July 30, 2015

Sri Chennakesava Temple complex, Belur, Karnataka

 
“Places all have their own characters, and returning to a city where you have lived before is like coming home to an old friend. But the people begin to look the same; the same faces recurring in cities a thousand miles apart, the same expressions. The flat, hostile stare of the official. The curious look of the peasant. The dull unsurprised faces of the tourists. The same lovers, mothers, beggars, cripples, vendors, joggers, children, policemen, taxi-drivers, pimps. After a while one begins to feel slightly paranoid, as if these people were secretly following from one town to another, changing clothes and faces, but remaining essentially unchanged, going about their dull business with half an eye slightly cocked at us, the intruders. At first one feels a kind of superiority. We are a race apart, we the travellers. We have seen, experienced so much more than they. Content to run out their sad lives in an endless round of sleep-work-sleep, to tend their neat gardens, their identical suburban houses, their small dreams; we hold them in a little contempt. Then, after a while, comes envy. The first time it is almost funny; a sharp sudden sting which subsides nearly straight away. A woman in a park, bending over a child in a pushchair, both faces lit by something which is not the sun. Then comes the second time, the third; two young people on the seafront, arms intertwined; a group of office-girls on their lunchbreak, giggling over coffee and croissants..before long it is an almost constant ache. No, places do not lose their identity, however far one travels. It is the heart which begins to erode after a time.”
– Joanne Harris, “Chocolat”


Poetry in stone - Sri Chennakesava Temple


Blessed with vast verdant, foliage enshrouded plains scattered with moderately-sized gentle hills strewn with staggeringly massive boulders and carpeted by vivid green grass that flamboyantly flaunts its lushness under cover of near-perennial dark, rain-bearing clouds, the township of Belur (also spelled Belooru) in Hassan district of Karnataka, teeming with an unbelievably idyllic laid back life composed of numerous small bazaars and marketplaces sprinkled with hundreds of brilliant hues in the form of fruits and vegetables and sweets for sale and the attires donned by the locals, would have been no different from the thousands of other villages that dot the Indian subcontinent were it not for an evocatively ethereal architectural gem that crowns its meager existence and unquestionably confers upon it an extremely enviable position in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites – the highly embellished Vijayanarayana aka Sri Chennakesava Temple (literally translating to “Handsome Long-haired Lord”), commissioned by the Hoysala Dynasty Emperor Bittideva Vishnuvardhana (reign AD 1108-52) in AD 1117 to celebrate the first of his numerous military victories against the Viceroys of the formidable and expansive Chola Dynasty (reigned the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and the islands of Sri Lanka and Maldives, 300 BC – 1279 AD) of whom he was a vassal, is dedicated to the mythological Lord Keshava/Krishna, an ostentatious playboy-strategist-statesman-cow herder-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived some 5,000 years ago and is regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment. In their literature and folktales, the Hoysalas traced their historic lineage to the Yadava clan of north India which claims genealogical descent from Lord Krishna himself. Despite its unostentatious appearances and near village-like atmosphere, Belur, geographically located on the peaceful banks of the river Yagachi, is not just any other miniscule town next door – though its medieval prestigious impressions are presently indiscernible, it was originally referred to by the name “Velapuri” and was the capital of the Hoysalas, one of the most prominent dynasties of southern India!


Epochal!


After setting eyes on the immaculately magnificent temple seated on its 3-feet high perfectly symmetrical 32-vertexed star-shaped platform (“jagati”) and its numerous exceedingly decorated features, one would not be resorting to hyperbole in stating that the grand structure is literally an epitome of sculptural art – the sheer variety and noteworthy ornamental nature of the artworks and sculptures adorning every conceivable surface of the shrine is unmentionably vast and beyond description – moreover, such is the attention to the minutest of ornamental details that the extraordinarily accomplished artists introduced in their craft that one can be forgiven for believing that the patterns and mythological lores are carved not in stone but in wax or wood! The entire superstructure is composed of dark-green/blue-black hued chloritic schist (soapstone) which is extremely easy to chisel into ornately detailed patterns in its original form but transforms to tremendously resilient, unmalleable stone once exposed to the elements for years. My visit to the colossal temple complex a week back coincided with the sacred occasion of the beginning of the annual ceremonial “Rath Yatra” – an event when temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu all over the country resound with the prayers and devotional chants of hundreds of thousands of devotees – and thus the photos I clicked are crowded with the absolutely incalculable numbers of pilgrims. In fact, the first photo that I have posted here, clicked from near the “Garuda Stambha” located in the courtyard opposite to depict the imposing shrine’s spatial span, is actually a stack of 120 photos which were continuously clicked and later assembled in Photoshop (the latter itself took me over almost four hours!) in order to eliminate the perennial flow of pilgrims and families out for sightseeing!


Stellar - One word, two meanings, spatial and artistic description


The impeccably flawless temple, an exemplar of ancient Dravidian architecture and a testimony to the unequaled skill of the architects and artists who painstakingly toiled for its construction, is surrounded by a vast courtyard flanked at its peripheries by simplistic colonnades also inset with several Kannada inscriptions inscribed in stone and dozens of fascinating sculptures of mythological deities and anthropomorphic entities. The entrance to the enormous complex is via a massive seven-floored pyramidal towering gateway (“Gopuram”), chronologically dated to AD 1397 (reign of the Vijaynagara Empire (ruled AD 1336-1646)), painted sunshine yellow throughout and lined with sculptures of various incarnations and aspects of Lord Vishnu along with fierce servants attending to him and several other mythological deities and mythical creatures. The beyond belief splendid shrine itself is accessible through entrances built along three of its sides, each reached by wide staircases bordered by elegantly sculpted smaller shrines (“Bhumija”) surmounted by pyramidal spires and housing within their small alcoves meticulously detailed stone sculptures of deities so finely polished that they appear to be composed of brass! The incredible magnitude of the innumerable sculptures that are employed in the construction of the gigantic shrine is fantastic – the superstructure’s (and not the platform’s) base itself is composed of three individualistic layers depicting charging elephants, fearsome lions and mounted horses respectively symbolizing insurmountable stability, formidable strength and matchless agility – visually bewilderingly, each of the 600+ beasts is uniquely distinctive from the others in its row!! These are vertically followed in an upward fashion by scroll bands of numerous perceptibly different geometric and floral patterns, smaller inconsequential deities, dancers and temple guards followed in their turn by massive circular or star-shaped pillars supporting in their midst a mesh work of small arched alcoves inset with tens of thousands of crafted deities, celestial dancers and divine devotees.


Sculptural orgasm!


The smaller images give way to larger sculptures, each an exemplar not only of unparalleled sculptural art, but also of excellent ancient mythological fables that even precisely specify how a deity is to be visually depicted and which weapon and which facial expression and bodily movement symbolically represents what action and which boon-bestowing capability! On the walls are carved massive sculptures of numerous Hindu deities in their numerous different incarnations, most prominent being Lord Vishnu, the God of life and nourishment, and Lord Shiva, the God of death and destruction – thus there is the anthropomorphic, boar-faced mighty Varaha lifting the Earth Goddess Bhudevi from the sea of ether after defeating the demons who had imprisoned her; the terribly fierce and unimaginably powerful semi-lion, semi-human Narasimha furiously tearing apart the body of the demon Hiranyakashyipu; the benevolent, boon-bestowing, omniscient aspect of Lord Vishnu flanked on either side by his wives Bhudevi and Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity; the winged, muscular, multi-armed falcon-faced bird deity Garuda; the ten-faced, twenty-armed intellectual demon King Ravana of Lanka attempting to physically lift the massive Kailasha mountain, the abode of Lord Shiva; the supremely gifted archer-warlord Arjuna; the ten-armed Goddess Durga, a fierce manifestation of primordial feminine energy, piercing the body of buffalo-demon Mahishasura with her intimidatingly long trident; and a representation of Lord Shiva furnishing his terrific trident and celestial drum and indulging in “Tandava” (the destructive dance of universal obliteration). My personal favorite remains “Gajasurasamhara”/“Gajacharmambaradhari” – a sixteen-armed combative Lord Shiva wielding numerous weapons of death and devastation while dancing blissfully upon the decapitated head of the slain elephant-demon Gajasura whose flayed hide he triumphantly raises and brandishes as an enormous cloak while his family and followers gaze wide-eyed terrified and deferential.


