Banavasi – capital of the Kadambas

This extremely small town (or large village) with a population of less than 5000 people has this one large Shiva temple built in the 9th century CE. Most vacationing people will simply ignore this and instead carry on towards Jog Falls. Which is fine. But for those who like to explore history on their travels, a short detour to this village is worth it.

As George Moraes in his Ph.D thesis work called The Kadamba Kula writes

“The History of the Kadambas is the history of one of the most neglected, though in its own days one of the most influential, of the dynasties that held sway over the Dekkan (sic).”

The news of the city had reached Ptolemy as well and we can find the town “Banauasi” in his Geographic works. During the third Buddhist Council hosted by Emperor Ashoka, a Buddhist monk Rakkhita was deputed to this town. Obviously, as George Moraes says, it must have been an important centre for someone to be specially sent for spreading the word. And about 900 years later, in the 7th century CE, Huien Tsang mentions visiting this place (called Konkanapulo) and finding over 100 monasteries (or sanghramas) with over 10,000 priests. It is believed that with Banavasi as the base, Buddhism spread to the Konkan and other parts of Karnataka.

The Aihole inscription describes Banavasi as a city “whose wealth rivaled the gods” and then proceeds to explain how Pulakesin II of the Badami Chalukyas vanquished the Kadambas of Banavasi.

Banavasi is located in north-western Karnataka, about 120 kilometres south-west from Hubli. To its west lies the Shravati Wildlife Sanctuary up in the Western Ghats which also is the home of the highest waterfall in India, Jog Falls. The town lies on the banks of the Varada river. Like most cities across the world, this city was also established on the banks of a river. In this case, it is the Varada river which is a rain fed river rising in the Western Ghats and flowing down the slope eastwards. The Aihole Inscription mentions that the river encircled a fortress and there were birds in the river which were trained to alert the soldiers in the fortress in case they were attacked. Pulakesin II of the Chalukyas was still able to defeat them and the Aihole Inscription carries on about his greatness. Being rain fed and with a number of hydro-electric dams built along its course, there is not much water left in the river, especially in November.

The Madhukeshwara temple is dated to the 9th century CE when the Western Chalukyas of Kalyani held sway over the land. But this temple may have been built over earlier structures as some of the inscriptions tell. Also there are various sculptures that depict different styles, namely the Kadamba, the Chalukya and later the Vijayanagara style.

Each of these styles are unique and the uniqueness is usually palpable. The main areas to focus when looking for uniqueness are a) the shikhara / vimana b) the general plan and c) the lesser number of sculptures. The Kadamba shikhara is typically a pyramid with stepped layers rising and tapering to the peak (see the picture above). You will also find Kadamba architecture in Belgaum, Belur, Halsi and Goa and other surrounding areas.

Exquisite stone work is on display like most other places in peninsular India. However, unlike the artwork in Hampi or Kanchipuram or Ellora or Pattadakal, the sculptures are extremely measured. There are sculptures of Nandi, elephants, warriors, gods and goddesses but each piece of sculpture has a lot of breathing space around it and often there are walls with nothing on it providing some relief.

I visited this town in 2013 in November. I took a state transport bus from Hubli to Sirsi, a 100km ride which took about 2 hours and a bit. From Sirsi, I took another state transport bus, but a very well decked tourist oriented bus to Banavasi, a 23 kilometre ride which took another 30 minutes. I started in from Hubli at 10:15am and I was in Bnavasi by 1.15, waiting time included. I spent 1 hour there walking around, exploring the temple and the village houses all around. By the time I finished, the next bus had arrived from Sirsi and I could take the same bus back and be on my way to Gokarna which was my main destination.

The whole village can be covered in a nice slow 30-minute walk. One passes through small institutes of art and culture including a Yakshagana theatre group. Today, there is a certain charm to this town. The old temple continues to conduct its daily rituals and hosts various festivals as per schedule. There are families coming over, one or two on a normal day, a few more on the weekend and a little more on religious holidays. But, it is a quite unassuming place. There is a resort there as well, on the banks of the river, and it advertises trips to the Jog Falls and the neighbouring forests.

Personally, the 1 hour I spent there was enough for me. It gave me what I wanted, a glimpse of what prosperity was in the first millennium and also a living proof of how a place goes into decline and fall once the political powers disappear. of course, I could tick off another important historical location in Peninsular India from my personal travel list


The City of Victory 3 – The Domes

This work by George Michell and Mark Zebrowski laments that:

The plateau region in the centre of peninsular India, known as the Deccan, is one of the country’s most mysterious and unknown regions in terms of artistic heritage. Few scholars, Indian or foreign, have worked extensively in the Deccan, which remains little visited and surprisingly unexplored.

