On A Bus, Somewhere In North Karnataka

Kiran Kumar Karlapu

Apr 05, 2015, 08:53 PM | Updated Feb 24, 2016, 04:29 PM IST

A travelogue of the not-so-famous but fascinating sites of north Karnataka

Lost somewhere along Tungabhadra, are the sleepy temple towns of Gadag. Although often ignored for their more famous cousins in Hampi, Badami and Pattadakal, the architectural marvels of the Gadag Circuit are nothing less than breathtaking.

A tourist on the Gadag circuit is a rarity, a backpacker is almost an abomination. The roads aren’t maintained and the temple towns aren’t very well known. The Karnataka tourism hasn’t promoted them with enough aggression. But if you actually make the effort to embark upon this circuit, you would be rewarded with some wonderful memories.

I took a bus from Mumbai to Gadag (Good old trusted VRL) and reached my destination around o730. This quaint little place called Durga Vihar, located on Mulgund Naka gave me shelter for two days. Inexpensive, the rooms were quite decent, with clean sheets and running water. The restaurants served great dosas, that’s all I could ask for.

Itagi: Emperor Among Temples

My first stop on day one was, Itagi. All my trips on this circuit were from the Old Bus stand of Gadag.

Ask for Kuknoor Itagi. There is another Itagi towards Gajendragarh  which has a famous Bhimambika temple so the bus folk could get confused rather easily, unless you’re specific.

Itagi is a tough cookie, extremely difficult to be figured out. The chap at the hotel counter insisted on me taking a cab, when I mentioned Itagi. I refused and decided to check Itagi out like a typical backpacker. I took the bus towards Kuknoor as I had missed the Itagi bus, I got down at this village called Mandelgiri and took a six seater rickshaw, referred to as ‘Tom-Tom’ by the locals, for Itagi.  You could see the temple emerge amidst the shadows, as the rickshaw stumbled into the village.

Itagi Mahadeva Temple.
Itagi Mahadeva Temple.


Dancing Shiva on the ceiling.
Dancing Shiva on the ceiling.

The Mahadeva temple is almost like a dream in stone, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Well-proportioned with a shikhara, which ascended gracefully and wide breezy mandapas, the temple is an immortal testimonial for the skill of the Kalyani Chalukyas.

The Shikhara and Mahamandapa are the two features of this temple which endorse its position as the foremost example of the Chalukyan grace. The Shikhara has “Kirtimukhas” on each of the horizontal tiers, exquisitely sculpted in schist. As you walk around in the Mahamandapa, notice the detailed ceiling art known as “Bhuvaneshwari”. It represents lord Shiva, with ten arms, in a celestial dance pose. It also depicts other gods, musicians, dancers and floral patterns. The view is worth your attention.

Mahadeva Temple of Itagi is known as “Devalaya Chakravarthin”, an Emperor among Temples and is considered to be the “finest in the Kannada country after Halebidu”.

Finding a bus from Itagi is just as difficult. I took a tom-tom towards Kuknoor and got onto a return bus towards Gadag, but ended up getting off at Lakkundi.

Lakkundi: Step down in History

This is the heart of the Gadag circuit. I had randomly come across a picture of the stepwells of Lakkundi, which more or less, was the inspiration behind my trip.

The Kashi Visweswara Temple.
The Kashi Visweswara Temple.

A brisk walk from the bus stand will get you to the Kashi Vishweswara temple, soon enough. You’ll need to walk through the dusty by lanes of Lakkundi to reach the temples. You will see that it is a double temple, in reality. Two shrines share a single platform, one dedicated to Lord Shiva and the other to Surya. This “dvikuta” character of this temple would make it a photographer’s paradise.

Scenes from Ramayana. Panel on Left shows Hanuman lifting the Sanjivani mountain and panel on right shows the RamaSetu construction.
Scenes from Ramayana. Panel on Left shows Hanuman lifting the Sanjivani mountain and panel on right shows the RamaSetu construction.

