“Nandi hills does not need any introduction to Bangaloreans. But only few know about this jewel that lay at the foothills. A 1000+ year old temple with some incredible sculptures, a quaint village that once would have been a town of great importance to many great kingdoms, a Nandi that statue that has been growing endlessly and a trek way to Bangalore’s very own hill station – The lesser known Nandi”
Close to seven visits in a course of five years to this hazy mountain, but I had never known about a treasure that lay on the foothills. The marvel of art work, spell binding carving geniuses & architecture, the mystic charm that adorned this witness of the bygone era all made it an absolute delight. I was at the Bhoga nandeeshwara temple that stood strong on the foothills of Nandi Hills, Bangalore’s very own hill station, for time more than man can remember! I am sure at least 70% of us who have been to Nandi Hills even more than once would have hardly been here or heard about this temple. Well, we can only blame our famed tourism boards for their blessed contempt over many such immensely valuable places. I’m thankful to that traveler who mentioned this place on their blog which made me plan a visit and the day came when my office planned a trek to Nandi hills, whose trails began close to this temple. Finally I was on course!
As we take the left diversion from the highway, towards Nandi hills, further the airport, we are greeted with the usual grape vendors along the road. This has been a sight that I am so used to since my first visit to Nandi hills, five years back. Nandi gram, the village which the road leads to, and the smaller villages around this place were once known for their exquisite climate that supported most sorts of agriculture. It makes it more evident when history mentions about the first potato in India being grown around this area by the British. Much of that farmer-friendly climate does not exist now. It has got hotter over the years and cultivation methods have undergone a drastic change. Quick grow chemicals and artificial manures have lured farmers into unhealthy yields. The very recent shifting of Bangalore International Airport near to this, once an unknown, sleepy village has coaxed petty farmers to trade their land for prices more than they could have earned through agriculture in a year! Despite all these changes, the village still retains some of its agricultural practices with grapes, potato and raagi being grown majorly. Vineyards, coconut groves and green fields adorn either sides of the road along the stretch to Nandi gram.
The T-junction at Nandi gram, were the vehicles toward Nandi hills take a left turn, is a well known landmark to all those who have driven to this misty mountain. I myself have ridden a plenty of times along this junction. But for the first time, I was taking a right here. The right that eventually would lead me 1000 years back in time. A right turn and couple of kilometers along a well laid, narrow countryside road, we reach the actual Nandi Gram and as we enter, the sight that no one can miss is the walls and entrance of an epic citadel, the Bhoga nandeeshwara temple.
The Bhoga nandeeshwara temple complex is known to be one of the first temples built in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Constructed and developed by as many as 5 royal dynasties over a decade and having stood strong for more than 1000 years now, this temple complex is an astoundingly marvelous architectural wonder. A tall gateway marks the entry into this holy place dedicated to various life phases of Shiva – the destroyer God. Green lawns with couple of coconut trees and a small pond form the front yard of the temple, surrounded by a complex with a façade of pillars. This complex looks like the place used for anna-dhaana, the free food service in the modern day temples. It would also have been the lodging for travelers from distant places. The stone floors and ceilings of this long, perpendicular veranda were cool even in the mid noon.
About 50 meters ahead is the main entrance to the temples. A chariot with stone wheels stood at this entrance. Devotees would pull this huge cart on its heavy wheels on the shivaratri – the annual festival of this temple. Since this year’s festival was approaching, there were few villagers busy in structuring and decorating the chariot & surroundings. I removed my footwear and stepped into the main temple area through a large stone corridor. The walls of the corridor had different engravings on them. The most notable ones were of the dwaarapaalakaas – or the guards to the temple. As the Hindu mythology says, the abode of God is guarded by two guards by name Jaya and Vijaya and the same is ensemble in most of the South Indian temples. The stone floor & walls were naturally cool and gave a pleasant feel.
Soon after the corridor, as I entered into the main temple area, was the temple dedicated to Uma-Maheshwara, the married stature of Shiva and goddess Parvathi. This temple was one of the richest in architecture that I had ever seen. A masterpiece in the Dravidian and Chola style of architectures, this temple complex is known to be first constructed by queen Ratnavali of the Bana dynasty during 9th century. Hewn out of stone and adorned with sculptures of various gods and deities, the square pillars of this temple are extremely rich in carvings. The single stone chiseling of Uma seated on the lap of Maheshwara is an absolute beauty. The garbhagudi, the holy sanctum is surrounded by a small corridor for pradakshina – the rounds around God – and once again the carvings on the walls are worth a mention.
