The Indian equivalent of 17th century Venice.
It wasn't a random choice. If you travel 410 kilometers towards the Western Ghats, before you reach the Arabian Sea, you’ll find a small town on the banks of the Seetha River - Barkur. Once the Capital of ancient Tulunadu, it’s now an insignificant township on the western coast of India. This is where I decided to retreat, to escape the bustle of Bangalore.
Think Indian equivalent of 17th century Venice. Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, like Delhi is for India today. The empire’s gateway to the world was certainly Barkur, like Mumbai is for India today.
Seetha Nadi the river which connects Barkur to the Arabian Sea
I tasted delicious fish, a variety of breakfasts, met interesting people who had decided to live all their lives in that little town. I watched a play called Matsyavathara (fish avatar of Vishnu) in Yakshagana style, a form of art that’s a three hundred year old dance drama and met Yakshagana artists in the green room. In the evening, I swam in the warm sea water. I did things that a metropolitan city can't offer you.
Here I’d like to talk about two remarkable individuals, both natives of the place. Both were passionate about its history in their own way. Dr. Jagadeesh Shetty, who is a historian and an epigraphist took me to the realms of its deep, distant past. And Ravichandra Kalkura, the ex-proprietor of the first public hotel of Barkur, reminisced about its immediate past. He had now named the hotel Bharathi, which seemed like a great metaphor for post-independence India.
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Dr. Shetty took me for a brief trip around the ancient city. For people of Barkur, history is not a burden of the past, but an ancient repository of knowledge that they like to revisit time and again; it made them proud.
We went to a place called Simahasana Guddde (mound of throne), where King Alupa watched vessels and ships approaching Barkur through the Seetha River. The mound doesn't exist today because the tourism department has flattened the ground to facilitate vehicle parking for visitors during a recent festival. Some boys were playing on a freshly levelled field when we passed the site in silence.
In my tour, I learned that Dr. Shetty had a few issues with local bureaucracy. He has nothing against tourism, in fact he thinks it could be used to create awareness of history among people, and he himself brings hundreds of students here to kindle their interest in it. His anger is against the carelessness with which the authorities operate. Further changes to the area have included altering sacred names. He explained how names of temples were being changed to attract devotees, and create more revenue. Heggade Devasthana, built by Sanku Heggade, has become Santhana Goplakrishna Heggade Devastana, in a bid to lure people want who want an offspring.
Kattale Basadi (dark shrine) a Jain temple wrongly named as Kallu Chappara (stone shelter)
Dr. Shetty has had offers asking him to write handbooks about the glories of the past. But he refuses to write anything without concrete evidence. Others have come seeking stories about the existence of a temple of their caste in a particular site. “You can't blindly tell them an ancient shrine existed without concrete proof.”
Change is the order of the world. But after meeting him I realized how much it hurts a historian when monuments get destroyed, and history gets distorted and rewritten to suit people’s present day needs.
Ravichandra, owner of Hotel Bharathi in Barkur
My encounter with Ravichandra was purely accidental. I stumbled upon the Bharathi hotel, a dingy roadside place, while I was exploring the area. I saw a board on the inner chamber with the words ‘Lover's room: In this room lovers used to meet in 1975’. What a task to convert a little shanty to a piece of history!
And I was right. Ravindra looked almost crippled. Both his legs were bent and he was walking with a special staff used by handicapped people. Born in a nearby village, he left home at the age of ten to work in a small hotel in a neighbouring city. He doesn't think of it as poverty or destitution. Those days, it was common among boys his age. Agents came and picked boys for work. Each family had many children and couldn’t support them past the age of ten.
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For him as a Brahmin it was forbidden to do any job that involved violence. Brahmins could own land, but couldn’t cultivate it themselves, because it might lead to cruelty against cattle. So there were only two professions left - priest or cook. To become a priest one needed time and resources, which the Kalkura family didn’t have. So Ravindra drifted from one small town to another, doing chores in hotels. And in his early twenties, he decided to setup what is now the first public hotel in Barkur.
“First public hotel? What does that mean?” I ask him.
"Well, in those days farmers and merchants [non Brahmins] used to travel by bullock cart. You could hear them harnessing the bells before daybreak. There would be hundreds of them in a trail, so they would have to place orders in the morning for their afternoon meal at a Brahmin’s house. Afterwards, they had to clean up and purify the place with cow dung and ashes.”
