Banavasi : the land of the Kadambas

A town steeped in antiquity, Banavasi in Karnataka was once a capital of the Kadamba dynasty who ruled over the north-west part of Mysore for more than 200 years. The beautiful Madhukeshwara temple, the remains of a rumbled down fort and a summer palace at Gudnapur are the only reminders of a glorious past.

Text & Photos : Usha Hariprasad

It was dark when I reached Banavasi. There was a chill in the air as I stepped out of the vehicle. I could hear the chirping of the crickets high above me. All around me were trees of teak and jackfruit. With very less street lights and houses afar, the guest house at Banavasi looked to be deserted, miles away from any civilisation. In other words it was just perfect – no traffic, no blare of horns to disturb my peace. It was total bliss.

Call it by any name Vanavasa, Vaijanthipura or Banavasi, the town is steeped in antiquity. Determined to explore the place as much as possible during my two days stay here, I set out to visit the Pampa forest just opposite my guesthouse.

Pampa Vana and Adi Madhukeshwara

Pampa Vana or forest is a grove with the typical set of Malnad trees – jackfruit, teakwood, and rosewood… As the name suggests the grove is dedicated to the Kannada poet Pampa. A dilapidated children’s park at the entrance greets me and as I walk further down the narrow muddy lane with tall trees on either side of me, I hit upon an ancient temple – the shrine of Adi Madhukeshwara. Nothing much to see at the temple except for a lone Shiva linga decked up with white flowers from the forest nearby. The temple houses a garbagriha(sanctum sanctorum) and a small navaranga with four pillars. The shikara (spire) of the temple is of a later time period but renovated in Kadamba style while the navaranga is of later Chalukyas.

It is only later that I learnt about this temple’s significance. The famous Madhukeshwara temple of Banavasi was first constructed here, but due to unsuitability of this location, it got shifted to its present location in Banavasi town. There is however much more to the Adi Madhukeshwara temple than this.

Sharada, a 60-year-old woman from the Gudikar community of Banavasi mentioned that the villagers have a tradition connected to the temple. “If there is a dearth of rainfall in this area, the farmers worship this deity and lo, within a week there are rains in the village.”

Exploring the Pampa Vana I remembered what Pampa said about Banavasi. “It is difficult to be born there as a man; if that is not possible let one be born as kokila (cuckoo) or a bee in the paradise of Banavasi.”

A glorious past

The next day after a simple breakfast of Kadabu-rice dumplings and sliced pineapples which Banavasi is quite famous for, I head out to Madhukeshwara temple. The temple with its myriad lanes form the nucleus of this small town. The lanes lend meaning to the place and give a peek into its once glorious history. As I stroll through the lanes I come across Santepete – sante means bazaar so perhaps the lane was for village produce; then came Kanchipete – a lane for bronze products as kanchu in Kannada means bronze. There are the typical hole in the wall shops; shops selling two varieties of pineapples known as king and queen, tender coconut, etc. Just across the temple is the River Varada flowing peacefully – a mute witness to the splendid Kadamba dynasty who ruled over north-west part of Mysore for more than two centuries.

The Kadambas ruled from 4th century AD to middle of 6th century AD making Banavasi their first capital.

Banavasi is quite ancient. It finds mention in many inscriptions and literature. During the Mahabharata period it was known as Vanavasa. The Buddhists knew it as Vanavasa and Asoka had sent his missionaries here, the Jains knew it as Vaijayanti while Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim-scholar mentions it as the city of KonKon-ki-napulo. In Ptolemy’s geography Banavasi is mentioned as Byzantian. Banavasi was a part of Satavahana Empire as well; bricks, coins and inscriptions of this period are found here. No doubt Banavasi is old, however nothing much of its antiquity remains today except for a rumbled down fort, a summer palace few kilometers away at Gudnapur, and the Madhukeshwara temple which boasts of a second century inscription.

Tracing the Kadamba history

The Jain temple near Madhukeshwara has the image of Chandranatha

About 44 kilometers from Banavasi is a place called Talagunda that has an ancient stone inscription that talks more about Kadamba dynasty. In front of the Pranaveswara temple of Talagunda, there is an inscription composed by poet Kubja in Champu style in Sanskrit. The 450 AD inscription was installed by Santivarma of Kadamba dynasty and mentions that his father Kakusthavarman constructed a tank for Pranaveswara temple. More importantly it mentions the founding of the Kadamba dynasty by Mayuravarma.

