Courtyard houses replete with stone pillars, red oxide flooring, kolam (rangoli) on the floor, and the white and red Iyengar namam firmly painted on the ancient-looking but sturdy main doors. Time seems to be an illusion as one takes a stroll through the deserted streets of Melukote.
An air of antiquity, oodles of rustic charm and heritage vibes are unmissable when you visit this quaint hilltop town, about 150 km from Bengaluru. Also spelt Melkote and known as Thirunarayanapuram, the town is synonymous with the Cheluvanarayana Swamy and the Yoga Narasimha Swamy temples. But beyond this, Melukote offers an eclectic mix of sights spanning history, culture, craft and tradition.
Abode of Ramanujacharya and centre of Sri Vaishnavism
Driving up the elevated terrain, one can spot the magnificent tower of the Yoga Narasimha Swamy Temple perched on the rocky hillock,Yadavagiri, as you approach Melkote. The temple built by the Hoysalas is said to be over 1,000 years old and is accessible by a flight of around 500 steps. The main deity is Lord Narasimha whose idol is believed to have been installed by Lord Prahalada himself.
Located in the centre of the town is the richly endowed Cheluvanarayana Swamy Temple that is arguably the soul of Melkote. Steeped in mythological tales and religious faith, the annual Vairamudi habba (diamond crown festival) attracts huge crowds in March-April when the deity, decked up in all its finery and royal jewellery, is taken out in a procession.
Legend has it that the utsavmurthy, or the main metallic idol of the temple, was lost but later recovered by the famous saint Sri Ramanuja who lived here for 14 years in the 12th century. Since then the town has become a significant centre for Sri Vaishnavas and is home to the Mandyam Iyengar community. Rooted to their ancient customs and beliefs, the latter have lent the town a distinct character that is reflected amply in its culture and cuisine.
It is important to note that the community does not celebrate Deepawali as it was on the day of ‘Naraka Chaturdashi’ that about 800 Mandyam Iyengars were massacred by Tipu Sultan on a dark November evening in 1790 AD. This horrific incident is etched in the memories of the locals who, therefore, refrain from celebrating the festival of lights. Apart from the temples, the entire town is dotted with monuments like stepped tanks (Kalyanis), stone pavilions and pillared enclosures. Walking around the town is akin to taking a journey back in time.
Of learning, khadi and puliyogare
Melkote is also home to the Academy of Sanskrit Research that was established in 1978 in a sprawling campus amidst plenty of greenery. It has a research block, library and a manuscript section that houses several ancient and rare palm leaf manuscripts. Melkote was also once known for its weaving community who made the famous Melkote panche (dhoti) which was handwoven in khadi cotton and had a distinct red border. The Janapada Seva Trust has kept this tradition alive and the Janapada Khadi outlet in the town is a must-visit if you are a fan of khadi fabric.
And before you leave the multifaceted town, make a trip to one of the messes serving authentic Iyengar Brahmin cuisine. You can treat yourself to a sumptuous meal which includes the quintessential puliyogare (tamarind rice)—a heavenly mix of flavours emanating from a multitude of spices and other ingredients.
Places of Interest in and around Melkote
Dhanushkoti The site has a shrine of Lord Rama and legend has it that Lakshmana struck an arrow at this place in order to quench the thirst of Goddess Sita.The water here is believed to be perennial.
Raya Gopuram It is a set of incomplete monuments including intricately carved
pillars and stone columns, believed to have been installed during the time of the Vijayanagar empire.
Akka Thangi Kola (twin tanks) Translating into elder sister (akka) and younger sister (thangi) tanks, these are separated by a flight of steps. It’s said that one tank has sweet water and the other salty.
Panchakalyani aka Pushkarni complex Considered sacred, it’s surrounded by several mandaps and shrines.
Thondanoor lake It’s believed that Saint Ramanuja lived in Thondanoor after leaving Sri Rangam. There are three temples nearby, the Nambhi Narayana Swamy Temple, Gopala Krishna Temple and Swami Ramanuja Temple.