“I would like to visit the temple at Karkala,” said my dad when I told him that I had booked my tickets home. He was turning ninety and I wouldn’t miss that milestone for anything. Karkala is where my dad grew up and spent seventeen years of his life. He wanted to visit the Sri Venkataramana temple there.
My high school grammar and composition book popularly known just by the authors’ names “Wren & Martin” had several examples of letters for various occasions. However, they would roll in their graves if I followed the quintessential Indian format favored by many. My letter would go along the lines of
As I have to attend a family celebration, I kindly request you to grant me leave to go to my native.
Indians take liberty with the English language and make it their own. “Native” short for “native place” refers to the place where one hails from. Many Indians will tell you that their attachment to their native place can be traced to it being the place of their birth, where their extended family resides, where they may own lands, and where they have their family temple or place of worship. I just told my manager that I had to go home.
Karkala lies in the foothills of the Western Ghats and is about 40 miles from the port city of Mangalore which lies on the southwestern coast of India. It traces its name to the black granite (“Kariya Kall” in Kannada and Tulu, the local languages) that is ubiquitous in the area. This granite is used extensively in the monuments and temples that dot the area.
My cousin, Bakin, and I talk weekly on Sundays, a tradition that now goes back several years. While our conversations span a gamut of topics, I think it’s a sign of us getting old that we now relive memories of the past. Of relatives who are no more. Of family trips in cars and trains. Of a place where our respective fathers grew up but we have little connection. We had been discussing the possibility of visiting Karkala and he was pleased to hear that my dad had expressed an interest to visit the place. He promised to book his tickets. Bakin has visited Karkala more frequently than me and he started listing out the places that we should visit.
I grew up in Bangalore. Holidays were spent in Mumbai (then Bombay) visiting my maternal grandparents and a brood of cousins. As a family, we hail from the Mangalore region but my connections to the region are very tenuous. My maternal grandfather left for Mumbai in the 1930s. My paternal grandfather left in the 1950s and with no immediate family in the region, I hardly visited the place. In fact, when I look back, my visits to Karkala have been spaced approximately 15 years apart with maybe an odd visit thrown in. Most of these were a quick stopover, usually for a couple of hours.
As our plans crystallized, my nephew and his wife as well as my other cousin, Vinayak decided to join us. Considering that I have hardly spent any time in the coastal region of Mangalore, I decided to stay for four days. We planned our itinerary considering the places that my dad wanted to visit. We celebrated my dad’s 90th birthday in Bangalore with family and a small group of friends. He was happy to meet everyone and even though he didn’t say it, I’m sure he missed my mother. In fact, she passed away a few months after we had celebrated his 80th birthday.
We flew to Mangalore the day after his birthday. Mangalore in my memories was a laid-back city. Red tiled roofs and palm trees as far as the eye could see. Oppressively humid and the rains could drive you up the wall but was a monsoon lovers delight. As we drove from the airport to our hotel, I was surprised to note that it looked very different from what I remembered. Tall buildings, glass facades, and shopping centers. Could have been any other Indian city.
The memories of this region that are etched in my mind are from a visit in the late eighties. While I was studying engineering, my roommate Guru was from Karkala, and by a remarkable coincidence, our respective fathers were classmates in the 1940s! I accompanied him to Karkala for the annual Rathotsava (car festival). Dispel any notions of a car race, the “car” refers to the temple chariot that is drawn through the town amongst throngs of devotees. I got to stay at his house and enjoy his mother’s fantastic hospitality. He took me to all the places that I had heard my dad mention. He introduced me to people who remembered my dad. It was a wonderful trip and one that I’m immensely grateful for.
This time, we spent the first day of our trip visiting Udupi, which lives up to its name of “temple town”. We started for Karkala early the next morning. Three years ago, my dad would have regaled us with anecdotes and stories of his childhood along the way. He would have pointed out places of interest along the way and shared some incidents of his life relating to them. The isolation enforced by the Covid lockdown has however done a number on his memory. That and the fact that the region has urbanized left him disoriented. Much before Facebook started using graph algorithms to trace networks of people, my dad had all the convoluted family relationships stored in his mind. I was able to translate a fair bit of those relationships into a family tree that now connects over a thousand individuals. I’m glad I did that a few years ago. He has forgotten several of those relationships now.
We reached Karkala and stopped at the temple. As we parked the van outside the temple, my dad walked across the street and I followed him. He stopped at a store that sold flowers, coconuts, and other accoutrements for the ritual puja at the temple. These would be offered as offerings to the deity at the temple. “Didn’t Vamani run this store?” my dad asked the owner of the store. The gentleman looked like he was in his sixties. “Ah yes, Vamani was my grandfather!” the man replied. We entered the temple with a bag of flowers, coconuts, and a container of oil.
