A walk into the past

offbeat

A walk into the past

One day, we, a group of three travellers, woke up with the lark, the crow and such other birds that begin singing at early hours.

We traipsed through the waking town of Badami, past its still silent market and past the museum where all was now locked and barred. Pausing briefly at the mist-enveloped waters of the Agastya Thirtha, we trudged up the path that led past a village and then into the hills, picking our way through the dung and droppings. A short way up, the hill flattened out, droppings disappeared and the view finally jolted us awake. To our left, a vast vista of green; to our right, a panoramic view of Badami with the Agastya Thirtha glittering like an emerald set in the midst of red-brown cliffs.

We had taken the road less travelled — literally — as we were on an old walking route that led over the rocky plateau near Badami to the temple complex at Mahakuta, six km away. We peered into tiny rock pools that lay just off the path. We oohed and aahed at the fantastic sandstone formations that we passed. We stopped to see little shrines under the trees, and we made detours to the edge of the plateau to gaze at the valley below and the forested hills across. Old milestones, possibly from the British period, marked our progress in miles. About an hour into our walk, the path descended into a broad agricultural valley, past a small pond teeming with birds, and then took us through more wilderness.

All at once, the silence was broken by something more than birdsong — the sound of children laughing and shrieking floated down the air. The noise grew louder, the trees thinned out slightly, and suddenly we were at an ancient stone entrance leading into a temple complex. We had arrived at Mahakuta!
Architectural marvel
The temples at Mahakuta are sheltered by large trees and are clustered around a stepped tank fed by a natural spring. All the times I have been to Mahakuta, I have always found the tank full of excited people, especially children. Indeed, people have probably been getting unalloyed pleasure, splashing about in the tank, for the 1,400 years or so that the complex has existed.

Mahakuta is a great place for people-watching and I could have spent long and happy hours doing just that, but there were also old temples that beckoned. As in the more famous World Heritage Site of Pattadakal, just 12 km away, the interesting thing about Mahakuta’s temples is the blend of different architectural styles within the same complex. The 7th century Mahakuteshwara Temple and the slightly later Mallikarjuna Temple are both built with typical Dravida-style towers, while the Sangameshwara and Virupaksheshwara temples have the typical Nagara-style tower that is more typical of north India.

A leisurely stroll around the temple complex reveals some outstanding examples of early Chalukyan art. The whitewash on the Mahakuteshwara Temple does not detract from the lively friezes and large sculptures of Shiva that adorn its outer walls. George Michell, the renowned architect and historian, points out how these are unusual in that they are all two-armed rather than four-armed.

Another unusual feature in Mahakuta is the gateway on the pathway from
Badami, which is flanked by two rather grotesque-looking skeletal guardians. In the late 1800s, John Fleet, a British historian, antiquarian and civil servant, found a pillar a few metres away from this very gateway. On this 6.8m high sandstone pillar was inscribed the famous Mahakuta pillar inscription of Mangalesha. Dated 597 AD, the inscription recorded a grant to Makuteshwaranatha, as the deity was then known. This pillar is now in a museum in Vijayapura.

Nature’s glory

We spent a few hours pottering around Mahakuta, relaxing in the gentle sunlight that filtered through the trees and watching adults become children as they jumped into the temple tank. And then, we were off to our next lesser-known Chalukyan destination. Bhadra Nayakana Jalihal, or BN Jalihal, is worth visiting just for its breathtaking scenery: a forest glen, a rock overhang, and a waterfall that gurgles merrily over it. In the cavernous shelter behind the waterfall are some shrines dedicated to the Saptamatrikas — the Seven Mothers — and other gods and goddesses. But we were looking for a shrine to a mortal.

The area around the rivulet and the overhang has a number of small, single-cell shrines, each containing a linga. One of these shrines carries an inscription that marks it out as special. According to scholars, the inscription proclaims the shrine as the ‘casket-like structure of the Chalukyan king Vikramaditya Satyashraya.’ Some historians thus infer that the shrine could be the final resting place of Vikramaditya II. This was the Chalukyan king who ruled from 733 to 746 AD, and is most famous for his

victories against the Pallavas and for occupying their capital Kanchipuram. Some historians aver that the entire dell could be a Chalukyan royal cemetery. Others have speculated that Vikramaditya and his retinue may have been ambushed in this valley or perhaps met with an accident, which is why he was buried here. Of course, there are also scholars who scoff at the whole idea. Either way, we were excited by the prospect of seeing what might be a 1,300-year-old royal grave.

We carefully negotiated stone steps and clambered over rocks looking at shrine after shrine. We forged our way into and past thorny thickets looking for the royal resting place until we finally found it. Except that it was slightly larger than the other shrines and had the inscription by the side of the entrance, the purported royal tomb was remarkably shorn of any ostentation.

No doubt when the king was buried here, Jalihal would have been near-pristine forestland. No doubt he was buried with much sadness and ceremony. Today, the tomb lies hidden between shrubs. Nothing marks out the shrine as possibly being special. Nothing indicates that someone who once ruled over an empire may lie buried there. The tomb of the conqueror of Kanchi lies forlorn and forgotten.

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