(Introduction, Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates, George Michell and Mark Zebrowski, Cambridge University Press, 1987)

It is quite easy to use “Mughal” architecture as a common label for all Islamic structures in the country, wherever they might be. It is a bit like most Indian non-vegetarian food is termed as “Mughlai cuisine”. The Islamic structures in the Deccan have a number of subtle differences. For one, most of the sultanates were descended from Persian generals and were mainly subscribers of the Shia sect. The Mughals were more mixed – Turks, Arabs and Persian – and more importantly, Sunni. Instead of looking northward for artistic influences, most often the Deccan art patrons would turn west – to Persia. The geographic characteristic of the peninsula made this region a sponge for influences from all over the world. These influences included material (e.g. tiles from Kashan in Iran) and people (e.g. Persian calligraphers). There is also a much stronger influence of Indian i.e. Hindu elements in the design and construction of the structures.

So, with this basic background, when one looks at the monuments of Bijapur, there are three main observations with respect to its independent identity vis a vis the Mughals.

Firstly, unlike the Mughal architecture (and specific examples would include Humayun’s tomb, the Red Fort, etc.), the monuments at Bijapur were much more simple and to some extent drab. The Gol Gumbaz for example is a fine architectural wonder. However, there is no major detailing on the walls, the doorways, the windows, etc. For comparison, let us take two pictures, one of Humayun’s tomb and one of the Gol Gumbaz.

Secondly, there is a major difference in the level of preservation / restoration work that is in place. The Mughal monuments, more high profile and much visited, obviously get the best conservationists to take care of them. The high degree of attention, in a way, drives the pressure to prioritise all maintenance of these sites. As opposed to that, the sites in the Deccan area seem to have been left to the elements. Barring the Gol Gumbaz and the Ibrahim Rauza, there was no ASI operation. The local people were the sweepers, shoe deposit counter operators, souvenir sellers and quick fix guides. As a consequence, the general appearance of most of the sites were extremely unattractive.

Thirdly, and this is spoken of by the authors I quoted above, there is no definite histories of the sites. There are oral histories which have come down the years – in some cases, oral histories were recorded down in the 17th century (by the Persian historian Firishta who was specially invited by the Ahmadnagar sultan to write a history of the region, see my first post of my Bijapur series). As a result, for the same structure, different people on the ground had different stories. Ask the tangawala, he will give you one story. Ask the caretaker of a monument and he will give you another story. The available ASI literature is restricted to the technical specifications of the structure and they do not seem to be interested in speculating any further history about the subjects.

All these factors add to the mysteriousness of the Deccan region. For the Gol Gumbaz itself, there are some interesting questions that one may want to ask

1. According to the ASI inscription, the Gol Gumbaz was commissioned by Muhammad Adil Shah in 1626, the year he became sultan. He ruled for 30 years. In 1656, when he died, he was interred in the structure. So effectively, he built his own grave. The question is why? The wikipedia article mentions some tales of Sufi mystics helping him. There are no citations. I don’t think there will be any citations on this.

2. Ibrahim Adil Shah, the predecessor of Muhammad Adil Shah, reigned from 1580 till 1627. He is buried at the Ibrahim Rauza. The local tangawala calls it the Taj Mahal of the South. (another doffing of the hat to the more famous northern cousin). He was greatly interested in music and specifically Indian music. He has written a work on the nine rasas. There is a structure called Sangeet Mahal in the outskirts of the city. There is no ASI inscription there. Did Ibrahim Adil Shah have anything to do with this? Is this an example of syncretism in the south. Ibrahim Adil Shah was also a contemporary of Akbar who was also dabbling in designing syncretic religions.

3. How did the people manage the heat?

Here is a set of pictures on the edifices of the Bijapur sultanate?

The City of Victory – 1 – The town

I learnt that Bijapur is a colloquial form of Vijaypur, the City of Victory. It dates back to the 10th century and is believed to have been founded by the Chalukyans of Kalyan. However, anybody who opens his school history textbook (at least those in Maharashtra and Karnataka) are likely to hear of Bijapur from the days of the Adilshah.

