Udupi: A divine town


The town of Udupi in Karnataka is a beautiful and intriguing mix of stories of the divine, colourful markets, tales of spirits, and rituals associated with snake worship. Visiting Udupi is akin to buying into divinity, even if for a short while.

Text and photos: Text: Usha Hariprasad

AThe lanes catch my attention. There are some quirky items here. Dried kokum (Garcinia Indica) for instance, aptly termed Malabar tamarind, for its usage in Goan and South Kanara cuisines, the small Appe mangoes that make delightful pickles, or the raw jackfruits that sees itself in varied Konkani and Udupi recipes. These are some unique finds that I discover at the Car Street in Udupi, so named because the temple chariots or cars go through this street.

Of course, the reason I have come to Udupi is not to drool over these markets, but to get the blessings of Lord Krishna at the famous Krishna Mutt. So I head to the Mutt and stand in the queue meant for devotees. And I learn some interesting facts by speaking with the devotees in the line.

The history
Udupi hitherto was known as Rajatapitapura. A localite who is also a frequent visitor to this temple mentions that the name Udupi is a recent one. In fact, it first occurs in a 1366 stone inscription. The name Udupi could be derived from ‘Udu’ which is a Sanskrit word for stars. When joined with the word “pa” it signifies the lord of stars – apparently the Moon.

The Udupi Sri Krishna Temple

The Udupi Sri Krishna Temple

“Years ago, Moon is said to have done penance here to escape the effects of a curse. Pleased with his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared, gave his blessings – thus the moon was liberated. The Chandra-maulishvara or the Chandreshvara Temple opposite to the Mutt is a consequence to this event,” explained a lady in front of me.

However, this is just one of the derivations of the word Udupi. There are plenty of other interesting analyses as well. For instance, ‘Udupu’ also means serpent – the area is famous for its snake worship.

After an hour of standing in the queue, I finally get a glimpse of Krishna through a window with nine square holes. The stone idol is beautiful, holding a rope and a churning rod. It has an interesting story behind it. The black statue is said to have arrived from Dwarka in a ship. The ship apparently got caught in a storm near Malpe at Udupi. Sri Madhwacharya, a saint, rescued the ship. In return, he asked for a Gopi Chandana (soft clay) lump from the ship owner, and found the idol inside this lump. The saint retrieved the idol and consecrated the idol at the present Krishna temple.

The Kanakana Kindi or Kanaka’s Window   (Photo: H.V. Shiv Shankar)

The Kanakana Kindi or Kanaka’s Window
(Photo: H.V. Shiv Shankar)

I finish my prayers and walk around. The temple inside has other idols too of Garuda, Mukhyaprana (the wind God), and of the Saint Madhwacharya. The saint Madhwacharya, a 13th century philosopher (1238-1317 C.E) was a strong proponent of Dwaita Vedanta, a philosophy that advocates dualism where God and individuals are distinct entities. Udupi thus has become an important seat of Madhwa Brahmins – the followers of Madhwacharya.

As I walk inside the temple premises, I also find a small tank known as Madhva Sarovara. The swamiji or the priest enters the sanctum for worship only after taking a bath at this tank. I am told that it is a beautiful sight during Teppotsava or boat festival event at Udupi, where hundreds of earthen lamps are kept around the tank.

As I come outside the temple, I find a small window to the west of temple hall. This window is popularly known as Kanakana Kindi or Kanaka’s Window, and one can glimpse the idol of Krishna from here too. It is said that Kanakadasa, a shepherd, was not allowed inside this temple. And so he prayed to the Lord from outside. Pleased with his devotion, the idol rotated 180 degrees to the west, the rear wall collapsed, and he was able to glimpse the idol. The slit now forms Kanaka’s window.

Barkur Temple in the heritage town of Barkur

Barkur Temple in the heritage town of Barkur

Surrounding the Sri Krishna Temple are a couple of other temples as well, like the eighth century Anatheswara Temple, Chadramaulishwara Temple and the temple dedicated to Raghavendra Swami, a renowned Madhwa saint. I come to know later that Udupi has this tradition of first visiting the Chadramaulishwara Temple, then Anatheshwara, and finally the Udupi mutt. Anyway, I have done this backwards!

I also learnt that the worship of Krishna is a bit different here. The saint Madhwacharya handed over the administration of the Krishna worship to eight disciples of his. The shrines of these eight pontiffs are known as Ashta Mathas or Eight Mutts. Every two years, the pontiff of one of the Mutts takes over the responsibility of Krishna Pooja. This transition follows a cyclic order, and the ceremony is known as Paryaya.
Earlier, the transition used to happen every two months. But it was changed to the current two year system by a saint in the 15th century named Sri Vadiraja Swami. Paryaya generally falls in the month of January. During Paryaya, the Udupi temples and the car street sees a lot of activity. There is a grand procession with elephants, bands and pipes playing, that accompany the new pontiff who is going to take charge next. The handover of temple duties takes place inside the temple.

Apart from the temples, some other things worth checking in the city are:
The colourful lanes and streets surrounding the temple: Earthenware, handicrafts, spices, herbs, the traditional sevai or noodle machines, grinders, idli stands etc., dot the lanes. I assure you that some of the items are very unusual, and you would never have seen them before.
Udupi Museum: Udupi has an interesting Numismatics Museum at the Corporation Bank premises. It boasts of more than 1,800 coins. One of the oldest coins dates back to 400 B.C. Some other destinations worth checking out are the Hastha Shilpa, a heritage village spread over six acre land, and the cattle shelter at Neelavara, Udupi, that shelters aged, homeless cows.

