Boom town it once was

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Boom town it once was

BHATKAL BECKONS Stone roofs, stone screens and yalis like in the Khetapai Narayana temple are characteristic of the Bhatkal region. Photos by the author''Eat your fill at Shimoga,'' we were told, “because you won’t get anything on the way.” It was good advice, for eateries were indeed scarce on the road from Shimoga to Honnavar. What was available in plenty was sustenance for the soul. Almost every turn on the ghat road unveiled scenes of distilled beauty: a waterfall of pure, white water gushing onto the rocks below; another gurgling and splashing joyously, hidden from view by luxuriant vegetation; picturesque cottages perched next to pocket-sized patches of fields surrounded by trees; and everywhere, the saturated green of the lush forests of the Western Ghats. 

I was almost loath to arrive at our destination which was Bhatkal, a small town on the west coast, 35 km south of Honnavar. But with its red-roofed rambling bungalows, moss-covered laterite compound walls, and sharp-featured, doe-eyed women, Bhatkal, too, captivates immediately.

Temples galore

For a town so small, Bhatkal boasts of an impressive number of historical remains, including more than ten temples. Henry Cousens of the Archaeological Survey of India, visited here in the 1890s and was enchanted by the town but dismissed its antiquities saying “there is nothing of much note within the temples.” Standing in the Khetapai Narayana temple, I had to disagree.

Certainly, at first glance, the temple may seem unprepossessing: no imposing gopura to advertise its existence, no thousand-pillared hall, no intricate sculptures showing every bead on the god or goddess’ necklaces. But ensconced in green-tinged laterite walls fringed with coconut palms, set in idyllic rural environs, and with its unusual architecture, I thought the little temple had an abundance of intimate charm.

The temple’s steeply sloping roof is similar to those in the temples of Kerala and Kodagu, except that here, the roof is made of stone, rather than tile or metal. Underneath the roof, stone screens that look remarkably like wooden slats, shield the inner shrine from the sun. And while balustrades incorporating a yali (a mythical animal) are quite common in south India, Bhatkal’s temples have yalis with inordinately tongues that curl up to form the lower part of the balustrade. Such stone roofs, stone screens and distinctive yalis are peculiar to temples of this region.

The panels beneath the stone screens depict scenes from the Ramayana. The story begins with a panel showing Dasharatha performing a sacrifice to beget children and then distributing the heavenly gift of payasa to his wives. Then follows a panel with Rama and Sita, Rama killing a deer, Ravana forcibly carrying Sita away while Jatayu fought to save her…Walking clockwise around the temple, we could follow the entire story as it unfolded along the walls. It was almost like reading a comic book.

Just above the Ramayana frieze are scenes depicting everyday life, including several that the old Bombay Gazetteer coyly describes as “indecent.” But though Henry Cousens was perhaps right in describing the sculpture as ‘coarse,’ vignettes showing such mundane things as two friends chatting, for example, have a remarkable realism to them. The slight boredom of the one sitting with his chin in his hand and the enthusiasm of the other gesturing animatedly as he talked could not have been plainer: it might have been me with a friend!

Vijayanagar’s lifeline

The Khetapai Narayana temple is one of a cluster of six temples that lie within half a kilometre of each other. All of these and a handful of other temples elsewhere in the town were built in the 1500s. That was the time when Bhatkal was the most important port of the mighty Vijayanagar empire. Bhatkal’s port today serves mainly only fishing vessels, but in the late 1400s and 1500s, it was the lifeline of the mighty Vijayanagar empire. The Vijayanagar kings needed good horses to maintain their military supremacy.

Since Indian-bred horses were of poor quality, the Empire imported a constant supply of warhorses from the Persian Gulf, almost all of which came into the kingdom via the port of Bhatkal. Apart from the all-important horses, traders from around the world brought other goods too: pearls, copper and gold among other things. And in turn, much of the Persian Gulf was supplied with rice exported from Bhatkal.

Bhatkal’s old temples were all built during this economic boom, mostly with donations from successful businessmen. Historian Suryanath Kamath in his Gazetteer describes Khetapai as a jeweller who migrated from Goa. Down the street is the Santappa Nayaka Tirumala Narayana temple built in 1555 by Santappa Nayaka, said to have been Khetapai’s brother-in-law. The Lakshminarasimha temple, a little further down, was built by Narasimha Kini, according to a priest at the temple, while another elsewhere in Bhatkal was built by a brother Raghunath Kini.

But this frenetic temple building activity ceased abruptly in the late 1500s. For one thing, the Portuguese captured Goa and forced most of Bhatkal’s trade there. For another, the Vijayanagar kingdom weakened and waned, especially after being defeated in the Battle of Talikota. The capital shifted from Hampi and Bhatkal soon lost its position as the kingdom’s principal port. And with that, Bhatkal’s fortunes declined.

Downturn and ruined temples

Inevitably, as the town’s economy sputtered, many of its temples went to ruin. The Adike Narayana temple, built with donations from areca-nut traders, is today mostly just some exposed wall and a partial roof. Bhatkal’s largest temple, the two-storeyed Jatappa Nayakana Chandranathesvara basti, was built in 1556 by the son of a general, rather than a businessman.

Though it sits in an immaculately maintained lawn, thanks to the Archaeological Survey of India, this Jain basti has that slightly unsettling feel of a once-grand temple now abandoned. Most of the images of tirthankaras that the temple’s six shrines once housed are either broken or missing. The Lakkar Kamti temple dedicated to Lakshminarasimha, had also clearly seen better times. Built in 1567 by Lakkarsa Kamat, the little temple today stands marooned in the midst of fields, an island of brown in a sea of green. After walking through and past some rice fields to get to the temple, I was surprised to see some of its idols adorned with fresh flowers. Clearly, the temple had been isolated but not abandoned by people.

As we walked back from the Lakkar Kamti temple, an old lady beckoned to us from her courtyard, inviting us to eat the amtekai (hog plums) she had just plucked from her tree.

My most cherished memory of Bhatkal involves sitting in a courtyard on the edge of rice fields, sucking on amtekai, and being scolded by a warm and wrinkled old stranger I had just met for not eating enough of her fruits. 

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