Serving at the emperor of temples

For generations, Dharmadhikaris of Itagi temple have been from this priest’s family
Serving at the emperor of temples

YELBURGA: The architectural legacy of the Western Chalukyas, a dynasty that ruled central Karnataka for over 200 years, often receives little attention. But the beautiful Itagi Mahadeva Temple in Koppal district has found a storyteller in Shrikanth Dattatreya Pujar, whose family have been Dharmadhikaris of the temple for generations.

Built in 1112 CE, the sprawling and intricately carved soapstone temple is dedicated to Shiva. It was badly encroached upon before the Archaeological Survey of India took over in 2005 and gradually began to restore it. But for 25 years, Srikanth Dattatreya Pujar has pretty much run a one-man show, carrying out religious rituals and doubling as a tour guide.

Srikanth Dattatreya Pujar takes up the
role of both priest and tour guide of
the Itagi Mahadeva Temple | Express

A science graduate, Pujar quit his job at a private firm in Dharwad in 1996 to continue the family tradition of serving as Dharmadhikaris of the temple while also cultivating onion, jowar, wheat, groundnut and pulses on their 50-acre land. He traces his family’s roots to Mahadeva, a Dandanayaka (army commander) of King Vikramaditya II, who was responsible for the construction of the temple.

“We are continuing the tradition until today. My uncle’s family and ours take turns to perform rituals every alternate year,” Pujar says. His family was recognized as the Dharmadhikari for the temple for eight generations according to a 1956 government document.On the day The New Sunday Express visited the “Emperor of Temples”, as the Itagi temple is known, Pujar was busy with a homa. When a large group of students turned up, Pujar, who is a guide certified by the Tourism Department, narrated the temple’s history.

Long ago, the place was called Ishtagapuri, which changed to Itige, then to Itagi. “In fact, Itagi is built over many temples. If they are to be excavated, the whole place would have to be dug up. One can find proof of this in the carved doorways of some of houses,” said the 50-year-old father of four. Coming back to the Mahadeva temple, which is one of the finest examples of Kalyani Chalukyan architecture, Pujar says, “According to a stone inscription, 400 Brahmin families had settled here and were experts in 64 subjects such as scholastic studies, poetry, music, Vedic studies, etc.

The result was a temple with 64 soapstone pillars with intricate carving in every nook and corner, be it ceilings, pillars or walls. It took 550 architects many years to design and have the temple built.”A partly burnt inscription found in Hampi says the temple was renovated in the 16th century during the rule of the last king of Vijaynagar and that some additions were also made to it. Behind the temple is Kheelabanda, a unique 80-ft deep open step-well. Some years ago the ASI had the well desilted, cleaned and renovated, leaving the water crystal clear. In 2010, the ASI developed a huge garden around the temple.

The Shivatheertha lake though is still in a poor condition as authorities have to remove encroachments and desilt it. Despite the lack of tourist facilities, the black-pillared structure has drawn many visitors, especially during Shivarathri and other festivals. Although there are few visitors due to the pandemic, Pujar continues to conduct poojas.

“We can contribute spiritually to the temple which has great historical significance, but it is in the midst of residential colonies. There are a lot of problems, especially encroachments. Many have been removed, but there is a lot to be done to make this architectural marvel a tourist destination. We have no facilities – even basic infrastructure like drinking water, public toilets, restaurants, hotels, etc are not there in this village,” he says.

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express