The banks of the Kaveri river in southern Karnataka are as serene as they are mysterious, for it is here that an ancient city lies buried beneath the sand. This is Talakadu, capital of the Western Ganga kingdom from the 4th to the 10th centuries CE. Located just 45 km south-east of Mysuru, this was the seat of the Western Gangas for 600 years before the city fell to a rival empire. Finally, in the 17th century, Talakadu was claimed by forces that could not be conquered – mother nature.
Some say Talakadu was cursed; others believe it was a bizarre ecological phenomenon that spelled doom. But before we get to that story, let us tell you about the Western Gangas, one of the lesser-known dynasties of ancient India.
The Western Ganga dynasty ruled the region encompassing the southern districts of present-day Karnataka between 350 CE and 1000 CE. Not much is known of their early history, except that they were based in Talakadu. The most authoritative work on the dynasty is a book by historian M V Krishnarao, Gangas of Talakad, published in 1936.
According to this book, the Western Gangas emerged as a powerful force after the collapse of the Satavahanas, the first empire-builders of the Deccan. Krishnarao believed that they may have been a branch of the Ikshvakus of Nagarjunakonda, a dynasty which had collapsed by 345 CE, only five years before the Western Gangas emerged. Meanwhile, according to lore, two Ikshvaku princes, Didiga and Madhava, met a Jain Acharya, Simhanandi, who is said to have blessed them with a kingdom.
It is hard to tell whether or not this story is true but it is easy to read between the lines. The legend suggests that the dynasty was established with the support of the local Jain population, and it is no wonder that the rulers, although Hindu, were great patrons of Jainism in the region.
The early capital of the Gangas was ‘Kuluvala’ (modern-day Kolar), before they moved to ‘Talavanapura’ or present-day Talakadu, on the banks of the Kaveri river, around 390 CE. Despite engaging in frequent battles against northern neighbours, the Rashtrakutas, evidence shows that the kingdom of the Gangas was rich, and trade and commerce flourished.
Despite the paucity of archival material on this kingdom and the period during which they ruled, some interesting personalities shine through, via some cross-referencing. For instance, an intriguing character who emerges is a man named Chaundaraya (around 978 CE), a minister and general of the Western Gangas. He is said to have commissioned the great monolith of Gomateshwara at Shravanabelagola, around 126 km from Talakadu.
Talavanapura was the capital of the Western Gangas for almost 600 years. A number of Hindu and Jain temples, monuments, palaces and tanks were built here, of which little remains today. Six centuries of Western Ganga rule came to a sudden end in 1004 CE, when the powerful Chola army of Rajaraja I swept through the kingdom and Talakadu was renamed ‘Rajarajapura’.
A century later, in 1117, Hoysala ruler Vishnuvardhana seized the city of Talakadu and assumed the title of ‘Talakadugonda’ or ‘conqueror of Talakadu’. And to celebrate this, he also built the Kirti Narayan Temple here. Subsequently, the temple was taken over by the Vijayanagara kings and finally by the Wodeyars of Mysore in 1634 CE.
However, from the 17th century onwards, for what seemed like an inexplicable reason, the town began to get buried under the sand dunes along the Kaveri river. During the course of 200 years, people starting abandoning the town, and the many temples and monuments here were gradually buried under the sand.
It was only in 1991 that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began excavating the site. It was a massive task. The ASI has excavated over 30 temples that span a vast swathe of time – from the 6th CE-17th CE. They represent different time periods and different styles.
The grandest of them is the imposing granite temple of Vaidyeshwara, built by Hoysala ruler Vishnu Vardana (1111-1141 CE) in the early 12th century. It is one of the Panchalingas, i.e. temples that represent the five faces of Lord Shiva. At the entrance to its nrityamandapa dance pavilion is a pair of 10-foot tall dwarapalakas (gatekeepers).
What caused the sand dunes to suddenly start closing in on the city has not been conclusively proved. According to the ASI report, Archaeological Excavations at Talakad: 1992-1993, geologists who have studied this phenomenon believe that it may have been an unintended consequence of a dam constructed by a minister in the Vijayanagara court – Madhava Mantri – just north of the city, in 1342 CE.
Due to the dam, the water around the Kaveri river became very shallow, exposing the sand that had built up in the river bed over thousands of years. This sand dried very quickly in the sun, and the south-westerly winds carried deposited the particles on the old Talakadu town. Archaeologists believe that the town was abandoned over a period of 200 years. Tired of the sand that kept blowing in, the people of Talakadu simply moved away.
However, the abandonment of a capital is usually a magnet for tales of a curse. A popular folk tale in the region, even today, refers to the ‘Curse of Talakad’. Alamelamma, the wife of a Vijayanagara viceroy, is said to have committed suicide in the Kaveri river, escaping the men of Raja Wodeyar I (reign CE 1578-1617) who had come to seize her jewels. Before she jumped into the river, she is said to have said:
Let Talakadu turn into sand; let Malangi become a whirlpool and let the Wodeyar Kings of Mysore fail to beget children.
Interestingly, all three scenarios have played out and stood the test of time. Talakadu is a patch of desert in the midst of lush green plains and the family tree of the Wodeyars, since the 17th century, has had seven rulers who were adopted sons. Indeed, fact is stranger than fiction.
LHI Travel Guide
Air: Bengaluru Airport is the closest at a distance of 120 km.
Rail - Mysuru railway station is the closest junction at a distance of 49 km.
Road - Both these cities are well connected to Talakadu via roadway with regular government buses.
Cover image courtesy: Ashwin Kumar via Wikimedia Commons
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