Everyone arrives and stays in Bhubaneswar for the night.
The Bṛhat Anveṣī trip for me started at the airport itself. Instead of going to Hassan by myself, I chose to wait for the Bṛhat team to arrive, so that I could tag along. Interestingly, no one else in the group did this. Whether I am lazy and irresponsible, or extremely aware and smart! Either way, I was just lucky. The wait was more rewarding than I expected. It got me exclusive time with the Bṛhat Team.
Kavita ji, a primary part of Bṛhat, engages you with such warm energy, that you genuinely start to question whether this is the first time you have met her. Three hours flew by and the wait that was supposed to be boring, turned into gold.
Soon Pankaj ji too arrived at the airport. If the world is Maya, then the internet is Maya squared.
It is one thing meeting people on Twitter and another thing to actually see and talk to them in HD Live! My hands went sweaty, knees wobbled weakly, arms turned heavy.. ..for a few moments I had no idea how to even initiate a discussion. Should I risk asking questions, perhaps signal erudition ? Should I go silent, for it is the go to gem of the dumb and avoid all embarrassment ? But the Brhat Team however helped me through this nervous encounter as she invited me into their discussion.
The ice-breaking discussion with Pankaj ji primarily dealt with Hindu culture and religion. The initial part was about the places Pankaj ji had visited, and he talked passionately about the various styles of temple architecture spanning the length and breadth of India. While he went on describing his adventures, a realization came to me that all of what we have heard from Pankaj ji, is perhaps 10% of what he has actually seen. The man has got half a dozen original books, two hundred hours of distilled audio content packed inside of him, excerpts of which keep leaking and bursting out in phases.
The latter part of discussion however dove into the spiritual aspects of our religion, and how it relates to the real issues that stare at Hindu society today. This four hour bus-ride to Hassan from Bengaluru brought to me perspectives that were previously unexplored and they helped me bind the spiritual and Hindutva sides of Hinduism, which till now had been hanging separately in my mindspace. We rested that night, and prepared mentally and physically for the trip that was to commence the next day.
The Student Mode
There is a mystical progression to the Anveṣī trip, which cannot be easily gauged from its itinerary. The trip, as it must, started off in hardcore Student Mode – The first stop was Belur, where each sculpture, each detail of the Temple Architecture seemed ultra-important. The technical Sanskrit terms like Śāla, Kūṭa, Panjara (KSP), Shāla-Bhāṅjika, Gajapīṭha, Kośasthāna were explained. With them came along some modern architectural terms like Staggering and Aedicule. All the architectural juice was shared in a span of two hours. The group also responded in a sincere fashion. Clicking photos, documenting evidence, asking questions.
I was gazing attentively at the deities and the architectural precision with which the temple complex was designed, trying hard to grasp the sheer physicality of it, trying to dissect it all, but what is perhaps to be absorbed as a whole. The mind at this point just wanted to download all the information that came flooding from Pankaj ji.
Belur houses the ChennaKeshava [beautiful Keshava] Temple, the main temple is in Nagara style of the Bhumija variety, the śikhara is missing. But we can make out the style of śikhara from the smaller shrines present throughout the temple. The Indian temple is mandatorily a structure with high degree of self-similarity. Thus the main śikhara, even if it is missing or destroyed, could be re-imagined simply by zooming into śikharas made at a smaller scale. Small scale śikharas have been carved on the walls which hold a lot many deities and also prominent vigrahas are established on both sides of the entrance.
The Belur temple is situated on an elevated area, originally built by Hoysalas, it was re-established by the Vijayanagara Empire. The stamp of Vijayanagara architecture is visible in the Gopuram as well as in the Andal temple nearby. One could see an array of Shaala-Bhanjikas in a corridor to the South of the temple. What intrigued us further was continuous appearance of Saptamatrika vigrahas with Ganesha-Virabhadra on the flanks.
From Belur, the bus ran towards Hoysaleshwara Temple of Halebidu. It is the world famous Dvikuta temple with two huge Nandis sitting in front of Mahadeva. With them sits the Suryanarayana shrine in the complex, which was destroyed by Alauddin Khilji’s General, Malik Kafur, of the Delhi Sultanate. It is here that one feels that it would be unfair if one enjoys it all alone. More people in this world deserve to be bowled over by this masterpiece. It is overwhelming, as one takes the parikrama patha the entire array of aesthetic sensors light up and max out. Here we are, casually walking through the greatest work of an entire era. The unparalleled magic of chisel has made alive all the stories we heard and read from childhood. All of it in top quality pitch black, shining soapstone, continually being polished by time.
