Posted by: itsme | February 14, 2009

In a Religious Town, Dharmasthala

When the bus arrived at Dharmasthala at 7 am this morning, it was two hours behind schedule. Not that the delay mattered to me because I had a full day to see this famous town of pilgrimage; but it left me a bad impression of private bus services. For once I had booked on a private bus instead of the usual KSRTC. The bus left Bangalore much later than I had imagined. It stopped for an hour near Majestic for loading goods. It developed a technical fault along the way. When the driver ignored it, ever other impatient vehicle on the road was overtaking the bus. Finally, at about 5 am, the driver and the conductor decided to replace the wheel. Nursing a slight neckache, I was half asleep. It seemed like ages before we started moving again.

To cut a long story short, there is not much worthwhile to relate about the famous Manjunatha Swamy temple of Dharmasthala. It is yet another name of the same God pulling in the same crowds of believers. It is yet another busy place of pilgrimage where darshan is just a few seconds and prayer is secondary to traditional Brahmanical rituals. It is yet another reason to doubt the greatness of Hinduism.

Nonetheless, to appreciate Dharmasthala, a long story must be kept long. The experience of a whole day cannot be lived in a few hours. When thoughts mature and impressions are laid bare, time will have its rightful say.

I can never say with certainty if I have been here before. When I was a student in Mangalore, one of my teachers planned a trip to Moodbidri, Dharmasthala and Kudremukh. I can remember visiting Kudremukh and stopping at her house in Moodbidri for some idlis. I have no recollection of visiting Dharmasthala. This is where childhood memories become hazy and facts are hard to separate from imagination. For years I had a recurring dream of being in Dharmasthala, witnessing pilgrims and devotees eating off banana leaves in packed dinner halls. There was this idea that at Dharmasthala food is served all day to a continuous stream of pilgrims.

The first fact is that food is not served all day. Two meals are served at specific times. Meals are simple and clean. The dinner hall is bright, spacious and clean. Steel plates are large and spotlessly clean. Rice is served generously. Vegetables are limited or nil. Basically, carbohydrates and some proteins, not much of vitamins or fibre. It’s a good occasional meal but I doubt people can survive on this alone in the long run.

Pilgrims sit cross-legged on a slightly raised platform. A volunteer wheels a trolley filled with plates along the corridor. You have to pick up your plate before the trolley moves off. For dinner today, dried and stitched leaves were used instead of plates. Service is quick and mechanical. There is no time for questions and answers. Curiously, rice and rasam are served first, along with a few spoons of a vegetable side dish. When you are just about finishing all that rice, more rice is served followed by sambar. Before you can say no, the plate is full. When you are still at it, trying your best not to waste all that free food, buttermilk is poured on top. So you are left with a broth of an eclectic mix. I was enjoying the meal and more the experience of how thousands of pilgrims across India fill their stomachs.

Following the steps of an Indian pilgrim isn’t just about free food. It’s also free or almost free lodging. Rooms are organized in three or four floors, in individual blocks. I was given a room on second floor in a block named Godavari. It was basic with mattress and pillow without sheets. I had to use common toilet facility on the ground floor outside the block. The toilet was clean probably because there was ample water supply to flush after every use. Since there was no bathroom, I had to use the same toilet as the bathroom. The toilet is no more than 6’x3′.

The temple has a unique architecture, not typically South Indian. There are no pillared corridors, maha mandapa, kalyana mandapa or gopuras. I don’t know the history of this place, who built the temple or when. It does look like the architecture has been influenced by non-Hindu sources, perhaps Jainism which was once popular in this region. The design is minimalistic. It has a calming effect on your mind. Clean white walls are punctuated by windows with simple grills and shutters. There is no excessive ornamentation anywhere. The red-tiled roofs and projected gables offset in colour the white walls. Roofs end in striking eaves. Roof corners project out like a hooded cobra. The main roof is topped with metal pinnacles, an element common in many Indian temple architecture.

On the inside, photography is not allowed. There are lots of notices about what to do and what not to do. I read with amusement the following:

GENTS PLEASE REMOVE
YOUR SHIRT AND BANIAN

Though I was wearing a T-shirt, I gave the temple authorities and the officious security guards the benefit of doubt. Sadly no one seemed to notice my rippling muscles. The fact that I was sandwiched in the long queue between two middle-aged, overweight, married and orthodox South Indian women did not help.

