Once upon a time, there was this happy place called Kokkrebellur. Once upon a time.
Now, this age-old nesting site for the endemic Painted stork has become another casualty of human greed.
In Kannada, the word “kokkre” means stork. The very name of this village is derived from the storks that come here every February to breed. It is believed that this location has been the nesting ground for the Painted stork since a thousand years.
It has taken Homo sapiens less than a decade to ruin it.
What else do you expect from the most destructive species on the planet? Microwave towers, loudspeakers blaring, massive old trees chopped down, waterbodies gone dry, illegal sand mining, heaps of garbage – no effort has been spared to screw up Kokkrebellur as only humans can.
Once, there was a grove of Mahua trees that was three centuries old, and housed dozens of mating Indian grey hornbills and a hundred other species. Now there are charred stumps. And an illegal function hall in its place. Littered with discarded bottles, plastic, rotting food and all the usual shit that humans like to throw around.
I’ve written at length about Kokkrebellur in an earlier blogpost, written in the days when there was something to write about this unique village in Maddur district. But now there’s nothing left at Kokkrebellur to write about. The storks and pelicans have arrived this year too, but each year their numbers dwindle.
The Kabini river that provides sustenance to these great birds has gone totally dry. There are fewer trees to nest on, more vehicles, much more competition for what little space and resources are available.
Eventually, the storks will simply fly off to a better place.
When the Kokkre is gone from Kokkrebellur, then what?
What the eff am I doing here, I ask myself as I trudge barefoot in the heat, through the filthiest temple town I have been in.
This is Melukote. Global hub of Shri Vaishanavism, second only to Sriperumbudur in importance. A world-renowned center for Sanskrit learning. The scriptures say that Rama and Krishna themselves worshipped the ancient deity here. The temples you see today are a thousand years old, built stone by stone by Shri Ramanuja and his disciples.
This is Melukote. And it is filthy.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness, we are told. If that is true, then please be assured that God would keep His distance from Melukote.
Due to my being born a Thenkalai, I am a follower, albeit a reluctant one, of Shri Ramanuja and a Shrivaishanavite by default. Melukote is therefore “my” place. Each year, I find myself drawn to this place. And year after year, I find myself being repelled by the general filthiness. This year, the filthiness was just intolerable.
The history of Melukote is truly Vedic. The temples are merely ten centuries old. The primary deity here, Cheluvanarayanaswamy or Thirunarayana, has been worshipped at this place since the time of Rama. After the long-lost metal idol was rediscovered by Shri Ramanuja in 1100 or so, Melukote was heavily patronised by the Hoysalas, the Wodeyars, even by Tipu Sultan, and in modern times, by Shrivaishnavites across the world and by all other sects. With all that patronage, past and present, there is no excuse whatsoever for Melukote’s current state.
It’s not a question of money. There is no shortage of money, I have no doubt. It’s not a question of government support. You need neither money nor political support just to be clean. It’s a question of attitude and it’s a question of arrogance.
At no other major shrine have I seen cars parked right at the temple walls, nowhere else have I seen so many hawkers peddling their wares so close to the main temple. No where else have I seen garbage so carelessly strewn about. Sullen watchmen at the gates and sundry people expecting money at every nook are common features in all temples. One expects Melukote to be different, but no. One is totally wrong. Give me twenty rupees, insists an elderly priest inside the temple, and I tamely hand over the money, not due to piety, but due to pity.
My visit there yesterday coincided with an “abhishekam” of Ramanuja’s idol. The term “abhishekam” means a ritualistic libation of a religious idol with various sanctified liquids like milk, ghee, honey, sandal paste and others.
There were innumerable Iyengar mamas and mamis inside, in traditional vestis and 9-yard sarees respectively. Technically, I am an Iyengar mama too, and I ought to have been in a vesti too. But my priorities are crystal clear.
Cleanliness first. Godliness next. Hygiene first. Spirituality next. Sanctity of body first. Purity of mind next.
Three years ago, my elderly mother ate the food here, came back that evening to Bangalore with acute gastroentiritis and had to spend a full week at Fortis hospital. That horrible week comes back to my memory, and I bluntly turn down the offers of puliogare and annadana that I am plied with.
History and divinity both get buried under the filth of Melukote.
