Message from a time past

Message from a time past

HERITAGE

Message from a time past

A king left a message for posterity 1,500 years ago. But we didn’t get to know about it until about 40 years ago.

In 1971, two of Karnataka’s most respected archaeologists, BR Gopal and A Sundara, were exploring the region around Banavasi when they discovered an inscription that had been recorded sometime around 500 AD.

The place was Gudnapur, about five km northwest of Banavasi, and the inscription they happened upon was instrumental in piecing together the genealogy of one the most important dynasties of Karnataka, the Kadambas. It was also among the oldest inscriptions to use Kannada.

Gudnapur was once a secondary city, a tier-II city if you will, of the Kadambas, who had their capital at Banavasi. But while Banavasi still attracts hundreds of visitors because of its beautiful Madhukeshwara temple, Gudnapur receives next to none. And yet, Gudnapur has all that heritage buffs could ask for – greenery and antiquity, ruins and romance, scenic vistas and grand old trees, all topped up with the thrill of discovery.

The inscription at Gudnapur was recorded during the reign of the Kadamba ruler Ravivarma, who was crowned in 485 AD and ruled for 35 years. It is inscribed on a pillar about 20 feet long that now lies on its side, its top broken off. To me, it looked majestic even in its felled and broken state.

A beautifully incised script adorns all four faces of the square pedestal of the pillar. I learnt later that it is meant to be read from the bottom up. Each line goes right around the pillar; each new line starts above the previous one.

According to H S Gopal Rao, noted epigraphist and former General Secretary of the Kannada Ithihasa Academy, though the language of the inscription is Sanskrit, the script uses early Kannada characters. Gopal Rao explains that stone inscriptions were meant to be read by the public and so often used the language of the people.

The first part of the inscription gives a detailed genealogy of the Kadamba rulers, beginning with Virasarma, a Vedic scholar whose family came to be called the Kadambas and who shone “like the sun’s disc on earth.” After giving accounts of the kings who followed, it dwells a little more on Ravivarma, the ruler who had the inscription installed.

In the colourful hyperbole so characteristic of most inscriptions, it describes him as one whose good deeds were like a dam on the River Ganga and whose thighs were like a fort! It goes on to describe the construction of a temple dedicated to Manmatha or Kama. To the right of the temple, says the inscription, was the palace. To the left were dancing halls and the ladies’ apartments.

Controversial inscription
The inscription generated a bit of controversy among historians. Some scholars pointed out that a correction had been made in the stone record and that the original reading was Kama Devalaya, implying the construction of a temple dedicated to Kama, the god of love.

Many others believe that the record clearly refers to a Kama Jinalaya, indicating that it was obviously a Jain temple. They also point out that Manmatha is another name for Bahubali, which would make the Gudnapur temple one of the oldest shrines dedicated to him.

The part of the inscription dealing with the temple was what I found most interesting because you can actually see portions of this temple just a few feet away from the inscription. Today, this site is known as the Virabhadra temple, because a temple dedicated to that god was built here a few hundred years later, sometime in the Chalukya period. But all around the little Virabhadra temple are the remains of a far-older, sprawling temple complex.

Archaeologists from the Archaeological Survey of India worked on this site in the early 1990s and found, just as the inscription describes, the foundations and parts of walls of what was evidently once a grand temple, a palace, dancing halls, guard rooms, pavilions and courtyards.

Ravivarma’s inscription also describes the festivities that were to be performed at the temple, particularly the Vasantotsava, which was to be celebrated during springtime. Interestingly, archaeologists unearthed a lot of pottery during their excavations.

Apart from the usual storage pots, they also found lots of sprinklers and spouted vessels, which they say were probably used during these festivals. They also correlate some of the structures they found with the Vasantotsava festival. For example, just north of the Virabhadra temple is a little platform that was probably where the royals watched the dances from, during the festival.

The inscription then is somewhat like an incomplete guidebook – there is the palace as it mentions, but given the passage of time, it is now up to you to understand how it looked.

I reflected that there are probably not too many places where you could try and figure out the plan of a 1500-year-old palace by walking along its foundations. Or where you could see post-holes that once held wooden pillars and imagine what the rooms might have looked like all those centuries ago. You will find square pillar bases too, which meant that large pillars must have once adorned an impressive entrance hall to the temple.

Every once in a while, you will also come across relics that are at once evocative and thrilling in their abandonment – broken but still beautiful statues of serene Jain tirthankaras, inscriptions recorded for posterity that have eroded so much that their message is lost forever, others that lie almost hidden by the grass that grows wild around them. And of course, lots of potsherds and pieces of terracotta roof tiles.

The temple complex is incredibly scenic, being perched on a little hill that overlooks the vast Gudnapur lake, one of the largest in the district. The inscription refers to this lake as the Guddatataka, and says it was built by Ravivarma; all the lands that came under cultivation of this lake were donated to the temple.

The temple Ravivarma built is now in ruins. The drums and music of the Vasantosava have long since ceased to be heard here. But the lake the king built still delights. Although we didn’t linger on for the show, the temple provides a wonderful vantage point from where to see the sun set over the lake, accompanied by an orchestra of birdsong.

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