As I drive through Mysore district, a silver sash peeps out from behind the trees. This is the Kaveri (also known as the Cauvery) river—it quickly hides behind the next clump of trees, refusing to be seen thereafter. My high school geography book, I recollect, had described these areas as “the fertile plains of the Kaveri basin”.
Five kilometres ahead of the Kaveri’s first silver gleam lies the town of Talakad. The road narrows as soon as I enter the “old town”. Squat, tiled houses flank the deserted-looking main street. Around a bend in the road is a green signboard announcing the Sri Vaidyanatheswara temple.
Shifting sands: The Sri Vaidyanatheswara temple near Mysore.
As I turn this bend, my eyes are suddenly struck by the glaring glow of sand dunes. The temple stands there as promised, but what take centre stage are the huge mounds of sand. The desert mounds aren’t barren, they are topped by eucalyptus trees, standing upright like porcupine quills.
What are stretches of desert doing in the midst of a fertile river valley? Green fields giving way to crouching houses is understandable. But houses giving way to a desert? What is going on?
Face to face with the Sri Vaidyanatheswara temple, or rather the sands that hem it in from all sides, I decide to explore the sands before entering the temple.
I climb up the dunes and walk along the sand path under a metal shelter that circumscribes the mile-long path around the complex of temples. The eucalyptuses do nothing to mitigate the midsummer heat. The sluggish warm air conspires to slow me down. My laboured steps slide into the sand instead of moving me ahead.
A man fishing in the Kaveri river in Talakad. Photographs by Aravind Subbarao/Flickr.com/photos/arajasu
As the path turns, I reach the first of the temples, the Pataleswara temple. The temple is all but underground, looking like it’s been plonked into a crater in the sandy dune. As I clamber down the steps in the heat, there is no one else in the temple or around. The temple itself is a small, single chamber but its underground location has a mysterious air about it, almost like a movie villain’s hideout.
As I climb back up to ground level, it almost feels like I’m coming up for air. Next is the Saikatheswara temple, again underground like the Pataleswara temple, this time manned by a solitary priest. Ahead of it is a vast clearing in the sand. This is the last of the temples, the 12th century Keerthinarayana temple, now under renovation. A polygon-shaped stone platform stands bare, just 3ft tall or so. Nearby is the dismantled temple and numerous stones in front of it in heaps, almost like Lego blocks. This temple is being reworked and will be placed on the new foundation shortly.
Yet the architecture is faded, blurred. There is none of the sharp relief or delicate contrast that makes Khajuraho or Belur-Halebid so breathtaking. While the centuries have taken their toll, it’s saddening to see that the sculptures don’t look extraordinary.
The presence of the sands isn’t the only mystery in Talakad. In seemingly unrelated news, the present maharaja (although the throne no longer has administrative power, the presumptive maharaja is expected to fulfil religious and cultural responsibilities) of Mysore, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, does not have any sons, and so there are no direct heirs to the Mysore throne.
This is part of a four-century-long pattern. Since the early 17th century, only seven of the 19 maharajas have been sons of maharajas and, thus, direct heirs to the throne. In the absence of direct heirs, the Mysore throne has been handed down to adopted sons, nephews and extended relatives since 1610.
GRAPHIC BY AHMED RAZA KHAN/MINT
Legend has it that in the early 17th century, Tirumala-Raja, a representative of the Vijayanagara empire, controlled Talakad. When Tirumala-Raja took ill and died, his wife Rangamma got control of the state.
The maharaja of the neighbouring kingdom of Mysore saw in this an opportunity to annex Talakad. The unprepared Rangamma sensed defeat was inevitable and jumped into the Kaveri river and killed herself.
But before her fatal plunge, she let out a curse that, when translated from Kannada, goes:
May Talakad become a desert,
May Malangi become a whirlpool,
May the Maharajas of Mysore not have heirs.
The first two came true, and while there have been exceptions to the third, the surprisingly high proportion of maharajas without heirs has been intriguing.
But surely curses don’t really come true? Surely there’s got to be another explanation?
To understand all this better, I call on a retired geologist (who requests anonymity because “he does not wish any publicity”). He is in his 80s and speaks with a shaking voice. He says: “Scientifically, the explanation is simple. You see, Talakad is a peninsula, it is surrounded by the Kaveri on three sides. The Kaveri here is in a form whose technical name is ‘meander’, it curves in an almost U-turn. Then there is the question of what happened around the 16th century when the desert came up here.” In the 15th century, the Vijayanagara kings built what is perhaps the first boulder dam in India. The Madhav Mantri dam, named after one of their viceroys, slowed the river’s waters down, and so, near the river’s meander, the sand from the river started getting deposited on the banks. “Over a few decades, the river’s sands piled up on the banks and gradually covered the entire town of Talakad.”
What about the Mysore maharajas? I ask the geologist. He has no explanation and neither does anyone else I meet in Talakad. The geologist and many locals suggest that a reason why the rulers of Mysore haven’t had heirs could be that they often married among close relatives. That explanation seems like a flailing attempt to connect to anything plausible. It is nothing conclusive.
At least one of Talakad’s mysteries defies easy explanation.
I sit down by the riverbank and watch the river flow by. The river is just around 150m wide at Talakad but the bank looks crowded because of the 40-50 tourists who are there.
Women in wet clothes, men in their underwear, and naked children splash around in the shallow water. A coracle full of tourists pirouettes on the water surface.
On the road between the “new town” and “old town”, the curtain of dusty roadside houses parts to reveal an endless vista of soft, fluid paddy fields flowing away, rippling gently in the cool breeze like a never-ending green trampoline. The “fertile plains of the Kaveri basin”, as it were.
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