Narrative schemes of Medieval Texts

It creates a unique sensorium, the temple of Karneshwara. You walk through an ordinary looking street, with houses and shops standing akimbo on the either side…and suddenly the ancient temple executed in black basalt steals your gaze. Karneshwara temple, most likely named after a king by the name Karna (not to be confused with the character from the epic Mahabharata), stands approximately 18ft. high with a newly conserved spire. The original one may have been higher. The confluence of river Shastri and its tributary is just a few feet away from Karneshwar, where a small shrine of Shiva stands. The confluence of rivers is called a “sangam”, and hence the Shiva at the Sangam becomes “Sangameshwar”. The name, Sangameshwar, gets adopted for the name of the taluka (administrative unit), a nearby village, and this the geographical locale that Sangameshwar Mahatmya speaks of.

Karneshwara temple, Kasba- Sangameshwar
Lions in floral embellishments, in one of the temple ruins at Kasba, Sangameshwar

Presenting magnanimity through literature

Karneshwara temple, and Sangameshwara temple constitute a group of over 300 temples believed to have existed. The text of Sangameshwara Mahatmya (henceforth SM) posits a thriving sacred space in existence at Sangameshwara. Casual walks through the hamlet of Kasba, where Karneshwara temple is situated, reveals several ruins of temples, that may have been glorious standing structures in the bygone era. This is not to say that the number 300+ mentioned in the text is true, but numerous temples did grace the landscape at Kasba.

SM, along with other such texts from the tradition, resort to hyperbole as a characteristic to stress the importance of the place. The standing armies of kings are described in the multiples of 100,000s, the strength in cavalry and artillery amounts to a few lakh atleast, and the descriptions of a certain place attract the description as several hundred rivers, lofty mountains, and hundreds of sacred spots in its fold. Most, if not all, of such claims encapsulate some grain of truth, that we as researchers seek to get to.

The textual and archaeological connections continue to weave narratives together at Sangameshwar. SM mentions the chronology of the kings from Kolhapur, an important city on the eastern side of Konkan. This line of kings was king Karna’s predecessors who established their rule in Sangameshwara and the surrounding areas. The archaeological evidence in the form of inscriptions is scanty, but some attempts at identifying which king is the patron of a specific temple (or ruins) at Kasba is underway. Beyond the attempts of matching the patron king with the temple or structural activity, the text of SM presents multi-layered religious narrative.

Juxtaposition of the Fantastic and the Factual and inter-textual dialogue

SM delves in the discussion of sacred sites in the Konkan area, proclaiming Sangameshwar as an important site, and the “Kashi of the South” (as pious and sacred as Benares). This claim is also found in the text of Harihareshwar Mahatmya, and I would look at these claims to amplify the sacred character of the sites. SM further adds to the list, the sacredness of the waters and the legends of a dream that came to king Karna. The connection of dreams and moments of reveal for deities is an interesting backdrop for numerous religious narratives in South Asia. But maybe I will speak to in one of my later posts.

The element of dreams and local lore such as the cow letting milk from her udders gets transfixed as points of anchor for a narrative imbued with fantastical elements. The saying “Without miracle, there’s no reverence” (चमत्काराशिवाय नमस्कार नाही, in Marathi), rings true in case of the sacred narratives that set out to capture the public imagination, as well as insert a super-human element. This at once positions the narrative to be above human grasp, and thus to be revered. The verses in Sanskrit were advertised as containing deep secrets of humankind, inaccessible to common folk (specially those who were unlettered) in the ancient times. The narrative tradition attempts at building a bridge between this esoteric knowledge and storytelling with public or local belief systems.

Since the text of SM is a Sthala-Mahatmya, numerous temples and shrines in the vicinity find a place in the descriptions. Dhutapapeshwar (Rajapur taluka), Harihareshwar (Raigad district), Kudaleshwar (Sindhudurg district), and so on join the list as sacred sites. It will be no surprise to find some form of Mahatmya texts for these sites. SM refers to the verses from Sahyadri Khanda, and scholar Mandalik who studied SM in 1800s mentions SM as a part of Sahyadri Khanda in atleast one of the recensions. The continued tradition of praise-texts, and inter-referencing of texts and sites may have been used as a technique for proving legitimacy of the textual claims. The intertextuality probably begins with the referencing of Ramayana and Mahabharata in every Puranic work, or Skanda and Brahmanda Purana once these texts gained a pan-Indic appeal.

SM further utilizes inter-textual referencing to highlight the worship of Shiva. Mandalik interprets these mentions of Shiva and the worship of Linga as “qua” form of worship at Sangameshwara site and Konkan at large. I would suggest that all the Sthala Mahatmya texts that we are looking at from Konkan, viz. Harihareshwar Mahatmya, Sangameshwar Mahatmya and Sahyadri Khanda itself, exhibit very strong Shaivite leanings. Sahyadri Khanda, in some parts edited and collated from various extant manuscripts to Da Cunha, carefully treads into some Vaishnava narration. One could argue that Parashurama is a popular form of Vishnu, and the character’s’ presence in the texts would mean all the texts are ultimately Vaishnava! However, the sites that the texts praise, are all decidedly with Shaiva leaning. And here we face an interesting conundrum as readers. The history of religions maybe holds some answers to this Shiva-Vaishnava affiliation duel.

Anchoring a text in a landscape – through narratives

The temple of Kalabhairav at Kasba finds a mention in SM. The Kalabhairav temple facing south, was tended to by Siddhas and Gandharvas. The text of SM further narrates the importance of such protector deities in a town. The text attempts at some representation of various sections of the society, while maintaining a decidedly Brahmin tine of expression met with in the Puranas. With the narration of the Kalabhairava temple in SM, the narrative style of using past-tense constructions becomes more apparent. This narrative technique is a direct reflection of the Puranic style of narration. Narratives on the lines of “something was there since times immemorial” …and “there lived a great king” take the reader into a different world, and often create a façade of antiquity of the textual tradition. Ludo Rocher’s work titled “The Puranas” published by Otto Harrassowitz presents some of these narrative nuances.

Following the trend of Sthala Mahatmya, SM describes the major festivals, performances and touches upon the water bodies and “tirtha”s in the area. The importance of water and water bodies in Hinduism needs no introduction. And this segment of SM connects various elements of the text. The descriptions of places flow with respect to the closest water bodies, the sacred element of a landmass comes from the presence of an obulation tank, and the confluence of rivers reigns paramount in making a town ideal for the residence of the gods.

The imposing structure with its artistic embellishments, the Karneshwara temple pulls all the narrative strings together. It currently stands at the confluence of oral, aural, textual and lived narratives. The siddha figures on the temple get names in oral narratives, SM becomes that ancient text everyone believes reveals the truth of creation of Sangameshwara, and as a tourist or a devotee from outside, you become a part of this aural trove of Sthala mahatmya, maybe sitting with your feet dipped in Shastri waters.


3 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”

Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy

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