We are all interested in our roots. Especially my daughter who was born in the US but retains a keen interest in our history. This is what my grandfather originally told me and I’ve since gleaned from the internet which in many ways is the crowd-sourced Plutarch of our time. Our ancestors lived on the banks of the Saraswathi River that flowed in the Northwest of India. When it dried, people branched out to different places. One branch moved south to Goa while my ancestors moved east to Bengal (then known as “Gaud”). Islamic invasions drove them south to Goa. Portuguese colonization and conversions in Goa led to an exodus south along the western coast of India. At some point in time, my ancestors ended up in Karkala. The land for the temple was donated by the Jain ruler of the region. I don’t know if there are written records that identify when the temple was built but the website for the temple dates it to the 14th century. The Portuguese conquest happened around 1510, so perhaps the migrations had started even prior to the Portuguese control of Goa.
From my dad’s stories, it is evident that the temple was the religious and social hub of the town when he was growing up. He recollects visiting it weekly and buying coconuts, flowers, and bananas from the puja shop which incidentally was established in 1895. He remembers the large communal meals that are part of the temple festivities and how he along with an army of volunteers would help grate hundreds of coconuts. Coconuts are an integral part of coastal cuisine. He remembers the chariot being drawn through the streets and the designated places it stopped. To some small extent, I was able to experience all this when I visited Karkala with my friend, Guru. There is something about temple food that is cooked on firewood and served on banana leaves. I still remember the “Vanabhojana” meal that was part of the festivities during that trip. (“Vanabhojana” literally translates to “meal eaten in the forest”) Perhaps the sense of community and collective faith adds to the flavor of the meal.
Life wasn’t all about the temple though. My dad recounts escapades where he would bribe his Muslim friends to bring biryani and he would share a meal with them atop a small hill. Guru took me there and pointed out a cave that has a storied history. It is known locally as the Parpalle Cave. Many caves across India are said to have been places of refuge for the Pandavas (the protagonists of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata) as they spent fourteen years of exile. This is said to have been one such cave. Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore who conquered this region is said to have a secret tunnel dug from here to Srirangpatnam. The cave is a labyrinth and stories abound of foolhardy souls who ventured in to never return. Guru recounted the apocryphal tale of a cowherd who followed an errant cow into the cave. Hours later, the cow bolted out of the cave dragging a now dead cowherd holding its tail in a vice-like grip. I could understand why my dad would eat biryani here, there was little chance of anyone venturing there. My dad also recounts stories of school and particularly the joyous times on the cricket field. A gifted allrounder, he was the captain of the school cricket team and later played for the university in Hubli.
The Venkataramana temple is a magnificent structure. It has been renovated recently at a considerable cost. Of special interest to me were the four pillars carved by the renowned sculptor – Renjal Gopal Shenoy. These were carved almost a hundred years ago. Monolithic pillars adorned with intricate carvings, including a chain with links that move individually. At the entrance is an idol of Kubera, the god of wealth. He holds a burning oil lamp above his head. We poured oil into the lamp, contributing our mite to keep the flame burning. Religious motifs such as those from the Dashavatara (Ten Incarnations of Vishnu) adorn the walls.
The priest at the temple did not know my dad and that was understandable. Our branch of the family no longer resides in Karkala. But he did know my dad’s third cousin who still resides there. He offered a prayer to my dad on his 90th birthday and invited us for lunch later in the day, an invitation we sadly could not accept.
We then crossed the street to the Veera Anjaneya temple across the street. This temple dedicated to Hanuman stands out in my mind due to a story told to me when I was very young. Apparently. the statue of Hanuman in the temple kept growing until someone suggested that a vessel in the shape of a bell be placed above the head of the idol. Water dripping onto the idol from a tiny hole in the vessel stopped the idol from growing. Hoary legends are always part of temple lore. There probably is a moral teaching or a reason for these but over time the fantastic remains and the reason is lost to the mists of time. The statue is impressively tall. Other accounts claim that the statue was found when the land was dug for the Anekere tank. (“Ane” – elephant, “kere” tank, likely a tank where elephants were bathed). While we were circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum, I saw a gentleman in front of me. He stepped aside graciously to let me pass. As we completed the ritual circumambulation and waited at the side, he came over to my Dad and remarked that he had a vague memory of him. It turned out that he was four years younger than my dad and remembered him from all those years ago! I have a lovely video of the two of them conversing and my dad after all these years, identifying the gentleman’s family name.
