Antiquities abound here

Antiquities abound here

Maya Jayapal discovers a charming little place in the town of Bhatkal dotted with remnants of ancient trade and sculpted temples

Bhatkal is 165 km north of Mangalore, located along a very picturesque coastline highway. We sped along a surprisingly good road with the sea shimmering in the sunlight. Because of its location, it served as the premier port for trade between the Vijayanagara Empire and the Arabs in the sixteenth century. This has been verified by the Geniza documents found in Cairo in a room of the Jewish synagogue. Many well-known travellers including Domingo Paes have also mentioned Bhatkal in their accounts of India.

An active trade centre

The Vijayanagara Empire needed horses for its armies, therefore fine Arabian horses were imported through the ports of Kanara such as Bhatkal. The products shipped through Bhatkal to Arabia included spices such as pepper, ginger and cardamom and traded items such as iron and textiles in return for the horses, copper and gold. However, it did not last more than a century at the most and its importance was supplanted by Basrur, a port further south.

The Nawayath Muslims in Bhatkal are the result of an intermarriage of the Arabs and Persians with the local people. Spoken languages range from Portuguese, Persian, Arabic to the local languages.
As in all dynasties and kingdoms, during the peak years of their prosperity, not only the kings, but important personages also constructed fine temples which dot the countryside, looming up like mushrooms after the rains.

I had read and heard about this particular temple called Khetapai Narayana temple in Bhatkal. So we decided to stop at Bhatkal, a town neither of us knew much about except the famous Bhatkal Biryani.

Lesser known place

When we went in search of Khetapai Narayana Temple, a Vaishnavite one, no one seemed to be definite about its exact location. They looked at us as if we were aliens from another planet and vaguely told us that there were so many temples in and around the place. And as matter of fact, we realised that this particular Temple itself is one of a cluster of five temples built by Khetapai Narayana, a jeweller who had come from Goa along with his five sons.

When we finally stumbled upon it after several failed tries, we found it was in a small village. There was nothing in the environment which alerted us to the presence of this ancient Temple except a small, blue ASI board. The houses of the village abutted on it were fringed with palm trees and in the corner was a pile of stones maybe from the temple precincts itself.

The mind finds it difficult to accept that these may be stones that are 500 years old. So casual are we with our historical riches! But the area in front, strong with tamped earth, was swept clean and there was a beautiful garudasthambha with figures on it supposedly of the merchant and his five sons.

We just pushed open a door and walked in as if it was our ancestral house. It was not locked and there were no disapproving priests or guardians. It was peaceful, silent and holy. It was like an oasis. While we were there looking at the sculptures, people from the village walked in, either put some scarlet hibiscus near the idols or made their obeisances or simply walked around the Temple very casually. I saw one woman bend and pick up an errant piece of paper and tuck it into the pouch of her sari, showing an awareness for cleanliness which her compatriots in the cities would not have shown.

Life-like beauty

The entire Temple was enclosed by a stone wall. The door through which we entered was also stone-framed with guardian figures. Leading to the inner space at the entrance was a pair of beautifully carved stone balustrades with sculptured figures in niches. The yalis forming the balustrades were elegantly carved and seemed to have overlong curling tongues. Someone had placed hibiscus flowers in reverence under the figures and their vivid contrast against the dark stone was striking.

According to Sir Percy Brown, the exteriors of the temples, even though made of laterite, are very wood-like in appearance. It is flat-roofed without any shikara or tower but imitate overlapping wooden planks. At the sides of the Temple, are stone screens, with slats more like blinds actually. As he says, “it is a frank copy of the domestic architecture of the locality.” The Vijayanagara contribution was the navaranga with four pillars.

Display of an epic

The narrative of the Ramayana unfolds on the sides of the laterite walls and at the base of the screens and the columns. We did recognise the more popular and dramatic stories such as the coronation or Rama and Sita, the abduction of Sita and  Hanuman and his monkey armies. In between, just like in Hampi’s Hazara Rama Temple are courtly and daily life scenes : a woman ornamenting herself, jugglers or entertainers dancing with musical instruments.

All was quiet. No priest to harass us, no throngs of worshippers, no noise or smell. Just the gods and us. I carried the memory of the Temple within me for days; it was like opening a forgotten page in an abandoned book.

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