24, Nov 2017 | Leela Pawar
“Are you not a proud Hindu?” I was being asked by a young BJP supporter Dhananjaya Nayak who struck up a conversation with me in the open-to-sky outer perimeter of the Padutirupathi temple, a beautiful old shrine built in the mid-1530s, in Kerala style by the Goud Saraswat community. Introduced to me by a family friend in the town of Karkala in Karnataka’s Udupi district with whom I was visiting, he was reacting to my praise for this historical Jain town which made space for other religions like Hinduism, Islam and Christianity to come there, co-exist and prosper in peace. Struck by the steely seriousness of his question I asked him why he felt so, only to be told: “It is this kind of soft approach of people like you which has left our great religion languishing in our own land.”
He proudly highlighted being among those who courted arrest for opposing the Karnataka state government’s Tipu Jayanti celebrations on November 11th. Former BJP MLA Raghupati Bhat and district unit president Mattar Ratnakar Hegde had violated prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code which the district administration had clamped to prevent any untoward incident during the celebrations.
“Where was the need for the state to organise the tyrant Tipu’s jayanti and that too under such tight security enforcing prohibitory orders? This was nothing but a way of the Hindu-hating Siddaramaiah government of pandering to the Muslim vote. The Congress has found out at the Centre how mocking the Hindu majority can backfire. Its cadre in states like Karnataka don’t want to learn any lessons.”
I smiled at the ferocity of his response. “I wasn’t talking of either the Congress government, the CM or Tipu Sultan. I was only talking of Karkala and its syncreticism.” Folding my hands in a namaste, I rose to leave to avoid any more negativity. The serene Padutirupathi temple precincts were the last place I wanted it.
But I’ve gone far ahead of the point I was making. Let me retrace my steps and start over.
There are coasts and then there is the mainland. But the very nature of the thickly forested hills of the Western Ghats has created a series of towns and villages in western India, particularly Karnataka which are neither. Surrounded by dense jungles through which one has to navigate treacherous hairpin crosses on the narrow highways connecting these places, to reach them. And yet they have chosen the best influences from both the peninsular mainland and the global ones from the coast to create their own islands of syncreticism which have prospered without being hit by toxic bigotry, communalism and exclusion that has often bloodied the history of this subcontinent.
As I spent a few days visiting with family friends over the last weekend, I was struck not only with the verdant all-year-round greenery of Karkala but also its nodal location at the junction of routes connecting several pilgrimage towns like Dharmasthala, Subramanya, Horanadu, Sringeri, Kalasa, Udupi and Kolluru Mookambika and just how many striking Jain, Hindu, Muslim and Christian shrines it was home to.
My friend’s worldly wise sexagenarian dad, Sudhakara Amin, a beetle nut farmer who has lived all his life in this sleepy town admits muddying of waters in this belt began in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. “Every controversy, even scandal, every skirmish even over something as small as a fight over seats on a bus is not spared. From 2012 suddenly we are being told we are not good enough Hindus because we don’t follow the homgenised North Indian Brahminical model the BJP and its religious outfits identify as ideal,” he points out and adds, “The Tuluvas of this region have been animists for hundreds of centuries. We worship nature, snakes, spirits and even ghouls who protect as much as the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. Sacrificing roosters and lambs and consumption of the meat as prasad has always been part of our culture. Now we’re suddenly being told this is wrong. Wonder who gives these people the right to dictate to us?”
He laughs when I raise the opposition to Tipu Sultan. “You know Karkala prospered under his reign. This Mysore tiger’s battles as a solider are all some people talk about, but he was a great ruler, vidvaan and poet. He has given us many landmarks like the Kotaykani moat opposite the Karkal Kotay castle, from where he waged war with the British East India Company. There are descendants of Mysore braves who showed such valour fighting the British that they were given land titles in and Karwar. And each one of them is Hindu.”
Later that evening he took me to Karkala’s Shivati Kere lake where he pointed out a yet-unexplored cave route built under the Sultan’s watch through the mountains. This is yet another testimony to Tipu’s work in the region which was far ahead of his times. No wonder almost all locals talk about it with awe.
Over 61 kms nestled further up in the hills of the Western ghat in the neighbouring Chikkamagaluru district, the Goddess of Knowledge Sharada should know. Installed by theologian and exponent of Advaita Vedanta philosophy Adi Shankaracharya, in 800 AD, this shrine has been witness to how Tipu was not “anti-Hindu” like he is made out to be by the far right.
While they maybe nowhere near the massive crowds at the fiery Durga Parmeshwari shrines dotting the region, this beautiful shrine on the banks of the Tungabhadra in the south sees a steady trickle of devotees come to worship the veena-bearing goddess.
Knowing how anything he says could be twisted out of context, senior priest of Sringeri Ananda Swamy asks one of his juniors to record what he says on the phone while talking to us. “We live in an era when one can never be too careful,” he smiles before talking of how Tipu’s father Hyder Ali was always respectful of the Jagadguru, (head seer) of the Sringeri mutth of his time. “He had standing instructions to all his ministers that any help sought by the mutth must be fulfilled,” he says and adds, “Tipu followed this tradition set by his father and would unfailingly send tributes and offerings to the mutth, even consulting the Jagadguru on several matters of the state and welfare of ryots about which he was as seriously if not more concerned than waging wars with the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas who often ganged up with the British East India Compnay soldiers to attack Tipu.”
Others like historian Meghna confirm this. “While the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Marathas and Tipu Sultan were all continously at war with each other for sway over peninsular India the British often helped Marathas and the Nizam in their fights with Tipu.”
It was during such a conflict in 1791 when a crippling drought had brought hunger and death in its wake leaving the Marathas severely impoverished that the cheiftain Parasuram Bhau marched on Bednur. “His soldiers plundered Sringeri even killing several Brahmins who tried to plead to their sensibilities as fellow Hindus. If the head seer hadn’t been helped to escape in time he would have met the same fate as the other monks,” points out Kashyap.
The senior priest says the monks at the mutth still talk about the massive destruction by the Marathas with horror. “They not only ransacked the temple but even plucked out the main idol in the hope of finding gold hidden below and flung it after not finding the gold hidden below in pot as is the case with several temples in the South where it is kept to repair/rebuild the temple if needed.”
On hearing of the destruction, in an anguished letter to the then head seer Sri Sacchidananda Saraswati III, Tipu said: “People who sin against such a holy place will at no distant date suffer the consequences of their misdeeds. Treachery to the gurus will lead to all round ruin of the family.” The shrine, which still has all the correspondence (29 letters) between the sultan and the head seer, saw the re-consecration of the Goddess Sharada idol with considerable donations from Tipu which also helped in restoring the portions damaged in the Maratha sack.”
Wonder where this leaves all those anti-Tipu protestors? As for the heightened respect I feel for him, wonder why that should make me a less proud Hindu?