In SSC (Maharashtra Board) text books, the Adilshah of Bijapur is the villain. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj is the hero. The latter becomes the ruler of Maharashtra after conquering all the forts belonging to the former and then killing his main man, Afzal Khan. Then, if you go to Goa, you find old houses built during the time of Adilshah of Bijapur. You find of his palaces which is now a government institution. Goa was a part of the sultanate and the Portuguese had to battle it out from them. Also, the standard trivia quiz question about Bijapur was pertaining to the Gol Gumbaz, the biggest domed structure in India.

The Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur

All these years, as I keep adding to the list of places to travel to, Bijapur was not there. I didn’t really see much point in going there. There was Hampi on the list. But not Bijapur. It got added to the list when I started reading about the history of the Deccan sultanates and the Vijayanagar empire. Any city that grew and became such a major influence in the national narrative needs to be visited.

There are three different cities in Bijapur.

There is the modern town with its air conditioned shops, large noisy SUVs, bustling traffic, people busy on their way to their factories, businesses and offices.

There is the old town with its broken forts, havelis, mosques, markets and tombs.

But in between the two there is a third town trying to find itself.

The horse buggy (tanga) that I hired for the day was just that. A vehicle that continues to stay in the past but providing a modern day touristy service. The tangawala has a mobile phone which he will give you to call him whenever you are ready to move to the next place. He will stop at a traffic light. In the narrow streets where vehicles can’t overtake, buses line up quietly, shirking the horns, behind the tanga as it trundles along. As the road widens and the tanga shifts to the left, the buses pass by. There is no fuss about it. The same bus honks hard when couple of pedestrians take their time crossing the road.

Bijapur, March 2013
Going around Bijapur in a tanga

The in-between city is present in the streets of the town. You can see the houses which are still inhabited. Large houses that would give the upper class Mumbaikar living in his 1 crore+ 1000 sq ft built up area posh flat an inferiority complex. Some are 18th century old structures, others more recent  i.e. early 20th century.

Bijapur, March 2013
A typical house in Bijapur. The nameplate indicates it is the home and clinic of a doctor.
Sodium light illuminates a government office set inside an old haveli
Sodium light illuminates a government office set inside an old haveli
Bijapur, March 2013
The skyline of Bijapur is still dominated by a 17th century structure – the Gol Gumbaaz

The people in the town seem to know the value of their legacy. They know about the potential to make a living out of it. However, there is a diffidence to it. When compared to the brazen entrepreneurship of people in Hampi, the diffidence is surprising. There is a rich heritage in the town and there is much to share with the world at large.

Stalls and Balcony seats

Just 6 years back, I had been a regular at single screen theatres given that there was one 500 metres from my house in Chembur. But then it was sold off and the new buyers did what is the standard norm – tear it down and build a mall with a multiplex. The construction is still on at this place and I have no idea when it is likely to become operational. Of course, the implications are clear – from paying Rs 30 for a ticket to paying Rs 250 per ticket (irrespective of the quality of the film).

This piece on the old single screen cinema houses in south-central Mumbai evokes many memories and nostalgia.

For Rafique Baghdadi, a film and music buff and social historian, the theatres of this area still stand as photographic landmarks in his memory: “There were around 19 theatres within that 1-mile radius. You start in Girgaon with National (now Moti Talkies), also once Dargah Talkies, go up the road to Kamal (now the recently defunct Alankar); on the left is Silver, then comes Gulshan, New Roshan and you end with Alfred (once Ripon). Opposite Alfred was Victoria, which was renamed Taj Talkies before being razed. Further down, near the Parsi Fire Temple, was Daulat (which does not exist any more). Daulat was originally the Baliwala Grant Theatre, owned by the great comedian Khursetji Mehrwanji Baliwala. Further down what is now Maulana Shaukat Ali Road was Royal, and opposite it is Nishaat. Down the road, towards Grant Road Station end, begins Shalimar, opposite which are Super and Novelty. Take the left and you will come to Imperial, Naaz, Swastik, Majestic (where Alam Ara was screened and which does not exist any more), Lamington (now Apsara), Minerva (now a hole in the ground) and Dreamland (once Krishna),” says Baghdadi.

Okay, need to find a holiday day off and go photo-walking in this area.

