Thursday, November 20, 2008


Another post on Malnad, a continuation of the previous post, if you like. A version of it appeared in Deccan Herald a while ago.
Most people know of Sagar in Shimoga district as the nearest town to the world-famous Jog Falls. But did you know that a mere 6 km from Sagar is a village that was the capital of one of Karnataka’s great empires, a village, moreover, with relics of a 1000 year old history?

In the early 1500s, a certain Chaudappa Gauda of the village of Keladi discovered some hidden treasure. In a dream, he was told that the treasure was his to take provided he offered a human sacrifice. Luckily for him, two of his servants volunteered for the task. Chaudappa used the treasure to build a fort at Keladi and put together an army. Thus began the dynasty that was initially a tributary of the Vijayanagar empire but was independent by the 1600s. At its zenith, the Keladi empire covered most of south-western Karnataka and parts of northern Kerala, commanding the ports of Honnavara, Bhatkal, Bekal and Mangalore, and also included portions of the Ghats and extended to within 60 km of Mysore. The Nayakas were finally defeated by Hyder Ali in 1763, who often cited this win as having established his fortune.

A good place to start exploring the area’s history is the Keladi Museum and Historical Research Centre, established in 1978 by the scholar Keladi Gunda Jois. This museum houses artifacts from the region, including ancient coins (some as old as 2nd Century BC), manuscripts and copper plate inscriptions. The curator is historian Venkatesh Jois. Earnest, committed and supremely knowledgeable (he holds 3 masters degrees and a doctoral degree!), Jois showed us some of the palm leaf manuscripts and the museum’s huge collection of kadatas or ‘black books’ – cloth manuscripts made by seasoning with tamarind paste and charcoal.

Jois spoke passionately about the Keladi empire and its valiant Queen Chennamma, who ruled for 25 long years from 1671 to 1696, no mean feat in those ancient times. Chennamma ruled wisely and ably and earned the love of her subjects. It was during her reign that a special bond was formed between the Marathas and the Keladi kingdom. In those tumultuous times, Rajaram, son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, was fleeing for his life. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had already killed his brother Shambhaji when Rajaram came to Keladi asking for protection. Unwilling to spurn an asylum-seeker, Chennamma granted him refuge, knowing this would invite Aurangzeb’s ire. As expected, the mighty Mughal army soon bore down on the Nayaka kingdom. But amazingly, the local army vanquished the Mughals, who floundered in its hilly terrain.

Keladi served as the Nayaka capital for the empire for fourteen years after which the capital was shifted to nearby Ikkeri. Today, with its 400-year-old houses, all with sloping tiled roofs and moss-covered compound walls, Keladi is a village that exudes the charm so typical of beautiful Malnad. Everyone walks, everyone smiles and everything looks and smells green.

Life here revolves around the earliest monument built by the Keladi Nayakas, the Ramesvara temple complex. Situated opposite the museum, it is a large, long building with pale yellow walls that looks most like a government high school. Inside is a spacious courtyard with two wells and only a handful of people and our first impression was that we had stepped into someone’s house, albeit a very beautiful hou se. The temple complex houses three shrines – the Ramesvara, the Veerabhadresvara and the Parvati shrines, of which the Ramesvara is the oldest and the Parvati the newest. There is a common mantapa for the Ramesvara and Veerbhadra garbha-grihas. The temple is built in a mixture of styles. Whereas the use of granite pillars and the gargoyles are characteristically Vijayanagar, the ceilings, for example, seem to incorporate Islamic influences with their delicate floral and geometric patterns. The Veerabhadesvara temple ceiling has a prominent Gandabherunda, the two-headed eagle that Jois informed us was the symbol of the Vijayanagar kings, the Keladi empire and the Wodeyars, with minor variations. Another notable figure in the temple is a rare representation of Vastupuruva, beside which is an upright, marked rule: the measures of length on this rule were used in land assessment, as also in the geometry of the temple itself.