Destinations near Udupi
Visit Pajaka, a spiritual centre: Pajaka, a village 13 km from Udupi is the birth place of the saint Madhwacharya. There are many relics of the saint at this birthplace. The place is scenic with the beautiful Kunjargiri Hill, with an ancient temple of Goddess Durga that bears the conch, discus, bow and trident in her hands. The demon Mahishasura lies at her feet.

The Kattale Basadi group of monuments

The Kattale Basadi group of monuments

Visit the heritage town Barkur: Barkur is 16 km from Udupi. Ruins dot this sleepy hamlet that is located on the banks of River Seeta. Ironically, it was a major political centre for 500 years and was the capital of Alupas during the 11th-12th century. And it might surprise you to learn that it was also a commercial hub with trade links to countries like Africa, Egypt, and Afghanistan. The place boasted of some 365 temples in the past, yet today, it has only a few 30-50 temples. Some of the oldest temples that you can check out are Panchalingeshwara, Bhairava Ganapati at Chowlikere, Somanatha and Someshwara. There are also ruins of a Jain basadi here – the Kattale Basadi group of monuments.

Enjoy the beaches: Six kilometres from Udupi is Malpe, a charming port, and a busy fishing harbour. The beach at Malpe is clean, well maintained, and boasts of water sports like jet skiing, para gliding, etc. From here, take the boat service and head out to the St. Mary’s Island. St Mary’s is a group of islands that is famous for its volcanic rocks. It is said that Vasco da Gama in the year 1498 had set foot on these islands. A one hour ride will take you to these islands. Barring a few coconut trees and a couple of straw huts, there is only the deep blue sea and the rocky basalt formations to keep you company. At Malpe, there is also an ancient temple dedicated to Balarama – Sri Krishna’s brother.

Another beach worth checking out is Kapu Beach, located 13 km from Udupi. It is a pristine beach, not as populated as the Malpe Beach. It has an added attraction of a 1901 circular light house open to visitors. There is also a 700-year-old Janardhana Temple, ruins of a Jain Basadi that are worth checking out.

If you are looking for non-commercialised beaches, then you could check out Muttu Beach and Kodi Beach as well.

Monuments at Karkala: Thirty seven kilometres from Udupi is the town of Karkala that abounds in stone sculptures, Basadis and other Jain monuments. A 41.5 feet high statue of Bahubali atop the Gomata hill of Karkala, Chaturmukha Basadi on Chikka Betta are some of the Jain monuments worth checking out. The granite monolith, one of the tallest in Karnataka, was installed around 1432 by a descendant of Bhairarasa dynasty known as Veerapandya Bhairarasa Wodeyar. Every 12 years, the Jain religious rite ‘Mahamastakaabhisheka’ is performed on the statue. The ceremonial annotation of the statue is done. A huge number of devotees turn up to watch this grand ceremony. The Chaturmukha Basadi on the opposite hills, constructed in the late 16th century, has the images of Jain Tirthankaras, furnished with copper.

If you have time, you can also check out the famous shrine of Saint Lawrence at Attur, quite near to Karkala. It is a beautiful church with the miracle statue of the Saint.

Try Udupi delicacies: Udupi cuisine is different. The cuisine relies heavily on local vegetables like yam, gourd, pumpkin, banana stems and flowers, mangoes and jackfruits during its season. Coconut and coconut oil is generously used. The jackfruit finds itself in many avatars ranging from idlis, dosas and even sweets. Udupi gojju – a sweet, tangy gravy of either mangoes, pineapple, or bitter gourd generally, is a part of the banana leaf meal. Some other signature dishes at Udupi that are a must try are idlis steamed in jackfruit leaf, jackfruit pulp steamed in banana or teak leaves, Hayagreeva- a sweet dish made of cooked Bengal gram and jaggery etc.

St. Mary’s is a group of islands famous for its volcanic rocks (Photo: H.V. Shiv Shankar)

St. Mary’s is a group of islands famous for its volcanic rocks (Photo: H.V. Shiv Shankar)

Be a part of a snake ritual: Naga aradhane or serpent worship is common in these parts, and is done by a community or a particular family for either fulfilling desires, or for the welfare of the community. The ritual is quite elaborate. The figure of serpent with hood is first drawn on the floor and is enclosed in a circle of diameter 10-15 ft. The figure known as Mandala is filled with different colours. A dance drama then takes place throughout the night accompanied by drum, cymbal and singing. The characters are generally Nagapaatri – a person representing the spirit of a snake, and a snake maiden known as Nagakanika in the ritual. The snake is both enraged and appeased in the dance performance. A large number of devotees gather for such events, and spend the whole night watching these proceedings.

Enter the spirit world: Spirit or Kola worship is another event worth checking out. Kola generally takes place at night. In the spirit worship, the priest dresses up in costumes, masks and goes into a trance. The ritual is often accompanied with musical instruments, pipes, percussion etc. Offerings are also given to the spirit. When the rituals finish, the spirit addresses the gathering, solves disputes, suggests solutions and blesses the devotees. The spirits could either be of ancestors, martial heroes, and attendants of Shiva etc. You will see a number of shrines dedicated to spirits in this region.


Usha Hariprasad

Usha Hariprasad is a freelancer who is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writing about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. Currently, she works in a trekking organisation.