This is what it says…

The Triloka-mantapa depicts the three worlds

Mayuravarma, a Brahmin of Manaya gotra went to Kanchi for pursuing Vedic studies. There he was humiliated by a Pallava guard and in anger he took up arms, collected an army, defeated the Pallava officers and established his kingdom. The name Kadamba was after the kadamba tree that grew in his ancestral home. He ruled from 345-360 AD after which he was succeeded by his son Kongunivarma and his grandson Bhageeratha. Kakusthavarman ruled from 425-450 AD and after him his kingdom got divided between his two sons – Santivarma and Krishna Varma I. Santivarma ruled from Banavasi while the other son ruled from Triparvata. During Santivarma period he had to fight the Pallavas. His son Mrigesa Varma 470-488 AD, succeeded him. He expanded the kingdom and during his time period, Halsi was made as a secondary capital of Kadambas. Ravivarma was another illustrious ruler, who ruled from 500-538 AD and he was followed by his son Harivarma. During his reign he was attacked by Krishnavarma II from Triparva line of Kadamba branch who united both the branches of Kadamba family and captured Banavasi. However he was defeated by Pulakesi I, the Chalukya chief who later built a fort at Badami and established his rule. Thus the independent rule of Kadambas came to an end after this. Though the dynasty was overpowered by the Chalukyas, the Kadamba chiefs continued ruling as feudatory chiefs – notable among them were Hangal Kadambas, Kadambas of Goa etc.

Madhukeshwara temple

Enter the Madhukeshwara temple and you will be thrown back in time. Various dynasties have left imprints on the temple. While the temple is an ancient one, perhaps as old as the Satavahana period (early rulers from Karnataka who ruled till 225 AD) or still older, later dynasties like Kalyana Chalukyas, Hoysalas, rulers of Sonda, and a few others have expanded the temple. Thus the temple is still in a very good condition.

The temple is dedicated to Shiva and has an inner sanctum, a sukhanasi and a navaranga. The linga is honey coloured; hence the name Madhukeshwara. The main temple is dated to Kadamba period. In one of the niches of the mandapa there is the statue of Adi-Madhava which many believe to be the original deity of the temple. Even today worship is done first to this deity and then to Madhukeshwara.

The temple has additions done in various intervals. A navaranga has been added which is dated to Kalyana Chalukya times. The lathe shaped polished pillars of these have a convex and concave finish which in those days added to the aura of dance performances. The navaranga is also significant for another reason. It is here that Allama Prabhu, the 12th century mystic defeated Maye, the daughter of King Mamakara Bhoopala and proved the supremacy of asceticism. The duet was between Maye’s dance and Allama’s mridangam.

There are many interesting things to note in this temple. If you look at the monolithic basava or the bull in the temple you will be surprised. One of its eye is turned towards Madhukeshwara and another towards Parvati who is enclosed in the adjacent Parvati shrine built during the Sonda period. Then there is the Triloka Mantapa – a structure installed by Sonda chieftain Sadashiva Nayaka (1674-1697). The mantapa depicts the three worlds – Devaloka (the land of gods), Bhuloka (the world of men) and Patala (the underworld). The sculptural details of the mantapa is beautiful. The bottom part of the mantapa depicts a serpent – Mahashesha and elephants holding Patala – the underworld. Bhuloka or the Earth is at the centre and at the top of mantapa there is Devaloka with gods and ashtadikpalakas or the gods of eight directions. All around the structure are intricate carvings of Krishna, Shiva devotees, mythical figures etc.

The courtyard of the temple boasts of a stone cot donated by Sonda chieftain Raghunatha Nayaka in 1628. It is exquisitely carved with creepers, lions and various floral patterns on the ceiling. Other unique things to note in the temple are the half-Ganapati statue and the Narasimha carved out in saligrama stone. As you go around the temple there is a five hooded naga stone which has a second century inscription on it. The inscription is in Prakrit and talks about a princess Sivaskanda Nagashri who constructed a vihara and tank here. There is a small museum attached to the temple complex. There is a Chutu inscription here of second century AD.

Outside the temple complex is a sandalwood chariot dedicated to Madhukeshwara by Sonda chieftain Ramachandra Nayaka in 1530. Boasting of six wheels the wooden chariot is hollow inside. Until 1900, two elephants from Sringeri mutt were brought to pull the chariot. The practice however has stopped now.