The inner courtyard is surrounded by a wooden perforated structure. This structure is covered by thin sheets of silver. This is an interesting structure when sunlight plays hide and seek through the holes. There is not much I can say about the deities enshrined. It was all too brief and too far. You need not pay anything for darshan; or for listening to the musicians on their nadaswaram and thavil; or for watching the long queue snake and snail around the inner temple; or for witnessing devotion and expectant looks on the faces of these pilgrims; or for seeing the very spiritual soul of India.

There is much more to Dharmasthala than this temple:

  • Statue of Bahubali – this is quite a recent sculpture completed only in 1970. It is not as mature as the one at Shravanabelagola or as tall. It has an adolescent look. Broad shoulders, disproportionately long arms that stretch to the knees and overemphasized buttocks are some features of this standing sculpture.
  • Chandranath Swamy Basadi – a Jain temple which has been renovated in recent past. The installed image has a brilliant golden halo. The place is peaceful and quiet for a little meditation. The temple has decent stone sculptures.
  • Car Museum – a good collection of vintage cars from across the world and some motorbikes that includes the Royal Enfield. Apparently, there are cars used by Mahatma Gandhi and C.V. Raman. There are also horse-drawn carriages and bullock carts some of which may still be in use in isolated Indian villages. There is also an aeroplane elsewhere.
  • Manjusha Museum – a surprising find for me. Except for the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad (which I am yet to visit), I have not heard of any other museum worth visiting. This one at Dharmasthala has a good collection that’s well organized, well maintained and nicely displayed. Terracotta coins from the Mauryan period (1st century BC) captivated me. So did an exquisite ivory sculpture of Ganesha. Ancient manuscripts in traditional Indian binding are works of art cover to cover. An ancient account book of the Manjunatha Swamy temple is displayed. The late Vidwan Veena Sheshanna’s 300-year old veena is preserved here. The instrument was carved out of a single piece of wood, hence called akanda veena. Mysore style paintings make an interesting study. I learnt about traditional playing cards – Dasavatara ganjifa – a subject that deserves more study. Different types of jewellery, lamps, aratis, bells, locks, clocks, cameras, typewriters… the museum will occupy you for hours.
  • Temple Chariot Collection – outside the Manjusha Museum is a collection of stone and wooden chariots used for temple processions. These have been preserved from temples from various districts of the state. The carvings are intricate and varied. There are only six chariots here but I believe this collection can be increased and better maintained.

All in all, Dharmasthala is a pilgrimage town. When you arrive, you will see a wide road leading towards the temple at the far end. There are not that many houses here. Everything here caters for the wandering pilgrim. There appears to be no business on its own except one that depends on the temple and the pilgrims. Pilgrims come. Pilgrims go. At 9 pm, the place is still thriving. The bustle of a pilgrimage town is something to be experienced.

getting-there Getting There
There are overnight buses from Bangalore. I took a private bus from Sugama for Rs. 380. It left Bangalore past 10 pm and arrived at Dharmsthala at 7 am. There are faster buses from K.S.R.T.C.

hotel Accommodation
The place has lots of rooms, most of them under temple management. I got a room for Rs. 25! It was basic with mattress and pillow without sheets. Toilets are common. There is no bathroom facility.
food Food
Not a single place in town is inviting. All are drab and unclean. You will do well to have free lunch and dinner at the temple.
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Responses

  1. Dear Sir,

    It had been a pleasure to read your experience and remarks in pilgrimage town Dharmasthala. Your write up is informative and will be a good steer to the people, who intend to visit the place. But, in someplace you have given some tenuous judgment about the place, which are unjustified.

    Being the resident of Dharmasthala I would like to bring one thing to your notice that, your one-day stay is not sufficient to make such fragile comments on Dharmasthala or any such place.

    You have mentioned that,
    {*Vegetables are limited or nil. Basically, carbohydrates and some proteins, not much of vitamins or fibre. It’s a good occasional meal but I doubt people can survive on this alone in the long run.*}
    If one day you have not seen the moon, then it is not as if Moon does not exist. There is a tradition in Dharmasthala that no one should return hungry from there. No matter how many thousands, sometimes lacks, people come to Dharmasthala they will serve with food. It is not so easy, as giving flimsy finding, to serve thousands together in matter of minutes. Sometimes primed food will beleaguered by the number of pilgrims. In such case, additional food need to arrange within minutes and obviously some items may miss during that accelerated process. In similar circumstance, you would have miss vegetables. For your kind information, this will happen infrequently not as routine.

