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.