I stumbled upon a local guide, who graciously showed me around the temple. If you had to show all the features and characters of a Hindu temple to a student, this temple would be apt. He seemed quite impressed when I recognized the Makara patterns, the Gandabherunda bird and the Salabhanjikas. The doorjambs and lintels (especially of the Southern entrance) have exquisite carvings on them with the southern entrance having 9 rows of carvings, each telling a different story from the past. This is not a living temple and prayers are no longer offered from here. The outer walls of the temple depict scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Only a guide would be able to point them out to you.

Across the road from this temple is the Nanneswara Temple, another beautiful Chalukyan temple. This temple is not as complex as the Kashi Vishweswara temple, when we talk about the architecture and detailing. Walk towards the Lakkundi museum which abuts the Jain temple of Lakkundi. The museum is a simple 4 roomed affair, but is a commendable effort by the ASI to preserve the treasures of Lakkundi. Jain Temple of Lakkundi is right beside it.

The Manikeswara Temple and The Muskina Bavi Stepwell.
The Manikeswara Temple and The Muskina Bavi Stepwell.

The Western Chalukyan Empire underwent a period of Jain patronage and the Jain temples scattered across the Tungabhadra and Krishna basins stand tall to prove the same. The Brahma Jinalaya of Lakkundi is dedicated to Mahavira and follows the same pattern of architecture as the rest of the Lakkundi temples.

View from within the Stepwell.
View from within the Stepwell.

Walk back towards the bus stand and ask for Kalyani. This is the highpoint of the trip. Kalyani is the local name for a step well. The muskina bavi (Veiled Well) is the one thing you cannot afford to miss.

As you walk towards the Manikeswara Temple, the well just emerges out of nowhere, stair after stair of sheer magnificence. The well actually begins beneath the temple and extends outward, its entrance is right next to the temple. One can sit on the steps and spend an entire evening contemplating the universe. It’s as peaceful as it gets. There are several minor shrines within the steps (although they contain no deities inside). The step well is among the best in India.

The hot March sun ensured that the well was empty but I am sure it would be a different scenario during Monsoon.

There are several other temples in Lakkundi, but most of them, in disrepair or dire need of preservation. They have been encroached upon and some, even form walls of houses in the village. Despite the efforts, ASI has been unsuccessful in restoring them. Lakkundi is a filthy village, with garbage strewn all around and swine gallivanting happily across the thoroughfare. Be prepared!

I returned to Gadag from Lakkundi and decided to explore the local temples.

Gadag: Forgotten Temple Town

The temple is within walk-able distance from almost any corner of the city. Ask for directions and you can reach in a couple of minutes. The Trikuteswara temple, is known because of the three lingams inside the sanctum sanctorum. The long drooping eaves of the main shrine and the subsidiary Saraswathi shrine, is the distinctive feature of the shrines.

The statue of Saraswathi in the smaller shrine is among the biggest sculptures of the Chalukyan period and one of the rare temples dedicated to the Goddess of learning.

Veera Narayana temple.
Veera Narayana temple.

VeeraNarayana temple, is a little ahead of the Trikuteswara. The Temple of Valiant Vishnu, is in the sanctum Vishnu stands. Vishnu is in a sublime pose wearing the Veera Kachcha (robes of a warrior), ready to defend the Universe against the dark forces.  The medieval Kannada poet, Kumara Vyasa is associated with this temple. (There is even a pillar inside the mandapa called the Vyasa Stambha).

Legend has it, an elderly Brahmin narrated the story of Mahabharata to Kumara Vyasa in this temple. The Brahmin later revealed himself to be Ashwathama, and could only recount the first 10 parvas of the Mahabharata. This maybe a plausible explanation as why Kumara Vyasa wrote only these parvas.

Day 2 started off with steaming vadas and piping hot coffee, before I set out following the Western Chalukyan footsteps.