The Kanchipete lane near Madhukeshwara boasts of a Jain temple. It has the image of Chandranatha. All around the temple are smaller shrines dedicated to Neelakanteshwara, Kadambeshwara etc. The River Varada nearby has a Shiva linga. Popularly known as Rudrapada it is the place where devotees perform the last rites of the dead.

Banavasi Fort

In the Aihole inscription of Pulakeshi II,Badami Chalukya ruler there is a mention of Banavasi. Banavasi is termed as Jaldurga or water fort. The Banavasi town was protected by River Varada on one end while a brick fort covered it on the rest of three sides. Surprisingly the town has the remains of this fort and moat. A little distance away from the temple there is a rumbled down fort. It was said to be an oval fort. The burnt bricks found at the site date back to Satavahana period. There are also laterite blocks that are from the Kadamba period and were used to enlarge the fort further. During the later Kadamba period the north side of the fort was extended with laterite stones.

The king and queen pineapples

Banavasi is famous for its pineapple plantations. Two varieties of pineapples are grown here – the king and queen variety. The king is bigger, slightly sour while the queen is smaller but sweeter. A drive or stroll around the town will give you a glimpse of these famed pineapples. The pineapples grown here are quite in demand in neighbouring states and as far as Delhi,Goa and Mumbai. Most of the produce gets sold, what doesn’t, gets supplied to fruit factories for processing into jams and juices. Along with pineapple plantations you will also see paddy, areca and plantains thriving in Banavasi.

The famous Pineapple King of Banavasi – Dr Rauf Sheikh resides here. His plantations of pineapples, bananas, areca, pepper, paddy use innovative methods in farming and for his efforts he has been awarded an honorary doctorate by Dharwad Agriculture University. His family is quite happy to explain the farming methods and show the plantations to tourists around.

Banavasi arts and crafts

There is an art gallery called Varnaloka which houses various crafts – Yakshagana masks, sandal wood carvings, basingas (head gears used during weddings), baskets and sculptural work, etc. The traditional community of Gudikar also reside at Banavasi. From centuries they were associated with temple activities – creating garlands, basingas, flowers and bridal hair accessories like Moggina Jade. Some of the craftsmen can be seen at Santepete.

Sharada Gudigar one of the oldest community members talks to me about this heritage art and also shows me how to make a bunch of colorful flowers. The basingas and garlands that she prepares are made from the bark of an aquatic plant, strung together and coloured with various colours. It is a heritage craft and a dying one as not many youngsters pursue this. She however mentions that they still get around 2000 orders per month for basingas from Hubli, Dharwad and few other places in Karnataka during the wedding season.


The Veerabhadra temple at Gudnapur constructed in Chalukyan style

Talagunda inscription is not the sole inscription of Kadambas. There is another stone inscription in Gudnapur. Located just five kilometers from Banavasi, Gudnapur boasts of a 20 feet tall Manastambha that talks about the Kadamba dynasty. Dated to 5th century it talks about the temple built here by Ravi Varma II. The temple for Manmatha was constructed by him and he is said to have inaugurated the spring festival called as

Manmathotsava or Vasantotsava. He also gave grants to the temple and constructed a tank called Guddatataka. The inscription is of 27 lines written in Brahmi script. Near the inscription pillar is also the temple of Veerabhadra of later Chalukyan style. It has the garbagriha, ardha mantapa and a navaranga. There are images of Rati, Kama, Mahavira and Veerabhadra here. All around the temple are structures of Kadamba period. The Gudnapur kere nearby has an old temple of Bangareshwara.

Tips for exploring Banavasi:

  • Banavasi is well connected to major towns like Shimoga, Sirsi, Hubli ,Haveri etc. Public transport from these centers is easily available.
  • Banavasi does not boast of many luxurious lodging. There are tourist homes provided by Vanavasika which provide basic amenities and simple food. One of them is located opposite Pampa Vana.
  • Most of Banavasi can be explored by walk or by cycle. Ask for a map in the tourist home or office of Banavasi.
  • The winter months are one of the best times to explore this area. It is warm during the day and turns chilly once the sun sets.
  • Try the juicy pineapples here. They are one of the best ways to beat the heat.

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.

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