"Gajasurasamhara" - The ecstasy of a triumphant God


But the vivid blossoming of poetry in stone does not cease here – punctuating the rows of deities and their attendant guards and followers are exceedingly skillfully finished floral scrolls, exquisite friezes and intricately perforated stone latticework screens which convolute and twist into a sculptural rococo depicting entire tales from ancient Hindu epics like the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the various Puranas. And then there are the unmistakable graceful emblems of Hoysala Dynasty – a young man battling a huge aggressive lion (some say a tiger) either with his bare hands or with a sharp-edged sword. Legend goes that the dynasty’s mythical progenitor, Sala, was indulging in ritualistic ceremonies with his Jain monk Guru Sudatta Muni when a fierce lion (or tiger) pounced upon them prompting the terrified mendicant to pronounce “Hoy, Sala!” (“Strike, Sala!”) and later, following the gruesome battle and the slaying of the lion (or tiger), blessing the courageous disciple with vast territorial sovereignty that would soon flourish. Contemporaneous historical accounts note that Hoysala Dynasty sovereigns preceding Vishnuvardhana were followers of Jainism and he was the first to convert to Vaishnav Hinduism under the influence of the 12th-century Tamil Vedanta saint Acharya Sri Ramanuja and soon thereafter, considering his military victories to be benedictions from Gods, conceived and commissioned this splendid temple complex. Most architectural historians and wildlife experts however doubt that lions ever existed in this part of the country and that might explain the ill-conceived stone figurines that mark Hoysala temple complexes for they might have been envisioned by the otherwise superiorly talented artists on the features of tigers that are still abundant here. Other historians also point out that this mythical tale and its sculptural depiction gained credence following Vishnuvardhana’s vanquishing of the Chola armies from his territories and the lion in the sculptures is probably symbolically representative of the Chola insignia.


"Hoy, Sala!"


The massive panels that grace the three entrances of the temple, besides being flanked by exceptionally realistic celestial guards, transform along the doorjambs into tremendously well-conceived mythological scenes composed of an array of mythical creatures and incarnations and celestial followers of Lord Vishnu – thus there is an incarnation each on each door – Lord Vishnu himself on one, Lord Narasimha on the second and Lord Varaha on the third – with an assortment of heavenly followers and musicians, altogether mounted on a cavernous platform sheltered within the vicious jaws of a “Kirtimukha” (the ferociously wide fanged, lion-like face of an all-consuming demon conceived and originated out of thin air by Lord Shiva to destroy other, mightier demons) and supported upon the mighty wings of a Garuda preparing to fly off – lastly the entire scene emerges from within wave-like flourishes eventually culminating in an elephantine mythical “Makara” (entities possessing the body of a fish, the face and tusks of an elephant, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a peacock) on either side of the lintel. Immediately below each of these fascinatingly vast visual compositions is observable the simplistic portrayal of “Gajalakshmi” – Goddess Lakshmi being showered with milk and honey by huge elephants.


Exquisiteness!


But the most adored and acclaimed sculptures that adorn the temple’s superstructure are the voluptuous, finely proportioned celestial damsels crafted to perfection and surmounted on brackets crowning 38 of the pillars that support the substantial roof of the shrine – referred to as “Madanika” or “Salabhanjika” (literally translating to “breaking a Sala tree (Shorea robusta) branch” – the reference to the legendary Sala is coincidental), the heavenly maidens, each attired in fine thin draperies that barely cover their large breasts and hips, adorned with jewels and ornaments and surrounded by followers and highly intricate foliage and often unusual creatures such as lizards arching to capture flies, depict either feminine mythological divinities such as the beautiful Goddess Natya Mohini (a delicate incarnation of Lord Vishnu postured dancing with a hand on her head – drawing from the tale where she entreated the demon Bhasmasura, who was bestowed with the boon to reduce to ashes every living entity he touched, into touching his own forehead after flirting with and prompting him to dance as she did), or tremendously animated seductive dancers, musicians, huntresses or simply pretty maidens illustrated adoring themselves in mirrors (“Darpana Sundari”), rinsing their hair with water, conversing with their pet parrots (“Shukabhashini”) or even being harassed by monkeys! Most historians concede that the outstanding, ethereally beautiful maidens were inspired by King Vishuvardhana’s wife Shantala Devi who, although professing to Jain faith despite her husband’s conversion, did have constructed within the temple complex’s peripheries a smaller side-shrine also dedicated to Sri Chennakesava and christened as “Kappe Chennigaraya temple” (more on that later). The photo posted here is that of the "Shikarika" (“Huntress”) and besides the extraordinarily vivid detailing of her own being, one can also notice and be awed by the thought process that went into fashioning the superlative nature of the two small sculptures adjacent that respectively portray her with a prey (resembling a dragon!) slung over her shoulder and being helped by a servile maid in plucking a thorn that had got embedded in her foot.


"Shikarika" - The celestial huntress


Similar sculptures exist inside the shrine as well, however, owing to the occasion of the advent of the Rath Yatra, the explicably crowded dark interiors unbelievably stuffed to the seams with devotees repetitively loudly chanting “Govinda, Govinda” (one of the names of Lord Krishna) rendered photography impossible. That the massive sanctum is even more exquisitely ornamented than its exteriors can be gauged from the fact that the patterned pillars here are so painstakingly chiseled and polished to achieve such a remarkable degree of shimmer that several historians and writers mistakenly regard them as being lathe-turned (that is, they weren't sculpted by hand, but the roughly crafted pillar was mounted on a wheel and rotated so that its edges sweeped against a fixed blade/chisel that smoothly shaped its surface). Garlands of fragrant red and yellow flowers adorned the doorjambs and the sculptures and glittering glimmering tinsel stretched from the edges of the shrine to conceive a bejeweled canopy sparkling in the rays of the minutest of streaks of sunlight that escaped the cloudy atmosphere and the exhaustive stone lattice screens only to be caught in the spider web of tinsel. The handsome 6-feet tall sculpture of Lord Chennakesava, attired with silver ornaments and colorful garments, appeared translucently otherworldly while the thoroughly crowded darkness around the sanctum dissolved into whiffs of color and noise as hundreds of devotees pushed and strived to appear in front of the Lord and present to him their aspirations for worldly prosperity and heavenly redemption. Within a glass case adjacent the central shrine rest two considerably massive sandals that are said to belong to the Lord and are worn by him every night when he departs to frolic with his friends and damsels – belief is that a pair of these hallowed sandals disappears each night and the local cobblers reverentially prepare one for consecration every morning and present it to the shrine without fail – to every 21st-century youngster’s delight, the practice of chilling and freaking out with buddies every night thus finds reverberance in the most ancient of our religious and literary traditions as well! The most acclaimed of the numerous ornate pillars that line the sanctum is the exquisite Narasimha pillar that could originally even rotate around on its ball bearing and still prominently flashes the unadorned space on its surface which the sculptors intentionally left blank as an open challenge to any contemporaneous or later craftsmen to engrave and display an artistic flair as resplendent as theirs – that it still remains blank does wordlessly declare something about the consummate skills of the Hoysalas!


