Monday, December 22, 2008

A Temple Town

In the Udupi district of Karnataka, on the banks of the river Sita, is a quaint town called Barkur. A hub for trade and commerce, Barkur was established as the capital by the Alupas who reigned in provinces of coastal Karnataka. Art and culture flourished under the patronage of the rulers of the Alupa, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties. Barkur was under the rule of the Vijayanagara kings until the 17th century. In the 18th century it was conquered by Haider Ali and was ruled by his successor, Tippu Sultan until he was defeated by the British. It was then attached to the Madras Presidency and was later reverted to the state of Mysore, the present day Karnataka. As the reigns of the kingdom changed hands, many of the monuments in Barkur were plundered and ruined. Most of what remains now are structures constructed between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Temples and keres are a common sight at Barkur. A “kere” is large stepped water tank in the vicinity of the temple. In the olden days, it was customary for people to take a holy dip in the kere before entering the temple. It is believed that there were 365 temples in this small town and that the king visited one temple each day of the year. The king’s visit to the temple was marked by an utsav (festival).

Majority of the temples at Barkur are dedicated to Lord Shiva. A mutilated lingam can be seen even in a basadi (a Jain temple). Although, temples are strewn all over the town, the one which caught my attention was the Chowlikeri Temple. The entire temple including the walls and ceiling is hewn out of stone. Aesthetic pillars etched out of stone surround this mammoth structure. Unlike most temples in South India, the temples in this region do not have a gopuram (an intricately carved dome at the entrance of the temple). The Panchalingeshwara temple is the largest temple at Barkur.

Another interesting monument worth a visit is the Kathale (darkness) Basadi. The 24 dents in stone are the only evidence of the existence of the statues of 24 Tirthankaras (Jain monks who achieved enlightenment through asceticism). Prior to my visit, I had heard a lot about the Barkur fort which is said to have been built during the Vijayanagara rule by King Hariyappa in the year 1336. This fort was excavated a few years ago and archeologists are trying to reconstruct some pieces of history from the remnants of this mighty fort. Although I did not have high expectations, the least that I expected was to see some kind of a structure. To my utter disappointment, I saw a vast stretch of land and a waterless moat. In fact, I heard from my guide that the stones which were stolen from the fort were actually being used to wash clothes!

The temples here portray unique idols and creations and the locals often narrate interesting stories woven around these ancient artifacts. Among the many stories I heard, the one that was particularly interesting was the custom of Aliya Santana (nephew lineage) which is believed to have originated here. The demon Kundodara Bhoota wanted the ruler Deva Pandya to sacrifice one of his sons for the safety of a fleet of newly built ships which were carrying some important cargo. When the queen did not give her consent to this, the king's sister, Satyavati came forward to sacrifice her son, Jaya Pandya. The demon was impressed with this benevolent gesture and let go of the brave young man and gave him the title “Bhutala Pandya”. The king also made his nephew the heir to his throne. This is believed to have been the origin of the matrilineal custom of Aliya Santana which is practiced even to this day by some Bunts and Jains of this region.

In recent times, the process of renovation and restoration of the temples has drastically changed their fa├žade and interiors. The air of modernization has not changed the essence of the design and architecture of the houses here. The architectural style is traditional and most houses bear a rustic look. The houses have sloping tiled roofs and are tucked in pockets between large trees. These are well ventilated structures and there is seldom the need to use a fan even in the hot summer months. Hibiscus shrubs in a wide variety of colours, shapes and sizes can be found in the front yard of almost all the houses. The households in the village are self-sufficient. Alternate sources of energy are used to supplement the power requirements. Cattle are reared for milk. Gobar gas is used for cooking. Solar power drives electrical appliances.

Fruits and vegetables are grown in the backyard. LPG and electricity are used sparingly. I noticed that the people were very judicious in the use of water. It was a heartening to see the conscious effort to be eco-friendly.

A visit to Barkur takes you on a walk along the corridor of the monumental history of a small town.

Getting there - The town of Barkur has a railway station and is on the Mangalore-Mumbai route. Udupi is well connected by buses to Bangalore and Mangalore. Udupi is about 400 Kms from Bangalore and about 60 Kms from Mangalore. Barkur is at a distance of about 16 Km from Udupi and can be reached by bus. If you are driving down to Barkur, take a deviation at Brahmavara. Barkur is about 3Km from Brahmavara.

Accommodation – There are many hotels and good South Indian restaurants at Udupi to suit all pockets.

This article was pulished in The Deccan Herald on the 26th of October 2008. Below is the link to the online version of the article.


  1. This is one of the very good articles come from you. The amount of information gathered around the place and the monuments is commendable. There is a good flow in the narration between these monuments and the history behind them. Kudos !