Ravichandra was the first to revolutionise the hotel industry by changing this idea. Once he started his public hotel, anybody could come and buy food at any time, irrespective of their caste. They didn’t have to do a clean up job either. Among the eleven staff members at Bharathi hotel, cooking was done by the Brahmins. Cleaning was left to people of a different caste. If the Brahmins cooked, it wasn't considered sacrilege. Selling Anna (rice or food in general) was still unholy, but Rajindra didn't care. Instead he asked me, “You know why our Brahmins invented Chitranna (lemon rice) and Puliyogare (tamarind rice) in big cities? They didn't want to feel remorse for selling Anna. They added turmeric and called it Chithranna," he laughed.
Ravichandra never struck me as a social reformer with lofty ideals, or as a man ahead of his time. He was just quick at taking advantage of an opportunity and adapting to a changing society. He had understood that ‘if you don't change, you don't survive’. Hotels like this unwittingly helped to curb caste segregation in public spaces. They were more effective than social movements and government policies.
I asked Ravichandra about the lovers sign in his hotel. He said that in the 70’s, women didn't want to sit in public and eat in front of men, so he built an inner chamber where they could eat privately. Very few women came to public hotels in those days, so it slowly became a place for lovers to meet.
He narrated how patterns of love affairs have changed with time. "Nowadays, if lovers are caught talking to each other, they get beaten," hinting at the anti-love jihad movement in coastal Karnataka, and attacks on girls in Mangalore pubs.
Ravichandra gave a vivid picture of life in the 70’s and 80’s. He talked about the impact of government regulations on food prices during the emergency. People used to smuggle raw rice in their handbags, as only eight kilos of rice was permitted per person. There were check-posts in the Ghats, and rice prices varied hugely from one district to another.
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There were also difficulties in transportation because of a lack of a motorway or railway from Barkur to Mumbai. One had to cross many rivers and lagoons in the absence of bridges. People on the coast had to be transported by boats and ferries, and one would see hundreds of carts on the banks of rivers waiting to cross. “If you wanted to go to Bombay, you had to climb the Western Ghats to catch the Bombay Bangalore train. At night, when the Ghats were closed, people slept next to the road on both sides of the terminals by the Ghats.”
Since then, India has changed a lot. Now we have Suvarna Chatushpada (Golden quadrilateral) and Konkana Railway connecting the west coast to the south. Infact, Mumbai has second and third generation coastal Kannadigas and Tuluvas (Tulu speaking people).
The city of Barkur lives on its past and present simultaneously, through paraphrasing the names of old temples into new commercial versions to attract more devotees. Every caste and religion of this region wants to reclaim its historical base in the city by building more temples and renovating old mosques and churches to be much bigger. By revitalizing mythology through Yakshagana, a three hundred year old dance drama, the city adores reminiscences of ancient civilization. The stories come from myth and fiction, almost always played out in the style of epics. Matsyavatara was played by a guild called "Sri Kodanda Rama Krupa Poshita Yakshagana Mandal". The play was about one of the ten avatars of Mahavishnu. It was a story of a tiny fish growing into a giant fish to kill the demon Tamasura, and save the good king Satyavratha (Manu). Barkur seemed to adore Yakshagana. I could see different Yakashagana companies and guilds drawing crowds in big numbers.
Syrian Orthodox Church
Barkur has a minority of Syrian orthodox and Catholic Christians. They are skilled labourers from Goa. I visited a beautiful Syrian Orthodox Church that had been renovated recently. Churches, mosques, and temples here are growing bigger in size, much like the giant fish Matsya.
The next evening, while swimming at twilight, the dark sea scared me. There was no one on the pristine Kodikanyana beach except some local boys playing volleyball. I felt the giant fish under my feet, and started feeling that I was Tamasura, waiting to be swallowed by it.
Are these myths, attempts to overcome our primordial fears? Anyway, they fail to reassure me, as they have from childhood. My parents were atheists, yet mythological stories fascinate me.
The sun was disappearing in the Arabian Sea. Barkur was settling in my musings. It was nearly time to head back home.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Avinash Totad Rajappa
Photographs by Avinash Totad Rajappa