Bewilderingly detailed! - King Vishnuvardhana's court


Hindu mythology states that time nearly came to a halt while Lord Krishna recounted the ancient knowledge embodied in the epic scripture Sri Bhagavadgita to the archer-warlord Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield of Kurukshetra during the ruthlessly gory 18-day Mahabharata war. Islamic mythology too states that while the blessed Prophet Muhammad ascended the stairs of heaven to reach Allah’s throne, he spent a lifetime in each of the seven heavens and yet returned before the sweat that he had wiped off his face on the stairs of the first heaven could fall to the ground underneath. Gazing at the unparalleled sculptures embossed on the exterior walls of the shrine, one can literally believe that time is slowing down to a near-halt and the images are beckoning the visitors and coming alive to recount the numerous stories they carry in their stone bosoms, while the tales thus told are themselves merging into each other to portray an entire universe of deities, demon lords, mythical creatures and mighty anthropomorphic warlords. The multitudes of sculptures and scroll work lend testimony to the incomparable skill of the architects and artists who were themselves so impressed and overjoyed by their own creations that they disregarded ancient Hindu architectural customs that prohibit artists and sculptors from signing their work – thus come to light the names, sovereign-bestowed titles and places of origin, but not the achievements and lives, of Ruvari Mallitamma, Malliyanna, Kenchamalliyanna, Malla, Eechana, Chikkahampa, Nagoja, Malloja, Dasoja and his son Javana. The exquisite artworks and the years of toil that must have gone into their execution also give credence to the unforeseen span of time – nearly 103 years – involved in the shrine’s completion – it was eventually consecrated during the reign of Vishnuvardhana’s grandson Veer Ballala II (reign AD 1173-1220).


Divinity framed - Lord Vishnu, the God of life and nourishment


Back in the colossal courtyard, the enormous, 42-feet tall “Deepa Stambha” (“Pillar of Lights”) erected on another considerably smaller star-shaped pedestal is a scientific wonder in itself – a gravity pillar balanced only by its own weight, it touches the pedestal at merely three pinprick points and sheets of paper and cloth can be passed uninterruptedly from one end to another underneath its stone enormity!

The colonnades comprising the enclosing walls of the temple complex bear Kannada inscriptions mentioning the construction of the shrine, later additions commissioned by the sovereigns of several succeeding dynasties, the artists and sculptors involved in the building and ornamentation and also several of the battles and religious conversions that took place in medieval Karnataka. Dozens of sculptures embedded within the walls of the colonnade are arranged in patterns pertaining to the deity they represent or the mythological tales they portray – what is fascinating is that in several of these sculptures, the deities invoked, thoroughly embellished with weaponry and lavish ornaments, bear what appears to be corn cobs! Historians state that corn first appeared in India in late 16th-century accompanying the advent of Portuguese seafaring merchants – then what is it doing in statues and idols envisioned and constructed over 400 years before that?! Worth pondering over.


Stone sentinels


A corner of the courtyard is dedicated to the “Vasudeva Sarovar”, a large rectangular stepped water tank (“Kalyani/Pushkarni”) filled with murky dark green water and flanked on the sides with small shrines surmounted by pyramidal spires nearly identical to the ones that exist along the main temple’s staircases – it is said that the central shrine too was originally crowned with a vertically massive tapering pinnacle which was however over the years lost to the vagaries of time and nature – to my untrained eyes at least, the shrine, in its present form, appears so considerably unique and unusually interesting when juxtaposed against the rest of the architecturally identical Dravidian temples. The restoration and conservation efforts undertaken by the Karnataka division of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) are undeniably commendable and need be emulated throughout the vast country – it is heartening to note that the usual excuses, such as a shortage of funds and experienced manpower, so often advanced by the ASI to explain its lackadaisical attitude, did not become an obstacle in preserving this bewilderingly superlative architectural exemplar for future generations.

In the corner opposite the Kalyani on the far side of the gigantic rectangular complex sits a relatively moderately-proportioned and less densely adorned shrine referred to as “Ranganayaki Temple” and dedicated to the poetess-saint Kodhai Devi Andal of Srivalliputtur (Tamil Nadu) – said to have been raised from the remains of several earlier, individual temples, the shrine, surmounted by an assortment of crown-like domes possessing pointed finials vertically protruding from them, boasts of a large raised courtyard supported upon highly symmetrical, flawlessly chiseled pillars. The walls bear friezes and sculptures that actually look as if they have been drawn from other geographic sources and embedded herein like stickers on a child’s notebook to render it more attractive without necessarily dispelling the overall appearance of a cutout, a jigsaw conceived from numerous unmatched, unassociated fragments.


Stitched together - The Ranganayaki Temple


Besides friezes of tiny mounted elephants bedecked with jewelry running along the base of the Ranganayaki shrine’s exterior walls, several deities including Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, Goddess Durga, Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Varaha too have been portrayed on the walls – the sculptures here too have been signed by their originators, most prominent of them being Bechama and Madhuvanna. Mesmerizingly, as verifiable from the photos that I clicked of the shrine’s stone jewels, none of the foliage and line-pattern canopies that surround the divine figurines are identical! This unquestionably goes on to corroborate the unquestionably noteworthy sculptural proficiency demonstrated by the artist-craftsmen of medieval India.

Separated from the Ranganayaki shrine by an enthrallingly ornate but relatively simplistic subsidiary shrine (“Soumyanayaki Temple”) which had been on that particular day temporarily fitted with large television screens and recording instruments to broadcast the proceedings of the religious ceremonies under progress in the central shrine to news channels, exists the squat Veera Narayana temple that is contemporaneous of Sri Chennakesava temple and is similarly wreathed with sculptures of deities, celestial damsels and mythological battle scenes – my favorite is the one depicting a physical combat between a massive mounted and caparisoned elephant and the extraordinarily strong Pandava prince Bhima from Mahabharata who is said to have been mighty enough to devastate several armies in a single day of warfare and fling elephants away like toy figurines.


Destruction personified - Prince Bhima


Adjacent the Veera Narayana temple is the aforementioned Kappe Chennigaraya temple – according to an inscription engraved within its sanctum, this smaller shrine, one of the most prominent exemplars of Hoysala architecture and internally spatially almost a smaller replica of the interiors of Sri Chennakesava temple, was commissioned by Queen Shantala Devi. The sanctum boasts of two adjacent shrines, dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his consort Soumyanayaki, slightly offset from each other and each accessed via inspiringly ornate entrances possessing proficiently carved doorjambs and lintels not very different from those leading within Sri Chennakesava temple; the pillars too boast of brackets supported on the shoulders of divinities and inset with beautiful dancing Shilabalikas only slightly less competently sculpted than those of Sri Chennakesava temple. The nomenclature of the shrine is said to have its origins in an exciting medieval legend (not resonated by literary and historical records) concerning the beyond belief interesting tale behind the shrine’s consecration – it is said that the master craftsman Amarashilpi Jakanachari who hailed from the village of Kaidala was enviably entrusted with the sculptural creation of the exceptional 6.5-feet tall, profusely ornamented representation of the deity that was to grace the central shrine, but for years he became so engrossed in the arduous task assigned to him that he forgot all about his family and children, thereby prompting his eldest son Dankachari to journey from the village to Belur to confront his wayward father.


Straightforward symmetry - The Kappe Chennigaraya Temple


However Jakanachari refused to identify or even acknowledge his son's presence and as a last resort the boy, himself an outstanding sculptor, publicly challenged his father that he can identify flaws in the divine idol he was constructing. Enraged, Jakanachari pledged to saw off his own hands if any imperfections were determined. Sandalwood paste was applied to the massive idol and it dried everywhere except in the navel area where a frog was found nesting in a small cavity – as proclaimed, Jakanachari did cut his own hands and the defective idol was relocated to the subsidiary shrine sanctified as “Kappe Channigaraya”, “Kappe” being “frog” in Kannada. The tale of course does not end immediately at this point but juxtaposes on a happier ending where Jakanachari is commanded by the Lord himself to return to his family and construct a similar idol in his village following the completion of which his hands will be restored to him – of course, like all oral folk lore, this one too does not explain how Jakanachari sculpted the second idol without his arms!

