Krishna: Tracing the Divine River

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    For a thousand years, pilgrims have trekked, carrying hopes and prayers, to the banks of India's mighty Krishna River. For 2,000 years, cities have been built along its banks. And there are stone burial sites here that date back 4,000 years, to a time before cities and kingdoms as we know them.

    India has always lived by its rivers, and all along the Krishna’s nearly 1,300-km course — as it snakes between modern-day Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, making its way from the Western Ghats to the Bay of Bengal in the east — life and prayer have followed it.

    It still serves as a lifeline to millions across these four states. Take a tour of some of the most significant temples, ghats (riverside steps) and pilgrimage sites that dot the Krishna’s course, from source to sea.

    Kshetra Mahabaleshwar – The Source

    The source of the Krishna River is marked by the Krishna Mai temple, which sits atop a sacred mountain called the Kshetra Mahabaleshwar, near Satara, in the Sahyadri mountains of Maharashtra. This temple complex has stood here, 1,353 metres above sea level, for at least 800 years, long before the nearby hill station of Mahabaleshwar became the popular getaway it is today.

    The Krishna Mai temple complex marks the origins of not one but five rivers: The Krishna, Venna, Koyana, Savitri and Gayatri. In local lore, the Krishna, Venna and Koyana are daughters of the Sahyadri mountains, flowing down their eastern slopes to enrich lives all the way to the Bay of Bengal. The Savitri and Gayatri flow down the western slopes, across the Konkan, to merge with the Arabian Sea.

    Wai – Kashi of the South

    As the Krishna wends its way through the gentle Sahyadris, it arrives at the ornate temples of Wai, one of the most sacred towns in Maharashtra. This town in Satara district is also called Dakshin Kashi, or the Kashi of the South, because of the many temples and ghats here.

    The most famous temple in Wai is the Dholya Ganpati or Maha Ganpati temple. According to folklore, the floodwaters of the Krishna sometimes reach the belly of the huge Ganesh idol, before they recede. Opposite this Ganesh temple is a temple of Kashi-Vishweshar (Shiva), complete with a deepmal (a stone structure meant to hold multiple oil lamps) and a granite Nandi.

    Menavali, a few kilometres away, has scenic ghats, with beautiful temples forming a timeless backdrop. One of the temples houses a huge bell taken from a church in the old Portuguese stronghold of Vasai (earlier Bassein), on the outskirts of Mumbai. It was brought here by Chimaji Appa, brother of Bajirao Peshwa I, in a victory over the Portuguese.

    Dhom, another temple town nearby, has a Laxmi-Narasimha temple with an exquisite lotus-shaped Nandi mandap. The town is also famous for the wada or mansion of Nana Phadnis, an important minister in the Peshwas’ court in the 18th century.

    Narasimha Wadi – In the Shadow of ‘Guru’

    Once past Wai, the Krishna meanders through vast open stretches, between the offshoots of the Sahyadris and a picturesque valley. As it flows gently across this part of Western Maharashtra, it drenches the black soil, preparing the land for the green gold of sugarcane.

    As it turns southwards, it meets its tributaries at numerous sangams or confluences, each marked by a beautiful temple.

    While the Venna meets the Krishna at Sangam Mahuli, the Koyana meets her at Karad, at the Preeti Sangam, or a ‘confluence of love’. The Varana and Panchganga merge with the Krishna near Sangli and Kolhapur, before the Krishna crosses the threshold of Maharashtra, her first home. The Temple of Koteshwar at Gove and the Maratha-era dome-like pinnacles at the Sangam Mahuli temples along with several other known and unknown abodes of Shiva are part of this journey.

    In one of these curves along the river’s course nestles the famous pilgrim town of Narasimha Wadi or Narsoba Chi Wadi, in Kolhapur district. The town is home to one of the most sacred shrines of Datta Sampradaya or the sect of Dattatreya. A small shrine dedicated to Narashima Saraswati, one of the avatars of Lord Dattatreya, stands on the banks of the river.

    Interestingly, Narasimha Wadi is a popular site for exorcisms or the casting out of bad spirits. For centuries, people believed to be possessed by such spirits have been brought here to be rid of their demons. This practice continues today.

    Just ahead, at the next bend in the river, is the ancient, ornate temple of Kopeshwar, with a stunning swarg mandap, a circular opening in the roof, which is balanced on exquisitely carved pillars. The 12th-century Kopeshwar temple at Khidrapur on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border is legendary for its exquisite architecture.

    Kudalsangama – A Confluence of Cultures

    After entering Karnataka, the Krishna begins to turn eastward. Its tributaries, the Ghataprabha and Malaprabha, carry the waters and sounds of ancient chants from sandstone temples on their shores. The confluence of the river with both its tributaries, at Almatty and Kudalsangama respectively, are marked by sites of pilgrimage on busy banks.

    At Kudalsangama, Basavanna, a 12th-century Indian philosopher, poet, social reformer and founder of the Lingayat sect, took samadhi. Kudalsangama remains an important pilgrimage centre for the Lingayats, one of the largest religious groups in Karnataka.