Jain Vasadi, Kedareshvara and the Soapstone Forest
The next stop in Halebidu was a Jain Vasadi. The abandoned shrines of Adinatha, Parshvanatha and Shantinatha. As my mind parses the Logassa Sutra, I see these huge Soapstone vigrahas in front of me, perhaps waiting for their arcakas. Till then they will just lie here silent. Soon we reached the Kedareshvara temple and the Holikhere pond near the Vasadi. The aesthetic stimulation peaked. We witnessed with our own eyes, a forest made from stone. They call cities concrete jungles. But our cities look more like circuit boards than jungles. Halebidu temples are the real stone jungles, this is where the primordial in us wakes up. On the outside these temples have gigantic cylindrical stambhas, hyper-realistic sculptures, describing an age of heroes, madanikas, showing the pleasures of life and more. On the inside it is silent, it is pitch dark. Here civilization comes back full circle, it has gone back to the womb. We are back in the cave, to meet our maker.
Indian architecture in all its grandeur is available to naked eyes in the Hassan District itself. Naagara, Vesara and Dravida – all the three main styles of Temple architecture are present here in this little paradise. This was heaven if there exists any. Not a single drop of sweat on an October day. A large lake with hills nearby. This landscape at Hassan made the Delhiite in me envy the weather. This was like November minus pollution plus hills plus lake. The Hoysalas might have chosen this place for this reason alone.
Mosale and the quintessential village temple
The next day we went to a small village called Mosale. The twin-temples there were not as gigantic as those in Halebidu. But they had everything intact, they had śikharas and Vigrahas and Arcakas. Everything. To the delight of Dravidian ideologues it had Vesara style Vishnu and Dravida style Shiva temple, standing peacefully, side by side. As the grandeur becomes monotonous, the amazement subsides and the mind starts to sneak in some nerdy pleasure by applying the recently gained knowledge of KSP (Kuta Shaala Panjara). Identifying deities on the walls. Observing at the human scale, the architectural concept of Staggering, how a circular structure is achieved from straight edges by iteratively applying rotation. However, for a moment or two, I felt like I was an invader who had barged into this small, quiet village for intellectual pleasure. This temple in a small village reminded me of those old stories of a pathika taking shelter in a temple on a rainy night. These must have been the temples of those story plots, I am sure.
Belavadi – The Plot Twist
From the small village of Mosale we moved to the village of Belavadi, to see the Trikuta temple that is intact and has seen regular worship for centuries. This is where our trip took a sharp turn. In Belur, a serious scholarly energy had swamped the group. Then Halebidu had us on an aesthetic wonder-ride. But that couldn’t dial down the intellectual curiosity, which remained strong till Mosale. It is in Belavadi however, we had our initiation moment as Hindu Anveṣīs. The Head Priest, Prashant Bharadwaj ji, performed a grand abhiśekam of Bhagawan Venugopala with Rukmini and Satyabhama. The arcaka came to each of us and asked for our nāma-gotra-nakṣatra. The continuous and clear chanting of each procedure in Sanskrit for almost an hour totally changed the mood of the group. Our entire energy which had been dispersed in a thousand odd directions, converged into the abhiśekam process within seconds. Moments later, we were offered prasādam, served by the motherly figures in the team. It was in this moment that I felt absolutely at home, comfortably eating prasādam in the Lord’s own house with wonderful people around me. It was a bright hot sunny day outside, but the insides of the temple were unbelievably cool. It was home indeed, far from home.
Javagal and Serendipity
Followed by Belavadi, we went to Javagal, according to hearsay within the group, this is the ancestral town of Javagal Srinath, the famous Cricketer. Here we saw two temples, one of which had a large Lakṣmī Vigraha. By this time, we were more interested in Vigraha and what happens inside the garbagṛha than the aesthetics outside. Though we were still invested in spotting the KSP, Natya Ganapati, Natya Sarasvati etc., on the walls outside. It was in this mood that we left for Chikkamagulur, where Serendipity awaited us in the form of a temple that goes by the name of Kodanda Rama (Kalyan Rama). Our bus stopped there on a whim and the group is advised to pay a visit since this temple is easily accessible from the main road. This was not in the itinerary, it was a spontaneous decision by the Bṛhat Team. To our surprise, not only did we find that the temple was of great antiquity, but the arcaka, Vaishnava Simha ji, enthusiastically agreed to share the Sthalpurana (location legend) with us. His monologue unexpectedly brought context to the Devotional Hindu vibe we had started to settle in. Suddenly, everything from the prasāda that was being distributed outside, the Navratris that were being celebrated all across India, and this concurrent Anveṣī trip, everything aligned perfectly in a thick network of context which I did not really bother to dissect further.
The Bṛhat Touch
This part of the journey is what separates Bṛhat Anveṣī from a regular temple tour. Like many guided tours, there is ample distribution of knowledge, quenching the ever-present obsession of modern human to know and index stuff. Like many adventurous hikes, there is the experience of the chilly nights of Hassan and Chikkamagulur. But the prime focus of a Bṛhat Trip is on exploring and expanding the consciousness within. To rekindle that fire, that devotion, which is present as a seed in each of us. Bṛhat Anveṣī in my experience waters that seed. With sincere dexterity, a secular trip until now is transformed into a religious tīrthayātrā.
