Photo: Rahul Chandran/Mint
Photo: Rahul Chandran/Mint

Of legends and lakes built by courtesans

Man-made tanks, once vital for agriculture, are common across Karnataka, but their origins are often shrouded in myth and local legend

The story goes that the woman was a courtesan with the local chieftain who lived in a cave on a hill overlooking the lake. There is no record of her name, but a local writer called her Chandrasani; she is more commonly referred to as just sule, which is Kannada for prostitute.

The lake in Nagamangala is called Sule Kere after her (in Kannada, sule is prositute and kere is lake). Legend has it that she was the concubine of Timmanna Dandanayaka, a 15th-century feudatory of the Vijayanagara empire. In versions of the folk story, which is still told around Nagamangala, a town in Karnataka’s Mandya district, she either built the lake or sacrificed herself so that the bad luck plaguing the lake’s construction would stop.

Some 200km to the north is another, far larger lake in Davangere district—the well-known Shanthi Sagara, which has gained prominence as Asia’s second largest water tank. It is named after another woman said to be a sule, named Shantavva. She was immortalized in a poem by Basaveshwara, according to Jyotsna Kamat, a researcher for Dharwad University, who has written a blog on this.

In Muttenahalli village, about 60km from Nagamangala, is another Sule Kere (kere is lake in Kannada). This is said to have been built by one of the three sisters who lived in a house by the bund of that lake. The villagers do not know her name, nor whether she was the courtesan of any ruler.

These myths in some ways shows the importance lakes—or, more properly, agricultural tanks—had in the lives of common folk. Some even thought that paying to get them built could wash them of accumulated sins.

“Lakes were more important than temples, no?" says Kotiganahalli Ramaiah, an activist and Dalit scholar. “Their entire life (and) lifestyles depended around water sources and water sources have their own legends, their own rituals..."

But there are also myths about who built many of the lakes and why. These myths—stories perhaps embellished over time—provide an insight into the importance of lakes in Karnataka, fast disappearing or becoming irrelevant in the modern age

Common lakes

Sule keres are common in many Karnataka districts. These lakes are said to have been built by courtesans of local rulers, who may have been looking to wipe away the “dishonour" that came with their profession, according to T. Mahadeva, an associate professor in the department of folklore studies at Kannada University, Hampi.

Agricultural tanks were an important source of irrigation in peninsular India. As late as 1970-71, tanks accounted for 12.1% of the total area under irrigation of 29 million hectares, the agricultural census notes. Canals were then the most popular (41.8%), while tubewells only irrigated 17% of the land. By 2010, however, tubewells were used for nearly half the total irrigated area and the tanks’ share in the had dropped to about 3.48%.

Jyotsna Kamat, who writes a column in her family website Kamat’s Pot Pourri, says a sule was an “honorific title for a devadasi in 6th and 7th centuries CE (current era)".

Kamat, who has a PhD in history from Karnatak University, Dharwad, and was, among other things, a researcher for the same university, says while neither the Vedas nor the Upanishads mention devadasis, some Puranas refer to the practice of dedicating dancing girls to temples as the best way for a man to attain heaven.

In her blog, she refers to the epic poem Siddalinga Kavya that tells the story of Shantavva, a wealthy courtesan who was married to a local king. The courtesan was approached for funds for the large project and she readily donated under the condition that the lake be named after her. Hence it’s called Shanthi Sagara, although the locals still call it Sule Kere and a search on Google by that name throws up videos of Shanthi Sagara.

In his story “The daughter of Yellama", historian William Dalrymple gives a hint of the devadasis’ munificence. “Another at Virupaksha near Bijapur records a devadasi gifting her temple a horse, an elephant and a chariot," he writes. Later, he says, “Their confidence and self-possession is evident in much of the poetry, while their wealth is displayed in the inscriptions recording their generous gifts to their temples."

Coming back to Nagamangala, the Karnatakada Kyfiyathugalu, legends and oral histories collected in the late 1700s by India’s first surveyor general, Colin Mackenzie, and subsequently published as a book by Kannada University, recounts a tale of the goddess Ganga appearing in Dandanayaka’s dreams and saying that the bund for the lake he was building would fall, unless his courtesan Chandrasani could be sacrificed at the river.

