Mhasvad: The lost western chAlukya-s and the exploits of kAla-bhairava

In the halcyon days, when our knowledge of chAlukyan history was still sketchy, we were seated on the parapet at the foot of the vAnara hillock and yarning away after having cut a monotonous zoology lecture. It is for these pleasures of life I am still thankful to the much maligned Indian education system (imagine if this could ever have been done in the structured and over-bearing American education system). With us were shANDilya and shUdra-shreShTha to whom I was expressing my idea of finding an old chAlukyan outpost in the hamlet of Mhasvad (pronounced mhAsvAD). S and SS had taught me an important lesson in life- enjoy pleasures when you can for who knows when they might go away and you fall head-long like nahuSha or yayAti. S and SS immediately suggested that we should make a trip to Mhasvad and check things out. SS who knew precisely how to manage such adventures suggested that rather than taking a direct bus we should couple it with a visit Satara and then proceed to Mhasvad (all part of the ancient chAlukyan kingdom). As per SS’s plans we set out precisely timing our dinner at Satara and then catching sleep and proceeding the next morning to Mhasvad in an eastward flourish on the Satara-Pandharpur road. The hamlet is located on the banks of a shallow river the mANga~NgA, which empties into the bhIma.

The large temple of Mhasvad is a historian’s delight. It was built during the rule of Shahu by funds provided by the Maratha ruler to a certain bALoji dubaL a local chieftain. It is clearly built atop an older larger temple complex. Ruins of a temple from this older complex are seen immediately in front of the current temple. In front of these ruins we noticed a slab with a nearly 1000 year old image of shiva riding a horse and battling an asura. Even in the current temple the image of bhairava is one where he rides a horse with a huge sword. We were reminded of the opening mantra of the shUlagava ritual to rudra, where rudra is invoked charging on a white horse. In the current temple’s AvarNa we noticed a slab with an inscription in Kannada script. Epigraphic Indica provided a translation of the same: In 1138 CE the kalachUri king bijjala from Mangalvedha who was a vassal of the chAlukya king jagadekamalla of Kalyani gave a brahmadeya grant of to a brAhmaNa of the kapi gotra (pravara R^iShi-s named) to provide daily naivedyam and upachAra for the li~Nga of siddheshvara which was housed in the original temple [The belief is that the current li~Nga is the same as that of the original siddeshvara. Even today numerous local people, including tribals and nomadic herders still remember and fervently worship the shiva of this shrine as shidoba]. The place is described as a mahiSha-vADA or a buffalo pen in the inscription, mentioning that it was surrounded by 12 smaller herder settlements. The modern temple had certain shUdra priests who perform services for most of the visitors to the shrine.

There a small shop sold a certain “sthala-mAhAtmyaM” which was printed in a vulgar Maharatti. The mAhAtmyaM had some interesting stories not found in any canonical purANa:
“Originally the place was in the uninhabited daNDakAraNya. There a terrible demon name mahiShAsura lived. He was killed here by mahAlakShmI in the famous battle (devI mAhAtmyaM) and the place came to be known as mahiSha-vADA. Then in the vicinity a new asura succeeded mahiSha. He was shoNita-daitya, grew uncontrollably in size and caused great terror. From shiva emerged a terrifying being — his name was kAla-bhAirava he first descended in kAshI on the banks of the real ga~NgA and he then traveled as a nAtha mendicant to appear in the buffalo hamlet on the banks of the mAN-ga~NgA. He held a trident and a Damaru. Here rudra told him that he would not be able to kill the demon unless he lived the life of a householder and followed the norms of life. He agreed and asked where he could find a wife. rudra told him that in pAtAla lived the venomous serpentiform viShNu—shesha-nArAyaNa, whose daughter siddha-yogeshvarI would be a suitable wife.

