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 Sampangihalli”.

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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 as they 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-another name for 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 have gone beyond hunters to mystic poet-philosophers like Kanakadasa, classical Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, Sangoli Rayanna the 18th century patriot and Hakka-Bukka, co-founders of the Vijayanagar kingdom.

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It is quite incredible that despite the massive painted gate, commuters and pedestrians remain oblivious to the temple. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because the Sri Sampigehalli Beereshwaraswamy Devalaya Mahadwara holds an ancient secret close to its chest. 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 and 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. The narratives are carved in stone; weapon wielding warriors prepare for battle or are despatched by their women after the completion of 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 around ancient sati stone clusters called the ‘paliya’.

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Single stones usually record a narrative series in two or three horizontal panels. The  scenes unfold in stages. The visual account describes the circumstances leading to the warrior’s death in the first panel and his ritual ascension to `swarga’ (heaven) accompanied by celestial maidens, 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 are depicted with the right forearm raised towards heaven (the Vyasana Tholu blessing pose). The lemon in her right hand indicates her elevation to a local village Goddess, the Devi, and the pot of fire in her left hand alludes to her sati status.

The famous 9th century Viragallu discovered at the Parvathi Nagesvara Temple in Begur describes the death of Buttana-setti, servant of Nagattara, a Ganga administrator, in battle and contains an inscription with the first known reference to the word `Bengaluru’. Another ancient ‘Atmahuti Kallu’ at the base of the Lalbagh Rock shows a warrior decapitating himself themselves to fulfil a vow. Stone clusters like these can be found all across Bengaluru. They pre-date the founding of Bengaluru as a 16th century urban settlement and hark back to a time when the installing of commemorative stones like these was a common practise.

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Historian Romila Thapar says that the stones offer insights into prevailing power structures of the time. and also point to the presence of local militia whose paid services were sought to protect villages that were either located far away from urban power centres, or did not have adequate state supported military presence. The practise  gave rise to hero cults and legends that were woven around these mercenaries hired by the village. The stories extolled their strength and bravery (and create equity for the price paid). The size and adornment of the stones indicated the levels of status and prestige accorded to the warrior.

The hero stones at the Beereshwara Temple are simple horizontal slabs. They show warriors with a 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 Sampangi 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 simple dolmens (vertical megaliths supporting a horizontal capstone) at one time, the priest says that this temple too is quite old but was first 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 by the temple authorities and subsequently embedded in 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 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

 

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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