Spiritual Travel - Theatre of Inspiration
by Sreelatha Balasubramanian
Known as ‘the priceless gift of indulgent nature’, Karnataka is a land of startling contrasts, with culture and tradition blending beautifully with modernity and technology. The old world charm of the villages and towns, the misty mountain ranges, cascading waterfalls and breathtaking architecture co-exist with the marvels of modern engineering and biotechnology.
The state capital, ‘Garden City’ Bangalore, is also the forerunner of information technology in India, hence rightly referred to as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’. With its salubrious climate all year round, ample social, education and health facilities, Karnataka draws to itself people from all over the world.
The only state in the country where you find goldmines (Kolar), Karnataka is also known for its silk and sandalwood, coffee and cardamom.
Here’s the story of the birth and growth of Karnataka.
Many great dynasties left their imprint upon the aesthetic, cultural, social and political development of the state. Prominent among them were the Chalukyas, the Hoysalas and the mighty Vijayanagara Empire.
Karnataka’s historic period that began with the Satavahanas from 300 BC ended with the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1565 in the decisive battle of Rakkasathangadi. Later, the Wodeyars of Mysore gained prominence until 1971. Haider Ali, one of the generals in the army, challenged the Wodeyars and eventually succeeded in gaining control of the state.
Then came Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan and the Peshwas, and finally the British rule. With the introduction of English education by the Christian missionaries, there was significant and swift development of the state. The Mysore dynasty contributed to the cultural growth and industrialisation in the state. The Freedom movement was followed by the unification of Karnataka. The state was renamed as ‘Karnataka’ in 1973.
Cradle of stone architecture
The architectural wonders of Karnataka hold the key to its spiritual and cultural development. Says Dr P.N. Narasimha Murthy, the famous archaeologist of the coastal belt: “Karnataka has been called the cradle of Indian temple architecture because all the styles found throughout the country can be found here.”
After the Chalukyas of Badami came the Rastrakutas, who further enhanced the Chalukyan style. The caves of Elephanta, Ajanta and Ellora are the contributions of the Rastrakutas. The Mahadeva sculpture and the rock-cut Kailashanatha temples at Ellora are some world-renowned creations.
The Hoysalas gave one more style to the world of art. Some of the best examples of the Hoysala style can be found at Halebid, Belur and Somnathpur. The entire district of Hassan, Mandya and Tumkur are filled with the temples of this style.
The Chennakeshava temple in Belur is one of the finest pieces of Hoysala architecture that has still remained intact, its beauty surpassing even that of the Hoysaleshwara temple. Its Vaishnavite inspiration is evident in its beautiful pillars and sculptures.
Not content with the creation of this gem at Belur, the king is said to have commissioned an even larger and more magnificent temple in his new capital city of Halebid. The architect here has laid out two identical temples and then connected them together as a superlative example of India’s finest architecture replete with rich sculptures.
According to Percy Brown: “The Halebid Temple and the Parthenon are probably the two extremes of the architectural art of the world. The one revels in the cold purity of its form and the other in the warm complexity of its sculptural architectonics.”
The Vijayanagara emperors continued this tradition. Endowed with ample space, time, wealth and energy, the Vijayanagara rulers built giant temples in the Dravidian style.
Said Abdul Razzak in 1442 during his visit to Hampi: “The pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal this city in the world. It is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other… The outer citadel has a fortress, of round shape, built on the summit of a mountain and constructed of stone and lime.”
Situated amidst a boulder-strewn landscape on the banks of the river Tungabhadra, this town, 12 km from Hospet, is an awesome sight. Once described ‘as large as Rome’ and ‘the best provided city in the world’ by the Persian ambassador Domingo Paes, Hampi is a World Heritage site.
The beautiful stone chariot in the Vittala temple and the monolithic statue of Narasimha at Hampi are some of the finest pieces of architecture of the Vijayanagara period. The Vijayanagara style had Rajagopuras to reinforce the City of Victory and the Kalyana Mantapas and the pillared house where elaborate rituals took place. Today the ruins of the empire, with its haunting beauty, beckon travellers from around the world.
Sadhakanam Hitharthaya Brahmano Rupakalpanam.
(For the benefit of the worshipper, the great immanent being condescends to assume an imaginative form)
According to ancient Vedic ideas, the infinite cannot be rendered in a finite form or body. Though the infinite cannot be visualised, it can certainly be symbolised in a way the devotee can reach him. Karnataka’s spiritual foundations were laid by great personalities who imparted their wisdom to the common man in the state’s villages.
Foremost among them is the temple town of Udupi. The seat of Dwaitha philosophy, Udupi attracts people from all over the world. Traditional accounts say that Sri Madhawacharya (1238-1317), the exponent of the Dwaitha philosophy was seated in meditation near Malpe when he saw that a ship at sea was in great distress. He waved his saffron cloth informing the captain of the ship of the nearness of the shore and thus saved the lives of the people onboard the ship. In gratitude, the captain begged him to choose anything on the ship upon which Madhawacharya chose three lumps of clay. During his transit to Udupi, one lump fell and out came the statue of Balarama that was installed at Odabandeshwara. The second lump had the idol of Lord Krishna as a child and is called ‘Bala Krishna’. It is believed to have originally come from Dwaraka. Lord Krishna himself is said to have created the idol from a shalagram-shila with the Vishwakarma. The third idol was of Janardhana and was installed at Adi Udupi.
Located in a picturesque spot in the Western Ghats along the banks of the river Tunga is Sringeri, the seat of Adi Shankara. Although he was born in Kaladi, in Kerala, he spent a major period of his life propounding the Advaita philosophy in this land. It is said that in his quest for a holy place to establish his matha, he came to Sringeri. On the banks of the river he saw an unusual sight-a cobra spreading his hood to protect a pregnant frog from the scorching sun. Struck by the sanctity of the place, he decided to establish his matha in a place that infused love between natural enemies.
According to historian Will Durant: “In his short life span of 32 years, Shankara achieved that union of sage and saint, of wisdom and kindness, which characterises the loftiest type of man produced in India.”
Founded by Dr Issac Mathai, Soukya, the international holistic health destination, helps restore the natural balance of your body by combining modern medical advancements, ancient medical techniques and complementary therapies.
This residential state-of-the-art facility is at Whitefield, a serene place 24 km from Bangalore, at an elevation of 900 m above sea level.
One can choose from a number of facilities like ayurveda, homoeopathy, naturopathy, detoxification, nutrition, natural packs and many more.
The aim of the team at Soukya is to help its guests calm the mind, balance the body and nurture the soul so that the body is fortified and the mind strengthened, making it possible for one to renew his vigour for life. This is achieved by the fusion of the charm of traditional healing skills, the precision of modern medicine and the bounteous gift of the self-healing powers of the individual. The power to heal is within oneself and is waiting to be tapped. The team at Soukya adhere to the motto ‘Healing is essentially spiritual in origin and we hope to facilitate that at Soukya’.
Adi Shankara’s period witnessed a spiritual enlightenment that led to the rise of a consciousness in the South. It became a centre where ideas met and were nurtured. People from all walks of life came to this seat to gain knowledge. Pujyaya Raghavendraya Satyadharmarataya Cha! Bhajatam Kalpavrikshaya Namatam Kamadhenave! Durvadidhvantaravaye Vaishhnavindivarindave! Shri Raghavendragurave Namo. Atyantadayaluve!
(I worship as the Kalpa-vrksha, and salute as the Kamadhenu the esteemed Raghavendra who is always engrossed in the true dharma; He is a brilliant sun who destroys the false arguer, and a moon that casts a mellow light upon the Vishnu bhaktas; salutations to that Guru Shri Raghavendra; salutations to the one of extremely kind disposition).
Devotees from all walks of life irrespective of caste and creed, flock to Mantralaya from all over the country to have a glimpse of the Brindavan of the great saint Sri Raghavendra.
As a propagator of Dwaitha philosophy, in 1621 he became the head of what was then known as Sri Vijayeendra matha or Sri Kumbhakona matha.
It is believed that Sri Raghavendra chose a remote spot with a black rock to build his Brindavan. When questioned, he replied that it was the spot where Lord Rama on his search for Sita had rested and thus sanctified.
Pilgrim centres in coastal Karnataka have emerged popular among devotees who come here from other southern states and Maharashtra. Dharmastala, Udupi, Kollur (Sri Mookambika Temple), Kukke Subramanya, Gokarna, Murudeshwar and Hornadu lead the list of frequented centres. One of the distinct features of these temples, Udupi Sri Krishna Temple and Dharmastala in particular, is that they offer free meals to 15,000 pilgrims everyday. Most of the places have very favourable tourism amenities like low-cost accommodation.
Situated in the Hassan district, Shravanabelagola was where Chandragupta Maurya, India’s first great emperor, renounced the world and embraced Jainism in the third century BC.
The Bylakuppe settlement
On the way to Mysore, just before Koppa near Coorg, Bylakuppe is a beautiful Tibetan settlement in an idyllic setting. Winding roads dotted with Tibetan flags welcome you to the settlement and expectedly, older people are found in traditional Tibetan garb while the youngsters are all dressed in denims and hip western wear.
A piece of Tibet, Bylakuppe has incense factories, monasteries (the Sera Monastery being the most famous), artefacts and clothing stores and restaurants serving momos, all these totally Tibetan.
