Township of shifting sands

Last Updated 09 November 2009, 15:51 IST
Township of shifting sands

Situated on the banks of the Cauvery, the town of Talakad offers visitors a unique, heady combination of a sacred river, ancient settlements and shifting sands, the whole seasoned generously with myth, legend and history.

Talakad has a long history, going back to at least the eighth century when it was the capital of the Ganga kings. In later years, it was also a prominent city under the Cholas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagar kings and the Mysore Wodeyars, with each successive dynasty adding its own architectural stamp to the city.
Like any other ancient city in India, Talakad too has its share of colourful myths. But of the several stories about this ancient town, one that reverberates through the years down to this day dates from the early 1600s, when Raja Wodeyar defeated Rangaraya, the Vijayanagar empire’s viceroy in Srirangapatna.

The famed curse
The victorious king alleged that Rangaraya’s wife, Alamelamma, still had with her jewels that rightly belonged to the temple at Srirangapatna. Eventually, when Raja Wodeyar sent soldiers to recover the jewels, Alamelamma fled to Talakad and famously cursed the king and the town before drowning herself in the Cauvery near Malingi a town on the opposite bank of the river. “Let Talakad be filled with sand,” she is said to have cried, “Let the Mysore kings remain childless. Let the river at Malingi become a whirlpool.” In an extraordinary turn of events, beginning in the 1600s, Talakad did indeed begin to be deluged with sand. This concurrence with the curse has never failed to capture the imagination of visitors to the besieged town, where today, some 30-odd temples are said to lie buried under the sand. In recent years, this remarkable coincidence has also intrigued scholars, resulting in some fresh insight into this mystery.

Excavations galore
Archaeological excavations have over the years uncovered some fascinating remnants of Talakad’s past. Excavations in the 1990s revealed, among other things, a long brick wall, six feet thick at the base, possibly built as a barrier to the sands which had already begun inundating the site in the 17th century, a Jain temple from the 7th or 8th century, remains of a canal and a brick pond with some feeder channels. Later excavations centred around the magnificent Kirtinarayana temple, built in 1116 AD by the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana, and now nestled within a circle of advancing sand dunes. The temple has a huge idol of the god Narayana, almost 2 m tall. Currently undergoing renovation, the temple is surrounded by stones, each carefully numbered to be later replaced in its correct position. In the course of renovating some structures near here some years ago, archaeologists were startled to find remains of earlier structures beneath the temple. Subsequent excavations revealed a wall, stone inscriptions and even drainage pipes, all below the level of the temple.

Ecological disaster theory
In a paper published two years ago, scholar KN Ganeshaiah postulated that the onslaught of sand was really an ecological disaster prompted by the construction of a dam in 1336. This dam across the Cauvery, which still exists, was built by an eminent minister of the Vijayanagar empire, Madhava mantri, because of which it is still called the Madhavamantri dam. According to Ganeshaiah, this construction would have caused the sand on the river bed to be exposed to the strong winds that blow across the region. As he suggests, this accumulation of sand would have been perceptible by the time Alamelamma uttered her curse.

A geological fault?
Late last year, eminent geologist KS Valdiya wrote that the Talakad mystery was not the result of an ecodisaster but of a geological phenomenon.Valdiya pointed out that an active geological fault – the Talakad-Malavalli fault – runs along the Cauvery bank opposite Talakad. He conjectures that a reactivation of this fault caused the land east of this fault to subside. Based on the archaeological evidence of structures underneath the Kirtinaryana temple, Valdiya proposes that this subsidence of an earlier town took place prior to the temple’s construction. This subsidence also caused a pool in the Cauvery’s channel. Silt and sand brought in by floodwaters began accumulating here, and was eventually blown onto the town of Talakad by the prevailing winds.

Remote sensing technology
The latest explorations in Talakad are by a team of scientists including MB Rajani, a doctoral student at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, who works on using remote sensing technology for archaeological explorations. As Rajani explains, “An ant walking on a sculpture cannot appreciate it properly. You can only appreciate it if you look at it from a little distance. Similarly, remote sensing allows us to see a site in its context, allowing us to pick up connections with its surroundings.”

A canal that ran from the dam?
Based on her interpretation of the images, together with ground truthing, Rajani was able to identify several interesting features. Among them was a linear pattern of vegetation stretching from the Madhavamantri dam to old Talakad.
Rajani explains that such a pattern indicates a crop mark: high subsurface moisture content because of buried archaeological features such as ditches or canals manifests as a vegetation pattern on the surface.
Rajani therefore postulates that the line of vegetation corresponds to a buried canal that likely ran from the dam to old Talakad town, now completely buried under sand. Using similar analyses, she also found a buried bund or fortification and a large rectangular feature on the path of the old canal, which she conjectures might have been a reservoir.
Rajani points out that, because of how sites are excavated (usually in small trenches in limited areas), it would have been difficult for archaeologists to discover the large features that she has inferred from her remote sensing study. But rather than replace excavations, she hopes that the results of her study, which form the basis of her PhD, can be used to guide further explorations in the area.

The curse remains a mystery...
But what does this mean as far as the famous curse is concerned? Did Alamelamma’s words lead to the town being buried? Rajani sidesteps the questions by stating that “it was not our objective to either support or refute the curse” at Talakad, although she agrees that it is a “very mysterious site”.
And with that, I couldn’t agree more. Walking the sands of the old town, knowing that layer upon layer of civilisations lie buried underneath your feet, is an experience you are unlikely to encounter elsewhere. And perhaps the best part is, Talakad still offers you the space to ponder these and other mysteries.
You can take a boat ride in the quiet river or walk along secluded stretches of beach to listen to the many stories that still swirl in the sands, of a woman and her curse that resonates through the centuries.

(Published 09 November 2009, 15:50 IST)

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