As a Shrivaishnavite, I am not just angry. I am filled with a cold rage as I make my way through this ancient town. In vain do I tell myself that Rama and Krishna might have walked down the same lanes that I walk now, and that Shri Ramanuja definitely did. All I can see are the piles of garbage, the plastic bottles everywhere, the stray dogs, the hawkers, the growling monkeys – and the devotees who create all this filth by tolerating it and worse, by patronising it.
Enough. I call up the driver (who is of course parked right next to the temple wall) and we make our way back to the Garbage city, also known as Bangalore.
The newly laid road from Mandya to Melukote provides little consolation, since I’ve seen the hundreds of old trees that once stood on either side of that road, and were butchered for no reason.
In comparison, Tipu’s tomb in Srirangapatnam is a pleasure to see. Gumbaz is immaculately maintained, and more important, it is clean. There’s no entry fee although there is a stiff parking fee – but no parking lot. The outside is no doubt dirty and hawker-infested. But the inside is just the opposite. Manicured lawns, old trees that date back to Tipu, and the tomb itself is shining white – and clean.
So. This is “my” Melukote. I don’t feel good, I feel ripped off. I don’t feel sanctified, I feel dirty. I am not filled with spirituality and enlightenment, I am filled with dark anger.
Next time I feel the desire to commune with God, I won’t take the expense to hire a cab and drive 150 kms through dense traffic to end up at a place that is filthier than the urban slum I live in.
I’ll either visit the small temple at my street corner, which is far cleaner, or just stay at home and visit Wikipedia, which is far safer.
I am constantly surprised by the richness and depth of our country’s folk culture – and equally dismayed at its chronic neglect.
Janapada Loka, a delightful little folk museum on the way to Mysore, represents a serious attempt to revive Karnataka’s dying folk arts.
I’ve passed by this place several times on my birding field trips but never gave it a serious look, although Janapada Loka is right next to Kamat Lokaruchi, my favorite eating house on this route.
This time, armed with a decent camera, I paid a leisurely visit to Janapada Loka, and came away enlightened by the experience. Established in 1994 on a 15-acre estate by the late HL Nage Gowda, an Indian civil servant and Kannada folklorist, Janapada Loka has been designed to recreate life in a typical village in Karnataka.
The place is dotted with artifacts, sculptures and other exquisite examples of Kannada folk culture.
Pause a while at the amphitheater in the company of the local geese. Stroll across to the Ganesha temple and the sculpture yard and pay particular attention to the collection of Veeragallu (hero-stones) that date back to the 15th century. Hero stones are unique to Karnataka, you won’t find them elsewhere in India.
The centerpiece of Janapada Loka is the Loka Mahal. This well maintained folk museum exhibits ceremonial dresses, masks, pottery, weaponry and a whole lot of rural handicraft, collected from the four corners of Karnataka.
The helpful attendant inside Loka Mahal will be glad to give you a detailed description of every exhibit. Be sure to generously tip him. These guys don’t make much money.
Janapada Loka deserves at least an hour of your time. It’s open from 9.30 am to 5.30 am. on all days except Tuesday. Lunch time is from 1.30 to 2.30 pm.
What you need to do is to land up at the place by lunchtime, have a robust, rustic lunch at Kamat Lokaruchi, that shares its wall with Janapada Loka. At 2.30 pm, walk into Janapada Loka, which will be empty at that hour, take a quiet snooze in one of the shady nooks inside, then go around the place at leisure.
Bird lovers will note the pleasant trill of Tickell’s blue flycatcher, a resident species in Janapada Loka, among several others.
At around 4pm, sneak back into Kamat Lokaruchi through the small gate that links the two places, get yourself some piping hot Kannada tiffin and one strong kaapi, and then head home. One recommends the kadubu idlis and neer dosas.
Avoid weekends, strictly. You will have to fight your way inside Kamat Lokaruchi and parking will be a nightmare. On weekdays, everyone is relaxed, and you will have a good time in both places.
Note that photography is freely permitted in Janapada Loka, except inside the Loka Mahal museum itself. For Loka Mahal alone, you will need to pay Rs.100/- for your camera. Otherwise, the fee is a mere Rs.20/-.
Janapada Loka is totally worth your time and money. Go. Enrich yourself.