Banavasi, an ancient city surrounded by the Varada River on three sides and dense forest was once the capital of the mighty Kadambas. Maharaja Mayurasharma considered to be the greatest king of this dynasty is venerated for his incredible contribution to literature, art, architecture and the Kannada language.
In fact, the earliest inscriptions in Kannada are largely attributed to him and his successors. Maharaja Mayurasharma, a devout Hindu enthusiastically participated in Vedic rituals, feeding of Brahmins, charitable acts and donations and building stunning edifices that have survived the ravages of the weather and time.
One such splendid structure is the Madhukeshwara Temple in Banavasi that has been revered for centuries. Legend has it that this temple was established by Lord Vishnu in the Treta Yuga.
During the 1st century BCE – early part of the 2nd century CE, the Chutu dynasty (whose capital was also Banavasi) built some portion of the temple as their crest of the cobra hood is found in several parts of the temple. There is even a five-hooded Naga of this period with an inscription in Brahmi script and Prakrit language stating that the Princess Sivaskanda Nagasri, daughter of Maharaja Haritiputra Vishnukada Chutukulananda Satakarni has donated this sculpture along with a kund and a vihara.
Maharaja Mayurasharma is credited with the construction of this temple complex in the 4th century with additions made by the Kalyani Chalukyas, the Hoysalas and others. A pair of delicately carved elephants and soldiers stand at the gate. Two sthambas are seen in the entrance courtyard, one of the 17th century and the other is used during the Karthika Deepam.
This east-facing temple built by the Kadambas has a mandapa, an antarala and a garbha griha in which a honey-hued Shiva Linga has been consecrated by Maharaja Mayurasharma. There is a pradikshana path around the sanctum sanctorum.
The typical ornamentation of the Kadambas particularly in the proportion, symmetry, shape, motifs and decoration of the pillars, their insignia of the lion (Bhuvaraha Narasimha), two coiled serpents, array of sculptures of gods and goddesses in the parapets of the mandapa and the repetitive patterns are seen inside and on the gopura.
The profusely decorated adjoining pillared halls and navaranga were built by the Kalyani Chalukyas while the richly embellished nritya mandapa was built by the Hoysalas. The temple dedicated to Mahishasuramardini and Lord Ganesha were added by the Kalyani Chalukyas. The navaranga has exquisite lathe-turned pillars and a massive Nandi sitting majestically turning slightly to the right with the left eye looking at Lord Shiva and the right looking at Parvati Devi.
The sculptures of Adi Madhava and Lord Kartikeya suggest that these were there even before the temple was commissioned by Maharaja Mayurasharma. The gopura has intricate carvings of Lord Nandi in the corners, Dasha Avatar, Twelve Adityas, Ashtadikpalakas, Nagabanda and gods and goddesses.
There are smaller shrines dedicated to Lord Narasimha, Lord Ganesha, Lord Veerabhadra and others within the premises built by the Soundekar dynasty or Sonde Rajas who also built the existing roof and some portions of the main temple.
The Triloka Mandapa built in the 17th century depicts the heavenly world, earthly world and nether world with utmost precision. A spectacular sculpture of Lord Shiva and Parvati Devi seated on the throne has been placed in the middle of the mandapa.
Kallina Mancha (stone cot) is one of the most extraordinary pieces of artistic excellence and craftsmanship ever seen. The stone cot is an assembly of individual sculptures (four pillars, a platform with fifteen lotuses, four pillars with peacocks, lions and elephants and a ribbed sloping canopy) put together to look like it was carved from a single large stone.
There are two chariots of wood dating back to the 2nd century in the courtyard. A panchaloha bell donated by a Maharashtrian queen in the 5th century is also interesting. There is an Ardha Ganapati with a split in the middle whose other half is said to be in Varanasi!
Archaeological excavations conducted in Banavasi have unearthed rare coins, inscriptions and artefacts dating back to the Mauryan Empire. There is still a lot about Banavasi and its history that remains unknown.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian