Photos and videos by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra
After experiencing the splendour of the magnificent rock cut cave-temples at Badami, before heading back to Hampi, we stopped at Mahakuta group of temples. Chikka Mahakuteshwara Temple complex or Mahakuta temple as it is known in short, is a group of living temples, less than 30-minutes drive from Badami. The drive was a pleasant one and provided good views of Badami hills.
As we got out of our car, we were greeted by the above view . The old banyan tree in the parking lot which allowed a perfect mix of shade and filtered sunlight was an apt preview to the many delights that waited inside.
Like the bigger temple sites of Aihole, Pattadakal and Badami, Mahakuta group of temples are also located near the banks of river Malaprabha. Located on the eastern slope of two hillocks and situated in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka, these temples were built during the reign of the Chalukyas between the time period of 6th-7th CE. The two hillocks are believed to represent the remains of two asuras — Vatapi and Ilvala, the brothers who were vanquished by Rishi Agastya.
The story is told in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as other scriptures. In the version from the Aranya Kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana as translated by Hari Prasad Shastri, we find Rama narrating the story to Lakshmana on their way to the hermitage of Rishi Agastya.
"Here formerly the cruel demons Vatapi and Ilvala lived, two great asuras who together conceived a plan for slaying the brahmins. "Assuming the form of a sage, the pitiless Ilvala, using the sanskrit language, invited the ascetics to partake of a feast. Preparing his brother disguised as a ram in a dish, he fed the Twice-born, according to traditional rites. When the ascetics had eaten, Ilvala cried out in a loud voice: 'O Vatapi, come forth.' "At the sound of his voice, Vatapi, bleating like a ram, tearing the bodies of the ascetics, emerged. "Thus thousands of brahmins were slain by those devourers of human flesh, who changed their shape at will and were full of deceit. "At the request of the Gods, the great Rishi Agastya went to the feast and ate up the huge asura, after which llvala said: 'It is well,' and offering the guest water to wash his hands, cried out: 'Come forth O Vatapi!' "But as this slayer of ascetics was speaking thus, Agastya, that excellent sage, breaking into laughter, said to him: 'How can that demon come forth, since I have consumed him? Thy brother in the shape of a ram, has entered the abode of Yama.' "Hearing that his brother was dead, the demon in anger rushed at the ascetic, hurling himself on that Indra of the Twice-born, but the sage, blazing with spiritual power, by a single glance consumed him, and he perished. "This is the hermitage, beautified by lakes and groves, belonging to the brother of that sage, who in compassion for the ascetics performed that arduous feat."
Almost all of the sites where the ancients built magnificent temples have rich religio-spiritual histories making their location even more significant and more importantly, strengthening the continuity of the sacred lore of the place. Mahakuta temple complex is believed to have been at a place which was an old centre of Shaivites and Shaktas, and came to be known as Dakshina Kashi. Some scholars believe that this complex at one point of time might have been a Yoni Peetha.
Another big banyan tree greets one at the entrance to the temple complex. The sight of a group of families and energetic children of different ages, waiting in the shade of the tree, reiterated the living charm of the temple.
Very close to this banyan tree is a pond; many people bathe in this pond perhaps as a way to cleanse before entering the temple complex.
Opposite to the tree, that is, on the other side of the pond, is a small devalaya which houses beautiful vigraha of Lord Ganesha. A swing is attached on a thick branch of the banyan tree. This swing is used by the devotees to make an offering to Lord Ganesha who gladly accepts it from across the pond, so to speak! What a fun and unique way to offer one’s love and gratitude to Lord Ganesha.
“A God who cannot smile, could not have created this humorous universe.”Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 490
The Chikka Mahakuteshwara Temple complex has several shrines devoted to Lord Shiva, all of which face east and have a Nandi in front. Examples of Dravidian, Nagara and Vesara style of architecture can be seen in the complex. The temples have a close resemblance to other Chalukya temples seen at Aihole, Pattadakal and Badami.
