literature.

The main attraction of Halebidu are the two conjoined temples of Hoysaleswara and Shantaleswar. There is an archaeological museum inside the compound of the temple. Other places of interest are the Kedareswara temple (also built in Hoysala style) and the Jain Basadi which are at short distance.

I was intrigued by the story behind the Garuda Pillar to the south side of the Hoysaleswara Temple. Usually Vishnu’s vahana Garuda sits on the Garuda pillar in front of many Vaishnavite temples. However, this Garuda Pillar here is erected in honor of the body guard of King Ballala II. I learn that Garudas were highly skilled and loyal body guards of the kings. With the death of the king they served, they also ended their lives. In this particular case, the body guard Kuruva Lakshma was so loyal that he took the life of his whole family along with his own.

Inside the the Chennakesava Temple at Belur are a number of other temples, some added later on after the consecration of the main Vishnu Temple. As I enter the large temple compound in the afternoon, roam around and sit down for a while to meditate, it gives one a feeling of timelessness. Nothing much has changed inside the temple during the last 800 years, including the form of temple ritual that has been carried on without even a day’s break .Of course men have come and men have gone. The carvings on the outer walls and the inscriptions provide valuable information and hints about the life in those days.

Each image, each carving has a story to tell and they are in thousands. The history and archeology enthusiast may need months to explore and fathom them. Even for a casual visitor, one day is definitely not enough to appreciate various historical land marks (that includes Hoysala-style step wells) spread in and around Belur and Halebidu.

At the end of a tiring day, falling asleep was not much of a problem. However certain vague and dreamlike feelings lingered on as I felt being transported back in time to those golden days of history. I hear the sounds of sculptors chiseling and bringing into life, lifeless objects, with the hope that the creations outlived the creators. I see them signing off their work with a feeling of pride and accomplishment (literally, because many of the carvings bear the name of the sculptor in local language). On various pandals inside the temple, discourses and discussions are going on as to the origin of the universe, the nature of reality and the ultimate aim of life. In another corner, the compositions of poets find expressions through accomplished dancers and singers. In the streets outside, the common citizens carry on with their lives as usual while the threat of battle and devastation looms large. Soldiers return from battle, wounded and tired, yet surviving to tell the tales of camaraderie, courage and victory.

Shravanabelagola, Halebid and Belur have been proposed to be included in the list of UNESCO heritage sites. There has been no such recommendation for Sringeri. May be because, Sringeri does not boast of any monument of architectural grandeur. Nevertheless it is an important landmark contributing to the notion called India and towards the preservation of ancient Indian spiritual and intellectual heritage. Thus seen, it is no less a heritage site than Shravanabelagola.

On to Shringeri and Shirimane Falls

The 100kms odd journey from Belur to Sringeri was mesmerizing. The winding road through the ghat sections of Chikmagalur district is flanked by coffee estates. In between there are stretches of roads that are in need of repair and it slows down our journey. Otherwise also, we stop frequently to have a panoramic view of the surroundings and examine the plantations of the estates. My wife gets fascinated with the creepers that grow on the tall trees which provide a canopy to the coffee plants. We learn that these are the creepers that produce black pepper. We reached Sringeri long before lunch time to take a little rest and visit the temples of Sringeri Sarada Peetham. The guest houses constructed and maintained by Sharada Peeham are well maintained and the charges are very nominal. Of course one can opt for one of the more expensive private lodges or home stays located throughout the town and the outskirts.

Sringeri is a small town with a population of about 5000 and is situated on the southern side of the river Tunga. There is ample parking place in between the town and the river and adjacent to the Sarada Peetham.

The majority of tourists were school children who came as a part of their annual excursion during the Christmas vacation. It was a bit crowded. At other times we may not see so many footfalls. As the place was meant to be a citadel of learning and contemplation for those who took to the monastic order, it would be fitting if the place is not filled with bustling crowds all the year round.