The allure of the magnificence of Sri Chennakesava Temple drew me from hundreds of kilometers away and the gracefulness of its unsurpassably delicate sculptures and commendable architectural highlights literally prove to be irresistible amongst all the monuments and shrines I have come across so far in my sojourns – in fact, although the temple not at all condescendingly allows the famed Akshardham of Delhi and the numerous splendid ISKCONs scattered all over the country to garner in the reputation and renown (refer Pixelated Memories - Akshardham Temple, Delhi and Pixelated Memories - ISKCON Temple, Delhi), it stylishly proves to be far grander than all of them combined and lives up to its promise of being an overwhelming site of tranquil solace and reverence, both visual and spiritual – the Hoysalas must be contentedly looking at it and experiencing unadulterated pride in the fact that even though their dynasty never survived, the little architectural jewel they embedded in their erstwhile capital has blossomed and garners tourists, spiritualty seekers and travelers from all over the globe.


Colossal!


How glorious it would have been to read about these architectural marvels in school textbooks that indisputably almost always glorify north Indian kingdoms, histories and edifices – one would be surprised to note that the Sultanate of Delhi that built the towering Qutb Minar, another World Heritage Site, was still almost a century away from coming into being and the dynasty that conceived and constructed the ethereal Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was still over 400 years away when this imposing shrine was raised. But unbelievably, it is said that the other major temple that the Hoysalas commissioned in their other twin capital Halebidu (Dwarasamudra) incredibly even surpasses this one in terms of sculptural artwork and ornamentation! Off I go again with the wind to locate the tales engraved in stone!


Here myths come alive!


Location: About 500 meters from Belur Bus stop, Hassan district
Open: The temple complex remains open every day from 7 am – 6 pm for people of all faiths, belief systems and genders. The sanctum is closed from 10-11 am, 1-3 pm and 5-5.30 pm.
How to reach: Hassan is accessible from different parts of Karnataka by regular KSRTC bus and Indian Railways train services. It is approximately 180 kilometers or five hours away by road from Bangalore. From Hassan, Belur is located about 42 kilometers or roughly one hour away by bus at the end of a journey that does take one on certain thoroughly pockmarked stretches of road winding through hill-flanked barren plains and fields. Regular buses ply between Hassan and Belur throughout the day.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 3 hrs
Remarks – Footwear is not allowed inside the temple complex and shoes can be left at the counter near the entrance and retrieved afterwards following the payment of a modest sum (usually Rs 10 for two pairs of footwear).
Suggested reading -
  1. Econ.ohio-state.edu - Maize in Pre-Columbian India 
  2. Gops.org - Face to face with history :: Belur & Halebid 
  3. Karnatakatravelogue.blogspot.in - Interiors of Chennakeshava temple, Belur 
  4. Rcmysore-portal.kar.nic.in - History of Sri Chennakeshava Temple 
  5. Wikipedia.org - Hoysala Empire 
  6. Wikipedia.org - Chennakesava Temple

July 20, 2015

Seringapatnam, Mandya, Karnataka


“The reasons why Tipu was reviled are not far to seek. Englishmen were prejudiced against him because they regarded him as their most formidable rival and an inveterate enemy, and because, unlike other Indian rulers, he refused to become a tributary of the English Company. Many of the atrocities of which he has been accused were allegedly fabricated either by persons embittered and angry on account of the defeats which they had sustained at his hands, or by the prisoners of war who had suffered punishments which they thought they did not deserve. He was also misrepresented by those who were anxious to justify the wars of aggression which the Company's Government had waged against him. Moreover, his achievements were deliberately belittled and his character blackened in order that the people of Mysore might forget him and rally round the (Wadiyar) Raja, thus helping in the consolidation of the new regime”
– Mohibbul Hasan, “The History of Tipu Sultan” (1971)


"Welcome to the Historical City of Srirangapatna" - The Delhi Gate


On the 4th of May 1799, in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War fought at Seringapatnam (aka Srirangapatna), fell Badshah Nasib-ud-Daula Fath Ali Khan Tipu Sultan, the legendary “Tiger of Mysore” and the foremost of Indian Sultans who perennially and ferociously opposed the rapacious acquisitive and revenue policies of British East India “trading” Company, and so fierce was the terror he instilled in the hearts of his enemies and the respect he commanded even from them that the British officers who took part in the siege of his fortress were grudgingly compelled to commission a small square, grass-enshrouded garden and within it install a sober, evocative stone memorial indicating the hallowed spot where the formidable Sultan was killed in battle. Symbolically portraying the vanquishing of Tipu’s forces by depicting a British lion trampling upon a tiger, a commemorative medal was also issued by the Company’s Army to be awarded to all officers and soldiers who participated in the battle against the Sultan. His legacy survives in a series of disjointed monuments and relics from his majestic fortress-citadel scattered throughout the capital city Seringapatnam which has since become thoroughly overpopulated and come to occupy almost every portion of the grand fortress thereby turning it into a mere indifferent suburb of the beautiful city of Mysore, the erstwhile exclusive capital of the Wadiyar Dynasty (ruled AD 1399-1947) whom the fearless Tipu unceremoniously deposed from power  for a short interregnum – thus while modern-day Seringapatnam, consisting of brilliantly multihued block-like houses and apartment buildings with very little to offer in the name of historicity or architectural/artistic heritage, seems lost to the vagaries of human forgetfulness and urbanization, the few edifices that Tipu had designed and constructed, with their identical vibrant orange hues, rise like they were intended to as majestic beacons in a city now shorn of all its grandeur, ferocity and regal presence.


Commemorative - Here breathed his last the legendary "Tiger of Mysore"


Once more for the sake of recounting in a few words the courageous Sultan’s extraordinary history, I replicate the text from one of my earlier articles –

"An innovative genius and unparalleled military tactician who also possessed intimate knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, shooting, horse-riding, Hindi-Urdu writing, poetry and economic systems, Badshah Fath Ali Khan Bahadur Tipu Sultan was instructed in military tactics by French officers in service of his father Nawab Hyder Ali Khan and is credited with creating the first prototype rockets which he used in wars against the annexing armies of British East India “trading” Company whom he continued to oppose and fiercely resist all his short life. Technologically advanced and financially capable, he employed several skilled European weapon makers and mercenaries, was aware of the potent warfare technologies of his time, possessed an extremely strong naval force consisting of numerous war ships and frigates and even went to the extent of suggesting an alliance based on mutual admiration with Napoleon Bonaparte who came as far as Egypt on a conquering spree to unite their forces.. Despite his superb administrative, organizational and warfare capabilities, Tipu is considered (based on unreliable, highly biased early British sources who participated in wars against him) a fanatic bigoted Muslim and an extremely harsh, iconoclast ruler who heinously ordered destruction of numerous temples and shrines and oversaw the forceful conversion or merciless execution of hundreds of non-Muslims, especially Christians, besides following a “scorched earth” policy and pitilessly ravaging and impoverishing captured territories and destroying their economies and agrarian capabilities. His admirers continue to debate that he looked after his subjects irrespective of their religion and personal beliefs, employed Hindus at almost each of the influential court post and provided religious grants and protection against brigands to several Hindu temples, some of which existed in the immediate vicinity of his palace. Yet he remains a much abhorred and very controversial personality in Indian history – a patriot who relentlessly strived against foreign colonial rule, yet himself a foreigner who ruthlessly oppressed his subjects and executed those he considered unbelievers or heretics."
(Read the full post here – Pixelated Memories - Tipu Sultan Shahi Mosque)