So kAla-bhairava set off to pAtAla in the quest of his bride. The road to pAtAla was supposed to be a journey on land to Andhra followed by a descent through a hole there to pAtAla. As he was journeying to Andhra he came across two fierce goddesses – mArI (mArI-AI in the vernacular) and jagadambA (yelamma-AI in the vulgar Maharatti). They said this young fellow needs help. So mArI gave the bhairava a stone and asked him to throw it at his enemies and jagadambA gave him a kerchief to wipe his face if he ever felt he was dying. Taking these he went to pAtAla. There he was confronted with the ajagara hordes of shesha-nArAyaNa. After a fierce fight with them he was hard pressed when he threw the stone of mArI at them. They were all scattered by it and ran away from sheshanArAyaNa’s abode. The kAla-bhairava declared to shesha that he wanted shesha’s daughter, yogeshvarI (jogu-bAi in the vernacular). shesha first asked him to first sit down and eat. shesha bit into the food before serving kAla-bhairava. Upon eating the food kAla-bhairava felt dizzy and thought he might die, but he remembered jagadaMbA’s kerchief and wiped his face with it. On doing so the poison of shesha was countered and he was fine again and asked for yogeshvarI. sheshanArAyaNa said he could get her if he could enter a rocky chamber, with no doors, inside which she lived. Hurling his trident and shattering the rock he got in and was dazzled by the appearance of siddha-yogeshvarI. He asked her to reduce brilliance and when she did so he married her. Now that he was married he could pursue the job of killing the daitya.

This frightful bhairava arrived on a horse and attacked shoNita-daitya. After a fierce fight the asura was pierced in the chest by a trident of kAla-bhairava. The wrathful bhairava then struck his head off with his sword. Hence, they worshiped the terrifying bhairava there as siddheshvara, holding the asura’s head. The bhairava asked for a reward from the deva-s for his service. The deva-s and the great goddess Adi-mAyA-shakti promised that they would institute a kalasha to worship kAla-bhairava from the pratipad to the dvAdashi of the kArttika shukla pakSha.”

The mAhAtmyam added that the bALoji who built the current temple was a descendant of the chAlukyas from brahmApurI (Karhad) further south. He used to come to Mhasvad repeatedly to worship the bhairava there. He decided to build a temple for the image in the ruins of the old shrine. The temple was finally completed by his son. Near the temple there was an old vIra-kal showing a daNDanAyaka who was killed in the defense of young ladies who were being abducted by the marauding tribes. We wandered further up and found another little river coming in to join mANga~NgA. We could not find its name. On its bank were a cluster of shrines. There was one to sheshanArAyaNa (locally called nAgoba), one to kAla-bhairava (with a sword, trident, a shield and a skull-bowl, accompanied by a dog) and uniconic rocks to yelammA-AI and marI-AI. There we saw another large stone slab with a remarkable relief of kAla-bhairava and siddha-yogeshvarI, both wielding bows and hunting a boar and antelope with a pack of dogs.

The original bhairava worship under the kalachUris and chAlukyas was during the height of the royal patronage to other mantra-mArga shaiva-s in addition to the siddhAnta shaiva-s. After the decline of the chAlukya-s there was a period of cattle raids before the yAdava-s restored a semblance of order. The destruction of the yAdava-s by the Islamic assault was followed by a brief revival under the Kalyani chAlukyas who bravely resisted the army of Islam. But the terrible Jihad of the Bahmanid’s in 1469 under Khwaja Mahmud Gawan devastated the chAlukya-s and destroyed their strongholds and temples, returning most of the Mhasvad region to forest. But, strikingly the memory of their old shrine seems to have remained in the descendants of the chAlukya-s in maharAShTra who rebuilt this temple after Islam was rolled back from the region. That is the origin of the modern temple. East of Pune there is another place Sonari, where shoNIta-daitya is also said to have been killed, where an aShTa-bhairava temple is seen. Again it was rebuilt in the Peshva period after an older chAlukya shrine was destroyed by the Moslems. It retains the 8 fold symmetry of the old temple and there are different bhairava-s like asitA~Nga and ruru in the niches, but the local devotees or priests know nothing about the 8 bhairava-s of mantra-mArga. While the old deities survive, the bhairava of mantra-mArga seems to have passed from the rahasya-s of mantra-mArga shaiva shAsana to the folk religion of the local shepherds and goatherds who replaced the original buffalo breeders of the region.

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