In the dark days before science pushed its way into the minds of men, ancient pagan cultures believed that the sun either went to sleep or died during winter resulting in the ensuing cold and darkness. Plants would not grow so one would face hunger. It meant vulnerability to cold, enemies, predators and unseen threats. It made man feel fear. Over time darkness slowly became a representation of evil.
But it was also believed that on the shortest day of the year ( December 22nd ) the sun would be re-born and slowly move towards the light. This was the Winter Solstice, when the sun hangs at its lowest in the southern sky, standing still ( sol – sun, stice – still) for three days before its journey northward. Though winter would worsen thereafter, it was also symbolic.With the coming of the Spring Equinox on March 21, darkness would soon be vanquished by light.
Most cultures around the world still celebrate this solstice and with India being a predominantly agrarian society, the Winter Solstice is revered here through a burst of colourful harvest festivals like Lohri and Makara Sankranti.
The Winter Solstice assumes special significance as we meet at 8 am outside the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple to celebrate World Heritage Day with a bilingual INTACH ( Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage ) Parichay (Heritage Walk ) through Gavipuram in association with the Namma Bengaluru Foundation (NBF) .
Gavipuram, one of the oldest areas of Bangalore has a nice small town air about it and like its immediate neighbour Basavangudi, is quiet and mellow on this sleepy Sunday morning. About forty people introduce themselves to each other and to the Convenor of the walk, Mr. Sathya Prakash Varanashi and Meera Iyer from INTACH who share with us all that Gavipuram has to offer – Harihara Gudda Park, the Dhobi Ghat, Garadi Manes, ( wrestling arenas) the Maratha colony and cultural institutions like the Udayabhanu Kala Sangha.
The Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple is a monolithic, rock cut ( ancient peninsula gneiss ) cave temple whose builder and actual date of origin remain mysterious. ( Some say it was built around the 9th century but we only know that Kempegowda I renovated it at some point ).
The temple bells begin to ring hypnotically so we walk into the temple precincts. On the left are two towering monolithic sculptures, the disc shaped `Surya Pana’ and Shiva’s `Trishul,’ while on the right is the other disc, the Chandra Pana and the `Dhamroo’. Directly in front of the Shiva temple is as always the ever faithful Nandi.
Research indicates that while the two massive disc-shaped ( 2m dia) monoliths were probably aligned to map the Summer Solstice sunset (June 22nd) , the true architectural significance of the temple is brought to light during Makara Sankranti when ( in January) thousands flock here to watch Surya the Sun God gently embrace Shiva at sunset and transit into the sign of Makara ( Capricorn).
As devotees watch breathlessly, the setting sun rays enter through the arch built into the temple wall behind the Surya Pana, glide smoothly through strategic windows placed perpendicular to each other and reach the Linga in the Garba Griha after passing through the horns of the Nandi sitting outside. The phenomena happens only once a year.
We step into the temple Mantapa and are inside the cave a few minutes later.It is decidedly ancient. The rock floor is of different levels with steps carved out towards the inner sanctum. Rock cut architecture around the world was primarily found in the form of temples, tombs and dwelling spaces and the rock cut cave temples in South India were predecessors to the later free standing temples that emerged once pillars, lintels, capitols and cornices were discovered. The Pallavas were the most prolific rock cut temple builders in the region and Mahabalipuram was their showcase. Other beautiful examples built by the Chalukyas can also be seen at Badami.
We quietly wait for the Aarti to finish and then make our way to a narrow tunnel on the left. This is the exciting part !
Approaching the entrance, I hyperventilate momentarily and then bend my head and fold my bones into my body to crawl around the inner sanctum in a clumsy pradakshina, on hands and knees in single file. Caves are ancient doorways to the bowels of the earth. Mysterious and womb like, they seem to date back to when the earth was new. They are the keepers of its secrets.
Feeling like I’m being watched, I look to the left ( the right being a wall) and see the stern faced, wide eyed, flower decorated Saptamatrikas ( seven Mother Goddesses) placed alongside in the dimly lit stone passage.