The adjacent Parvati s hrine is an unusual combination of wood and stone. Severely plain from the outside, it has some uncommon, remarkable wooden sculptures and pillars inside. Venaktesh Jois informs us that the wood used here is the prized red sandalwood (rakta-chandana, Pterocarpus santalinus). The intricately carved wooden ceiling, still retaining a glossy sheen, and the dark red wooden sculptures lining the wall near the ceiling are stunning.

In the temple courtyard is a dwajastambha (victory pillar). At its base is a panel that Queen Chennamma had installed, showing herself, wearing a widow’s garb, flanked on one side by Shivaji’s son Rajaram and his attendant, and on the other by two hand maidens. There is also a figure depicting Shivaji on a horse in the Veerabhadraswamy temple.

There is an other ancient monument at Keladi, a 900 year old Jain temple. Tucked away in a small buildi ng hidden inside a large garden, it is an unprepossessing structure, little more than a single room housing some idols.

Yet its antiquity is palpable. Here, busy preparing for the temple’s renovation by the Dharmothana Trust of Dharmasthala, were the temple priest and GV Kallapur, head of Research and Publications at the Keladi Museum. Kallapur told us about the bronze images of Parsvanath Tirthankara that were found here earlier this year. Inscriptions on one of the images recorded the installment of the image in the Basadi in 1172 AD, well before the Vijayanagar periods. But even that is not the oldest relic here: Kallapur enthusiastically showed us a well behind the Basadi, made of bricks characteristic of the Ganga period, indicating that Keladi has probably been inhabited for at least 1500 years, if not more.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beautiful Ikkeri

I can never get enough of the Malnad area - hills, winding roads, and everything drenched and saturated green. Here's a piece I wrote for Deccan Herald on Ikkeri, the erstwhile capital of the Keladi/Ikkeri/Nagara Nayakas.