    Also at Kudalsangama is the spectacular 10th-century Sangameshwar temple dating to the reign of the Chalukyas.

    Beyond Kudalsangama, the Krishna River flows through the heart of the erstwhile Chalukya kingdom, a landscape still dotted by the beautiful temples of Badami, Mahakoot, Aihole and Pattadakal.

    The river, while flowing through Bagalkot district, nourishes a land where Jains worship Teerthankaras and Lingayats bow to Veerbhadra. Ahead, it meets the Bhima, which brings in abundance the waters of Central Maharashtra and lingering memories of Vitthal chants from Pandharpur.

    Rajankolur – Marked With Stone

    Now, the Krishna enters rocky terrain with a riveting history of habitation that goes back thousands of years. The only sign of the life that unfolded here all those centuries ago sits in silent stone monuments – numerous megalithic burial sites all along the banks. Some are 4,000 years old. At some, the stones are arranged in circles; at others, a single stone slab sits atop a couple of boulders, or a single large stone protrudes from the ground, all to mark the burials beneath.

    Archaeologists have discovered iron artefacts buried alongside the dead, beneath the stone markers: utensils, swords, even horses. Among the flat, hard rocks of Rajankolur, Gulbarga and Raichur are scores of ancient graves.

    Kuravpur – Islands of Faith

    In Telangana, the Krishna river spills across rocky terrain. Huge boulders jut out of the waters from time to time. Between the confluences at Malaprabha and Tungabhadra, the river branches out into streams that rejoin it after a time, creating islands. Jaldurga, a strategically located fort, stands on the edge of one such rocky island, providing fantastic views of the river and this valley of giant rocks.

    There are islands here that are sacred to the Datta Sampradaya. A key one is Kuravpur, a major site of pilgrimage associated with Shripad Vallabh, an avatar of Dattatreya. Downstream from Kuravpur, islands such as Nargadde and Kurugadde also each house temples and a temple town.

    Alampur – A Chalukya Legacy

    The mighty Tungabhadra River merges with the Krishna near the ancient town of Alampur, home to several exquisite temples from the Chalukya era.

    Key among these are the Jogulamba temple, associated with Shiva and Sati, and the Navabrahma temple complex, a cluster of nine temples dedicated to Brahmadev. Built around 700 CE, these fine pieces of Chalukya architecture reflect the distinct Nagar style of high shikhars and sculpted walls.

    Merging with the Tungabhadra prepares the Krishna for its plunge onward, into the dense forests of Nallamala.

    Shreeshailam – Lord of Mountains

    The river forges ahead, making its way through treacherous mountains and deep tree cover, with a longing to meet the lord of this land, Mallikarjun, at Shreeshailam. This is one of the 12 jyortilingas and a place for another shakti-peeth, with the presence of Goddess Bhramaramba. The Krishna flows through the deep valley, through by granite rocks gleaming in the bright southern sun and in the green shadow of overgrown trees. It touches the feet of Lord Shiva and takes his blessings for its final destination, now not too far away.

    The Nallamala mountain range is home to a forest reserve, where tigers roam. This forest was also home to forts and cities built by ancient kings. Official records also point to a ruined city apparently built by Chandragupta Maurya in these mountains. Some of the forts overlooking the Krishna river in this enchanted land may have been built by Pratap Rudra, a Kakatiya King.

    There are ancient cave temples here too, up in the mountains, where devotees still venture to beseech the divine, among stone walls and the sounds of flowing water, leaving flowers and flickering flames to mark their visits.

    Amaravathi – Paradise Lost

    Emerging form the Nallamala mountains, the Krishna turns northward, creating the large reservoir of the Nagarjun Sagar and receiving the waters of the Dindi and later the Musi. The river swells as it makes its way to Amaravathi.

    This city, once also known as Dharanikota or Dhanyakakat, a major centre of the Satavahana Empire, is a town that has stood, in one form or another, for at least 2,000 years. Inscriptions and monuments testify to its age and former glory, but none more so than the massive Buddhist stupa covered in elaborate carvings in marble, discovered during colonial British rule. So significant is this stupa that the sculptures all now reside in the British Museum, where they are collectively referred to as the Amaravathi Marbles.

    This ancient place of Buddhist worship, still dotted with stupas and viharas, is now set to be the capital of Andhra Pradesh, after its old capital, Hyderabad, was designated as the capital of the new state of Telangana.

    We are almost at Vijayawada, from where the Krishna river will cross over into coastal Andhra Pradesh, flowing through coconut groves and branching out into several distributaries until it meets the Bay of Bengal. Diviseema, as the region is known, is the delta of the Krishna, a place of waterways, mangroves and fields of plenty.

    The river will soon end its nearly 1,300-km journey, having carved a band of blue-green from west to east across the Indian peninsula, oblivious to the empires that have risen and fallen along its banks, and those to come.

    Manisha Chitale is a Pune-based senior-level IT professional with a keen interest and a Masters degree in Ancient Indian History.

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