I was enthralled by Banavasi even as a child and my recent visit rekindled this interest. Hundreds of years before Bengaluru became the capital city of Karnataka, Banavasi was known to be its capital, set up in 345 AD by the Kadamba dynasty.
I was excited as we approached this quaint little town 23 kms from Sirsi in Uttara Kannada district. The road from Sirsi was lined by the soothing presence of many lakes filled with lotuses and water lilies.
Existing since 4000 BC, the period of Mahabharatha, Banavasi was known as ‘Vanavasaka’. Greek geographer Ptomlemy mentioned Banavasi as ‘Banousi’ in his famous book in 1st century A.D. It was called ‘Jayanthipura’ or ‘Vaijayanthipura’ during the Kadamba period in the early 4th century A.D.
Hsuan Tsang the Chinese traveller-monk who was in India between 630-644 AD, visited the town then called Konkanapura or Konkanapulo (referred in Chinese scripts).
According to him, the area was home for Jain and Buddhist sects. He has recorded that there were a hundred monasteries of both Hinayana and Mahayana sects with 10,000 Buddhist monks and priests.
The Buddhist work Mahavamsa states that Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to Banavasi.
The 1100 AD inscription found in Davanagere refers to Banavasi as ‘Nandanavana’.
It was called ‘Jaladurga’ (water fort) in the Aihole inscription of Pulakeshi II probably because the Varada river flows around the town on three sides and the fort may have been covered with water on the fourth side also during the ancient times.
The journey to Banavasi is pleasant as it is peppered with hills, valleys and myriad monuments from different centuries.
In the centre of this little town is the Madhukeshwara Temple, a synthesis of several schools of architecture.
It has been built over many centuries starting from the 9th century by various dynasties including Kadambas, Hoysalas, Chalukyas and Sonda, and is dedicated to Lord Shiva.
With a blend of different styles, Madhukeshwara Temple provides a real treat to the admirers of architecture. The innermost sanctum sanctorum is built in a very plain style with minimal carving on the door and the lintel. The Sankalpa Mantapa, in front, reveals the influence of the Chalukya style.
There is a seven-foot huge Nandi idol made of a single stone. The dancing hall or Triloka Mantapa was added during the Hoysala period and has exquisite carving on the pillars and the ceiling. This is supposed to be the spot where the legendary Natyarani Shantala challenged the famed musician Allama Prabhu.
It is said that the famous sculptor Amarashilpi Jakanachari has worked over the temple.
The Triloka mantapa is believed to be carved out of a single stone just as the Kallu Mancha(stone cot). The Stone cot is the contributions of Sonda rulers.
The Triloka Mantapa is undoubtedly the work of Hoysala sculptors. It has four pillars with smooth mirror-like finish, the trademark of the Hoysala rulers, which has exquisite carvings.
These pillars act as mirrors and reflect the performers, lending a mystic feel to the performance.
Yet another classical contribution from the Hoyasala period to the temple is a seven feet idol of Nandi. The first thing most of us might straight-away notice is that the Nandi is not directly looking at Shiva but is rather looking slightly to the right.
The reason behind this is that while Nandi’s left eye is looking directly at the Shivalinga, its right eye is looking at Parvathi which is a separate temple adjacent to Shiva’s.
Such is the brilliance of the sculptor Jakanachari that despite a maze of pillars, the right eye of Nandi is transfixed on Parvathi Devi. I confirmed it by standing in front of the Parvathi temple and looking at Nandi. I was shocked to find Nandi gazing into my eyes. In the premises, we see one of the tallest chariots that one has ever seen. After spending the entire afternoon in the temple, I felt that the history text books do injustice to the description of its glory and beauty.
How to get there
The nearest railway station is 70 km away in Haveri and also Talaguppa , the nearest city about 23 km. Lodging is available in some home stays and a tourist complex.