Mapping a temple town

Travel

Mapping  a temple town

SIGHTS & STREETS The Cheluva Narayana Swamy temple.  Below: The town offers many such framed views.  Photos by the Varna Shashidhar

Melkote ‘fort on high ground’ is a town that is lesser known compared to its illustrious neighbouring district Mysore. It is about 30 km away from the pilgrimage centre of Shravanabelagola. In spite of this, Melkote is hardly on the tourist map of Karnataka. Located in the Mandya district, it takes about three hours to drive to Melkote from Bangalore and about an hour from Mysore.

The town became an important centre for Srivaishnavism, after saint Ramanujacharya came to live here in the 12th century. Although it is a town with several temples, the social and cultural life continues to revolve around the main temples of Yoga Narasimha Swamy on the hill and the Cheluva Narayanaswamy Temple in the heart of the town.

The town has beautifully articulated spaces and chartreuse landscapes that are often punctuated by pools of water. The embedded water collection system defines the geography and the landscape of the Melkote region. Unlike other towns Melkote has an identity that is uniquely its own. The temples, the mantapas and the tanks are crucial to the experience of Melkote. At the base of the hill that has the Yoga Narasimha Swamy temple is a large kalyani over 200 feet wide. A flight of steps lead to the water. Enclosing the kalyanis on all four sides are pillared colonnades.

An octagonal shaped Bhuvaneshwari mantapa (pavilion) stands prominently along the kalyani. It provides framed views of the Yoga Narasimha Swamy temple up the hill. The Yoga Narasimha Swamy Temple forms a threshold between the plains and the skies. As one ascends, the whole city unfolds incrementally. A water tower and an electric transformer somewhat mar a landscape of emerald paddy fields, forest green canopies, boulders, tanks and unending roofscapes of the entire town below.

Shadowed recesses, moss grown masonry walls, mantapas that emerge out of the boulders, the branching of mature plumerias, neems and ficus trees form striking spaces.

The ascent is a feat of absolute devotion as we observe elderly women in nine yard silk sarees hike up to the hill top uncomplainingly. An ambulatory around the sanctum sanctorum has small windows that offer dramatic views of the entire town below. In the shrine is a beautiful seated Yoga Narasimha Swamy idol. As we stand near the roof of the temple, a seemingly choreographed mass of dark clouds clung to the temple’s gopurams, as the faint sunlight deftly wedged between causing us to wonder if the sunlight and darkness had been woven together in an inextricable pattern.

We got puliyogare prasada in leaf cups at one of the shaded thresholds on our descent and we also paused to savour tender coconut water marvelling at the ingenious seller who did brisk business selling coconuts.

At the base, an otherwise ubiquitous compound wall announced boldly the famed dish puliyogare dish. At Subbanna’s store (well known in town for puliyogare) we bought the entire stock for the day and between us all we had puliyogare mixes, bitter lime gojju and bitter lime pickle.

In the throes of change

Books on Melkote are available at ‘Sri Yadushaila Pustakalaya’ on Raja veedhi (street) the central spine that connects the Raya Gopura to the Cheluvanarayana Swamy temple. R Vasantha’s book on the Narayana Swamy temple provides a basic map of the city. The town has found it hard to retain its youth who move away from Melkote to other cities in India and abroad for education and work opportunities.

The owner of the book store Vasu is a rare exception amongst the younger generation of Melkote residents, he was born in Melkote, lived in Bangalore but chose to move back to Melkote. As one of the residents of Melkote jested ‘Melkote-Malleshwaram-New York’ is a trajectory that is both familiar, recognisable and followed by the Melkote residents. As people migrated from Melkote the built fabric began to slowly crumble.

Older houses are fast vanishing or are in complete disuse. On the exterior Melkote seems to be a town that has been transformed very little by modern intervention, nevertheless the onslaught is visible in the bright polythene blues of plastics abundantly in use in the town, in the cakes of soap that litter the streets on the way to the kalyanis, in the multicoloured auto rickshaws, the blaring sound systems and in a handful of recently built houses and institutional structures that stand out amidst the delicate centuries old architecture of the town.

Vairamudi in March

The town periodically comes alive during festivals including the annual Vairamudi festival held in the month of March. Rajamudi or a crown of jewels for the processional deity at Cheluva Narayana Swamy temple was donated by the Wodeyars of Mysore. The Raja veedhi the spine of the town transforms into a processional path during these temple festivities.

The Cheluva Narayana Swamy temple is at the centre of the town. All its religious and social events revolve around this temple. The temple consists of a grabha griha containing the statute of Cheluva Narayana, a pillared ardhamantapa, a mahamantapa that has 16 pillars and a rangamantapa that has 44 ornately carved pillars.

Devotion, education and culture define this town. P T Narashimachar, (or Pu Ti Na) the famous Kannada writer and poet was amongst the most famous people who lived in Melkote. The simplicity and elegance of his tiny home was astonishing to encounter, with its pillared verandah and an attic where the roof is simply lifted off the columns in a clever detail.

It was as if the house had inherited a deep sense of stillness and tranquility and it was easy to imagine Pu ti Na lost in his poetry in such a peaceful environment. Artist Kamalesh’s evocative sketches of the landscapes of Melkote adorn the walls of the house.

Centre for learning

Melkote has also been a centre for Sanskrit learning, with its famed Sanskrit College. We then drove to Santhosh’s Koulagi’s Janapada Seva trust on the outskirts of Melkote. Janapada Seva Trust promotes a Gandhian lifestyle and activities like organic farming and weaving.

On our way back to town after lunch we stop to observe migratory birds cover the Moti talab in a fleeting speckled blanket as we took in unrestrained views of the Narasimha hill with the temple atop.

We visit the Akka (elder sister) and Thangi (younger sister) Kola (tank) twin tanks. These two tanks lay in a linear sequence with a third tank Ningannana kola. The Raya Gopura is an unfinished monumental gate with columns soaring into the skies. It was designed to be the main gate of the town.

Late evening shadows hang heavy and sunlight crept into the compressed streets, as we move through the weaver’s quarters. Melkote was once known for its silk weaving. Today less than a dozen families practise this craft. We visit the house of one of the weavers. We sit on the cool polished cement floor, resting our aching feet and marvelling at the fabric that is in the process of being created, painstakingly and patiently.

We end the day at Surendra Koulagi’s hundred-year-old house. A social activist, Surendra Koulagi founded Nava Jeevana Daari (Route to a new Life) for physically and mentally challenged children. He was also the personal assistant to Jayaprakash Narayan.

His son Santhosh Koulagi now runs the Janapada Seva Trust started by his father. In a gesture of hospitality, their home is often thrown open to people visiting Melkote. The house reflects their belief in the Gandhian philosophy and way of life.

We sat in their lush back garden amidst gooseberry trees, white hibiscuses and bromeliads and enjoyed cups of filter coffee and biscuits. The sun dipped in the foreground, casting an orange light that touched the Moti-talab waters gingerly as we started back to Bangalore.

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