However, there is a story behind the place being chosen to be the first of the four original ‘Maths’ established by Adi Shankara. While passing through Sringeri, Adi Shankara saw a unique site near River Tunga. It was a very hot day and a snake had spread its hood over a frog to shelter it from hot sun. Adi Shankar could discern the special vibes permeating the place. The story has a modern parlance. Huge number of fish gather at the river bend near the temple to be fed with puffed rice by the human beings. They have so much faith of not being caught and fried that they come near you without any iota of fear or hesitation. Truly, it is a place with special vibes. The presence of ancient temples, the river flowing by leisurely and the green mountains standing still create a serene and peaceful atmosphere.

Here it may be remembered that today there are hundreds of swamis and saints who claim to be the torch bearers of the traditions started by Adi Shankaracharya. However, Adi Shankar established only four ‘Maths’ – one each in the southern, western, northern and eastern part of India, entrusting each Math to be administered by one of his four prominent disciples- Sureshwara, Hastamalaka, Totakacharya and Padmapada. Thus, in the south we have the Sharada Peetham at Sringeri, in the west at Dwaraka we have the Dwarakapeetha, Jyotirmath is located at Badrinath in the north and at Puri in the east we have Govardhan Peetha. Presently the Sharada Peetham is headed by Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji who is the 36th in the lineage of head pontiffs of the Peetham.

The temples of Sri Saradamba, Sri Toranaganapati, Sri Vidyashankar, Sri Adishankara and another dozen odd temples are located inside the temple complex on the southern bank of the River Tunga. Sri Vidyashankar Temple was constructed in 14th century combining Hoysala and Dravidian style of architecture. Different temples inside the complex have been constructed at different times. Our visit and prayers at the temples on the southern side culminated with the partaking of the free lunch (annaprasada) inside the temple complex. The lunch consisting of kheer, rice, sambhar and butter milk was simple yet sumptuous. Temple authorities claim that every day on an average of 8-10 thousand people are provided free lunch and dinner.

In the evening we went to the northern side of the peetham across the river. A narrow high bridge over river Tunga connects both sides of the premises of the peetham. Of course, nearby there is another hanging foot bridge for the use of the villagers on the other side of the river. The northern side across the river houses the living quarters of the pontiffs, other swamis and disciples. It has the ambience of an Ashram. One can have an audience with the head pontiff Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji and his successor designate Sri Vidhusekhar Bharati at prescribed timings in the morning and evening subject to their availability at Sringeri. Luckily for us on that day both of them were available for darshan.

There are a number of other temples in and around Sringeri. Another interesting place that we visited in the afternoon was the Sirimane Falls located at a distance of about 20 kms from Sringeri. Even though the road was so bad that it created doubts as to whether it would survive the next few days to be regarded as any kind of motor-able road, the waterfall was worth a visit. Here again the crowd consisted primarily of sportive school students running to enjoy a bath while their shouting, reprimanding, threatening guardians and teachers played the spoilsport.

The Article originally appeared on TourMyIndia. Visit the site for more photos.

 

Shravanabelagola

shravanabelagola

The majestic statue
high on the hill
invites us
for a rendezvous
of bliss and innocence.

It is fashionable
To come here
To be selfied and uploaded
And arouse  a little jealousy
“Look where we camped last weekend”.

A lone devotee infirm and old
Climbs up panting and chanting
To touch at least some height
Before her death.

Tiny flowers without leaves
Pop up from the hard rock
What  a humble offering
To the huge bare Bahubali
Standing tall on the bare hill,
With relics and  writings as ambiguous
as his silence!

How do they proclaim peace
in words of war -
The scholars fight it out.

The sun follows us inch by inch
As we limp up slowly
To rise above the world
And its maya.

 

(A detailed account of my visit to Shravanabelagola, Belur, Halebid and Shringeri can be read here :  Journey Through Karnataka’s Heritage Sites )

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A Pilgrimage

A package tour would definitely include the houses of murderers and tyrants, but not that of a humanist or humorist. So every travel brochure about Mysore, whether off line or online, include the places where the kings lived. I doubt whether even the ritual annual tours of schools include the house of RK Narayan.