Sringeri and Devotional Energy
It is a tīrthayātrā, and that is exactly why we have moved further to Sringeri. I must tell the reader that beyond Chikkamagulur this tīrthayātrā faced many hiccups. Temperature changing from chilly to warm to hot. Bus ride becoming uneasy as we cross the forested area. But all these physical difficulties were dealt with courageously. As the days proceeded, the scholarly thirst, and the aesthetic drive, gradually subsided to make space for simple devotion, this devotional energy was enough for us to handle the hurdles relatively easily.
The Sharaannavratri Utsava was on full display in Sringeri Temple. I was eagerly waiting for the feast, where I was supposed to eat with my hands, and had to learn the art of lifting liquid with bare hands and drinking soup from the smallest finger. Unfortunately, we missed the prasādam at Sringeri. But there has to be some reason to come back, right ?
From Sringeri we moved to Udupi. The yātrā from Sringeri to Udupi was not comfortable in any sense of the word. As the bus criss-crossed through the mountainous forest of Kudremukh, those with sensitive vestibular systems began to feel the storm brewing in their belly. Unfortunately, my belly too brewed up a storm. But the consistent supply of candies, murukkus, pineapples, polo and occasional anulom-vilom made sure that the stuff that was inside remained inside. The same people whom I would have found borderline irritating and overly extroverted previously were in fact helping me beat this rough nausea.
Words for the Sahayātrīs
The Anveṣī cohort also was not ordinary in any sense. These were richly experienced and deeply learned Hindus. Everyone here was discovering Indian culture, Hinduism, Hindu Chronology, Astrology, Sanskrit, all on their own. You did not have to go through a long introduction to come to the point with them. Neither had you to tread carefully and fear about political correctness. In my overall assessment, the group itself was a learning source, with each person bringing their life experience to the table at the right moment to make the trip even more meaningful.
As we reached Udupi and prepared for our final darshan at the godly hour of 5 am in the morning, I was overcome by a deep sense of calm and comfort. I was there of course, partly drenched in water, very ready much before five, in proper angavastram and dhoti. Trying to catch a glimpse of Bhagwaan through the small window. I was carefully observing, trying to sincerely imitate the local devotees, the way they do ṣaṣtāṅga, the way they do bhajana, the way they do parikrama, the way they do tilaka, the way they take tīrtha and how they exit and enter the temple.
I observed a few people putting tilaka just below their ears. They are marking their vagus nerves. Well Vaishnavas usually mark the whole system, don’t they ? All the places where people apply tilaka ought to be thoroughly studied. Realization of the body as a yantra is perhaps common to all sampradāyas. A straight entry into the Common Core. We went to a nearby Shiva Temple and moved the bus towards Barkur.
Barkur, Surathkal, and the Coastal vibe
The Trip’s ultimate section was the showcasing of the coastal temples of Barkur and Surathkal. The Saptamatrika of Belur had taken a simpler shape in the temples of Barkur. A local Brahmin helped us understand the meaning and history of the deities and place respectively. We were asked our naama-gotra-nakshatra again for arcana. This time around, I was helping out those who did not know their nakshatra. The few things that one knows ought to be generously shared to prevent knowledge from stagnating.
Diversity in structures
The temples of Barkur and Surathkal were unlike any temples that I had seen before. These were Apsidal temples, with wooden covering. Much like what we had seen in the videos of Kerala temples. The diversity within Hinduism is eventually a result of interplay of nature and time. Where on one hand, adaptation with nature causes broad architectural styles to emerge, on other hand time renders complexity to these broad styles.
Chowlikere Ganapathi, Surathkal beach and parting words
The final destination of the trip was the Chowlikere Ganapathi, situated on a higher place, this temple was like the other Barkur temples in structure. We quickly did the darśana and gathered in front of a door to the back of the temple. The door magically opened out into the vast blue sea! “Kitna dur aa gaya ghar se”, was the first thought that came to my mind. Just four days back I was roaming around in Delhi plains, smelling raat-raani, but here I am, facing the vast Hindu Sagara, along with strangers, but who are not strangers anymore. The few people with whom I spent most of my time with; Pankaj ji and the backbenchers of the bus, we took a few pictures together and shared some heartfelt parting words.
The Anveṣī trip did not really end with the team bus dropping us off at the Mangalore railway station. It continued in my mindspace for many days. I was in those soapstone temples for many dreams, for many nights following. The lovely souvenir which Reena ji of the Bṛhat team had put together I couldn’t open untill I reached home in Delhi. Now the Bṛhat water bottle and T-shirt are constant companions, reminding me of a very memorable and transformative trip to Karnataka.