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Thursday 24 August 2017
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Stopping by the sacred sangama

Travel

Striking The main shrine is                dedicated to Lord Shiva, but there are a number of mantapas within the spacious temple complex. Photo Meera Iyer
The word ‘paradise’ represents different places for different people. Meera Iyer writes about her personal paradise, Bhagamandala.

Shah Jahan had it wrong. If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here, in Bhagamandala. This little town in verdant Kodagu is on the banks of the Cauvery, flanked by impossibly green mountains, home to a beautiful, ancient temple. What’s more, it is just a short trek from the origin of the sacred river itself.

Bhagamandala sits at the confluence of the rivers Cauvery and Kanika. Like the Triveni Sangam in the north, here too, a third river, the Sujyoti, is said to be a hidden river that joins the confluence.

There are many legends about the birth of the Cauvery, including one that recounts how the river flowed out when the sage Agastya’s kamandalu was knocked over. The Cauvery Purana has another version that refers to Bhagamandala in particular. The story goes that when Agastya was married to Cauvery, she had extracted a promise from him that he would never leave her alone for too long.

All was well until one day, Agastya got involved in a discussion with his students and forgot his promise to his wife. When several hours passed by with no sign of her husband, Cauvery jumped into a tank and flowed out as a river. Agastya’s disciples tried to stop her from flowing away, but the river Cauvery just went underground and reappeared a short distance away at Bhaganda Kshetra, or Bhagamandala.

Bhagamandala’s sangama is believed to be one of the most sacred spots along the river’s course. So after a dip in the confluence, refreshed, rejuvenated and purged of all sins, we made our way across the road to the other sanctified spot in Bhagamandala, the Bhagandeshwara temple. As we entered here, it seemed as if, along with our footwear, we also left behind all the noise and cares of the outside world.

Spotlessly clean

The main shrine here is dedicated to Lord Shiva but there are a number of mantapas within the spacious temple complex, interspersed with other shrines dedicated to Vishnu, Subramanya and Ganesha. All the structures are built in the style of architecture resembling that found in Kerala, with high stone plinths and walls, and topped with steeply sloping roofs made with copper tiles.

When we visited, preparations for a morning puja were underway, and a lot of the mantapas were stocked with vessels, garlands, and other paraphernalia for the puja. To say everything was spotlessly clean would be an understatement because everything was positively gleaming.

The information panel outside the temple had directed us to look at the exquisitely crafted wooden ceilings of the mantapas. It was when we were ooh-ing and aah-ing over these that we met Krishnan Nambisan, one of the many friendly and helpful temple priests. He informed us that the carved wooden ceilings, each a masterpiece in its own right, dated from around 300 years ago, when the temple was extensively renovated. But the temple itself, he said, was far older.

Near the temple entrance is an old inscription which corroborated this. The undated stone record uses a curious mix of Grantha, Tulu, Malayalam and Tamil characters and is believed to have been written in the late 1300s during the reign of an obscure ruler, King Bodharupa. In those times, Bhagamandala was called Bhagandashrama. Apart from lengthy specifications on the number of garlands to be used and lamps to be lit in the temple, the inscription does not mention who built the temple.

According to Nambisan, the temple was named after the sage Bhaganda, who installed the linga in the temple. Legend says even the great sage Agastya worshipped here. Nambisan went on to enthusiastically share with us some of the things about the temple he loved. He pointed out to us the shallow relief carvings of the sun on the walls of the Subramanya temple, made precisely at the spots where the sun’s rays strike on the summer solstice; the ten incarnations of Vishnu, depicted in miniature carvings on the walls of the Vishnu temple; the srichakra in one of the exquisite wooden carvings on the roof of a mantapa – Nambisan showed us how it rotated freely, smiling indulgently as we marvelled at the workmanship.

Battle scars

A painful knock on the head from the temple’s copper roof reminded me of a well-known episode in the temple’s history, dating from late 1789, when there was a fierce battle between the Coorg Raja and Tipu Sultan’s army who had then occupied Bhagamandala. During this fight, when Raja Doddaveerarajendra directed cannon fire at Tipu’s army, some tiles of the Bhagamandala temple were destroyed. These were subsequently repaired and replaced with silver tiles by the Raja.

After a leisurely couple of hours at the temple, when every mantapa had finally been gazed at, every beautiful wooden ceiling admired, we decided to move on to Talacauvery, the source of the Cauvery. After being steeped in the serene ambience of the temple, a car-ride seemed strangely jarring and so we decided to walk up what must have been the old route, used by pilgrims and travellers before the road came up.

The blissful six-km trek wound its way past fragrant plantations, alternating between old and worn stone steps partly covered with moss and ferns, flattening out to a track on the hilltops. We didn’t meet a single soul along the way though we did come across several butterflies. The only sounds to be heard were the crack of twigs under our feet, and the occasional rustle of a gentle breeze stirring the leaves of the trees that fringed the trail…punctuated, sadly, by the huffing and puffing of a woefully out-of-shape writer.

The first sign that we were close to our destination was an ancient lichen-encrusted stone Nandi pointing the way to Talacauvery. The second was the sound of cars whizzing past on the road below us, towards the holy spring where the Cauvery begins her 800-km long journey to the sea, with her first stop in the quiet village we had just left behind.

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