Dark clouds, dark tidings? - One of Tipu's numerous powder magazines


Though the fortified city is located upon the flood plains of an ethereally beautiful, densely forested island within the Kaveri river in the district of Mandya, its association, both historic, legendary and geographic with the district of Mysore, has obliged many to seek its administrative unification with the latter from which it is located a mere 15 kilometers apart – presently however, it is accessible via the Mysore-Bangalore highway through a narrow, unimpressive branching road passing through the imposing, triple-storied “Delhi Gate” (also often referred to as “Bangalore Gate”), which though now miserably ruined and hideously layered with movie posters and election sloganeering (so much for the political correctness associated with the city and its inspiring history!), once formed the royal thoroughfare over which would have passed the authoritative Sultan regally seated on his elephant and escorted by his handsome cavalry and powerful royal guards. The idyllic, laidback life of the city spontaneously engulfs one as soon as one steps through the gateway and the vast beautiful green fields, glistening with crops and punctuating the line of low-lying residential quarters and remains of ruined palaces and cities crying for attention and conservation, seem like a disappointment against the enormous expectations of observing the splendor of the Sultan’s citadel. For someone from Delhi, used to seeing massive fortresses with towering walls, massive palatial complexes and serrated battlements equipped for defense, Seringapatnam, with its fragmented structures, insignificant gateways, ruined palaces and decrepit incoherent defenses, along with the modern-day boxed-in settlements that have become rooted within its peripheries, all ensconced cheek-by-jowl within the fortress’ diminutive (just barely out of reach of an energetic lithe goat!) and thick enclosing walls seems out of place with the flamboyant tales of its erstwhile inhabitants’ martial prowess and battle capabilities.


Celestial - The sluggish waters of river Kaveri


But then of course, the root cause of this desolation is not far from the surface – the repetitive unrelenting attacks by the combined forces of British East India Company, the Marathas of Maharashtra and the Nizam of Hyderabad had very nearly reduced the defenses to rubble; what remained was razed and destroyed by the victorious British, unrepentant and avaricious in their retribution against the fallen Tiger’s territories and possessions; post-independence governments were not very different and unquestionably, one might even say eagerly, gave way to the combined ravenous forces of urbanization and commercialization and failed miserably to safeguard the historic nature of the sites involved against encroachments and vandalism – point in case, Tipu’s residential Lal Mahal (“Red Palace”) that was said to be a simplistic affair externally but possessed several magnificent buildings and colonnades within, the remains of which subdued to mere stubs and boundary walls between 1807-09 on orders of Colonel Arthur Wellesley (later H.H. Lord The Duke of Wellington) to supply building material for the Wadiyar Maharaja’s palace in Mysore (refer Pixelated Memories - Mysore Palace), exist in close vicinity to the Delhi Gate and were unlawfully dug up by the local population once again a few decades ago when excavations revealed the presence of expensive gold and pearl articles – the government’s sole response, not unexpected, was to seal off the entire premises with strong iron railings and cease visitor entry in its entirety, notwithstanding the visitor’s credentials and/or intentions with regards observing the ruins. About the palace contemporary accounts note –

“a kind of colonnade painted green with red ornamental work, forming what is called the tiger stripe…Round the arched compartments of the roof, or ceiling, are disposed a variety of Arabic and Persian verses, applicable to the signs of the Zodiac, and importing the godlike superiority of the Sultan in his princely character.”

History dictates that it was this palace where British officials accepted the surrender of two of Tipu’s sons following the imposition of punitive terms of treaty upon his defeat in the Third Anglo-Mysore War (First Battle of Seringapatnam, 1792) and it was here eventually that his body was brought for preparation for burial upon his demise. But then, when have monuments and heritage structures ever been accorded their due dignity in this country?


Soaring - The painstakingly ornamented Masjid-i-Ala


Couple of meters from the Delhi Gate is located Tipu’s still functional Jama Masjid, the royal Friday congregational mosque, one of the most prominent edifices in Seringapatnam – built in 1782-84 upon the Sultan’s ascension to the throne and christened “Masjid-i-Ala” (“Mosque of the Ruler”), the mosque is a grand double-storied structure flanked on its two front corners by enormous, exquisitely ornamented octagonal minarets sculpted throughout with tiny decorative alcoves, realistic pine cone-like outbursts, slender embellished turrets, rectangular pigeon holes, highly-stylized leaf motifs and floral and geometric patterns. The unsurpassably beautiful yet humble prayer chamber situated on the first floor, painted a subdued pink-white that drastically contrasts against the brilliant saffron-orange of the rest of the structure, is adorned with a rococo of plasterwork designs, ornamental cusped arches, concave domed roofs transforming into massive stucco explosions of floral arrangements and calligraphy inscriptions pertaining to the 99 names of Allah. It possesses a colonnade against its front facade that is supported on unusually simplistically chiseled pillars and bear once more the ubiquitous lavishness of embellishments – decorative floral motifs, fascinating pilasters (fake, thin pillars) ornamented with densely detailed floral medallions supported on thin, equally well-described stalks and unbelievably beautiful cusped arches – that seem to have been a landmark of all buildings that Tipu conceived and commissioned. The ground floor boasts of shaded passageways accessible by arched entrances flanked by an overabundance of miniaturized alcoves which might have once been used to house earthen oil lamps to endow the entire building with an unearthly trance glow; a moderately-sized courtyard inset with a deep rectangular water tank along one corner and punctuated along its sides by finely plastered over graves (undeniably well-kept and also painted in the all-encompassing bright orange) exists around the mosque building – sadly however, the limited expanse of space envisioned within the mosque’s enclosing walls render photographing its enormity in its entirety inconceivable and one is denied the possibility of photographing both the floors, the expansiveness of the handsome minaret towers and the geographic spatial expanse of the structure in a single click – stepping back and clicking from afar is equally fruitless since now even though the minarets can be well-framed, the lower floors very nearly disappear behind the residential settlements that have mushroomed around the structure and the low buttresses of wilderness-covered rock that project from the ground in its near vicinity.


The physiognomy of a Sultan's mosque


Outside the mosque, we hired a local guide who promised to show us around the colossal fortress complex’s remains within three hours in his auto-rickshaw for a negotiable sum of Rs 300 depending on whether or not we liked his services and command over his beloved city’s history – admiringly, we ended up paying him Rs 350 following the passage of the whirlwind tour via which we explored almost every monument that the historic township has to offer and grudgingly conceded that dust covered, sweat drenched and tired, we would have been roaming the indiscernible streets were it not for the polite and talkative guide and his swift auto-rickshaw. The wide street immediately opposite the mosque, flanked on both sides by wilderness and small rock faces abutting from earth, leads first to the aforementioned memorialized spot where Tipu, who styled himself “Asad Allah ul-Ghalib” (“The Conquering Lion of God”), was killed fighting and his body was found at the conclusion of the day’s battle (he was supposedly killed by a British soldier who failed to recognize him but thrusted his sword through him nonetheless after being spellbound by his expensive robe and jewel-studded ornaments!), and eventually to the wretchedly ruined, tree and foliage reclaimed, “Water Gate”, one of the fortress’ secret gateways that were accessible to only a select few for swiftly reaching the Kaveri riverfront – upon the commencement of battle, it was through a significant breach adjacent this gateway which the Sultan, betrayed by his own minister Mir Sadiq, was trying to have mended that the British soldiers poured in the fortress to mercilessly annihilate over 10,000 of the brave soldiers of Mysore and cause the ensuing proceedings that in hindsight cannot but be regarded as a singularly landmark event in the subcontinent’s colonial history. Noted the Urdu poet-politician Allamah Muhammad Iqbal –

“Jafar az Bengal va Sadiq az Deccan,
Nang-e-Adam, Nang-e-Deen, Nang-e-Watan”
(“Mir Jafar of Bengal and Mir Sadiq of Deccan are a disgrace to all mankind, their religion and their country.”)