After visiting the temple, we visited my dad’s cousin’s house. He owns a textile shop that is attached to the house. He is the only member of the family that still resides in Karkala. He stays in a house that is over a hundred years old and fortunately, he has saved a number of knickknacks and maintains a small museum of sorts. He graciously showed us ink pots, betel nut crackers, and other articles of daily use from generations ago. All antiques now. His wife graciously gave us a tour of the house including the loft which was used as storage. The solid doors are intricately carved and the roof is supported by sturdy beams. A throwback to another era when houses were built with care and to withstand the ravages of time. I’ve never seen the house that my dad grew up in but this house gave me an idea of how it might’ve been.
We then headed to the statue of Gomateshwara (a revered Jain figure) and a Jain temple that I hope to cover in another post. As we headed out of Karkala, I happened to spy a vendor selling toddy palm fruit by the side of the road. It had been well over 20 years since I had last eaten one and I gleefully stepped out of the van to buy a few. The vendor deftly scooped the soft pulp out of the thick husk and packed it for me. We then drove back to Mangalore and my dad and I spent a couple of days with a dear cousin of his. He rested at home and spent time catching up with her while I got to take in the sights and partake of the fabulous local cuisine. The highlight of my Mangalore trip was meeting a classmate of mine after 35 years!
The person who could have told me the most about Karkala in my childhood would have been my paternal grandfather. He would visit us once every two or three years and stay with us for a few months. He was at his raconteuring best in the 1970s when I was fairly young but was not much in a mood to recount his days when I would talk to him in the 1980s. A couple of his stories stand out in my mind. One was that of a rogue elephant that spread terror in the hearts of the residents. He told a tale of how it thundered down the main street while residents cowered in fear. The tale described all the landmarks of Karkala such as Ramsamudra and Anekere lakes, Salmar, and the Gomateshwara hill. The elephant was ultimately tracked down by a British collector and shot. The other was that of a sword from the time of Tipu Sultan that had once been in his possession. This bit definitely interested me. Tipu Sultan conquered Karkala in the late 18th century and I salivated at the thought of an antique belonging to my family. I’m sure Bakin also asked him about this sword on his trips to Mumbai. My grandfather could not understand what the fuss was all about. Much to my chagrin, he said he used it as a gardening implement and disposed of it when it eventually rusted. Ironically, I’ve heard more about Karkala from my friend Guru during my university days and later from Mrs. Rao, a dear family friend of ours who now resides in South Florida. She is the definitive Karkala historian for me now.
There is a part of me that wishes I had spent more time in the Mangalore area especially when I was growing up. There are customs and traditions that have shaped generations that I am unaware of. I’ve led a fairly peripatetic life in comparison to my brother who has lived in the same city for practically all his life. He has strong roots and attachments. When I look back though, I realize roots thrive in environments where they are nurtured. To me, it will always be the house that my dad built in the early eighties and I lived in for just about six years before I moved to University for my undergrad and then to the US. Those six years had the most effect on my life and I retain fond memories of those days.
Bakin captured a lovely picture of my dad at the temple in Karkala. My dad stands erect with his hands crossed, holding the sanctified flowers that we had offered to the deity in his hands. On his face is a gentle smile and he seems to be lost in reverie. My dad had a very different childhood from mine. My grandfather had a wonderful personality but lacked a steady job and had to move on work and was sometimes away from the family for long spells of time. The family moved a couple of times when my dad was young. My dad remembers his mother very fondly. However, she was ailing for some time and passed away when he was twelve. My grandfather remarried and moved out for another job with his wife. My dad and his siblings were brought up by their maternal uncles. He left Karkala in 1950 and spent five years in Hubli with his maternal uncle and another six years with his older brother (Bakin’s dad) before he got married and set up his own house.
Those eleven years from 1950 to 1961 are the ones my dad often talks about fondly. Those were his happiest days even though he was not with his parents. It was an experience that later led him to turn down promotions that would mean movement and disruption to our family life. Indeed at this stage in his life, the vast majority of the people whom he grew up have passed on. His childhood home and the lands that the family owned were sold off in the early fifties to pay off my grandfather’s debts. My dad no doubt went on to establish roots elsewhere but the one constant that still survives from his childhood is the temple at Karkala. I’m not religious and I don’t visit temples but my dad’s faith is steadfast and commendable. I’ve never once heard him complain of his lot and in fact, the constant mantra in his life has been of gratitude. Gratitude to his uncle and aunt for giving him a wonderful home in Hubli, to his elder brother (and sister-in-law) who took him under his wing for six years, and finally to my mother with whom he forged a wonderful life together for fifty-two years.
It had been a great trip. As we buckled our seatbelts before taking off from Mangalore, my dad turned to me and said “Thanks for accompanying me, I’m glad I got to visit the temple at Karkala!”
“Me too” I replied. I was just grateful that I got to spend time with my dad.
The cover image is one of the countryside taken from the top of Gomateshwara Hill. Karkala was once surrounded by dense forests that abounded with elephants and tigers.