Melkote: Frozen in time
The Cheluvanarayana Swamy temple
Although the darkness was momentarily blinding as I stepped into the shaded entrance of the Sri Cheluvanarayana Temple of Melkote, it was a pleasant respite from the scorching April sun. My eyes slowly opened to the dimly lit space and I could see the greasy granite walls of the temple that magically kept the air cooled for the grateful few hundred of Vaishnav devotees who came in late on that sunny morning. This idol of Lord Vishnu, affectionately referred to as ‘Cheluvaiah’ by the locals, takes the center stage at Melkote, one of the four most sacred places of Vaishnavism in South India.
The temple, built in the Vijayanagar style, houses some of the most intricately carved pillars that I have ever seen. Many huge granite pillars are slit into multiple thin ones with complicated carvings of deities and Hindu symbols. The niches and spaces fashioned out of the granite never fail to make one ponder about the immensely gifted ancient sculptors. The outer gopuram is comparatively quite modest though, painted in cream, another trade mark of the Vijayanagar style.
A Kalyani at Melkote
Melkote, a temple town whose past is vaguely woven together by an interesting mix of documented history and complex, yet intriguing, Hindu mythology, lies roughly 150 km south west of Bangalore. The idol of Cheluvaiah (Lord Vishu), originally created at the behest of Brahma for his prayers and installed at the present day Melkote by his son, was lost and buried during the many battles between the Hindu and Muslim rulers who came to invade the south. The processional deity was taken away by a Muslim ruler, Mohammed Badshah. The famous Vaishnav saint Sri Ramanujacharya is said to have dug up the statue of the Cheluvaiah at Melkote (which was known as Yadavadri during those times) with the help of King Vishnuvardhana in the 11 century AD. Ramanujacharya was also responsible for travelling to Delhi and impressing upon the Muslim ruler to return the processional deity. The princess of the ruler, who had been very attached to the beautiful idol by then, is said to have travelled back with Ramanuja to Melkote unable to bear the separation!
The great Iyengar Puliyogare!
Sri Ramanuja is said to have preached Vaishnavism from a place very close to Melkote thus making it a very important destination on a Vaishnav’s map. It also hosts the world renowned diamond crown festival (Vairamudi Festival) that is extremely vibrant in its festivities and traditions. But thankfully, this little town miraculously seems to escape the eventual fate of many big temple towns of South India. There are no armies of beggars ready to pounce on you, no long queues to enter the temple premises, no stinking trenches or dirty, neglected streets. And what’s more, there is not even a fee to see the lord!
Priests at the ‘Thangi kola’
As with many Vaishnav towns, Melkote has its exclusive breed of patrons who give the town its own unique flavour. The ‘Mandyam Iyengars’, a sect of Brahmins, who owe their origin to this place are mostly responsible for keeping the old world feel of Melkote still alive. The tiled houses with their faded ochres and blues and pillars of teak, the cool verandas facing the street and the tall coconut palms in the backyard form the laid-back dwelling of these orthodox Hindus. The bare chested Iyengars, with their foreheads painted with two thick bands of ash on either side of a long and thin central vermillion line running from the root of the nose disappearing into the hairline, and a little tuft of hair dangling behind from their head, parade around the town temple in continuous service to the temple. The aged Iyengars, who seem to be plenty in number at Melkote, spend their time sprawling out in the spacious verandas and involve themselves in reading religious books.
It was noon and as I walked these streets around the temple a compelling aroma of Iyengar Puliyogare (tamarind rice) began to permeate the air. Not surprisingly, I was soon hungry and headed towards one of the many Iyengar food carts that promised to sell more authentic Puliyogare than the one next to it. The Iyengars seem to have their own unique (and well guarded) formula for churning out their divinely tasting Puliyogare unmatched by the kitchens of any other breed. It was truly gratifying, the dish seemed authentic and so did the Iyengar selling it.
A Vaishnav at Melkote
After a heavy dose of Puliyogare and curd rice, I decided to melt it down on my way to the Sanskrit Academy passing through ruins and two temple tanks. The Academy’s library houses an enviable collection of ancient palm leaf manuscripts and it was easy to see why. The lemony smell of a preservative enveloped a huge room with endless racks of dull brown, tattered but neatly labelled manuscripts. Not interested in going into the details of what some of them had to tell, I decided to walk further to end of the ridge of the Melkote hill. A watchtower at the end of the path gave me a glimpse of the brown and green palette of the plains below on one side and the Eucalyptus dominant wildlife sanctuary on the other. The walk was worth it; I enjoyed the silence of the rustling leaves, the call of a koel, the chill wind blowing gently on my face, the view of the dwarfed temple in the distance and the feeling of nothing, on my mind.
Sunset at Thondanur lake
Melkote is roughly 150 km from Bangalore and is best done on your own vehicle. Just after the town of Mandya on the Bangalore-Mysore highway take a right turn to Melkote. The Thondanur Lake, 18 km from Melkote is a good picnic spot. There are very few eateries at Melkote and they all serve healthy vegetarian food. The Iyengar Puliyogare is a must try at any of the push carts near the Cheluvanarayana temple. No decent staying options though; its better you head off to Mysore, 70 km, for good hotels.