In the 1600s, an adventurous Italian traveller named Pietro della Valle set off from Venice to travel the world. After spending some time in Turkey, Egypt and Arabia, the peripatetic della Valle came to India and in 1623, visited Ikkeri, the capital city of the Ikkeri Nayakas. The beautiful Malnad vistas seem to have soothed his eyes greatly for he writes rapturously of its “delightful verdure”. Of the Nayaka capital, he says its numerous lakes, fields and “goodly Trees” all blended pleasantly, so that it seemed “to consist of a City, Lakes, Fields and Woods mingled together, and makes a very delightful sight”. Visiting Ikkeri nearly four centuries later, I could see why della Valle had been bewitched by the place. Shorn of its status as a capital city and reduced to a mere village, Ikkeri still gently seduces the senses.
In della Valle’s days, the city was enclosed within three lines of fortifications, the first two of impenetrable bamboo and the third a mud wall. No sign of the first two exists now, of course, but historian Venkatesh Jois, curator at the Keladi Museum and Historical Research Centre in nearby Keladi, informed us that traces of the Nayakas’ fort and its moat still exist and that archaeological excavations are underway at the site.
Ikkeri was neither the first capital of the Nayakas nor their last. The dynasty was founded in 1499 at Keladi, near Ikkeri, because of which they are also called the Keladi Nayakas. After some fourteen years at Keladi, the capital moved to Ikkeri, which is 3 km south of Sagar. Incidentally, the legend behind the location of Ikkeri should sound familiar to Bangaloreans – Sadashivappa Nayaka chose the site for his capital when he saw a hare begin to chase his hounds, which is exactly what made Kempe Gowda choose the site for his new fort in Bangalore in 1537. Ikkeri remained the Nayaka capital for 125 years, after which the centre of power shifted to Nagara and then to Kavaledurga.
Inside the fort at Ikkeri, della Valle describes in minute detail the impressive citadel and the palaces of the Ikkeri Nayakas, all made of mud and timber. But he was distinctly unmoved by the houses which, he said, “stand thinly and are ill-built”. We couldn’t have disagreed more. Many of the houses we saw were built of laterite bricks, all had sloping, red-tiled roofs, many had a faint hint of green that bespoke years of standing in the rainy Malnad weather. Without exception, all were exceedingly handsome, adding charm to a landscape that was already intoxicating in its beauty. Venkatesh Jois, whose beautiful abode we visited in Keladi, told us his house was close to 400 years old. Quite possibly then, at least some of the houses we saw at Ikkeri were the same ones that della Valle dismissed so inexplicably.
Ikkeri is best known for its splendid temple, dedicated to Aghoreshvara, the non-fearful Shiva. It is believed to have been built in the early 1500s, probably at the time the capital was moved here. It is built on a slight mound in the midst of a large courtyard and a lawn dotted with colourful wildflowers that seemed to have escaped a careful gardener’s notice. The temple itself stood on a high platform, giving an effect of grandeur to the whole building. It is a remarkable structure for the way it gracefully combines various architectural elements. The temple’s indented platform, for example, brought to mind the Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid, while its gopura with its small doorways echoed Chola influences. The cavernous pillared hall in the main temple and the pillars in the adjacent small Parvati temple are all typical of the Vijayanagar style of architecture. The resulting blend is a unique style that historians refer to as the Ikkeri school of architecture. Another example of this style is the open Nandi pavilion just outside the main temple. With arches on four sides, a parapet running along the roof, and a large Nandi seated inside the pavilion, this unusual structure is unique to Ikkeri.
During his two-week stay at Ikkeri, della Valle had the good fortune of being present during the celebration of a festival here, possibly Deepavali, for he writes that “an infinite number of torches and candles were lighted” inside the temple, on its outer walls and in the courtyard. The then king, Venkatappa Nayaka, accompanied by two grandsons, arrived at the head of a procession heralded by much singing and dancing, says della Valle. The royals spent an hour inside the temple hall and after more music, dance and presumably prayer, left. Things were far more subdued when we visited the Aghoreshvara temple. No lights adorned its walls and no girls danced around a king, yet the temple was quietly impressive. We admired the temple’s grand doorways, the sculptures chiselled into the hard stone, and marvelled at the size of its hall. Dusk fell as we left the Aghoreshvara temple that evening, and though there were no lights, we could see in our mind’s eye, a king and his retinue leaving the magnificent temple after an evening of celebration and prayer.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hospital Waste

Here's an instance of callousness that really shook me: a waste dump on the roadside near Avalahalli which contained not just kitchen waste but also body parts, blood samples, needles and sundry other hospital waste - all untreated, of course. Environment Support Group is following it up. Here's an article I wrote about it for Citizen matters.

It was late afternoon on 3rd November when five men worked by the side of a lonely stretch of road in the as yet un-named land between Anjanapura and Kanakapura Road. The men silently hoed and shovelled the last dregs of a waste heap, shoving the plastic and other indistinct matter into a truck parked nearby, where one of the men stood next to the waste. At first glance, it appeared to be one of the many dumps of domestic waste one often sees on empty plots, full of plastic bags. In fact, it was something much more dangerous – it was untreated hospital waste.

Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group and Sangeeta Gowra, 35, a teacher at a school nearby, were among the first to see the dump and had initially thought it was restaurant waste – among the items that had spilled out of the plastic bags or were lying loose among the waste were coconut shells and coffee shop waste. But then they noticed the blood samples, needles, lab reports, visitor passes, cotton, surgical masks and other items among the waste and realised what it was. Recognising the health hazard the dump posed, Saldanha immediately dialled 108, the newly launched round-the-clock emergency response service for medical, police or fire-related emergencies.

To make matters worse, Saldanha picked up a sheaf of papers from the site which turned out to be requests for biochemical tests and lab reports of particular patients. Each report gives several details including the name of the patient, his or her Universal Hospital Identification Device (UHID) number and a barcode. Such patient details are usually held to be confidential. These reports, as well as 80 investigation slips and some discarded visitor passes that were at the site were all from Apollo Hospitals, Bangalore.

You can see the complete article here.