Dambal: The Stars Shine Down

Dambal Doddabasappa Temple
Dambal Doddabasappa Temple

If Lakkundi is the heart of the Gadag circuit, Dambal is its soul. The Star-Shaped Doddabasappa temple is undoubtedly the most marvelous temple, north of the Tungabhadra.

Take a bus from the old bus stand towards Mundirgi and get down at the Dambal stop. Its only about 22 km away from Gadag. You can see the temple as you approach Dambal. The star shaped shikhara dwarfing everything else in the vicinity is atreat for ones eyes.  Through the cleanly manicured lawns, a single Neem tree will invite you into the temple premise. A large stone Bull, covered in a peacock blue ceremonial cloak faces the eastern entrance of the temple.

The interiors of the temple are plain but the exteriors are exquisitely carved.  The friezes portray decorative patterns and sculptures of elephants supporting the large wall. The star shaped contours of the shikhara are unmatched in India. The temple immediately fills you with a sense of calm and solace, making it easy for you to forget the rest of the world when in Dambal. The supple finesse with which the starry shikhara rises, gently narrowing as it approaches the sky personifies the term “Stairway to Heaven”. The outer walls of the shrine have small temples carved into them, I call it the “Blueprint Reliefs”.

Don’t walk away, sit in the lawns for a while, this is the perfect place for a quick picnic

Annegeri: Lord of Eternity

Around 20 km from Gadag, is the small temple town of Annigeri. Its claim to fame is the fact that it is the hometown of the Kannada poet Adikavi Pampa.

As always, take a bus from the old bus Stand of Gadag. (Any bus towards Belgaum/Hubli would stop by at Annigeri). Across the bus stand, is the Amruteswara Temple of  Annigeri.

A giant slab of stone placed horizontally across the main entrance seems to intimidate the devotees and the occasional visitors to the temple.  Once you enter, you’ll see a spectacular structure, the Amrusteshwara Temple. Among all the Gadag temples, this is the one that has been best preserved. As you walk across the courtyard, you cannot help but compare it with, the Itagi Mahadeva Temple. In fact, Amruteshwara Temple served as the prototype for the later Chalukyan Temples. The concept of the Kirtimukhas (victory symbols) adorning the shikharas seems to have been perfected in this temple.

This is a living temple. Go inside to pray to the Lord of Eternal Life, Amruteshwara.

Lakshmeshwara: Temple Walls

Take a bus towards Haveri/ Bangalore to get off at Lakshmeshwar, around 55 km from Gadag.

The Someswara Temple is the centrepiece of Lakshmeshwar, but it was a total disappointment.

As you entire the temple complex, ring fenced like a fort, your heart will sink. Major renovation is taking place all over the temple. Funded by the Infosys foundation, this renovation appears more of a reconstruction. For me, this is no longer a Chalukyan temple.

Except the shikhara, the entire temple has lost all livery of Chalukyan inheritance and appears like a modern structure. Large boulders and slabs lie strewn all around the courtyard, as masons and artisans chisel and power saw their way in a naïve attempt to replicate the ancient wonder.

The walls of the shikhara have several miniature temples carved on them, look out for them, they are enough to justify your trip to Lakshmeshwar. From here it was back to Gadag.

You’ll need a pair of sunglasses, generous amounts of sunscreen and a big water bottle, take note. You could avoid all my travails if you booked yourself a cab. You could even make better time, but travelling would be a lot less exciting. The joy in hailing down a random bus is unmatched. Let your hair down a little.

Can you believe it? My total expense was only around  Rs 4000 (with  Rs 2600 for bus tickets, Mumbai-Gadag-Mumbai)

If time permits, you could visit the following places also.

  1. Mahamaya Temple at Kuknoor
  2. Itagi Bhumambika Temple
  3. Gajendragad fort (site of 1786 Tipu-Maratha seige)
  4. Magati Bird Sanctuary.

Gadag may certainly be less known in comparison with the other sights and sounds of north Karnataka but certainly worth exploring.

Kiran Kumar Karlapu is Assistant Commissioner of Customs in the Indian Revenue Service.

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