Sepia is the colour of this town

Sepia is the colour of this town

Travelogue

Sepia is the colour of this town


There is a sepia-tinted feel to the village of Tonnur, near Pandavapura, in Mandya district, as if it remains in a time long gone. Yet there is also an air of abandonment about it. Perhaps this comes from being reduced to an ordinary little village where once it was a major religious and cultural centre and, briefly, also the political capital of a kingdom.

The Ramanujacharya connection

Many centuries ago, this village went by the rather unwieldy name of Yadavanarayana Chaturvedimangalam. Legend says it was renamed Tondanur (which in Tamil means ‘the village of the devotee’) by the great 12th century Vaishnavite guru, Ramanujacharya, who came to the Mysore area to escape persecution by the Chola king, Kulottunga.

Tondanur or Tonnur is also intimately connected with the great Hoysala king, Vishnuvardhana. The king, then known as Bittideva, had a daughter who suffered from severe depression, a malady that all the court’s physicians and priests had failed to cure.
Tradition says that when Ramanuja successfully cured the princess, the king converted from Jainism to Hinduism and assumed the name Vishnuvardhana.

Vishnuvardhana is believed to have stayed at Tonnur for a short while – inscriptions found elsewhere describe him as ruling from this town. Tonnur is also where the king, Ballala III, temporarily retired to after Malik Kafur attacked the Hoysala capital Dwarasamudra in the 14th century. But it seems to have suffered a decline in status during the Vijayanagar period.

A Hoysala past

Today, Tonnur abounds in historical structures that recall its heydays during the Hoysala period. The Lakshminarayana temple, popularly called the Nambi Narayana temple, is Tonnur’s largest and oldest temple and was built at least partly if not fully, by Vishnuvardhana: an inscription in front of the goddess’ shrine, dating from about 1120 AD, says the mantapa (hall) was built by the order of Vishnuvardhana.

Although built by the same dynasty that gave us Belur and Halebid, this imposing stone temple lacks the highly ornamental style associated with the Hoysalas except for some handsome, polished, lathe-turned pillars.

Later-day additions

It is also clear that additions have been made to it over the centuries – you can see different styles of construction here, such as the myriad types of pillars. Some of these additions are recorded in the many inscriptions scattered around this temple as well as in the Gopalkrishnaswamy temple just opposite. Intricately carved on pillars, walls, and tablets, in Hale (old) Kannada, as well as in Grantha and Tamil, they record grants made to the temples by kings, officers, merchants and others, including many women devotees.

Some speak of money given for rituals, others for maintenance of irrigation channels in the settlement. All of them bring a whiff of the past into the present.

Interestingly, the six-inch idol of Narayana in the temple is unusually depicted as holding his conch in his right hand and the chakra in his left, rather than the other way around, as is more common.

But more than any heady sculptural extravaganza, what impresses in the Nambi Narayana temple is its sheer size. From the huge timber gateway at the main entrance, to the cavernous pillared halls that stretch away endlessly, to the fortress like walls that enclose the whole complex, this remarkably serene temple has been built on an impressively large scale. A walk through its ancient, echoing halls with only a few sparrows for company is enough to revive even the most jaded souls.

900-year-old reservoir

Not far from the temples is another historic structure, a large reservoir which legend ascribes to Ramanuja. I couldn’t help but marvel at the precise feat of engineering that created this large and beautiful lake 900 years ago. The 2150-acre lake has been formed by building an embankment about 80 m long and 40 m high across the Yadava River, at a well-chosen spot between two rocky hills.

An outlet called the Ramanuja Gange has been made in one of the hills through which water gushes out at great force. This is still used to irrigate vast areas downstream. BL Rice, writing in 1897 in the Gazetteer of Mysore, states that when full, the reservoir carried enough water to supply farmers for two years. He adds that although streams from the surrounding hills brought in much sand, the torrents entered in such a direction that all the sand was forced to extreme corners and so did not diminish the depth of the main reservoir at all.

‘Lake of Pearls’

In 1746, Nasir Jung, son of the Mughal Subedar of the Deccan, visited Tonnur and was so impressed with this lake’s clear waters that he re-christened it Moti Talab, or ‘Lake of Pearls’. He certainly picked an apt name. On a clear day, the waters of this vast lake shimmer gently like liquid silk. Although the lake has become fairly popular with tourists, it is still unusually peaceful and quiet here. Every few years, there are proposals to ‘develop’ the lake into a tourist destination, with amusement parks, lighting, scuba diving and the like. Thankfully, this has not happened yet. With its idyllic lake, its backdrop of rocky hills, and its surroundings of verdant paddy fields dotted with coconut palms, Tonnur preserves a rustic charm that is enchanting.           

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