The sky is a clear cobalt blue over Avani. The air is as still as the water in the village ponds. Cattle laze under trees and dry fields wait for the rains. The town and its inhabitants take shelter in the afternoon shadows but the stillness is deceptive. Unfazed by the heat, the past is very much alive in Avani. It scampers around thorny shrubs and scurries past the fiery red Gulmohur trees that dot this arid landscape while I run behind, trying to keep up. It avoids the busy highway, slips silently through the little hamlets of Kolar and comes to rest, chattering, muttering to itself, at the foot of a rocky hillock (one of many in the area) known to the locals as the Luva-Kusha Betta.
As I catch up, it begins to narrate the story of the beautiful queen of Ayodhya, Jankasya Putri, Janaki, daughter of King Janak but born of the earth. When the war with Lanka was over and there was no place for her in Ayodhya, it is said that she took refuge in an ashram built here by Sage Valmiki. In the cave on the hill is where locals believe she gave birth to her twin sons, Luv and Kush and an ancient shrine is dedicated to her on the hill top. Nearby is the `Valmiki-Gavi’, another cave where the great sage himself sat in meditation. There were also three pools here once- Dhanushkoti, created by Lakshmana for her to bathe in privacy, Brahma Tirtha, and the Kashya Tirtha, a natural spring where Sita is said to have washed her clothes. Like in other legends of a similar nature, the spring has apparently never gone dry. Another piled rock is where she sat and looked down at Avani village, watching the bitter battle that was fought there between Rama and his twin sons after he performed the mighty Ashwamedha Yagna. Every stone or cleft in a rock here has deep mythological connections. Naturally then, the hillock is dedicated to her. Seethamanekonda.
Avani is tiny hamlet in the Mulbagal Taluk of Kolar district. The word `Avani’ has Sanskrit origins, meaning `earth’ as Sita has also been called `Avanisuta’ or `daughter of the earth’. The area is rich in Ramayana lore, with stories stretching all the way across the border to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. While `Mulbagal’ finds a mention as the` Battle of Mulwagal’, in the First Anglo-Mysore War (1767-1769) fought between Hyder Ali and the East India Company, its etymological ancestry indicates that it is perhaps derived from the Kannada `mudalabagilu’ (eastern gate of the highlands) and was once a seat of the Viceroys of the Vijayanagar kingdom.
The past skips up to the top of the hill via rough cut steps hewn into the rock, and smiles with pleasure. Spread out below, is a verdant mythological landscape dotted with a profusion of gods and goddesses, lush legends, fertile local lore and sacred architecture. Kolar has its secrets, but it is eager to reveal them to me.
The past leads me down to where sunlight bounces off the massive gopuram of the beautiful ASI protected Ramalingeshwara temple cluster near Avani town. It is a sacred space where interestingly, Lord Rama is worshipped as an aspect of Shiva. The shrines in the complex – Ramalingeswara, Bharateswara, Lakshmaneswara, Shatruganeswara, Vali and Sugreeva, Ramanjaneya and Kamakshi have been attributed to the Nolamba period in the 9th-10th century when the area consisting of Tumkur, Chitradurga, Kolar, Bellary, Bangalore and parts of Salem and Arcot was called `Nolambapadi’ . Reports say that in all probability, the Ramalingeshwara Temple was built by the Nolamba Queen, Devambika, who having lost her first born Vira Mahendra Nolambadhiraja, prayed for her younger son Iriva Nolamba to ascend the throne.
The Shaivite Nolambas were a regional dynasty and subordinates to the Jain Gangas who later became feudatories of the powerful Rastrakutas. Mention of the Nolambas is also found on the Begur stone inscription (890 AD) in the Parvathi Nageshwara Temple near Bangalore. Written in Hale Kannada, it mentions a significant battle that was fought in `Bengaluru’( first recorded mention of the name) where the Ganga administrator Nagattara was killed.
The temples are built with granite blocks and heavy lintels that are wedged together without lime mortar with the Lakshmanesvara shrine being the most ornate of them all. On the north facing outer wall of the temple is a figure with a sacred thread, rice bag, rudraksha male and lamp. The inscription on the right reads ` Tribhuvanakarata-bhatara’, a Shaiva teacher of the 10th century during the reign of both Anniga and Iriva Nolamba. He presided over the area for over forty years and is said to have built over fifty temples and two tanks during this time.
Friezes, pilasters, perforated windows and bas relief sculptures with rows of realistic (elephants, lions, wild boars) and mythical creatures –yalis, makaras and kirtimukhas, as well as sensual Yakshis, Yakshas, and Dwarapalas are everywhere. Pallava influences in the lines of light and shade as well as additions made during the Chola and Vijayanagara periods are clearly visible but most of the corbels are from the Later Chola period because they do not have the Gandharvamukham inside .
Elsewhere, near the Kamakshi shrine stand two bearded figures, the brothers Ilavanji Vasudeva Raya, an enigmatic Chola Viceroy who governed the province around the 13th century and Khande Raya who ruled from Kurudumale as subordinates of the Ballalas. He reappears in an inscription (now long gone due to quarrying) up on the hill in Avani. But inside the temple complex, the 13th century does not seem quite so far away. My mind builds an image of a powerful man, strutting past me pompously, shouting out orders for the temple renovation. What might he have been like, I wonder, this man whose life had straddled two powerful dynasties?
Reading my thoughts, the past says smugly “I can bring him back, if you want. If you stay silent, you can see and hear everything.” I sit quietly in the temple cluster. It is bright under the mid-day sun, unmarked by time. The only signs of life are coconut fronds rustling in the breeze and my hushed breathing.
Over the centuries, the past wrapped its fingers around the gnarled trees and rocky hillocks, ancient temples and dusty roads of Kolar and held them fast in its grip. It settled permanently into the wrinkled, weathered faces of its people. Not much seems to have changed since the area was first called `Ashtagrama’ after a set of eight villages that were established here over five hundred years ago during the reign of the great Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara. Sitting between Kolar and Mulbagilu near Avani, Devarayasamudra is the main village in the cluster and home to the famous Devarayasamudra Iyers, also called Ashtagram or Kolar Iyers, a community of migrants from Tamil Nadu who were invited by the Mysore Government during the early 19th-20th century to fill posts in the state administration and accounts departments. They went on to make significant contributions to the state.
Soon, it is time to leave. The past looks at me and smirks. “Come again” it says. “There is so much left to show you”. I wonder what else lies hidden across this sparse, boulder strewn landscape. “Forever” it says sadly “I can show you forever. But only if you have the time.” It smiles again, mysteriously. “ One last secret for now. Walk up the Luva-Kusha Betta at Avani. Bathe in the pond and take a nap near the Sita-Parvati temple at the top. Your future will appear in your dreams”.
I listen carefully. Somehow, I find this easy to believe. Out here, anything is possible.
Getting there ( approximation)
Take the NH-4 Highway. Bangalore- Old Madras Road-Hoskote-Kolar-Avani- Devarayasamudra-Mulbagilu. Just before Mulbagilu, turn off onto a small road which leads to Avani village. Bangalore to Avani : 90 km. ( about 2 hours driving time from MG Road ). Kolar to Avani : 32 km. Avani to Mulbagal : 15 kms