Depicting various incidents from the likes of Mahabharata and Ramayana, the detailing on the stone was beggaring description.Further another temple was constructed by the Banas, adjacent to Uma-Maheshwara and dedicated it to Arunachaleshwara – the childhood phase of Shiva.
A linga, the pillar shaped structure that represents the infinite nature of Shiva, is placed inside the holy sanctum. The interior of this place was so calm and meditative. A Nandi that overlooks the Shiva linga is said to be planted by Cholas of eleventh century. A small statue of the holy bull, Nandi looks at the linga as if seeking a blessing. Not only this small statue but the Cholas constructed many Nandi Mantapas around.
As we take a walk around, an old well that was used for providing water to the temple purposes can be seen on the left corner. Behind the Uma-Maheshwara temple is the Girijamba and Apita Kuchambala temples said to be constructed by Vijayanagara Empire. One of the highlight in the architecture of Uma-Maheshwara temple is the style in which its windows are designed. There are 3-4 windows around the temple which has a sculpture of a dancer or a dancing form of the god framed inside a rectangular opening. Light & wind pass through the gaps between the sculpture’s body and the rectangular frame making it a window as well.
An astounding kalyana mantapa, marriage hall was constructed by the Hoysala Kingdom adjacent to this temple structure. The glorious mantapa stood commendably at the centre of the huge hall, surrounded by long verandas with façade of pillars. Probably this is where the invitees gathered to celebrate the wedding.
A small door on the left of the mantapa opens into a huge pond. It is said that the local chieftains developed this contemplative sculptural beauty and added a large pond, Shrunga-theertha to it. This pond or kalyani, as it is called, has an interesting story behind its name, Shrunga-theertha. The legend is that once the holy bull Nandi dug into the earth with its strong horns and sacred river Ganges started flowing out of the opening forming the pond. Shrunga is the Sanskrit word for horns and theertha meaning holy water!
The pond is surrounded by some of the finest sculptures, most of them of different forms of the gods & goddesses. The wear over the years and probably the attack of rival kings has left these statues devastated. Most of the statues are without arms and legs and few even without head! It’s high time that our tourism board took a look at preserving these stone structures at least now!
After a final round of photo shoot and admiration, I walked out into the present. There were two elderly villagers around looking after the chariot arrangements. Few minutes of chat with them gave me a glimpse into the immense history this laid back village is hiding within itself. According to these two men, Nandi village is one of the most ancient villages that flourished in southern India. Surrounded by five majestic hills, Nandigiri, Brahmagiri, Skandagiri, Divyagiri & Vishnugiri and made fertile by five rivers Arakavati, Palar, Pinakini, Papagni and Suvarnamukhi , Nandi village was once a pride possession of the ruling kings. It was invaded by a handful of dynasties over the years and ruled by more than five of them. They even mentioned about the holy sages who are believed to be meditating for over a 1000 years in Divyagiri, one of the hills around, and still continuing to meditate at the same place. People believe that a sacred cow has been feeding the sages with her milk over the years. The villager even mentioned about an intriguing fact that they have heard of people spotting footprints of those sages which were 3-4 times bigger than the normal man. Up to your imaginations! They even insisted us to visit few other ancient temples around the place. Added on to my list for sure!
After thanking the elderly, I walked out of the temple campus. I had just witnessed a flabbergasting show of Dravidian, Chola and Hoysala architectural marvel, something that I had never seen. The stupefying sculptures of this monument were a proof of high-class, intuitive art that prevailed before a thousand years. So the next time you are around Nandi hills, do not forget to take a look at this structure that can take you back in time into an era of art loving Kings & Queens and those god-gifted sculptors not to forget!