Lost and Found in The Labyrinth

Daedalus built the Labyrinth as a prison to hold the Minotaur. It was a structure designed to confuse. Designed for people to get disoriented and hence imprisoned by their own sense of bewilderment. One thing that a Labyrinth should not have is a window or multiple doorways. This automatically gives the intelligent person the opportunity to get a sense of where he or she is. However, it is for each one to test the GPS system inbuilt in one’s brain.

Last week I was in Lucknow and after we finished our work, had a couple of hours before the flight. The decision was to go to Bara Imambara. The complex is, well, complex.

The Bara Imambara – Second Gate

The Lucknow Bhul Bhulaiya or labyrinth is not so “difficult” to navigate. Built atop the central hall of the Bara Imambara, there are series of balconies and grilled windows (jharokas) that give you a glimpse of where you are and which way you should go.  Apparently the whole thing came about because of the design of the central halls.

The main hall of the Imambara, 50×16 is 15 metres tall without any central pillars or columns supporting it nor any girders. It is an arched ceiling made with interlocked bricks and stone. Along with the central hall where Asaf-ud-Daulah and the architect Khifayatullah are both buried, there are a number of other smaller halls of different dimensions including height.

The Central Hall is 50×16 with a height of 15 metres. There is no central column or pillar. In the back, the tent-like canopied space is the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daulah. Up you can see some windows and balconies. They are part of the Bhul Bhulaiya

This variable heights of different parts of the base structure gave rise to the maze on the roof. Building small doorways, 487 in all, the roof became an intricate network of passages. This can be seen from down as well.

Bara Imambara: The balconies are part of the Bhul Bhulaiya, One of the side halls in the base of the structure. The height is different (a bit lower). You can see two balconies up there.

In theory, the labyrinth is a single unambiguous path that leads to a point and one must simply walk back the same way. A maze is where a path breaks off into multiple paths, each of these paths subsequently breaking off into other paths, etc. The Lucknow Bhul Bhulaiya falls in the second category.

The first set of steps, 45, that lead you to the first level of the Bhul Bhulaiya. As you can see, there is sunlight to guide you

Once you enter the maze, you have at various points choices of choosing paths – usually steps rising or descending. It is quite funny but in the day time, usually, one of the paths will always lead to a part of the maze which has direct sunlight thus reducing the mystery. To use an old cliche, there is always light at the end of a tunnel.

Navigating the maze – the light at the end of the tunnel

There is really no sense of disorientation really. The entrance is on the east side (left) of the central hall (hall is roughly oriented on the west-east plane). As you enter, you have a sense that north (where the gates are) is on your right and the entrance (east) is behind you. Even after a few turns, you can still retain that. At least I could. What helped me significantly were of course these balconies that looked onto the central hall. The lighting system (or lack thereof) made the whole place look quite psychedelic if I may say so.

Looking into the hall from one of the balconies of the maze. The lighting – a heady mix of sunlight (direct, reflected and diffused) and electricity

Incidentally, economists may well have an interest in this monument. The Nawab of Awadh (Oudh for the Anglo) Asaf ud-Dowlah had moved his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. However famine struck and people left the fields and migrated to the city looking for food and survival. The Nawab initiated the construction of this complex. The famine last a decade, the construction went on for that time. According to the wikipedia entry, the legend says that the ordinary people would build in the day time and go off for the night. The noblemen, the wastrels who had no skill nor ability, were told tear down whatever was built. This kind of predates Keynes and his theory of digging trenches, filling them up and digging again.

From the top of the Imambara, one can scan the entire complex and beyond

Over this period, besides the Imambara halls and the maze, the workers also built a Shia mosque (Asfi mosque), a step well (baoli) that leads to a bath on the Gomti, two elaborate gateways and another gate called the Rumi Darwaza. Besides these, there are supposed to be secret tunnels that lead people to Faizabad, Allahabad, Delhi, etc. Plus the regular urban legends, usually spread by the official guides, about great treasures.

This piece of architecture is also significantly different from the Mughal architecture (evidence Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Taj Mahal of course, etc). The use of blue and the naming of one of the gates as Rumi Darwaza suggests Persian and Sufi influences (a legacy of lapis lazuli maybe?). Obviously, no British influence here. Given the time line, the East India Company was still settling into Calcutta and Madras.

Anyway, a good couple of hours well spent. It was a cloudy day with rain all around and the humidity made it quite a sweaty experience. But it was worth it.

More photographs in my continuous album – Traveling in India

Update: My online photo dump has been re-organised and new links are available on these two pages – The Geography Cut and The Culture Cut (Posted on 6th December 2012)