Nestled in the Malnad region of the Western Ghats in Chikkamagaluru District, in Karnataka, is the temple town of Sringeri. The Vidyashankara and Sharada temples in the town stand out for their magnificent architecture and religious significance. The temple complex, located on the left bank of the Tunga River, has a rich history that goes back to the 8th century CE. Let us explore its past.
Adi Shankaracharya, one of the foremost exponents of the Advaita philosophy, was born in Kaladi in what is now Kerala, in 788 CE. He left home at an early age to become a sanyasi, or one who has renounced the world. Tradition says he founded the Advaita school of thought. He was a skilled debater and would use his skills when arguing matters relating to philosophy with his contemporaries. We are told that his search for a suitable spot to establish a matha or monastery took him to Sringeri.
On the banks of the Tunga River, a most unusual sight caught his attention. He spotted a cobra spreading its hood over a frog that was in labour, to shield her from the scorching mid-day sun. Struck by the sanctity of the place, which was clearly capable of infusing love between natural adversaries, he chose this location to establish the first of the four mathas that he set up.
The scene is captured in stone inside a small shrine on the banks of the Tunga River and the event is dated to the early years of the 9th century CE.
The first place of worship established by Adi Shankaracharya was a shrine housing the image of Sharada Devi. Over time, Sringeri emerged as a place of traditional learning, with the contributions of the erudite acharyas or pontiffs of the monastic order. They were instrumental in bringing forth commentaries on the Vedas and in further expounding the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya.
An Empire Is Born
In the Deccan of the 14th century CE, rapid changes were taking place with the advent of the Delhi Sultanate in areas that were controlled by the Kakatiya, the Hoysala and the Pandian dynasties. These powers fell one by one to the Turko-Afghan armies from Delhi, led by the Khilji and the Tughlaq sultans, leading to the rapid collapse of centres of authority in the early 14th century CE.
The Kampilis, who succeeded the Hoysalas in Karnataka, established themselves under their founder, Mummadi Singa of Malnad. He established himself in the Tungabhadra region in the fortress of Anegondi (Koppal district, Karnataka) in the early 14th century CE. The kingdom he founded included Raichur and Badami.
Upon his death in 1324 CE, his successor, Kampilidevaraya, consolidated Singa’s conquests with the administrative assistance of Bukka, the son of one Sangama, and the military support of Bukka’s four brothers. However, the kingdom was shortlived and perished along with Kampilidevaraya in 1327 CE, at the hands of Sultan Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq’s army.
According to some historians, Bukka and his brother Harihara escaped from Anegondi and took up service with the Hoysala ruler, Vira Ballala III. When the Hoysala capital Dvarasamudram (Halebidu) fell to the Tughlaq armies in 1327 CE, Ballala moved his capital to Tiruvannamalai (Tamil Nadu) and is supposed to have established the future city of Vijayanagara on the right bank of the Tungabhadra River, across from Anegondi. This version states that the brothers Harihara and Bukka became governors of the new city.
The account of the origins of the Vijayanagara dynasty is a blend of tradition and history. It attributes the city’s foundations and its subsequent evolution as the capital of a vast empire to the mentorship of the monastic order of Sringeri. The city was also called ‘Vidyanagara’ in honour of the saint-preceptor, Vidyaranya. He was a sanyasi who belonged to the Sringeri Shankaracharya lineage. He was ordained by Acharya Vidyashankara and was second in the line of succession.
During his sojourn as a sanyasi in the Hampi area, he took the brothers, Harihara I and Bukka, under his fostering, spiritual care and, as their philosopher and guide, played a significant role in the events of the time, which led to the foundation of a new empire. We are told that under the aegis of Vidyaranya, and in the presence of the deity Virupaksha, Harihara I (1336 CE – 1347 CE) celebrated his coronation in the new capital on the 18th of April 1336 CE. In the years to come, Vijayanagara would emerge as a formidable military power, competing with its contemporary, the Bahmani Sultanate, for territory and influence.
Rise of the Acharyas
The Vijayanagara rulers granted the matha the rights over secular administration of the land. At their request, the Acharya began conducting a durbar (people’s assembly) during the Navaratri festival, an occasion deemed by the rulers to honour their Guru. Subsequently, the Acharyas came to be known as the ‘Establishers of the throne of Karnataka’ and the matha a widely revered institution.
