Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Game in Well

Our field work is mostly on a week day as on a working day, usually there are less number of visitors to temples. However, the major shrines with exquisite craftsmanship continue to attract a large number of devotees and hordes of tourists on all days.

On a chilly winter morning we along with a bus-load of tourists waited at the massive doors of an ancient temple for priests to open huge padlocks. A few minutes later I saw a group of four priests alight from a car, all of them draped in freshly laundered crisp white dhotis. The upper torso was bare and the sacred thread across the chest still had a tinge of turmeric. The freshly applied markings on the forehead proclaimed their sect.

One amongst them carried a three feet stout stick hoisted on his shoulder, the tip had a metal cap and several rings from which dangled half a dozen keys of various sizes. The smallest one was about ten inches in length and he started opening locks, the primitive security apparatus was in place to guard the priceless temple complex - the jewel of the Hoysala dynasty - the Sri Chennakeshava temple at Belur in Hassan district of Karnataka.

The sprawling temple premises housed about half a dozen independent shrines dedicated to the presiding deity Chennakeshava - the handsome Keshava and his consorts Soumya Nayaki and Ranga Nayaki and also the principle deities worshipped by the followers of Sri Vaishnava sect.

The stellar shaped shrines which looked like gigantic jewelled caskets dotted the sprawling twelfth century complex which was built by the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana in 1117 AD.

The priests walked towards the well, unlocked grills at its mouth and drew water to wash their feet, the tourists rushed towards the central shrine and we began our hunt for games. Within minutes Raghu spotted a beautiful Aligulimane (Mancala) board in the middle of nowhere which was a bit surprising as it was the most uncomfortable location to sit and play, however we continued the search and located a dozen game boards within half an hour.

At regular intervals priests carrying brass pitchers appeared from the shrines and drew water from the well for the ritual bathing of the deity.
Dilip who was near the water source dug into his pocket and flung a coin into the water and peeped into the well. Lo and behold! A stone block in the sidewall had a 'goats and tigers' game etched on it.
The well-preserved game board which once upon a time must have been used for play was forever in disuse adorning the humid interiors of a sacred water body.

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