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.