What were the kings of yesteryear?  They lived the most luxurious lives while the common man of those days toiled day and night to keep his body and soul together. When the country was under colonial rule the kings were cleverly used by the British to act as their tax collectors, of course for a hefty compensation. Neither the British, nor the kings bothered about how the common men suffered.

We hear, how a king used the revenue of sixteen years and a quarter of the man power of the whole kingdom to build a great temple. Those who refused to provide quality work were hanged in public. And many others must have perished due to the collapse of the already fragile  public welfare system as every material and other resources were diverted to fulfill the whim of a mad king. At least that is what I felt when I visited the temple some years back.

Again in the name of art  what do you find on the walls of those palatial houses – the painting of soldiers, wars, weapons and other events glorifying mass destruction and the king’s hunger for more territory.

And these are the places that prominently feature on any package tour, whether for recreational purpose or educational purpose.

In our country we are only bothered about the memorial of politicians. Thank God, at last, at least we got a memorial to a writer like RK in India. Otherwise how many such memorials do you find in India. Tagore’s is a different story. He was in some way associated with the freedom movement and he got a Nobel.

In RK’s case, the house built by him was already there. So, no new memorial has been built. In fact had there been no such house, and had the house not been subject of a controversy (when some real estate sharks tried to demolish it), nobody would have thought of a memorial for RK. In a way, like his Guide protagonist who became an accidental Hero, his house too has become an accidental memorial.

RK’s works were not part of my high school or college syllabus. I first came across him through a translated short story published in the local newspaper. It was titled – ‘Another Ratnatkar who could not become a Balmiki’. The gentle irony and humour touched me even in the translated version. There after I developed a curiosity to read his works in original. This happened during my high school days. So, when I visited his house on Vivekanand Road, Mysore,  I was filled with a strange feeling of nostalgia. Moreover, his characters are no different from the people who I encountered around my home on a daily basis.

RK has written about how he built this house in his autobiography – My Days. It is a modest house compared to other houses in the locality. Of course the municipal corporation of Mysore that made effort to restore the house and develop it as a museum, has also put directional broads to the house, at many places in  Mysore.

The place is nothing in grandeur compared to the regal, religious and scenic  fares in store when you visit Mysore. Still, my feeling is that every tourist trip to Mysore should start from this place, in place of a temple. At least, for children it should be made a must see place so that it fuels their creative spirit. But this may alarm our Indian parents who do not want any career for their children other than medical or engineering. (I have also encountered many parents who strictly forbid their children to read anything other than what is there in the syllabus).

I have suggested, through the comment section of the visitor’s book kept in the house and by an email to the City Corporation,  to name the street as Malgudi Street. But I know the chances are less. Because the street already has a Shudh Deshi name. Had it been something like Victoria Road, things would have been easier.

rk1rk2rk3rk4rk6rk7rk8

rk9

 
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The Idea of India

 

Even to this day the accepted idea of India in the west has followed the concept propounded by Sir John Strachey (1823-1907), a British Civil Servant posted in India. He said, “ ….. India is a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries. There is no general Indian term that corresponds to it….. There are no countries in civilized Europe in which people differ so much as the Bengali differs from the Sikh …. That there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing according to European ideas any sort of unity, physical, political, social and religious: no Indian nation, no ‘people of India’ of which we hear so much. We have never destroyed in India a national government, no national sentiment has been wounded, no national pride has been humiliated and this not through any design or merit of our own, but because no Indian nationalities have existed.

You are wrong Sir Strachey, as wrong as you can be. You have not only missed the sacred geography of India but also its impression of inexplicable  ‘oneness’ that was deeply felt by a western educated Nehru, who was one of the greatest votaries of secularism post independence. He wrote in his Discovery  of India, “ It was not her wide space that eluded me, or even her diversity, but some depth of soul which I could not fathom, though I had occasional and tantalizing glimpses of it. Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune that had befallen us. The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual concept for me: it was an emotional experience that overpowered me.”