After he recounted his dream to her (“with a heavy heart", as another book later said), the courtesan volunteered to sacrifice herself, after which the bund was built and the lake was formed, the book says.

The house that she lived in is set a little way from the nearest habitation. A dirt track leads off at right angles to the road and ends abruptly at a big, bald rock. The 16-pillared structure that the local residents call Sule Mantapa is perched on top of the rock. Behind it, in a spot overgrown with weeds, is a cave that the locals say served as her bedroom. There are paint marks on the roof of the cave, says N.S. Nagesh, a local builder.

Photo: Rahul Chandran/Mint
Photo: Rahul Chandran/Mint

In between all the weeds, I can make out what appears to be a doorstep carved by human hands. Somebody could have lived here. From where Chandrasani apparently lived, the lake looks like a sheet of glass.

Photo: Rahul Chandran/Mint
Photo: Rahul Chandran/Mint

The keres they funded

On the road from Hospet to the well-known Vijayanagara capital of Hampi is a stepwell that local residents call sule bhavi (well) but is actually not, according to one scholar.

The Kuparama Vatika or malige is a stepwell along the lines of the better known stepwells of Gujarat, like the Rani ki Vav. It is an octagonal well, which has been referred to as the Kuparamamaalige in an inscription (kupa means well).

“Aarama malige is a place where one can rest," says C.S. Vasudevan, an associate professor in the department of ancient history and archaeology at Kannada University. 

There is also a mention, in the inscription, of a man employed for maintaining the well, he says. “But it has nothing to do with sule," he adds.

Neither do many of the other lakes that are called sule keres by the public.

Maybe they were so called because they are public, for everyone’s use, Vasudevan says. “In every lake, there might be local stories. There was a prostitute there, she got it built, so on and so forth, they say. But that is not the case. There is no connection between prostitutes and this (the lakes)".

A tale of sacrifice

On the Andhra Pradesh side of the border with Karnataka, in Anantapur district, is a village called Eradikera. The village had two lakes in it. The bund of the bigger lake used to crumble every time there was rain. The headman of the village, according to local legends, had a dream that the bund would keep crumbling unless he sacrificed his pregnant daughter-in-law near where the bund kept breaking.

Now, the headman was loath to sacrifice his own daughter-in-law, so he chose the wife of one of his workers. That woman, Bandhamma, was buried alive at a spot where a shrine to her still stands.

This must have been about 250 years ago, says S.R. Gurunath, a retired instructor at an artisan training institute, who is Bandhamma’s great-great-grandson. “There were no writings then," Gurunath points out, “only oral histories. So much history has now vanished. Some incidents, tragic incidents like this, have been told down generations."

In Nagamangala, there are as many legends as there are people you ask. I heard stories that the lake was built by the sule and another that she merely lived near the lake. I even heard that the sule in Nagamangala would lend her jewellery to girls who couldn’t afford to buy their own when getting married.

“There are a lot of versions to these stories. To all lakes, there have been sacrifices of women. There is a ballad called Kereya Hara (hara means necklace). In that, they sacrifice the daughter-in-law of a Gowda (a landowning caste). There are animal sacrifices. There are also human sacrifices," says Ramaiah. “There are stories about a lot of lakes. I may be able to tell a few, but like those (stories), every lake has one."

Oral histories

Kannada University’s Mahadeva tells the story of a structure in Mysuru called Banni Mantapa now. According to the associate professor in the department of folklore studies, it used to be called the Vairamudi Mantapa after a diamond-studded crown that used to be taken in a procession from the former Mysuru royal family’s seat in Srirangapatna to the Hindu religious centre of Melkote. (The current name, Banni Mantapa, refers to a tree in the area.)

In just five to eight years, people have stopped referring to the structure by its original name.

So, could the lakes have actually been built by people looking to atone for perceived sins of the past? Or could the legends have gathered a little bit of exaggeration with every retelling? Do these stories then reflect the biases of the era they are told in?

“Legends are not created. They may be exaggerated (over time), but at the core it will be history, local history," Ramaiah says.

But for all the legends surrounding the Sule Kere of Nagamangala, it now serves a far more prosaic purpose, one that the woman who built the lake might approve of. According to Nagamangala’s town council president Vijaykumar, the lake provides drinking water to some 3,000 families in the town.

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