Nandi Gram is quite a laid back village with its rustic charm. Small tiled houses, recently built bigger ones, old and young villagers chatting on the streets, a school that’s quite old, tall trees with long dropping down from them. As we rode towards Sultanpet, the adjacent village, the villagers engrossed in farming activities could be spotted by the road side. A man with a turban like cloth around his head tilling the farm with couple of Ox, old women rearing cattle and sheep, women busy with house choir, giggling kids each and everything that makes this village adorable.
After a couple of minutes’ ride, we reach a remnant of a collapsed gate, like those seen in the horror movies. There is a rusty, faded board which reads Sultanpet. This was the entrance into the Sultanpet village, a major spot during the Tippu Sultan reign. A ruin of an old structure, probably the king’s guards’ cottage, welcomes you into Sultanpet. It’s all deserted and even has a pond in rubbles. (It seriously surprises me that most of the structures around Nandi have a pond in them!). Moving past this wreck, we pass through Sultanpet. It still looks very much like a early 80s village. During the oldern days, the hair cutting saloon used to be outside the main village area, for some reasons. The same can be still seen here with a saloon just at the entrance of the village. The good old thought, probably the same building too.
Riding past Sultanpet and couple of kilometers, we reach the Kanive Basava temple. Kanive in Kannada is valley and Basava stands for Nandi or the holy bull. This particular place has a very famous myth of the mahapralaya or judgment day concept. It all begins with the amazing stone statue of Nandi here. The localite person, aged about 80 years, whom I spoke to, explained some interesting facts. According to him, the Nandi statue here, which is a stone structure is growing and ever growing. Not only according to him, the very reason for me to be here are the stories that I had heard about this ever growing Nandi statue. This elderly person tells me that during his younger days as a kid, the Nandi was a small 5 feet statue that people used to offer prayers and there was an iron rod placed next to the statue. But as I am seeing it now, it is easily more than 13 feet tall and 10 feet wide huge Nandi statue. So the amount it has grown over the years is simply put in this way by the villager, ‘I could hold on to its nose when I was a young boy, but now it has grown over my size’. The best proof that supports this wonder is the temple built around the growing Nandi. He says there was a small temple years back around the statue which had to be reconstructed into a bigger one as the statue started to grow and could not be contained. Want more interesting fact? The Nandi that I saw here is as tall as the temple that exists now and there are pillars being laid around for heightening and expanding the existing temple! True!
Another interesting myth (?) about this place is that, long ago somebody had carved a rooster out of stone and placed in front of this temple. ‘Somebody stole it from here’, pointing at a black stone seat, the elderly continued, ‘when the mahapralaya (judgment day) is around the corner the stone rooster would come to life and make clucking noise, also the stone Nandi would come to life’, he exhaled. He also added, ‘I am sure that whoever may have stolen it, they would be forced to bring it back here by that day’. After speaking to him for some more time, I left the place with questions in my mind!
Sultanpet, the village that would have been once a very often mentioned name in Tippu’s court, is also famous for pottery. I had read about it on some blog and inquired few villagers about the place and in no time I was at the small scale pottery industry. The two small buildings, just after the rustic, old gate of Sultanpet, is the Kumbarara Sangha or Potter’s association. This can be easily spotted from the main road and the heap of red soil at the entrance confirms its identity. We were gladly welcomed like some guests by the lady who was taking care of one of the pottery sheds. On the soil floor, through a small door, we entered into the small building. All sorts of clay pots, big & small, wide & narrow, flower pots & the ones used for collecting water & ones for cooking everything were spread on the floor. There were two men apart from the lady, who were busy in their work. The lady showed us all sorts of clay pots they produced. Show-case pieces, diyas or small crucible used to light lamps at prayer place, pots of different sizes were available. One of the men was beating softly around a large tumbler kind of pot with a wooden log, to make the surface smooth and equally thick. It was going into the furnaces for roti-making in dhabas and other places, he explained. This clay contained would form the interior of a large oven in which the rotis will be cooked.
The other person was making clay flower pots on the spinning wheel. The clay is brought from the nearby pond and formed into pots here, he explains, further it is cured, painted and sent to major markets in Bangalore for sale. The spinning wheel would have the moist clay mounted at its centre and is formed into desired shapes. The wheel is rotated with a stick for a certain time and after it has enough speed on it, the expertise hands of the potter plays with the moist clay bringing out amazing clay products. It is literally an art, a talent or simply a poetry in clay. They were even happy to let us try our hands on forming some pots. Well, I already said it’s an art and only an artist can do it to perfection! We even bought some small clay pots and the lady did not quote any money, instead humbly asked us to pay any amount we wished! It was fun time at a pottery class!
