The hilly, boulder-filled terrain of Kishkindha, home to numerous temples, caves and ashrams associated with the events in Ramayana, leaves one with a feeling of timelessness.
The story of Ramayana is deeply embedded in the collective psyche of the Indian civilization. The wide geographical sweep of this narrative has ensured that every corner of this subcontinent is associated with different aspects of its storyline.
There are some locations firmly identified with various events in the storyline which the local population totally identifies with. Further, these said locations are more or less consistent with the flow of the story while certain events are claimed by two or more locations and do not match with the geographical flow of the epic. But irrespective of plausability, all such associations show how deep the epic has penetrated the collective consciousness of Indian society.
Kishkindha at Hampi
One of the most important associations is the linkage of the story of Kishkindha with the area of Hampi, Karnataka, which was the erstwhile capital of Vijayanagar Empire. The historical ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire are co-located with the epic kingdom of Kishkindha. Most of the major events of the ‘Kishkindha Kand’ of Ramayana are linked to a particular place in this terrain. The rocky landscape strewn with massive boulders is widely believed to be the fabled Vanara kingdom of the brothers, Vali and Sugriva.
When Ravan kidnapped Sita from Panchwati (Nasik), then Ram and Lakshman came south searching for her. It is said that they met Shabari, who was an ascetic, at her ashram. The word Shabari is commonly used as a metaphor for an endless wait for God. The story goes that when Shabari met Ram, she offered him ‘ber’ (berries from the forest) after tasting each one to ensure that only the sweet ones were offered to the Lord Ram.
Here amidst the pristine forest, we find a well maintained Shabari’s ashram, which is actually a small set of caves. At one place we find the footprints of Ram on stone, maintained as a shrine. Devotees come here and offer floral tributes.
Shabari’s ashram is situated near a well maintained tank of water called Pampa Sarovar. This name links this area to the still more ancient story of Parvati worshipping Shiva on the banks of Pampa, generally associated with the Tungabhadra river.
Shabari had advised Ram and Lakshman to go to the Kishkindha area of the Vanara Kingdom. These hillocks strewn with huge boulders are a unique site and appear perfect for a hideout with defensive capabilities. The black faced Langurs or Hanuman, are ubiquitous in this landscape. The Rhesus Macaque or the common monkeys are also visible everywhere. Once you see these monkeys jumping around, you can easily imagine the famed Vanara sena ruling this landscape. Specific hills are associated with the places of Vali, Sugriva (Rishyamook), Rishi Matang (Guru of Shabari) and Hanuman.
The period of Ram’s arrival in these locales was a period of fraternal struggle for the throne between Vali and Sugriva. Vali was more powerful and he had thrown Sugriva out of the kingdom. Hanuman, who is ever present beside Ram, is said to have been born in this locality. He was a confidant of Sugriva.
There is a temple dedicated to Hanuman at the place of his birth. This temple is atop a hill called Anjanadri hill, located across the Tungabhadra river in a village called Anegundi. The white temple atop the hill can be seen from far and wide and attracts a large number of visitors.
The top of this hill has a commanding view of the whole Kishkindha area. The Tungabhadra river (or Pampa, as it is called locally from time immemorial) passes through these hillocks and boulders. The river, the greenery and verdant vegetation presents a breath-taking site. One can imagine the vanar kingdom spanning this whole area during the Ramayana era. The rocks on the hills, the green forests and the serene Tungbhadra river must have witnessed the hectic activity of those long lost days remembered even today.
It is along the banks of this river that we find the famed Kodandarama Temple (where Ram is depicted holding the Bow). The temple is in an isolated hillside and one has to trek a bit (from the location opposite the Virupaksha Temple) to reach this mesmerizing place. The local folklore associates this exact location with the place where Ram crowned Sugriva as the king of Kishkindha after killing Vali.
The murtis/ images of Ram, Sita and Lakshman are made out of black granite. It appears to be a primitive murti as it lacks the sophistication of the more recent intricately carved temples.
Just outside the sanctum sanctorum there is a Hanuman murti. It symbolises the ever present vigil of Hanuman over Ram and Sita.
A small walk up the same hillside will bring you to a small nondescript temple called Yantrodharak Anjaneya Temple, specifically dedicated to Hanuman. This place is linked to another great personality of Indian mythology, Maharishi Vyas. It is said that he established this Hanuman temple and it is the first one in the series of many such temples he established throughout the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent.
The folklore of the area mentions the fact that when Vyas used to place the Hanuman murti inside the temple, and worship Hanuman, the murti of Hanuman would come out every morning. Despite Vyas’s best attempts this murti of Hanuman would mysteriously appear outside the temple, every morning. Thereafter Maharshi Vyas used the ‘Shakti Yantra’ to contain Hanuman. The image of Hanuman is placed inside the six pointed star denoting the Shakti Yantra which has 13 monkeys around its periphery.
It is uncanny how a common symbology of the six pointed star binds the two most ancient religions- Hinduism and Judaism.
According to the Ramayana, Ram helped Sugriva reclaim the throne by killing Vali. The rainy season had arrived and so Ram & Lakshman had to move to a higher location. They stayed in this location throughout the rainy season as movement was difficult. This locality, set amongst the huge boulders atop a hill, has a temple called Malayvanta Raghunath Temple. One needs to climb this semi steep hill to find a beautiful temple carved amidst the huge boulders. One can imagine the two brothers sitting through the rainy season in this location, hoping for the rains to cease, so that they can move forward in their quest to locate Sita.
The temple gateways are made of stone and adorned with intricate carvings. The upper area is made out of small bricks that are typical to the Vijayanagar architecture.
Inside the temple complex one comes across a pillared mandapam. The pillars in this temple have the usual Vijayanagar era carvings including the “Yali” which is ever present in the more recent temples associated with the Vijayanagar period. Ram bhajans are sung by the devotees and sadhus in this mandapam. The melodious devotional songs in sanskrit echo soothingly in this entire complex. The effect was such that for a moment I wanted to leave everything and sit with the devotees and start singing.
The sanctum sanctorum has small murtis of Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. The statues are of black granite and very basic in form but beautifully adorned. This calm and serene place, away from the usual hustle and bustle of the the tourists visiting Hampi, left me feeling at peace.
Apart from these prominent locations there are other smaller sites associated with the story. There is cave called Sugriva cave, where the ornaments of Sita were kept by Sugriva. These ornaments were thrown by Sita while she was being abducted on the Vimana to ensure that Ram can track her path. This cave is located right near the water level on the river just a few meters away from the Kodandarama temple. The entrance is a small gap between the boulders but it has surprisingly large space inside.
The location of Kishkindha coincides with Hampi that was capital of the Vijayanagar Empire. It is saddening to see the ruins of the magnificent palace structures and fabulous market areas systematically destroyed by the Deccan Sultanate armies. Most of the temples have also been desecrated in this area. Some massive granite structures and murtis were defaced (as they were impossible to demolish) in order to stop the worship in the temples.
But the Kishkindha Kand trail with all its linkages to the timeless stories of Ramayana still attracts numerous pilgrims. It has withstood the test of time and escaped the ravages brought about by the marauding barbarians. It is heartening to see that these quaint temples are still intact and have continued to inspire reverence in innumerable visitors.
This article was first published in Pragyata.