The word India is a Greek word that referred to the land beyond the river Sindhu. The Greek historians wrote works they called Indika to consolidate knowledge received from this land. Of course the people did not call their own land India. The indigenous term was Bharata, derived from the famous son of King Dushyanta. It was also called Bharatavarsha, the land of Bharata. The Indian sub continent was known as Jambudwipa (Rose Apple Island) or Kumaridwipa (the island of the Virgin Goddess).

The names Bharatavarsha and Jambudwipa are not only ancient, but also very much in vogue.   Every Hindu Sankalpa, to make explicit one’s position in the cosmos, starts with,  “In Jambudwipa, in Bharatkhanda, in so and so city …….”.  This tradition has been followed since time immemorial.

What is so special about India’s landscape is that in addition to being diverse and dramatic, all its landmarks like rivers, mountains and seashores etc.  are alive with myths and stories, ranging from being local to pan Indian, being little known to being part of famous legends known throughout the length and the  breath of the country with links to the great epics like Ramayana or Mahabharata.

india-a-sacred-geographyWhatever I have written so far in this post have been excerpted, deduced or distilled from the book, India-a Sacred Geography. Diana L. Eck- the author of the  book is a professor of comparative religion and Indian Studies at Havard University. She has won numerous accolades and awards for her sensitive portrayal of religious history in Indian as well as American contexts. The book attempts to explore the myths and realities surrounding the idea of India giving us the historical perspective beginning from the vedic age.  At the core, it tries to establish that: (as excerpted from the book blurb)

“ ……….  ultimately Eck shows us that from these network of pilgrimage places, India’s very  sense of region and nation has emerged. This is the astonishing and fascinating picture of a land linked for centuries not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims.”

The book also explores the impact of muslim invaders and colonialism on this sacred landscape and how even the replicas of this interlinked sacred places have been created by Muslims and Christians in India. However, the book primarily focuses on the sacred geography of the land from the point of view of Hinduism and there are detailed explorations of the places of pilgrimages and how they are linked to each other across India and some times find there local replicas.

Contrary to the belief that all the desecrations of temples that took place during Muslim rule were due to religious bigotry of the rulers, the author is of the view that it was more to do with stripping the conquered from their association with the source of power. For many rulers the patronizing of a particular place of worship was closely linked to his extent of power. Of course, many of the places of pilgrimage that they destroyed or tried to destroy – like the Somnath Temple, the Jagannat Temple at Puri, – have bounced back to their former glory.

My own view is that you may try to destroy the idea of India by destroying its sacred landscape, but how do you destroy the myths which are harbored in the minds of its people? At  a deeper level, perhaps, the idea of India lives in the collective consciousness of its people through the myths that have been handed down since time immemorial, construction of temples and associating the geography with the myths being a part of that process.

Prodding  through volumes of ancient Indian texts, the author has brought out many interesting facts, narrations and insights of the ancient seers. Here is one that I found interesting: India’s imaginative world map, as envisaged by the ancient seers, did not make India the centre of the world as did Anaximander who made Greece the centre of his world map. In fact the Indian seers were not only aware of the existence of the other parts of the world beyond Indian sub-continent, but also  idealized other parts of the world some of which they named as Ketumala, Uttarakuru, Bhadrashva etc. According to them in many other countries people led far better lives and had more material resources to enjoy life.

Then of course they had this final warning: However, it was only in India that the ultimate freedom or moksha was possible as it was the karmabhumi (lands of spiritual action) while other countries were bhogabhumi (lands of worldly enjoyment).

Therefore this Bharata is the most excellent land in the Rose-Apple island, O Sage. For the others may be lands of enjoyment, but this is the land of action” (Mahabharata)

Is not the above statement true even today? In fact it is so true that sometimes I doubt it was written thousands of years ago.

Isn’t it India where the serious spiritual seeker lands up, ultimately? (In spite of all her shortcomings)


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