Ruined!


A massive, gnarled Banyan tree grows next to the gate and vermillion-drenched stone sculptures placed within the hollows of its thick roots provide testimony to the worship of serpent deities (“Naga”) considered capable of bestowing fertility and child birth. Notwithstanding the gateway’s crumbling and abandoned condition with its walls tumbling down along its sides and its plasterwork peeling away to reveal the brick and stone layers underneath, an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) green board appears next to it, ironically and perhaps with a touch of sarcasm, declaring it a “Protected Ancient Monument”.

The city was christened after Sri Ranganatha, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment, who is still worshipped in a gigantic Dravidian temple complex in the heart of the fortress which Tipu, despite his oft-quoted barbaric iconoclastic character, not only allowed to uninterruptedly survive but also patronized. The bewilderingly majestic temple complex, an eye-opening epitome of medieval Hindu temple architecture that grandly endures throughout south India, is dated to have been commissioned in AD 984 by Tirumalaiah, a local vassal of the Ganga Dynasty (reign AD 350-1000), and was expanded and ornamented with additional features and sculptures by Emperors belonging to the Hoysala Dynasty (reign AD 1026-1343), Vijaynagara Kingdom (reign AD 1336-1646) and the Wadiyars/Wodeyars. Presently classified as a monument of immense national importance and a well-renowned Hindu pilgrimage site, the temple complex, surmounted by a lofty layered pyramidal tower sculpted with representations of deities and religious iconography, is accessible through a soaring “Gopuram” (pyramidal entrance gateway), the only feature that we witnessed (and photographed) given that the exceedingly long slithering queues of devotees lining up for offering devotions (and worries) to the deity would have claimed over an hour and a half to negotiate! Such is the belief that people, not just from the surrounding localities but from all over southern India, have in the deity whom they know as “Adi Rangaswamy” (literally, “the First Lord Ranga”) since the temple is the first of the five dedicated to Sri Ranganathaswamy located upon the meandering banks of the sacred river Kaveri.


Immensity visualized - The ancient shrine of Sri Ranganathswamy


The river can be spotted in all its illustriousness by following a narrow dusty path towards the right side of the temple gateway that couple of hundred meters later leads straightaway to a sharp cliff face veiled by numerous jackfruit trees weighed down further by extremely large (and unsettling!) beehives. The river bargains its way across rocky banks teeming with lush foliage and a superficial absence of all wildlife (although it is swarming with crocodiles) and overlooking it are some of Tipu’s orange-sopping armories, arsenals, powder magazines (one of which is said to have blown itself during one of the Battles of Seringapatnam thereby rendering offense unviable along this face of the fortress) and a featureless white dungeon redolent of death and torture which the ferocious Sultan employed on numerous occasions with mind-numbing impunity to chastise his prisoners, especially captured British commanders and generals. For some indiscernible reason of its own understanding, ASI has christened the dreadful dungeon as “Bailey’s Prison” after Colonel Bailey who perished here as a consequence of his wounds and the ill-treatment forced upon him as a captive in the penitentiary. Bailey had commanded the British forces against the might of Mysore under Hyder Ali (reign AD 1772-82) in the Second Anglo-Mysore War (Battle of Pollilur, 1780) in which the former were crushingly defeated following the explosion of their gunpowder tumbrils upon being set afire by a bombardment of Tipu’s highly effective incendiary rockets. That the British took lessons from the defeat and soon thereafter adopted highly-sophisticated and lethal rocket technology in their military arsenal reminds one of the following lines from the book “Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?” by Anita Rau Badami –

“(Bibi-ji) had a sneaking admiration for these fair-skinned people who had infiltrated every part of the world with their manners and customs and languages, who had managed to make even a refrigerator of a country like Canada a place of comfort and plenty. Unlike the Panjauri villagers who assigned everything to Fate, the goras, Bibi-ji noticed with admiration, wanted to know why and what and when. It was not boats or horses that had transported them to all corners of the world, but their long noses, which quivered with a desire to poke into everything. Their sky-colored eyes watered with the need to peer under every stone, their white fingers itched to take everything apart until they understood it, learnt how it worked, found what they needed to make their own lives better.”


Haunted? Terrifying at least! - Tipu's dungeons


The punitive structure, comprising of a series of long, low-roofed vaulted cells supported upon thick pillars and bearing resilient stone rings through which were bound the chains shackling the inmates, possesses minimalistic openings in the center of the roof to allow sunlight and air to filter through and is located on a considerably lower terrain, a sort of dugout that vindictively exposes it to the elements, than its immediate surroundings. Conjecture is that the prisoners were chained facing the wall so as to torturously remain standing upright throughout their captivity and were forced to eat disgracefully like horses off the stone ledges protruding from the further walls.

The penultimate landmark we visited in the fortified city was the graceful summer residence “Daria Daulat Bagh” (“The Sea of Wealth Garden”) of Tipu Sultan, conceived and constructed in AD 1784 – set within a large Persian-style “Charbagh” garden (whereby a larger compound is divided into smaller squares by means of tree-lined walkways, ornamental water channels and fountains), the teakwood-built square residence seated upon a high stone platform is surrounded by wide colonnades and supported on numerous arches open to wind from all four directions with every conceivable surface of its exterior walls, prominent protruding windows (“jharokhas”) and roof extravagantly gilded and mesmerizingly painted into numerous vibrant, multihued panels depicting stylized motifs, vases possessing evocative and realistic flowers and foliage, and huge frescoes portraying elaborate battle scenes and regal processions including the aforementioned ignonimous defeat of the British Army at the Battle of Pollilur.


Deterioration - Daria Daulat Palace


Photography is sadly prohibited within the building and it is really, really tiresome and time consuming to convince the guards posted around to allow one to click a few photographs of at least the excellently painted exterior surfaces. The limited dimly-lit interiors have been converted into a small museum depicting fierce battle scenes, outstanding maps, antique weapons, old paintings, mediocre furniture, a huge, rather too flappy dress said to have been Tipu’s own garment and the aforementioned commemorative medallions issued by the British East India Co. following the 1799 Battle of Seringapatnam. Following the battle of course, the graceful little residence was overtaken by the British forces and served as the official residence of Lord Wellesley. One cannot fail to notice the brilliantly (and quite recently) painted orange dove coats, strongly conflicting against the subdued brown-greens of the residence and surrounding expansive gardens, that are located immediately along the garden’s periphery walls on either side of the entrance gateway and appear like smaller, more rotund versions of the Jama Masjid’s twin minarets. This is the only monument on the trail that is thankfully properly maintained, efficiently restored and ticketed by the ASI (Entrance fees: Indians and citizens of SAARC countries: Rs 5; others: Rs 100).


Colors of Mysore


Said to have been built in AD 1719, the principal gateway of the fortress – “Elephant Gate” – located somewhere midway between the Daria Daulat Bagh and Tipu’s multi-tiered, utterly despoiled Flagstaff Tower (“Bateri”) from which one can have a bird’s eye view of the entire city, has recently been spruced up as part of an ASI-driven conservation effort (among other consequences of which is indeed the impeccably glaring coats of bright orange paint that were dowsed upon most of the monuments and bastions within the fortress complex) – opposite the gateway has been created an artificial mound over which are mounted miniscule replicas of the grand Sri Ranganathswamy temple, the magnificent Masjid-i-Ala and the simplistic summer residence flanked by childish-looking bastions and cannons.