All rulers of the region, whether Hindu or Muslim, patronised the Sringeri monastic order to enhance their prestige and earn the goodwill of the local people. They included the Mysore Maharajas, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan; the Nizam of Hyderabad; the Peshwas; the Keladi rulers; and the Travancore Rajas.
Just how much the acharyas were revered can be gauged from the response of Tipu Sultan of Mysore to events that occurred during his rule. In 1916 CE, Rao Bahadur Narasimhachar, the Director of Archaeology, Mysore State, discovered a bundle of letters in the Vidyashankara temple. These were the records of Tipu’s reign from 1791 CE to 1798 CE, and are dated according to the Mauludi era, introduced by him between January and June 1784 CE.
They were actually letters written by the royal to the Acharya of the Sringeri Matha, Sri Sacchidananda Bharati III (1770 CE– 1814 CE). It appears from these letters that, in 1791 CE, the Maratha army of the Peshwa, led by Raghunath Rao Patwardhan, raided Sringeri, plundered the monastery and desecrated the image of Sharada Devi. As a result, the Acharya was forced to leave Sringeri and take up residence in Karkala (Udupi District).
He informed Tipu about the Maratha raid and requested his assistance in re-consecrating the image of the goddess. Tipu, expressing his indignation, wrote to the Acharya “...People who have sinned against this holy place are sure to suffer the consequences of their misdeeds in Kaliyuga”.
Tipu immediately ordered the governor of Bednur to provide material assistance in cash, grain and other items required for the ritual. He further requested the seer to “...pray for the increase in our prosperity and the destruction of our enemies” after performing the ritual and feeding the Brahmans. Tipu received the holy offerings from the temple and a shawl and in return, he sent cloth and a bodice for the goddess, and a pair of shawls for the Acharya.
The Vidyashankara temple was built under the patronage of Harihara and Bukka, at the behest of their mentor, Vidyaranya. It was named after Vidyashankara, also called Vidyatirtha.
Traditional accounts date the temple to 1338 CE, although the structure, in its present form dates to 1356 CE, based on inscriptional evidence. It is a unique monument built of reddish granite and combines the best of Chalukyan and Hoysala temple construction techniques. The shrine has two sections or recesses – the west and east sides – which enclose the sanctum and the pillared mandapa (pavillion) respectively. The complete structure rises over an elevated platform, which, in turn, rises over a secondary platform. On the platforms are friezes of horses, elephants, lotuses and on top, panels in series, illustrating Puranic episodes, in addition to narratives of local events.
The eastern recess accommodates a large, pillared mandapa with 12 pillars. Each pillar has a thick, massive central shaft, in the front of which is carved a huge rearing Vyala (mythical fierce animal) mounted on a crouching elephant. Inside the open gaps of each of the Vyalas, the stone mass has been skillfully cut into a round ball which can be rolled inside, but not taken out. The 12 columns are each marked by the 12 signs of the Zodiac or Rasi in the regular order and are therefore called as Rasi pillars. The arrangement of the pillars is such that the rays of the sun fall on each one successively in the order of the 12 solar months.
On the mandapa floor, enclosed by the 12 pillars is inscribed a large circle with converging lines to indicate the direction of shadows cast by the pillars when the sun’s rays fall on them through one of the three door openings. These were unique innovations of the Vijayanagara school. The skilled artisans combined astronomy and architecture to produce these marvels.
The outer wall exhibits a series of pilasters with capitals and the interspaces between them accommodate niches, which contain 60 sculptures, making the temple a museum of sculpture and iconography. The sculptures, besides being Shaiva, Vaishnava and Sakta, include the Buddha and Jina, rendering the scheme eclectic. The spire is an upward continuation of the inner wall enclosing the sanctum. It is a tall, cylindrical tower of three upper storeys of gradually diminishing circumference raised over the sanctum, which terminates in the griva, or neck, that carries the shikara with the finial on top.
Worship is conducted according to the Panchayatana type. This mode of prayer also reflects the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya, who attempted a reconciliation of the religious practices of the various sects of Hinduism. Hence Shiva, the main deity, is worshipped as Vidyashankara Linga. Surrounding the Linga are images of Ganapati, Durga, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva with their consorts Saraswati, Lakshmi and Uma, respectively.
– LHI Travel Guide
Sringeri is 90 km by road from Chikkamagaluru and 325 km from Bengaluru via Chikkamagaluru. From Mangaluru, the temple town is just 105 km via Udupi, a route that climbs the scenic Western Ghats.