The compelling aroma of puliyogare (tamarind rice) assailed my senses as I sauntered along the narrow, winding lanes of the temple town of Melukote in Karnataka. I stumbled upon Iyengar priests chanting Sanskrit slokas and reading religious books seated in their cool verandahs.
I found women in their traditional nine-yard saris drawing intricate kolas in front of their houses at the break of dawn. The typical Iyengar touch was perceptible in the architecture of the simple and humble dwellings of orthodox Hindus whose ancestors have resided here for centuries.
An Iyengar priest at the unfinished gate in Melukote
Perched atop the rocky ridge of the Sahyadri ranges, Melukote is famed for its temples, tanks, Iyengar puliyogare and the Academy of Sanskrit Research.
The 12th century Cheluvarayaswami Temple, here flaunts a rose-coloured gopuram and lions’ heads facing north, south, east and west and ornate carvings on the pillars in the cloister-area surrounding the temple. Melukote is intricately linked with the famous Vaishnava saint and philosopher, Ramanujam, who established the temple and its associated monasteries here. He is said to have recovered the lost idol of the main deity.
The Cheluvarayaswami Temple
Hence Ramanuja is worshipped along with Vishnu in the Narayana Temple. Pilgrims throng to Melukote to witness the spectacular Vairamudi festival, Melukote temple’s annual extravaganza, when the processional deity is donned with the legendary diamond-studded crown and other jewels belonging to the former Maharajas of Mysore and paraded. These jewels which remain in safe custody at the Government treasury in Mandya are brought out on this auspicious day under armed escort.
A villager blowing his horn at the Kalyani or tank
The piece de resistance of the town is the Kalyani, a large pond with long corridors on all four sides held together by magnificent stone pillars and mantapas built all around, steps leading to the water of the Kalyani and octagonal shaped Bhuvaneshwari mantapa.
The Kalyani, a large pond, is almost synonymous with the identity of the town
Pilgrims come here for head tonsuring besides indulging in their ritual baths. From the Akka and Thangai tanks, it was a hop, skip and jump to the town’s old, colossal, unfinished gate at the summit of a rocky rise. The passageway is interesting for its doorway pillars, with maidens standing on makaras and guardians leaning on clubs. The chambers on either side have columns with sculpted divinities on the shafts; crouching figures and striding elephants are seen beneath.
The Akka and Thangai tanks
The Academy of Sanskrit Research is just a stroll away from there. The temple town has some of the oldest patashalas. The Academy’s reference library houses an amazing collection of nearly 30,000 titles on different subjects. I was bowled over by the meticulous care taken to scientifically preserve, digitalize and catalogue the 10,000 palm leaf and paper manuscripts.
The Unfinished Gate in Melukote
From the Yoganarasimha Temple atop the summit of a hill, I had a sweeping view of the entire town punctuated with temples, tanks, mantapas, shadowed recesses, green fields, water bodies and the stunning Kalyani.
An Iyengar sports a caste mark
A not-to-be-missed heritage site is Dhanushkoti, a rock peak, where Rama is said to have shot an arrow, which struck up a spring of water that quenched Sita’s thirst.
The Yoganarasimha Temple atop a hill in Melukote
No trip to Melukote is complete without savouring the original Iyengar puliyogare, a delicacy made with rice, tamarind and other spices. Full of tangy flavour, with the rich aroma of spices, it is a signature dish of the Iyengars of the temple town. This divinely tasting tamarind rice is also offered as Prasad for the Gods.
(All photographs by Susheela Nair)
Susheela Nair is a Bangalore-based food and travel writer, and photographer who has contributed articles, content and images to reputed national publications, portals, guide books and coffee table books. Her repertoire also includes media co-ordination related work and event management.