Stunningly beautiful and delicately designed, Sultan Tipu’s family mausoleum, located near the Daria Daulat Bagh, is referred to as “Gumbaz” ("Domed structure") and was commissioned by him upon the uneventful demise of his father. The painstakingly sculpted structure, composed of a massive rectangular chamber surrounded by wide pillared colonnades and surmounted in its entirety by a high-necked, spellbinding onion dome crafted into such a kaleidoscope of geometric and floral motifs that one cannot but help gape at it awestruck and afterwards, when the initial bewilderment at its magnificence has tided over, continue photographing it from indescribably numerous angles and perspectives. Also noteworthy is the adaptation of highly polished, dark coffee brown Amphibolite rock to carve the stately pillars that delineate the colonnades. The moderately-proportioned and yet impressively exquisite mausoleum can be considered as the family funerary zone of Tipu’s family the same way that Humayun’s superlative mausoleum in Delhi is the resting place of several generations of Mughal Emperors, princes and princesses (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex).


Exquisite!


The spectacularly flamboyant interiors, painted opulently in lively, unbelievably strong shades of reds, orange and green, bear Tipu’s favorite “Bubri” or stylized tiger-stripe motif with which he passionately adorned every entity, living or not, associated with his being, including his soldier’s uniforms, his residences, weapons and cannons and even his father’s mausoleum! Within a wooden enclosure lie three massive graves within which respectively lie in eternal slumber the impressive Nawab Hyder Ali, his wife Fakhr un-nisa Fatima Saydani Begum Sahiba (daughter of Mir Muinuddin Sahib, Governor of Kurumgunda and Cudappa) and their son Sultan Fath Ali Khan Tipu Sahib – all three draped with enormous cloth sheets, the last obviously immense and glittering tiger-striped. Visitors treat the mausoleum like a dargah (sacred tomb of a holy man), referring to the enigmatic Sultan as “Hazrat Shaheed” (“Martyred Saint”) and celebrating his “urs” (death celebrations) the way one would do at a Sufi mausoleum with great festivities and decorations – the caretakers too, referring to themselves as poor men employed by the surviving descendants of Sultan Tipu, provide everyone with fragrant flower petals to drape the sarcophagus with – this of course entails an immense crowd around the enclosure at nearly, well, every single moment that the mausoleum is open for visitor entry and consequentially clicking an uncrowded, isolated photograph (the way I prefer it) is very nearly impossible – I did click three but had to spend slightly over half an hour standing in a corner of the chamber attempting to not touch the walls in any manner lest I spoil their ethereally beautiful painted surface. It is said that when the mortal remains of the martyred Tipu were found amidst the bloodied corpses and other ghastly residues of the fearsome battle, he was discovered to be smiling in death with his sabre clasped tightly in his hands, numerous sword, bayonet and bullet wounds on his head and body and not a single defensive weapon upon him. Fifteen years later, Scottish novelist-poet-playwright Sir Walter Scott (lived 1771-1832) could not help admonishing Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France and Italy (reign AD 1804-14), by comparing him to the noteworthy Tipu and his lesser-known father thus –

“Although I never supposed that he (Napoleon) possessed, allowing for some difference of education, the liberality of conduct and political views which were sometimes exhibited by old Hyder Ali, yet I did think he might have shown the same resolved and dogged spirit of resolution which induced Tipu Sahib to die manfully upon the breach of his capital city with his sabre clenched in his hand."


Such vibrance! Such patterns!


The colonnades and the large plinth surrounding the tomb chamber too are lined with numerous graves, some ordinarily plastered over, others faced with marble slabs, belonging to numerous of Tipu’s family, relatives and associates including his foster mother Madeena Begum – to one’s utter surprise, there must literally be at least two or three score graves here, with several even lining the grassy lawns that surround the structure! Originally, the gardens surrounding the mausoleum were planted with rose apples, pomegranates, custard apples, citrus, peaches, mangoes, mulberries and oranges besides ornamental flowering trees and cypresses! A gorgeous mosque, possessing slender ornamental minarets along its sides, and a complimentary building that functioned as a hospital financed by the Tiger from his personal wealth exist on either side of the mausoleum. Realizing that it shall comprehensibly prove to be a daunting challenge to describe the mausoleum and the mosque’s numerous excellent ornamental features, I have to concede that for a change it is advisable to let the photographs speak for themselves.

Leaving the city behind, one cannot help admire the courageous Sultan for his architectural and artistic contributions to Mysore/Mandya’s heritage scene as much as for his military ingeniousness and command. One’s grief at the wanton destruction of the legendary city finds release in the words of the writer-musician Grant Gordon in his book “Cobras in the Rough” –

“Tipu Sultan’s city is long destroyed. After the British and their allies finally seized it after a siege of several months, they razed it almost to the ground. As a symbol of the military ruthlessness of the East India Company, it did the job. As an act of British imperial cultural barbarism, it was not atypical.”


Details!


The lingering feeling is that of disappointment, of witnessing visual and religious compositions that failed to live up to the anticipations, of knowing that while the entire city has been unambiguously declared a “historical township”, it offers little by way of documentation or architectural heritage, properly conserved and presented, to hold a visitor spellbound and rapt with attention. If only!


Location: District Mandya, approximately 15 kilometers from Mysore
How to reach: Buses/autos are available from Mysore. Any bus plying on Bangalore-Mysore highway will also stop at Seringapatnam if asked to.
Entrance fees: Nil for most of the monuments. For Daria Daulat Bagh: Indians and citizens of SAARC countries: Rs 5; others: Rs 100
Photography/video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 3 hrs. It is advisable to hire a guide with an auto-rickshaw from near the mosque who'll show one around the entire city for Rs 300 (of course, one will have to bargain down from the quoted price which can be as much as Rs 700-800).
Other palaces constructed by Tipu Sultan in Karnataka -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Nandi Hills (Nandidurga fortress and Tipu Sultan's palace), Chikkaballapur
  2. Pixelated Memories - Tipu Sultan's Palace and Kote Venkataramana Temple, Bangalore
Relevant Links -
The mosque in Calcutta associated with Tipu Sultan's family - Pixelated Memories - Tipu Sultan Shahi Mosque
Another palace located in nearby Mysore - Pixelated Memories - Mysore Palace
Suggested reading - 
  1. Blogs.ucl.ac.uk - Casket Case Study: Material Culture from Seringapatnam
  2. Grandpoohbah.blogspot.in - Srirangapatnam
  3. Llewelynmorgan.wordpress.com - Big Cat Hunting at Seringapatam 
  4. Mq.edu.au - Francis Buchanan: Description of Tipu's Palaces and Apartments at Seringapatam
  5. Royalark.net - The Family of Tipu Sultan 
  6. Thehindu.com - Article "There is life at the cemetery" (dated March 09, 2013) by M.T. Shiva Kumar 
  7. Thehindu.com - Article "This day that year in ‘Seringapatam’" (dated May 04, 2014) 
  8. Tigerandthistle.net (Fascinating insight into the life and times of Tipu Sultan and Scottish soldiers of British East India Co.)
  9. Toshkhana.wordpress.com (Fascinating insight into the life and times of Tipu Sultan)
  10. Voiceofdharma.org - Tipu Sultan: As known in Kerala
  11. Wikipedia.org - Tipu Sultan

July 06, 2015

Qila Rai Pithora, Saket, Delhi


“Primordial Delhi set the pattern for violence – it has always marked the city’s existence. Small wonder that all the Delhis that were to follow faced political upheaval involving a fair amount of violence. The first recorded war for the throne of Delhi – mythological as it might be – is narrated in the Mahabharata.”
– Raza Rumi, “Delhi by heart”

