SET IN STONE-The Viragallu’s of Bengaluru

Right opposite the Kantheerava Stadium is a painted temple arch tucked between the busy Mallaya Hospital and the swank five star ITC Gardenia hotel. It leads into a secluded square plot where old tamarind trees cast shadows over a modest temple.  “Long ago, this area was just forested land near the Sampige kere (lake)” says the elderly temple priest, Swami Lingappa. “It had trees, shrubs and a small hamlet here (around Richmond Circle) called Sampigehalli.” Sampige, in Kannada is the Champaka or Magnolia champaca, a tree that scents Bengaluru city with its heady, fragrant flowers in May.Sampigehalli in current times is an area currently located north of Bengaluru.

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Hero stones set around the plinth area

He says that members of his community, the pastoral Kuruba shepherds, once wandered here freely, tended to their flock, camped in clusters around the lake and built what is now a privately owned shrine. They dedicated it to their patron deity, Lord Beereshwara or Shiva whose creation myth can be found in their oral epic, the `Halumatha Purana’. Edgar Thurston, in his work “Caste and Tribes of South India (Volume IV)” records that the nomadic Kurubas were “…plucky in hunting leopards and bears” while Shivakumar, a young man at the temple proudly tells me that community luminaries over the centuries include Kanakadasa, the mystic poet-philosopher, classical Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, Sangoli Rayanna the 18th century patriot and Hakka-Bukka, co-founders of the Vijayanagar kingdom.

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I find it incredible that the Sri Sampigehalli Beereshwaraswamy Devalaya Mahadwara has stayed hidden from commuters and pedestrians on the main road. The temple too has its secrets. Lining its walls are an astonishing number of bas relief stone memorials called Viragallus; hero(vira) stones (kallu) right in the heart of what is now central Bengaluru. These free standing slabs (both vertical and horizontal) commemorate ancient warriors or people of rank or distinction who were slain in battle, during cattle raids and hunting expeditions, defending villages and boundaries or while committing special acts of bravery. Their tragic narratives are beautifully carved; weapon wielding warriors are seen preparing for battle, despatched by their women after performing auspicious rituals. They die fighting other weapon wielding warriors on horses, elephants or in one on one combat. Stones found along the coast show battles fought on ships or at sea.Though hero stones are found predominantly in South India, many are also seen in Gujarat and other parts of India.

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When single stones recorded a narrative series, they were divided into two or three horizontal panels where the scenes unfolded in stages. The visual account would describe the circumstances of the warrior’s death in the first panel and his ritual ascension to `swarga’ (heaven) in the next. The third panel would contain symbols representing his lineage or caste-religious affiliations. When the narrative included wives who committed `sati’ (an ancient practise of self-immolation where dutiful women accompanied their husbands on the final journey into eternity), the stones were called `vira mastikallus’ (mastigallu; as in maha-sati-kallu).The women in these panels were depicted with the right forearm raised towards heaven (Vyasana Tholu blessing) holding a lemon, the symbol of a local village Goddess and in the left hand, a vessel with fire, alluding to her sati status.

The famous 9th century Viragallu discovered at the Parvathi Nagesvara Temple in Begur describes the death of Buttanashetty, son of Nagattara, a Ganga administrator, in battle and contains an inscription with the first known reference to the word `Bengaluru’. Another ancient stone is located at the base of the Lalbagh rock and there are many others in the park and around older parts of Bengaluru city.They pre-date the founding of Bengaluru as a 16th century urban settlement and hark back to much older times when the practise of installing commemorative stones was prevalent in the region.They are not to be confused with the Atmahuti Kallu’s where warriors decapitated themselves to fulfil a vow.

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According to historian Romila Thapar, the stones also point to the presence of local militia whose paid services were sought to protect villages that were either far away from urban power centres or without adequate state supported military presence. The practise also gave rise to hero cults and legends that were woven around them extolling their strength and bravery. The size and adornment of the stones indicated the status and prestige accorded to the warrior and now offer insights into prevailing power structures of the time.

The hero stones at the Beereshwara Temple are simple horizontal slabs. They show warriors with mace or sword in hand being sent off to battle. Curiously, many of the women too are seen holding weapons. Swami Lingappa has no recollection of how they came to be there, nor is there comprehensive information available in the temple records.He believes that the area near the lake (now Kantheerava Stadium) could have once been the site of an ancient battle where warriors died in large numbers.

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While Kuruba shrines were traditionally stone structures, built in the ancient dolmen style (vertical megaliths supporting a horizontal capstone), the priest says that this temple is centuries old but was renovated in 1948. It has been painted over several times since then.The free standing `hero’ stones you see scattered around its precincts were collected and subsequently embedded around the plinth area as decorative pictorial panels. Their powerful imagery is set in a visual story telling style that has transcended time. These poignant narratives from the past honour long dead warriors but can be read just as easily as the modern graphic novel today.

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Find it at: Residency Road, next to the ITC Taj Gardenia, Bengaluru

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This story is part of our personal, unfunded project`Bangalore-A Remembered City’ that seeks to map the city through the narratives of its people.It was originally published in a condensed form in the Bangalore Mirror, November 24th 2014.Read it here. 

*Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India, from the origins to AD 1300 (New Delhi:Penguin Books India Pvt.Ltd, 2002) 380

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*Parvati-Nageshvara Temple, Begur.Left Panel-Atmahutikallu Panel 2 (clockwise): Death in a hunting expedition.Panel 3, below; death in a cattle raid. Note the outline of sheep.All images: copyright Aliyeh Rizvi, Native Place

 

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2 comments

  1. Trying my best to save the Begur stones from destruction. Priceless inscriptions and Hero-Stones lying totally uncared for and Some breaks my heart !

    Dread to visit Begur temple as i may not see many stones there now. Hope someone saves them now.

    1. The hero stones of Bengaluru are very very dear to my heart, Swami! Maybe we should discuss ways of preserving and displaying them somewhere when we meet next!

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