Well, the main reason for me being here in Nandi today was the trek. There is a very well laid two-lane ghat road that unwinds from the foothills of Nandi hills to its top. Govt. buses & taxis are regular and all sorts of vehicles can easily access this mystic hill. But there are some ‘nut-heads’, as the remaining population terms them, who take their own way regardless of how wide the road is or how many vehicles ply per minute. I decided to become one such ‘nut-head’ for a day and I was here, with my colleagues, climbing the history ridden 1000+ stairways to the summit of Nandi hills.
After a sneak peek into the 1000 year old Bhoga Nandeeshwara temple & growing Nandi statue, and a pottery class & a light snack, we moved towards Silver Oak resort in Sultanpet, passing by a group of school children returning home after they half day class on a sunny Saturday. Yes, it was close to mid noon and this was the time we found to trek, you mumbled it right! Couple of furlongs and we turn left into a stone paved road with necessitous homes n petty shops on either side. The white board with Kannada writings reads stair way to Nandi Hills, but no stairs in sight. We moved ahead on the dusty roads among playful kids who were celebrating their half day holiday. Few hundred meters and we reach the Silver Oak resort gate on our left and at a distance, there it is visible, the stairway!
The stairway to Nandi hills is known to be the earliest existing way to the summit of this fort hill. The one which was used by the Vijayanagara Empire and later by the Sultans for everyday commuting to the hills. They say, the daily need goods and the royals were carried on horseback along these stairways up the hill. The stairs are an arrangement of irregular dimensions unlike today’s symmetric shapes. If one step was a wide one then next ten would be less than a foot wide and also the steps were so closely built like almost three steps in place of one modern day step. The climb was a moderate one which would have been easier if done in the early hours of the day. There are a couple of mantapas , probably the ones which were used as resting place during early days. These shelters are strategically constructed at equal distances and the stone structure makes it soothingly cool even on a sunny afternoon. One of these mantapas even had a huge Nandi idol, which had worn at few parts, but still holds the rustic charm. There were even a couple of gateways at different parts, probably would’ve been decorated to welcome the royals in yesteryears.
After few steps, the stairs come out into open land, which even has a modern railing on the sides. The vast view of the green fields, tiny homes and circular roofs of a resort and winding roads are visible from this point. The sight to behold is that of the two majestic mountains that raise beyond the village on the foothills. Rocky and filled with boulders of varying size, the two mountains stand tall like an epitaph of the by-gone era. The stairway further climbs along a water-pipe, which is being used to pump water from to the hill. Its irony that a hill, which was once the birthplace for two of the major rivers in the state of Karnataka, now needs water to be pumped atop from the foothill village.
River Arkavathi and the lesser known Palar took birth over Nandi hills and flowed down into the city of Bangalore before joining river Cauvery. History even says that, until few decades ago, Arkavathi alone fed the entire capital city and the water even resulted in occasional floods. Two dams, which exist even today, one at Hesaraghatta and another at Manchanbele near Bangalore, were constructed to contain this Cauvery tributary for electric & domestic reasons. But sadly these rivers do not exist anymore today and the pond over the hills that claims to be the birthplace of this river is no less than a dust bin.
We were almost there once we crossed this open stairway under scorching sun. Further steps were under cool shade before reaching a temple outside the fort. The tap here has unbelievably cold water and not to be mentioned that all of us almost took bath in it. Another two sets of recently laid steps and we walk through a gateway that could have been once used as shelter to guards. Above this was the famous summer lodge of Tippu Sultan.
A red stone construction, with an open veranda and three rooms which were closed, earthen steps that led into the top floor, summer lodge of Tippu looked similar to small lodge in a far away village. Entry was restricted into the rooms and we just had to take a look from outside. Take a left at this lodge and the stairway comes out near the huge kalyani that all of us who have been to Nandi hills have seen. So after close to 2 hrs of climb on the historical stairway, we were at the summit. Nandi hills conquered on foot.