For a historical entity whose near-perennial existence chronologically spans over 5,000 years and is yet far from culmination, a singular diurnal event might as well be regarded as a minor occurrence with unbelievably little chance of surviving in memory and consequences against the rapid passage of the sands of time – and yet, occasionally transpires a remarkable event, often unforeseen, that, through the repercussions that follow its manifestation, literally mutates for successive ages not only the physical landscape but also the emotional and creative wellbeing of the entity involved. With respect to Delhi’s unrelentingly fierce and unusual history, this one event can at best be summed up into one particular moment of enormously significant impact – the defeat of Maharaja Prithviraj Chauhan III’s powerful armies at the hands of the fearsome forces commanded by Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin ibn Sam Shihabuddin Ghuri in the Second Battle of Tarain (AD 1192). The sudden military upheaval that witnessed the transformation of the powers that be of Delhi, altogether a formidable regime in terms of territorial and financial capabilities, from native Hindu to Turkish-Afghan Islamic Emperors left behind an unsurpassable legacy in terms of religious, architectural-artistic and emotional existence of the entire subcontinent and continues to pose far-reaching effects that unceasingly evade conclusion – of these, of course, the foremost being the question of the religious subdual, inexorable massacre, chronic exploitation, remorseless enslavement and cultural genocide of the Hindu population of the country at the hands of these foreigner Islamic armies and the post-independence status – religious, cultural as well as territorial – of the descendants of these ravaging Muslim invaders and the natives whom they converted to Islam over several centuries of uninterrupted reign.

As gleamed off from the epic poem “Prithviraj Raso” composed by contemporaneous bard Chand Bardai, highly embellished and often fabricated threads of mythology and bardic folklore juxtapose with cruel facts of history to constitute the life, territorial domains and exploits of Prithviraj Chauhan who presently is unambiguously regarded as one of the foremost rulers to have reigned over the subcontinent and presented an aggressive opposition to the relentless fanatical forces of pillaging-plundering Islamic invaders. He defeated, albeit not crushingly, Muhammad Ghuri and magnanimously set him free, only to be ruthlessly opposed, contemptuously defeated, barbarically imprisoned and disdainfully dragged as a captive to the vast, unpitying plains of Afghanistan the very next year by him. Of course, the decimation of the armies commanded by Maharaja Prithviraj, who was bequeathed the throne of Delhi at the age of 13 by his maternal grandfather Anangpal Tomar II (another theory is that Prithviraj defeated Anangpal around 1150-60 AD), had less to do with the military might of the enemy and more to do with his own policy of territorial aggression against his neighbors which alienated him from all the major political centers and warlords of the country, including his own father-in-law Raja Jaichand Rathore of Kannauj (in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) whom he unrepentantly humiliated by arriving uninvited at his daughter’s “Swayamvar” (where a princess chooses her husband from amongst the assembled suitors) and eloping with her.


The first Delhi


In Afghanistan, the formerly mighty king was beaten mercilessly and blinded by the soldiers of Muhammad Ghuri and dragged alongside the regal procession so he can witness the proceedings and rue his own pitiful existence – on one such ordeal, observing an archery competition, he expressed his wish to participate against a worthy opponent – Sultan Ghuri himself if he dared face him – only to be ridiculed and taken to the task. Chand Bardai (who claimed to be a captive himself in the exceedingly long train of enslaved prisoners) magnifies Maharaja Prithviraj’s feats by claiming that he killed Ghuri by shooting a “Shabadbhedi baan” whereby an archer, blind or blindfolded, estimates and targets his enemy by merely listening to his voice! He was afterwards brutally murdered by the rampaging soldiers of Sultan Muhammad and his sarcophagus in Afghanistan, located immediately adjacent the latter’s, is still abused, spat upon and stomped on by Afghan locals and warlords alike – occasional noises are made by Indian Parliamentarians and Hindu leaders to have the remains exhumed and transported back to Delhi, but, as is the case with all noise, it too fizzles out and is forgotten without much action or groundwork. The fact is of course not recorded in history and Muhammad Ghuri’s own chronicles record that Maharaja Prithviraj had attempted to flee the battlefield in the face of disgraceful defeat and captured and executed on the battlefield, though Sultan Muhammad decreed that his bloodied mortal remains be carried to Afghanistan where he be buried like a Muslim as a final humiliation heaped post-death. Sultan Muhammad himself was later assassinated by the henchmen of some local warlords.

It would come as a surprise to note that the remains of Maharaja Prithviraj’s impregnable fortress’ unassailably thick rubble walls exist merely a stone’s throw away from the perennially crowded Saket metro station-bus stop combine! Notwithstanding how impressive the ruins are, one could be forgiven to wonder why Emperors would face off for these stones and sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of praiseworthy loyal men. Christened Qila Rai Pithora after Rai Pithor as Maharaja Prithviraj was often referred to as, the colossal fortress’s periphery walls, appearing like a grey-red pearl necklace, survive as a perceptibly curving thick curtain wall punctuated by enormous fortified bastions that exist as mere stubs weathered almost to the base by the unremitting forces of nature and the advance of urbanization and construction which over time prompted the inhabitants of the surrounding areas to even cart off the rubble to build new edifices. Along its sides runs a narrow tract of grass-shrouded lawn, dotted with thorny shrubbery and the occasional Indian Laburnum trees (“Amaltas”/Cassia fistula) indiscriminately showering the ground around with heartwarming golden-yellow petals, which delineates and veils it against the flow of traffic and the peering eyes that peep through the numerous residential blocks existential across the road. But tread the ground for almost a kilometer and chillum-smoking groups of youngsters give way to dreadfully silent isolation; vibrant, brilliantly colored butterflies disappear and in their place appear huge hornets and hordes of persistently buzzing, low flying mosquitoes; and the grass carpet turns into deep, mushy soil that smells of rot and dung and death by stench! The fortress walls themselves, in the beginning 2-18 feet high and 5-6 feet thick, transform into near-collapsed ruins, the glimmering grey quartzite dressing disappearing and revealing the brown-red underbelly of brick and mortar, threateningly reclaimed by foliage and thoroughly colonized by overwhelming shrubbery and vines into thick, dangerously dark and grotesquely gnarled wild hedges – the desolation is total, the stillness ear-splitting.


A touch of gold


Gazing at the ruined desolation, one cannot help reminiscing the words of Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II (reign AD 1837-57), the last Emperor of Delhi –

“Nahi haal-e-Dehli sunane ke qabil, ye qissa hai rone rulane ke qabil
Ujade luteron ne wo qasr is ke jo the dekhne aur dikhane ke qabil
Na ghar hai na dar hai raha ik Zafar hai, faqat haal-e-Dehli sunane ke qabil”

(“Not worthy of narration is the tale of Delhi. This story is for crying and wailing
Raiders have destroyed such palaces that were to be praised and described
Neither home is left nor hearth, Only Zafar remains to tell the tale of Delhi")

Location: Couple of meters from Saket Metro station on the road leading to the garden of Five Senses (Coordinates: 28°31'13.2"N 77°11'58.7"E)
Nearest Metro station: Saket (Saiyadul Ajaib exit)
Nearest Bus stop: Saket metro station
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Relevant Links -
Other monuments/landmarks located in the vicinity -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal
  2. Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Dargah Dhaula Peer
  4. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Kaki's Dargah
  5. Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid
  6. Pixelated Memories - Mehrauli Archaeological Park
  7. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  8. Pixelated Memories - Satpula
  9. Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad Fortress Complex
Suggested reading -
  1. Ghumakkar.com - "Qila Rai Pithora – the First City of Delhi" (dated April 19, 2013) by Nirdesh Singh
  2. Wikipedia.org - Muhammad of Ghor
  3. Wikipedia.org - Prithviraj Chauhan