The artworks and paintings in the temple at Bylakuppe are intricate and representative of Buddhism. Metal statues of the Buddha run over 80 feet in height in three varied forms. The monks pretty much live on bread as a staple and accommodate themselves in specially allotted quarters during their period of study and initiation, thereafter moving into a monastery either at Bylakuppe or elsewhere.
On request, the Lama at the Golden temple prays and answers questions that are troubling you, applying Tibetan philosophy and using prayer scrolls, thereafter giving you his blessings.
Being at Bylakuppe is an incredible spiritual experience that must not be missed, and for art lovers, a holistic perspective to traditional Tibetan paintings.
The monolithic image of Gomateshwara that stands 57 ft high is the most impressive monument here. According to Ferguson, a traveler: “Nothing grander or more imposing exists anywhere out of Egypt and even there no known statue surpasses (the Gomateshwara’s height).”
Magsaysay award winner K.V. Subbanna said: “It (Gomateshwara) stands as an eternal witness to Kannada’s self-assertion. It is not possible to recognise, superficially at least, typical Kannada features. The human statue, devoid of any clothing or jewellery, does not show any traces of regionality. And yet, only a Kannadiga, who is aroused not only by the memories of Pampa’s works but also by the memories of the life of Kannada a thousand years prior to Pampa, will be able to appreciate the nuances on Gommata’s face just as an Italian may resolve the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile.”
According to the inscriptions, this statue was installed by Chavundaraya, a minister of the Ganga king Rachamalla Satyavakya in 988 AD, accompanied by an impressive celebration. The Mahamastakabhisheka is a ritual that takes place every 12 years. The sacred bath of milk, honey, curds, flowers, turmeric paste and ghee makes this ceremony a grand affair and people from all over the country gather to participate in it.
Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation (KSTDC) has been actively promoting the various destinations not only to people in the state but also elsewhere. According to Vanditha Sharma, MD and Commissioner of KSTDC: “We have different campaigns to attract visitors to Karnataka. We are also keenly participating on the national and international levels to draw attention.”
Karnataka has the highest number of waterfalls in the country, each unique in its own right. For instance, the Jog Falls holds the distinction of being the highest waterfall in India. Here, river Sharavati makes a spectacular drop of 810 ft (253 m) in four distinct cascades known as the Raja, Rani, Rover and Rocket into a horseshoe shaped valley. Between July and October, when the monsoon is in its full fury, is the best season to visit.
River Cauvery, or the ‘Ganga of the South’, bone of contention between Karnataka and neighbouring Tamil Nadu, originates at Tala Cauvery and traverses the entire breadth of Karnataka, gradually flowing into Tamil Nadu. Civilisation flourishes on the riverbanks, and along its course one can find a series of magnificent temples adding beauty to the natural settings of these great monuments. River Cauvery, which waters the famous Brindavan Gardens, is trapped at Krishnarajasagar dam.
At a tiny island to the east of Mysore, Cauvery plummets from the height of 75 m into a deep rocky gorge to form two picturesque falls, Barachukki and Gaganchukki. Downstream is Asia’s first hydro-electric project, established at the behest of Sir M. Visvesvaraya in 1902.
Eleven kilometres from Madikeri in the land of Kodagu, also known as the ‘Scotland of the South’, is the famous Abbey falls. It is an ideal picnic spot surrounded by coffee gardens and tall trees. Situated in the midst of dense forest 32 km from Yellapur, many wild streams converge to form the Sathodi falls and leap from a height of 15 km to form a picturesque picnic spot.
The Bahmanishahis and the Adilshahis of Bijapur played a notable part in the history of Karnataka by their contribution to the field of art and architecture and also by their propagation of Islam in the state.
The magnificent mausoleum of Muhammed Adil Shah in Bijapur houses the world’s second largest dome. It is an excellent example of the Islamic style of architecture that consists of the dome, the arches and motifs of the Islamic and Persian style.
A unique creation built in 1659, Gol Gumbaz is unsupported by pillars and possesses an amazing whispering gallery. It is 90 ft deep and is open at the base with a striking pendant at the centre. The dome, with a diameter of 125 ft, covers the largest uninterrupted floor spacing in the world-18,337 sq ft. The dome of St Peter’s is larger in diameter by five meters and rises vertically over a circular plan of the same size of the dome’s diameter. However, the dome of Gol Gumbaz, which is placed over a larger square space, covers the largest domed space in the world.
The hallmark of the Adilshahi dynasty, Gol Gumbaz entombs the mortal remains of Mohammed Adil Shah.
Other famous structures are Ibrahim Roza, also called as the ‘Taj of the Deccan’, and Jami Masjid where one can find the Koran written in gold. Gagan Mahal, Mehtar Mahal and Jala Manzil are also worth a visit.