As we worked our way going from one temple to the next, with the permission of the archaka-s we were able to take a few pictures of the Lord in His majesty and splendour. This way, we can have the Lord’s darshan anytime we want to revisit this beautiful temple complex in our mind. Here is a small compilation:
“Devotion is not utterly fulfilled till it becomes action and knowledge. If thou pursuest after God and canst overtake Him, let Him not go till thou hast His reality. If thou hast hold of His reality, insist on having also His totality. The first will give thee divine knowledge, the second will give thee divine works and a free and perfect joy in the universe.”Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 481
Typical of the Chalukyan style, the exterior walls of the temples have several murti-s, predominantly of different forms of Lord Shiva and also a few of Lord Vishnu. The different rupa-s of the Lord beautifully highlight the One and Many aspects of the Supreme, and remind the devotees of the Absolute and the Infinite, the One who manifests in All and Everything and is All and Everything.
“Be wide in me, O Varuna; be mighty in me, O Indra; O Sun, be very bright and luminous; O Moon, be full of charm and sweetness. Be fierce and terrible, O Rudra; be impetuous and swift, O Maruts; be strong and bold, O Aryama; be voluptuous and pleasurable, O Bhaga; be tender and kind and loving and passionate, O Mitra. Be bright and revealing, O Dawn; O Night, be solemn and pregnant. O Life, be full, ready & buoyant; O Death, lead my steps from mansion to mansion. Harmonise all these, O Brahmanaspati. Let me not be subject to these gods, O Kali.”Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 429
At all Shiva temples Nandi waits patiently in the service of the Lord. At Mahakuta also, we see Nandi in various sizes, some inside the temple, some slightly outside the temple and some in a separate dedicated mandapa. Owing to the genius of the shilpi-s for whom their work is sadhana and offering for their Lord, some of the Nandi vigraha-s especially seem so full of life and very realistic in their details, posture and overall aura.
While there is a general feeling of reverence and devotion in the whole complex, one can’t help but recognise a slight tinge of un-ease mixed with pain when the eye catches the overall dilapidated condition of the temple complex. It is not only a matter of temples needing structural restoration or renovation, at many places in the complex one finds beautiful murti-s of various devi-s and devata-s just laying around in more or less neglected condition.
But a devotee’s heart is such that it can see and feel sacred beauty and divine charm there as well. And indeed it is that all-pervasive divinity which gives a sense of beauty to the whole complex.
“He who recognises not Krishna, the God in man, knows not God entirely; he who knows Krishna only, knows not even Krishna. Yet is the opposite truth also wholly true that if thou canst see all God in a little pale unsightly and scentless flower, then hast thou hold of His supreme reality.”Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 443
Towards the rear of the temple complex is Shiva Pushkarni – the scared pond with a shrine in the middle housing a panchamukha Shivalingam. Some people also speak of it as Vishnu Pushkarni.
On the day we visited, we found several children, men and women bathing and overall having fun at this pond. The atmosphere was filled with joyous sounds of devotees taking dip in the cold water. It is said that the source of the water in this pushkarni and also the Ganesh Pushkarni near the temple entrance is same, a mountain spring from the nearby hills. But no open stream can be seen near either of the scared ponds.
We were also told that these ponds are never without water, and that a constant water level is maintained during all the seasons. It seems that there are some underground channels to remove the excess water collected during rains, which is then used for irrigation purposes.
“When will the world change into the model of heaven? When all mankind becomes boys & girls together with God revealed as Krishna & Kali, the happiest boy & strongest girl of the crowd, playing together in the gardens of Paradise. The Semitic Eden was well enough, but Adam & Eve were too grown up and its God himself too old & stern & solemn for the offer of the Serpent to be resisted.”Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 490
“O soul of India, hide thyself no longer with the darkened Pandits of the Kaliyuga in the kitchen & the chapel, veil not thyself with the soulless rite, the obsolete law and the unblessed money of the dakshina; but seek in thy soul, ask of God and recover thy true Brahminhood & Kshatriyahood with the eternal Veda; restore the hidden truth of the Vedic sacrifice, return to the fulfilment of an older & mightier Vedanta.Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 471
“Limit not sacrifice to the giving up of earthly goods or the denial of some desires & yearnings, but let every thought and every work & every enjoyment be an offering to God within thee. Let thy steps walk in thy Lord, let thy sleep and waking be a sacrifice to Krishna.”