"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 you 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, two hours out of Bangalore.
The temple is an archetypal example of Hoysala architecture, dating from the 9th century CE. The Hoysalas were a major dynasty who ruled in South India for over three centuries.
As regards Dr Kulkarni, he is the Principal of the Fine Arts School at the Chitrakala Parishat in Bangalore. He is a scholar in art history, a practising artist, photographer, master of Vedic scriptures, and a long-time traveller. He carries his experience and scholarship lightly and shares them with a friendly, perpetual grin that is especially appealing on his rotund person.
We were a group of twelve, roasting under an avatar of the sun that we haven't ever known in Bangalore.
Here's a story from among many that Dr Kulkarni told us over three hours, this one before an Udbhava Linga on back of the temple.
At some point in cosmic time, Vishnu and Brahma quarrelled on the subject of who among them was the greater. They argued with divine persuasiveness over the ages, but seeing no promise of a resolution, they agreed on but one thing: "Let's go to Shiva. Let's ask him who 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. But after countless *yugas* had passed, he hadn't progressed beyond Shiva's thighs. He decided to give up.
"Vishnu is a cool fellow," Dr Kulkarni added to his narration. "He let go. But Brahma, you see, that's a cunning guy."
During the time Vishnu had spent making for Shiva's feet, Brahma had been ascending toward Shiva's crown. At the moment Vishnu accepted defeat, Brahma was no higher than Shiva's navel. Just as the hopelessness of his race was becoming apparent to him, he sighted the kedage flower. A plan blossomed. He told Kedage his plight, and his wish to be pronounced the winner by Shiva.
"Will you go with me and tell Shiva you've seen me on his head?" he asked Kedage.
Now Kedage, who is strewn about Shiva's crown, was wary of Brahma's propensity for pronouncing terrible curses. So she agreed, and even as she was saying "Yes," the holy cow, Kamadhenu, appeared on the scene.
Kamadhenu, as you know, grazes among Shiva's tresses, and Brahma told Kamadhenu what he'd told Kedage a while ago.
"Will you go with me and tell Shiva you've seen me on his head?" he asked Kamadhenu.
With the same fear as Kedage's for Brahma, Kamadhenu agreed, and Brahma and Kedage and Kamadhenu hurried toward Shiva. Soon as they'd reached where Brahma's journey had begun, Brahma declared he'd mounted Shiva's crown.
"Is this true?" Shiva asked Kedage, and she lied, and Shiva of the three eyes, seeing through to 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. Seeing through to the truth, Shiva cursed Kamadhenu:
"You will never again receive worship at your face! All worship to you shall be at your tail!"
"Shiva is a very emotional fellow," Dr Kulkarni said at this point.
We didn't ask him if Shiva punished Brahma, who lied first.
The next story was about how worship to Shiva came to be directed to his phallus. But I'm not writing that one just yet.