It is a virtue to be born in Banavasi as a human being. If not as a human being, then at least one should be born as a bee or a cuckoo in the garden of Banavasi. So said the celebrated Kannada poet Pampa, some 1100 years ago.
I was in Pampavana, a garden in Banavasi named after the great poet, where legend has it that he wrote many of his verses. The early morning mist still clung to the grass and the trees when I ventured into the garden. I could hear only my quietest thoughts, my footfalls and an orchestra of birds all around. Up ahead, a temple slowly appeared from the mist. This was Adimadhukeshwara Temple, which according to some scholars, is the oldest temple in Banavasi, preceding even the town’s main and most famous Madhukeshwara Temple.
Standing in solitary splendour in the middle of a grove of trees, it was beautifully situated. Just opposite the temple, a lotus-filled pond beckoned. We spent half an hour on its steps watching some water birds as they walked daintily on the floating leaves and then disappeared into the grasses on the margins.
Banavasi. Forest-dweller. The very name is enticing, conjuring up images of lush vegetation. In the past, the town has been known by other equally poetic sounding names such as Vaijayanti, Sanjayataka and Kanakavati. Seated in the Pampavana, breathing in the scent of trees, I felt the current name could not have been more apt.
Lying in the lap of Malnad’s forests, Banavasi has a history going back all the way to at least the time of Ashoka the Great who sent his missionaries here to spread the message of dharma 2,300 years ago. Banavasi also finds mention in the works of 2nd century Roman geographer, Claudius Ptolemy. About 1,500 years ago, the town was the capital of the Kadamba dynasty. Later, under the Rashtrakutas, it was the capital of an important province comprising 12,000 towns and villages.
In the 1970s, archaeologists from Mysore University and the Karnataka State Department of Archaeology conducted excavations here to trace out the town’s history. Among the interesting things they found were the remains of two large apsidal brick structures that they dated to 2nd century AD or so. Interestingly, they also found evidence of even earlier brick constructions below these apsidal buildings, which they tentatively dated to the Mauryan period.
The weight of all this history sits very lightly in Banavasi. Today, the cynosure of all visitors’ eyes is Madhukeshwara Temple, traditionally dated back to the Kadamba period. As with most important temples in South India, this one too has many structures added over the centuries. Scholars have pointed out how the square pillars in the sanctum are similar in style to those in some temples in Badami, suggesting that this part of the temple was built in the 7th or 8th century. The other additions were evidently made during the time of the Kalyani Chalukyas in the 11th or 12th century — the mantapa or pillared hall with its balcony-like seating, sloping roofs and polished bell-shaped pillars are characteristic of this period.
The Sonda kings are credited with some major additions including the mantapa in front of the Parvati Temple. By far, their most eye-catching contribution is the ornate monolithic granite structure called the stone cot or king’s seat. Its carved-lotus ceiling, its filigree-like border designs and its carved pillars belie the hardness of the stone they were carved from. This cot was donated to the temple by the Sonda king Raghunatha in 1628. Many of the shrines lining the outer walls of the temple are also Sonda additions. Among these are shrines dedicated to the ashtadikpalakas, the guardians of the eight directions.
One of Banavasi’s most important antiquities also stands in one such small enclosure built against the temple’s outer wall. This is a slab with a carving of a five-hooded snake. Along its sides is carved an inscription in Brahmi script. The inscription dates back to the 2nd century AD and records the construction of a tank and a vihara by Sivakhada-nagasiri, the daughter of the Chutu ruler Vinhukada Chutukulanda Satakarni. The striking image of the snake and the way the record has been finely chiselled along the edge of the slab demonstrate a high degree of mastery over the craft of stone-carving. The inscription mentions that the record was the work of an artist named Nataka of Banavasi. Does that make Nataka Karnataka’s first named artist, I wondered.
Another relic from the same period in Banavasi’s past is a bit larger and not in such fine repair. In the days of yore, Banavasi was encircled by a roughly oval fort and a moat. Today the old fort wall is little more than an elongated mound or hillock that runs around the town intermittently, covered in grass and plants in most places and made taller in others by the dense growth of trees that have colonised it.
If you climb onto these old walls, you can still see the old moat here and there, some parts converted into fields and elsewhere merely a dry depression. However, head to the erstwhile gateways that lead through the fort into the city and you can still see how the fort wall was constructed. We wandered along River Varada, looking for one such old gateway, mindful of the crocodiles that sometimes sun themselves on the river bank. After some enjoyable minutes of boldly going where no sane person had gone before, we finally found a gap in the wall of vegetation that covered the old fort wall.
This was one of the old gateways, and we walked through it, much as visitors to Banavasi must have, several hundred years ago. On either side of us stood the fort wall, massive and brooding, more than 20 metre wide at its base and almost 10 metre tall. The core of the wall was made of bricks which, thanks to their characteristic dimensions, have been called Satavahana bricks. This means the fort was constructed close to 2,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest extant fort walls in Karnataka!
It would be remiss to not mention another of Banavasi’s attractions — its delectable cuisine. The town has a number of khanavalis that dish up local meals that are worth a king’s ransom.
Banavasi has a way of growing on you. I could never tire of its mist-filled mornings, its quiet streets that invited you to linger, its neat Mangalore-tiled houses, the gentle rush of the river, or the touch of the forest that is ever-present. Pampa would have a lot to write about Banavasi even today.