Dec 13, 2009

The Bengluru Inscription

Meera Aiyar

One particular inscription in Begur’s temple is of special significance to Bangalore, for it contains the earliest known use of the name Bengaluru. To her dismay (mingled with a sense of relief), Meera Iyer found the inscription hidden behind paint and oil drums, serving as a stone on which to dry dirty rags.

Of all the settlements that the growing city of Bangalore has subsumed, perhaps none has such a sentimental association with Bangalore as does Begur. Almost anyone in Bangalore has heard the story about how the city got its name from benda kaalu ooru, the city of boiled beans, from the time when Hoysala king Veera Ballala was fed boiled beans by an old woman. But historians agree that this popular story is apocryphal. For evidence, look no further than Begur.

Located between Hosur Road and Bannerghatta Road, Begur has a history going back at least 1500 years: an inscription from the reign of the illustrious sixth-century Ganga king, Durvinita, mentions this settlement, then known as Bempur, Bempurishvara-sthana and Veppur. From at least then onwards, Begur seems to have been an important township of the Ganga kingdom and of subsequent dynasties.

The fort still stands...
One of Begur’s oldest remnants of the past is its fort. If grand edifices like Chitradurga Fort fall at one end of the spectrum, Begur’s fort is definitely at the other end. It is a small, circular structure with a 15-20 foot-high mud wall now completely covered with vegetation. There are also traces of a moat and bastions. A small stone gateway leads into the pocket-sized fort. Inside are two old temples (said to be about 800 years old), a well and little else. Yet the unprepossessing fort has a definite appeal, for who can resist the allure of a quiet nook where chieftains, rulers and saints once lived, where today only goats and cows graze? It was left completely to our imagination to people the fort with royal personages and their paraphernalia including palaces, granaries and armouries.

Records of the late 1800s refer to today’s stone entrance as the second gate. Was the first gate a grander, more impressive structure, we wondered? Do the remnants of the stone walls outside the gate imply the fort once had rubble-filled stone walls?

Jain heritage
Three inscriptions dating from the early 900s that were once found at the fort’s entrance reveal Begur’s strong Jain traditions. Two mentioned Jaina acharyas while the third recorded the passing away of the daughter of the chieftain Nagattara, when she died through sallekhana, the Jain ritual of fasting to death. Unfortunately, we could find only one of these inscriptions, and no traces of the other two.

Jainism had a strong presence in Begur even until the 15th century, when there was a Jain basadi here called the Chokkinayya Jinalaya. We asked around the town for directions to the old basadi, and after some blank looks and mis-directions, eventually found it.

Some years ago, this site lay in the middle of a field. Today, it is hemmed in by a garden and a row of small new houses. Little remains of the basadi – an inscription, fragments of a stone frieze, a small statue of Parsvanath and a large headless statue of a seated tirthankara, referred to as Shravanappa. Although the statue looked abandoned, surrounded as it was by a lush growth of grass, residents of the houses adjacent to the statue told us that people occasionally still came there to worship.

A complex of temples
Begur’s most famous monument is its Panchaligeshvara temple, a complex of five Shiva temples. Of these, the Nageshvara temple is the oldest, dating to about 1100 years ago. The temple shows some of the features typical of Ganga temples of that period, including the ashtadikpalakas (guardians of the directions) carved on the ceiling and the rows of swans carved on the outside of the structure. The remaining four shrines – Nagareshvara, Karneshvara, Choleshvara and Kalikamateshvara – were added on during the reign of the Cholas here.
The temple abounds in inscriptions, some on the walls dating from the 1100s to the 1300s, others in the temple compound, dating to much earlier. An especially elaborate hero-stone from here, in memory of the chieftain Nagattara’s death in a battle in about 890 AD, was moved to the Bangalore Museum in the 1800s and can still be seen there. One particular inscription in the temple is of special significance to Bangalore, for it contains the earliest known use of the name Bengaluru. In 1915, this hero-stone written in Hale Kannada (old Kannada), was found embedded in the floor of the Kalikamateshvara shrine and mentions the death of Nagattara’s son Buttana-setti and of his ‘house-son’ Pervona-setti in the battle of Bengaluru. Dating to about 900 AD, this effectively invests Bangalore with a fairly ancient past.

We went looking for this inscription but, of course, the temple’s old floor has long been replaced by modern flooring. Thankfully, we learned that the inscription was removed from the floor and stored in the temple compound. But we had not contended with the further changes afoot at Begur. Frenetic construction activity is on at the Panchalingeshvara temple. Some developers have undertaken to add four large raja-gopuras to the little temple. A new road cuts across a portion of the vast Begur lake, which in historical times, would have been used to irrigate temple and village lands.

A gopura is now being constructed between the temple and the lake. Three more are under construction on the other three sides. Though we are not the first generation to add to the temple, I couldn’t help but wonder if our additions were adding to the charming ambience of the temple, or taking away from it.

Inscriptions, anyone?
We found to our dismay that, in the course of being moved during construction, some of the inscriptions in the temple compound had been broken. Several were lined up against a fence, partly hidden behind a row of empty drums of paint and oil. No one at the temple knew anything about the inscription we were looking for, and indeed, no one seemed to care. We despaired of ever finding the inscription we were looking for. But finally, a phone call to expert epigraphist H S Gopala Rao, General Secretary, Karnataka Itihasa Academy, rescued us and set our minds at ease.

Still there...
As he described the important stone, we realised, to our immense relief, that the historic Bengaluru inscription had not been broken. It was hidden behind the drums, serving as a handy stone on which to dry dirty rags.

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