There are so many places across Karnataka that are related to the two great epics of India – The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. Pandavapura which is now a forgotten little town in Mandya District is one such place. Pandavapura literally means “the town of the Pandavas”. Legends say that the Pandavas stayed here during their exile. There is even a uniquely shaped hillock in the town named ‘Kunti Betta’. About 3 or 4 km from Pandavapura is the tiny hamlet of Thondanur colloquially known as Kerethonnur. Life here revolves around a large lake surrounded by hillocks on three sides. The overflow of this lake is directed to irrigate the emerald green fields all around. The origins of the lake are steeped in history and legend. The Shreevaishnava saint Ramanujacharya first came to a village called Saligrama from Srirangam in Tamil Nadu and then came to stay in Thondanur where he designed this lake for the benefit of the people by taking advantage of the natural landscape.
Thondanur is equally famous for three historically significant temples. The Gopalakrishna Temple is en-route the lake. Architecturally it isn’t worth a mention except for the yagna mantapa. The main deity is a striking black idol of Krishna as Parthasarathy (Arjuna’s Charioteer). The idol is unique in the sense that it depicts Lord Krishna in a seated position with the left hand placed on the left thigh and the other hand in a blessing posture (abhaya hasta). The idol is flanked by Shridevi and Bhudevi on either sides. Krishna is said to be in such a position so as to preach the Geetha to Arjuna. The utsava murthy (idol taken out during processions) is also noteworthy. Krishna is as Venugopala (flute-playing cowherd) in a dance pose with the left foot forward unlike usual depictions where the right foot is forward. The utsava murthy, cast in metal, is also flanked on either side by Shridevi and Bhudevi who are the two consorts of Lord Vishnu. The temple is said to be consecrated by Yudhishtra (eldest of the Pandavas) himself! I couldn’t find details of the architectural style and the rulers who patronised this temple though it is clear that many modifications and additions were made to the original shrine.
Across the road from the Gopalakrishna temple is the temple dedicated to Nambi Narayana. A couple of wells lie along the muddy pathway to the temple which is again an amalgamation of architectural styles. The main deity is an imposing 18 foot tall statue of Narayana standing holding a conch and a discus in his hands. The magnificent idol makes up for the lack of sculptural detail in the rest of the temple. There is a separate shrine dedicated to Narayana’s consort Lakshmi on the left side of the main shrine. Goddess Lakshmi is called as Aravinda Nayaki here and the idol is beautifully carved in black stone. There is a Dwajastambha beyond the outer wall of the temple which stands tall and dominates the landscape. Both the Nambi Narayana Temple and the Gopalakrishna Temple have been patronised by Hoysala Rulers though they may have been built earlier.
A little further away from these two temples, atop a hill is the temple dedicated to Yoga Narasimha and Ramanujacharya. The main deity, Yoga Narasimha, is believed to be consecrated by Prahalada, a great devotee of Vishnu. Though small in size compared to the other two, it is of great historical significance. It is here that the Jain Hoysala King, Bitti Deva, got converted to Hinduism when Ramanujacharya cured his daughter of an incurable illness. He took up the name Vishnuvardhana thereafter and went on to build the world-famous temples at Belur and Melkote. Irked by the king’s conversion, 1000 Jain philosophers challenged Ramanujacharya for a debate. He sat behind a screen just outside the shrine of Yoga Narasimha and at once answered all the 1000 questions put forward to him; impressed, all the 1000 embraced Shreevaishnava philosophy. At that very place, there is a shrine with an idol of Ramanujacharya crowned by a hooded snake whose body is entwined around the seer’s torso. Encased in a glass box is a basket carried by Ramanujacharya and is now about 950 years old!
Incidentally, next year marks the thousandth birth anniversary of Ramanujacharya and it would be a good time to visit the place where he started his mission. A pristine lake, calm green fields and temples rich in tradition and tales make for the perfect weekend getaway. Complement the trip to Melkote or Srirangapatna by visiting the enchanting hamlet of Thondanur.