The Saptamatrikas – Brahmani, Vaishnavi, Maheshwari, Kaumari, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda are associated with Shiva and according to the Puranic traditions are said to be the `Sakti’s ‘ of the corresponding male Gods.They are usually depicted possessing the same ornaments, weapons and vahanas as their male counterparts.
In passing I also get a glimpse of the famous two headed, three legged statue of Agni, the Fire God, the only one of its kind in South India, but cannot linger because there are others crawling behind me. It is hot and damp in the tube lit tunnel, water drips and there’s very little air but I don’t notice it. I am preoccupied with being regretful that I couldn’t give the Goddesses their due. I also wonder if they consider my `quickly slither past’ technique a tad bit undignified.
Somewhere around 1792 and just after the Third Mysore War, artists Thomas Daniell and his nephew William visited Bangalore and painted various hills, forts, temples and turrets that dotted the local landscape. Among them was the ” Entrance to a Hindoo Temple, near Bangalore” the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple where ‘ on the right is the trident of Mahadeva, and not far from it are two examples of the Chackra of Vishnoo, supported perpendicularly” – Deccan Traverses, Anuradha Mathur, Dilp DaCunha. They also noted that the temple was abandoned with ` no establishment for religious duty’. They would be pleased to know that the temple is alive and thronged to full capacity today.
Coming out on other side of the sanctum, we walk up the hill behind the temple to the old Choultries ( Chatrams). On the way, we can see the new Vimanas built to mark the deities positions beneath ( Shiva Lingam and Parvati ) and the painted red roof of the temple. This compulsion to paint over everything and obliterate valuable details is distressing.
We then make our way through little lanes and also visit a Poojari’s simple residence in Gavipuram Guttahalli . They are welcoming and don’t seem to mind us wandering into their home and inspecting their possessions. The Poojari’s wife continues with her daily chores outside, beating wet fabric on stone to clean it while we walk around her house. The morning is getting warmer. We trudge our way to the top of the tree covered Harihara Gudda Park and Temple and head back down for refreshments amidst the popping of a thousand press flashlights and chatter from the walkers on the periphery.
We pass a few more old temples on the way up to the Watch Tower on Bugle Rock, Basavangudi, built by Kempegowda II. I remember being told that long ago, sentries in all the four watch towers ( the other three are at Mehkri Circle, Ulsoor and Lalbagh) would light flares ( indicating that all is well), that could be seen all across the city from the other three towers. We look closely at the little grooves in the rock where soot and oil have left faint black smudges and I cannot help but wonder ( as I usually do) who these men were, sitting high up here to keep watch over the city, talking to each other in tongues of fire.
From here, Mr Sathya Prakash draws our attention to the encroachments, filth and garbage piled down below in what once would have been the shimmering Kempambudhi Kere built by Kempegowda I in the 16th century. Bangalore was originally envisioned as a beautiful city of lakes, tanks and gardens, many of which were destroyed due to unplanned development and indifference to our natural heritage. If nothing is done, this choking water body like the others, will also die for exactly the same reasons.
It is now 10:30 am, and the walk is almost coming to an end. We head back to our cars, walking past the old Dhobhi Ghats in the area. Some passers by speculate if we are `tourists’. The irony is that it just might be the truth. Most often it is local residents like us who need to be re-introduced formally to our own city simply because we do not have the time to build an intimate relationship with it individually. Maybe that is why the bonds are shallow and we do not care when parts of it fall into ruin, are ignored or destroyed for ever.
Light must shine through not just the arch and windows of an ancient temple in Gavipuram but also through our minds and hearts. It must shine on every crumbling edifice in our city because our fast fading heritage deserves its rightful place in the sun.
* Updates on the INTACH Parichays, are available on their Facebook page.
* Thomas Daniell – Image courtesy : Deccan Traverses -Anuradha Mathur/Dilp DaCunha, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.