Built in the Indo-Saracenic style with domes, turrets and arches, the Mysore palace houses exquisite art and paintings from all over the world. The golden throne, the stained glass windows, luxuriously furnished rooms, carved doors are breathtakingly beautiful. During Dussehra, the ‘Pensioner’s Paradise’ city wakes up to the merry din of the festival.
Celebration of the celestials
A trip down to the coastal belt of Karnataka, especially Udupi and the neighbouring towns, would be incomplete without watching a Yakshagana performance. Yakshagana, or the celebration of the celestials, is one of the most popular art forms of Karnataka believed to have taken birth during the 16th century.
Krishnaiyya, research associate at the Regional Resource Centre, explains: “Yakshagana is an art form that is unique to Karnataka because it has not only contributed to the cultural definition of the state but also influenced the people of this land. Yakshagana has helped people of this region grow mentally and develop their personality over the years. It has been an educating force in Karnataka, influencing and controlling the mind and body.”
Yakshagana is the perfect occasion to savour mythology. As the sun sets, entering the world of illusion and myths are the mighty Ravana, faithful Sita, lustful Kichaka, loyal Lakshmana. They spring to life adding a new dimension to art. It is a complete theatre form, replete with song, dance, dialogues and music combined with resplendent costumes and make up. The performance begins late in the evening and continues through the night transporting the people into a fantasyland and time stands still.
Men are the only performers of this art form and they don sarees and ornaments to play the roles of female characters. Elaborate make up, headgear, colourful costumes and soul filling music make the nights truly memorable.
According to N. Thirumaleshwara Bhat, director of the Regional Resource Centre for Folk Performing Arts: “Yakshagana is a blend of arts. The artistes benefit from it, as well as society. It enables the artiste to become a full human being by imbibing different skills. Now with the erasure of the barriers of caste, it unites various communities on a common platform.”
The spirit cult
The coastal belt is the land of the gods or daivams. The spirit cult or bhuta aradhana is an amazing tradition that crosses boundaries of class and caste.
Bhuta, the word that evokes fear and faith, submission and respect is nothing but daiva aradhana or the worship of the heavenly deities for its votaries.
Every village has umpteen temples or gudis dedicated to various bhutas. More than 400 bhutas have been identified so far but only around 100 are worshipped regularly. These spirits are worshipped once or twice a year and the ritual is known as koola. People belonging to the schedule castes perform this worship. But the entire village participates in this festival and seeks the blessings of the spirit.
Nature and wildlife holidaying
A unit of Karnataka Tourism, Jungle Lodges & Resorts was established about two decades ago to conserve ecology and wildlife because of its commitment towards preserving the two. Set amidst natural landscapes of babbling brooks and beckoning hills, each of the Lodges’ resorts is an oasis of peace with an enchanting atmosphere.
Nestled in the hills, the B.R. Hills sanctuary promises its guests the jungle in its pristine glory, an ideal place to unwind and rejuvenate. The sanctuary has camps open throughout the year, located at an altitude of 3300 to 5000 ft. You can go trekking, outdoor camping or getting familiar with the flora and fauna while you ride on an elephant.
Rated among the top five wildlife resorts in the world by the British magazine Tatlers, the Kabini River Lodge offers a view of wildlife in its natural habitat. The Kali Wilderness Camp in Dandeli combines the ruggedness of the jungle with the reassuring comforts of home.
Some other places to explore are the Cauvery Fishing Camp situated at Bheemeshwari and another camp at Doddamakali. The Devbagh Beach Resort at Karwar is an ideal escape from the rigours of life, an island that is secluded with untouched beaches, and panoramic casuarina groves. You can also venture into the Banneraghatta Nature Camp on the outskirts of Bangalore that offers all the sights, sounds and action of 25,000 acres of carefully preserved jungle.
An individual chosen will impersonate the bhuta attired in a particular kind of makeup, costume, headgear and mask. The koola with its haunting music, dance and drama and gorgeous attire, performed in the night, provides the perfect setting to exalt the powers of the bhutas.
These impersonators serve as a bridge between the world we live in and the one beyond. The people submit their humble offerings to the bhuta and in turn the bhuta promises to guard them from evil.
The bhutas also perform the role of upholders of justice in the land. The people bring in disputes and the bhuta acts as arbiter. This ritual is a binding force for it brings together people surpassing boundaries of class and caste. The bhakti or faith of the people carries forward this incredible tradition year after year. Bhuta worship has been and continues to be one of the guiding forces of the cultural and social life for the people of this region.
Because of its geographical position, Karnataka has been exposed to various influences over the years and thus has created complete harmony among the Kannadigas.
As described in a seventh century stone inscription in Badami, a Kannadiga is: “Good to the good, sweet to the sweet, This exceptional man of Kaliyuga Is a veritable Madhava himself.”
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