“How to date a temple? How to tell who built it, and who made changes and additions? How do we decipher these icons and what shall we infer from changes made in them? I’ll tell all this in the manner of a storyteller,” Dr. Kulkarni promised us before the portal to the Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple at the feet of Nandi Hills, Saturday last.
Dr. Kulkarni is Principal of the Fine Arts School at the Chitrakala Parishat. He is a scholar in art history, a practicing artist, photographer, master of Vedic scriptures, and a long-time traveler. He bears his load of learning with ease and a friendly, comely, perpetual grin on a rotund person.
We were a group of twelve roasting under an avatar of the sun that we haven’t ever known in Bangalore. It helped, though, that we were with the good folks from INTACH, who’d organised the trip with Dr. Kulkarni as lead.
Here’s one story from among many that Dr. Kulkarni told us over three hours, this one before an Udbhava Linga on back of the 9th century temple.
At some point in cosmic time Vishnu and Brahma broke out in quarrel on the subject of who among them was the greater. They argued with divine persuasiveness over ages, but seeing no promise of a resolution in the ages to come, they agreed but on one thing: “Let’s go to Shiva. Let’s ask him which of us is greater.”
Shiva sized up their fury and saw that a test was inescapable and he set one for them. “Choose an extremity of mine,” he said. “My feet or my crown. Who reaches either end faster than the other is the greater. Having gone there, bring me proof.”
Vishnu chose the feet and began a rapid descent to them. But after countless yugas had passed he was still somewhere among Shiva’s thighs. He decided to give up.
“Vishnu is a cool fellow,” Dr. Kulkarni added to his narration. “But Brahma, you see, he is a cunning guy.”
During the time Vishnu had spent attempting a speedy journey to Shiva’s feet, Brahma had been engaged in an ascent to Shiva’s crown. At the time when Vishnu gave up the challenge, Brahma had reached no higher than Shiva’s navel, and just when the hopelessness of his quest was becoming apparent to him, he came upon the kedage flower. A plan blossomed. He told Kedage his plight, and his serious wish to be pronounced winner by Shiva.
“Will you come with me and tell Shiva you’ve seen me on his head?” he asked Kedage.
Now Kedage (lavender) used to be strewn about Shiva’s crown, and she was wary of Brahma’s propensity for pronouncing quick and terrible curses. So she agreed, and even as she was saying “Yes,” Kamadhenu appeared on the scene. Kamadhenu, as you know, grazes among Shiva’s tresses, and Brahma told Kamadhenu his plight and his serious wish to be pronounced winner by Shiva.
“Will you come with me and tell Shiva you’ve seen me on his head?” he asked Kamadhenu.
For the same reason as Kedage, Kamadhenu agreed, and Brahma and Kedage and Kamadhenu hastened and appeared before Shiva, and Brahma declared he’d mounted Shiva’s crown.
“Is this true?” Shiva asked Kedage, and she lied, and Shiva of the three eyes, seeing the lie, cursed her:
“You will never again be used in prayers to me.”
Then he turned to Kamadhenu and asked her: “Is this true?” and Kamadhenu lied as well. Enraged once more, Shiva cursed Kamadhenu:
“You will never again receive worship at your face. All worship to you shall henceforth be at your tail.”
“You see, Shiva is a very emotional fellow,” Dr. Kulkarni added at this point. None of us asked him how Shiva punished Brahma for the bigger lie.
His next story was about how all worship to Shiva came to be directed only to his phallus. I’m not writing that story just now, but I must tell you that I came away feeling good about having spent time in a place with people who speak in jest of our Father in heaven, same as how we pinch and punch and tease our father here on earth.