    Trice, you have also mentioned that,
    {* Following the steps of an Indian pilgrim isn’t just about free food. It’s also free or almost free lodging. Rooms are organized in three or four floors, in individual blocks. I was given a room on second floor in a block named Godavari. It was basic with mattress and pillow without sheets. I had to use common toilet facility on the ground floor outside the block. The toilet was clean probably because there was ample water supply to flush after every use. Since there was no bathroom, I had to use the same toilet as the bathroom. The toilet is no more than 6′x3′.
    *Accommodation
    The place has lots of rooms, most of them under temple management. I got a room for Rs. 25! It was basic with mattress and pillow without sheets. Toilets are common. There is no bathroom facility.*}
    Sorry to state this again, your individual experience in a particular place does not represent the intact. Dharmasthala has many lodgings. In your case, Godavari lodge in which you had stayed is one of the old constructions, which does not have attached bathroom. If you cannot manage without attached bathroom then you could have opted Nethravathi Lodge, which accomplish your requirements. I would like to bring this to your notice that, there are also lodges named Gangothri, Vaishali, Saket and so on, which has spacious toilets and even bathrooms with ample water facility. As you have written, each place is tidy and clean not just because of ample water supply, the care and concern of the temple administration regarding the health and sanitation of the pilgrims rather. If plenty of water enough to keep a place clean then there would not have been a word called dirty. What all one requires to achieve something is determination and concern.

    Further you have mentioned that,
    {*There are not that many houses here. Everything here caters for the wandering pilgrim. There appears to be no business on its own except one that depends on the temple and the pilgrims. Pilgrims come. Pilgrims go.*}
    You had stayed there only for one-day right. Utmost you would have seen 25% of Dharmasthala including, temple, museums and all. However, that is not the frontier of Dharmasthala. There are adequate homes, which you would not have seen during your visit. In addition, while speaking about business, I am glad to say Agriculture is one of the profitable businesses here. That not depends on any pilgrim.

    Finally, your comment is on sanitation. You have mentioned,
    {*Food:Not a single place in town is inviting. All are drab and unclean. You will do well to have free lunch and dinner at the temple*}

    What can I say for this? If anyone knows Dharmasthala, the first and foremost image, which comes to his or her mind, is clean and neat maintained roads, buildings and even hotels. There are a lot more than temple to see in Dharamasthala. You only had given that list. Now, I do not getting in which sense you calling Dharmasthala as drab. (Of course, you cannot and should not compare it to Bangalore.)
    Hence, it is my humble request; please do not judge anything without knowing the other aspects of your personal understanding and mislead the people.

    With Concern,
    Sunil Hegde,
    Dharmasthala.

  2. Dear Sunil Hegde,

    Thanks for your valuable comments. A traveller looks at a place within a limited window of time. It simply records his truthful experiences. However his observations may not be the entire truth. It is limited by his interactions and perceptiveness. Thus, your comments are much appreciated since you are a resident of the place and know it better.

    A blog on travel is to share experiences. Different people may come with quite different experiences. What I have written is true to my experience but majority of visitors come back from Dharmsthala with glowing reviews.

    I enjoyed Dharmasthala very much. It is an experience I treasure much. When I say “drab”, it is only limited to the eateries. I would appreciate if you can list here (for the benefit of readers) the names of restaurants that are hygenic. I could not find any. I agree that roads, rooms, toilets and temple premises are very clean.

    I was given Godavari because there was nothing else available. I have not stated that all rooms are same.Thanks for making this clear for readers. In any case, I think I would have preferred Godavari because it gave me a glimpse to how villagers with limited financial resources travel on a pilgrimage.

    Arvind

  3. […] have described in a separate post about my experiences at Dharmasthala. Here there is a standing statue of Bahubali. This is quite a […]

  4. first of all i don’t think you know much about the pilgrim place dharmastala, if at all you know something it is just a drop . so that is a bad idea comment wrong on such a wonderful place without any knowledge. i don’t think you are better then the thousands and lakhs of devotees. because trust and belief cannot be weighed through your formula.

  5. {It is yet another busy place of pilgrimage where darshan is just a few seconds and prayer is secondary to traditional Brahmanical rituals. It is yet another reason to doubt the greatness of Hinduism}

    The supreme sacred hymns vedas advocate each and every individual connect to god directly. Temple visit is not mandatory. The ultimate truth is to find god within oneself. That is the greatness of hinduism.

  6. Hello Sunil,

    That was a fantafabulous reply to Arvind. Very true that we cannot judge the place in just one day. I am a regular visitor to Shri Kshetra and I find it so soothing and relaxing everytime I come here. You have made some awesome points just not by defending the comments made by Arvind but but giving some valuable information about this holy place.

    Manjunath


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