Keladi and Ikkeri fall in north Karnataka in an area known as Malnad, for the heavy rainfall that this region gets. The rain is so important for this region that whenever people of this region talk to each other, first thing that they always ask about is 'Rains', and then go on to discuss and describe it in detail. After that only they talk about anything else. Technically, both these places fall in Shimoga district of Karnataka and are about 70-80 kms from Shimoga. The closest town to these places is Sagar. Both Keladi and Ikkeri are more or less small villages today, and like most places in India, you have to put your imagination together to visualize the time when these were the places from where the kings ruled large areas for centuries together.
Keladi was a small region within the Vijaynagar Empire and was headed by a chieftain. Around 1500 AD, it became an independent kingdom and continued to be so till it fell to Hyder Ali in mid 18th century. The lineage of Keladi had two powerful queens, who provided the able leadership to the dynasty. Keladi was the birthplace of this dynasty though it remained its kingdom only for about 14 years or so, after which it was shifted to Ikkeri, just a few kilometers away, which remained their capital for more than a century. The capital was subsequently shifted to Bidanur and Koule Durga.
There is a Rameswaram temple that marks the existence of the bygone empire and the chieftains. It was build around 1500 AD by Chavadappa Nayak, in green grey stone in Hoysala Dravidian style. The temple is in a fairly large complex with garden on both sides of the entrance. In fact from the entrance it looks more like a large house rather than a temple and it is only after you enter the premises that the temple comes in your view. As you take the steps towards the entrance of the temple you would notice the pavilions on both sides of the stairs. What is peculiar about these pavilions is the strong wooden pillars that provide the support. The main temple is also predominantly wooden. The ceiling of the temple is made of wooden panels, on which numerous lotus flowers are carved. No two lotus flowers are same, each is slightly different from others, and you would wonder at the creativity of the carvers who could think of the so many ways to depict the same flower. If you look closely enough you would see that there are 4 or 5 parts of the lotuses carved and each part has 4-5 patterns, and using the various permutations of these the artisans have created the non repeating lotus patterns. The pillars are again wooden, made with a single piece of wood and with a very dark brown tone. The bells on the walls are also carved out of the wooden panels and then put on the wall. One panel between the wall and the ceiling is carved out to depict the various deities and rituals of those days. Being a Shaivite temple, most of the deities are from his family or sect. Then there is a depiction of Navagarha on a ceiling panel, clearly depicting the each graha that the Hindus worship. There are geometric patterns as well on some panels of the ceilings, indicating an Islamic influence as this is not typical of Hindu sculpture. The ASI board providing information is in such bad combination of colors and placed in such a way that it is impossible to read it. Perfect example of how it should not be done. We could not read it standing right in front of it in broad daylight and I am unable to read the picture that I took of it.
Step out, the dhwajastambha or the pillar at the entrance of the temple has carving on all four sides. Interestingly, one of the carvings depicts women wearing a very north Indian kind of dresses. This could either mean cross culture weddings or potential travelers who visited this area. Some literature says that is the image of Rani Chenamma, who ruled Keladi for some time. There are few stone panels in the temple complex that depict a lot of female warriors fighting from horse tops and fighting fiercely. These panels are also called veergals, meaning in the glory of the brave. You can go around the temple and see a lot of excavated carved stones, most of which depict the Shivalinga, Ganesha or the Nagas. There are a few depicting the war scenes and some the dancing scenes. A long stone depicts Ashtadurga along with Ganesha.
Walk a little distance from the temple and there is a government museum that depicts both the excavations from around the area and various artifacts that must have been used by the people of this area. There is a predominant use of wood for making everything, and the bigger the piece of wood used, the better the article. This probably would be due to abundant availability of wood in this rain rich area. There are few textiles and brass items displayed, but most probably they came to this area from elsewhere either as gifts or as collectibles. As of now the museum is under renovation and is expected to be up and running very soon.
In an enclosure, there is a huge Rath, which is again completely made of wood and extensively carved all around. This would have been used to take the temple idols around the town for festivals and on certain occasions. Ganesha, Shiva and their vehicles dominate the carvings. If you only look at the carvings, you would wonder if they are in stone or in wood. The huge wheels make you think how majestic it would look while moving around, but then it has to be imagined. Rath is an integral part of most important south Indian temples, some of them have them even carved in stone like the one in Hampi. If you are there, notice the single head and double body elephants carved on all corners of the rath, giving you a glimpse of the imagination of the artisans and also indicative of the period that these works belong to. Usually ideas happen at the same time, as if they are born in the air and are available to anyone who can catch them, and more often than not, there are multiple people who catch the same idea at more or less the same time. Some may get the credit, but the development of ideas depends on multiple people. You would see this mingling of images with fewer legs or bodies in many temple sculptures around the country in the temples from the early medieval era.
Ikkeri is about 10 kms from Keladi and was the Keladi capital for more than a century. Today it has a fort which is more or less inaccessible. Aghoreshwara temple built during those times is what remains to tell you about those times of the Keladi Empire. It is again a Shiva temple, with a beautiful Nandi bull outside. The kids in the temple would ask you to count the numerous chains carved on the Nandi bull, and when you would be lost in counting, they would tell you that it is just one chain that goes around the body of the bull with a naughty smile. The temple is built in a typical dravidian style, is huge and makes an impression even when seen from a distance. The arches of the Nandi’s pavilion though are done in typical Indo-Islamic style indicating the influence of contemporary architecture in the country in 16th century. There are figures carved all around the temple, on temple walls, on the ceilings and on pillars that support the temple. There are figures of Hindi deities, common people at that time, dancing girls, imaginary animals which are usually hybrids of various human and animal forms, dwarpals and erotica.
There is an interesting play of colors in the temple as it exists today. What I am not sure about is if this was always like this or the temple was of Red or Green or brown beige color and the heavy rains in this region have played their part. There are sculptors that carry a distinct deep red color, beneath them a panel has a dark green color and then the usual brown beige. On the first look you are tempted to think that it is red or green stone, but when you go closer you realize that the single stone probably can not have all the three colors. Probably the stones were colored and I again have to bank on my wild imagination to think what color it would have been conceived by the original makers of this temple. I am also intrigued by the technique that would have been used to color the stones, as the color still stands bright and alive even after centuries of heavy rainfall on it. Sometimes the images give an impression of being cast in metal and its only when you touch them that you know that they are stone. The carvings are intricate, the curves proportionate and the expressions delicate.
There is an interesting myth engraved in this temple. On the left hand side outer wall, there is a Scorpio and two lizards engraved. Between the two lizards is a line dividing them. It is said that when the lizards cross this line are able to touch each other, the world would come to an end. Though cast on stone, I must say that the lizards are not too far apart. This may or may not have been a part of the original temple as it does not gel with the rest of the fine sculpture and is very raw as if carved by a novice.
While you are there you can go to Vardhamula, which is couple of kms from Ikkeri temple is supposed to be the origin of Vardha River which encircles the Sagar town. Again, it may have been the source at some point in time, but as of now it is a step well / tank with a Shiva temple on one side. People use the tank to wash clothes, but on a cool day you can sit there and enjoy the serene surroundings.
This area is more or less not explored by travelers, though it is very close to the famous Jog falls which gets its fair share of tourists. You can visit all these areas as a day trip from Shimoga which is well connected with Bangalore.