A highlight to any devotee visiting Sringeri is probably a chance to get a glimpse of the present Shankaracharya. It was just after noon and the stones were heating up by the hour. I was sitting in a shady corner and sketching the exterior of the Vidyashankara temple when a security guard blew the whistle on me. He walked with some urgency and from a distance asked me to stand up. I was bewildered. Had I committed some unknown offense or transgressed religious protocol in some sacrilegious manner?
Quickly it became apparent that the Shankaracharya was inside this temple and was on his way out. He walked slowly. He was followed in step by a monk carrying an umbrella over the acharya‘s head. Another monk carried a pair of wooden slippers. He hurried to deposit these at the foot of the temple’s steps. The acharya slipped these on upon leaving the temple. He moved on to the Sharadamba temple with his small retinue of white-robed monks. Visitors all around stood in silence. Some prostrated where they had stood in the direction of the acharya. The acharya was probably aware of this behaviour but he had other things on his mind.
He cut a corpulent figure and walked with unease. Sad to say, perhaps due to my own closed and unbelieving mind, I could not see greatness, compassion or piety in his face.saffron robe. His forehead was streaked with the triple lines of holy ash. White beard added a little to his venerable look. Rudraksha beads hung by his neck. He moved around in a white Mercedez.
It was difficult to understand the minds of thousands of Hindus who believe in his greatness. As a first time visitor knowing very little about Advaita philosophy or the spritual movement started by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century, I had no steady points of reference upon which I could form or reform my beliefs. I had no facts that could help in laying bare my entrenched opinions. I knew nothing of what the present acharya had achieved or contributed to the spiritual order.
So leaving such greater questions aside, I took refuge in the distraction of temple art and architecture. When I first looked at the Vidyashankara temple, I was reminded immediately of Aihole’s famous Durga temple. The difference is that the shikara is above the apsidal end of the Durga temple whereas here it is at the other end. Upon closer examination, this temple is not apsidal at all though it appears to be so by first impressions.
The Vidyashankara temple borrows heavily from Hoysala architecture. The ground plan is rectangular with six entrances but the edges are stepped stellate-like in the manner of Hoysala design. This stellate design is continued in the exterior walls which are filled with running friezes and aediculae installed with deities. The shikara is influenced by Dravidian architecture but unique in its way of combining rising verticals and tiered horizontals. It is also extended by a turretted projection in such a way that it appears a little temple is standing on the stone roof. The stone roof itself is reminiscent of the great Ladkhan temple of Aihole.
This shikara deserves further study. I was first impressed on account of its novelty but I was not so sure about its success in achieving beauty. Perhaps, it was because of its unfamiliarity. It does not have the curving grace of North Indian shikaras. It does not have the stable and compact order of South Indian vimanas. It is somewhere in between these two.
The larger greatness of this temple is inside, which cannot be easily be appreciated because of poor light. The main hall is supported by 12 magnificent pillars, each bearing a wealth of carvings. In particular, are the roaring lions standing up to their full lengths on elephant supports. Later I found out that stone balls in the mouths of these lions are free turning. Visitors are advised not to touch the sculptures. It is also claimed that the 12 pillars are arranged in such a way that sunlight will fall on one of them for each month of the calendar. These are hence called rashistambhas.
The Sharadamba temple is more popular and busier since it is the main place of worship and prayer. The golden idol draws the crowds in greater numbers after the hour of sunset when elaborate ceremonies are conducted. Last evening I sat here for a few minutes while the pujari prepared the goddess for the puja. The soothing chanting of aum in the background was complemented by the reading of mantras by women. Another goddess was decorated in a little silver chariot for a procession later that evening. Devotees prayed, took their prasadams, left behind their offerings and moved on. The temple floor had many painted rangolis that were beautiful to look and admire.
Meals at this temple are free. Like in Dharmasthala and Kateel, rasam is served before sambar and finally followed by buttermilk. They do not serve any vegetable side dish. However they do serve sweet payasam at the start unlike in Dharmsthala. These are only my experiences and it should be not inferred that all meals at these places are the same.
The temple complex has lots of deities in many smaller shrines. I must say all these gods, goddesses and relationships are very confusing. Who is to be worshipped, one or all? A nearby hill has a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, named Malahanikareswara Swamy temple. The pillared corridor in this temple has modern painted writings on the wall reading out the 108 names of the Lord Shiva. Read them all out aloud just for the fun of it. Shiva’s consort in the form of Bharavi is installed in this temple. So is Chamundeshwari.
The only other great thing about Sringeri is its peaceful setting. The place is surrounded by wooded hills and rests on the bank of river Tunga. Most cultivated fields here were stubble fields after a recent harvest but I can very well imagine the monsoon season when everything would be green and the river would be in its full flow. There is a bridge that leads from the temple complex to the other bank where an entire settlement has been constructed. The path leading to the ashram buildings cuts through a grove of areca nut and coconut trees. One feels as if entering heaven itself. Young bulls tussle head to head playfully on the river’s edge. Pilgrims feed the fish in the river. The setting sun grows golden by the hour. Crows roost at this hour. Stars come out from their hideouts and Orion swings his club while temple elephants with their tinkling bells jog to their stables.
I arrived at Sringeri by bus from Narasimharajapura via Koppa. I was at Narasimharajapura earlier yesterday visiting a Jain center of pilgrimage.
Apparently, singles are not given rooms by the temple though one can getting sleeping space just for the night until 9 am the next morning. Instead, I stayed at Doctor’s Heritage, a homestay run by a lady doctor. She has four double rooms at Rs. 400. For single occupancy I paid Rs. 250. Rooms and attached toilets are clean. Sheets are clean. Hot water is provided in the mornings. There is a common TV in the lounge. Overall, a pleasant experience and I would highly recommend it. It is on Bharathi Street next to the police station. Phone: 08265250816.
I had lunch yesterday at a restaurant opposite the entrance to the temple complex. I didn’t like it much. Yesterday’s dinner and today’s lunch was at the matt.