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80-Feet Underground – Life & Times Of Chitradurga’s Ankali Saints

The Iron Age is quite a fascinating period in the evolution of humans, especially since it was preceeded by the late Harappan civilisation of the Chalcolithic era of the Stone Age. An exploration of the physical memories of the Iron Age in Southern India took us to the heart of Karnataka – the district of Chitradurga, which houses the magnificent Chadravalli Caves.

Built up to 80 feet underground, this magnificent cave had everything that a modern corporate house can ever think of. It was essentially a Gurukul, or a residential school, which was believed to be run by the saints of the Ankali Mutt of Belgaum region. But, here comes the interesting part. It had a meeting room, a treasury, a prison cell, secret passageways from various stories of this underground town to escape in case of emergency, and an overground kitchen and auditorium. So what makes this special? Well, to begin with, the water system in Chandravalli caves is as fascinating as that of the Harappan civilisation.

The Harappans were successful in turning even arid lands into habitable ones just be streamlining their water source. Using the simple method of sedimentation they encouraged cities to grow and flourish with trade. The same goes with Chandravalli, albeit a little different.

With 90 percent of the structure built underground, Chandravalli Caves made the maximum use of the neighbouring Chandravalli lake. The waters from the lake were directed through a closed channel that ensured there was continuous flowing water available in the bathroom. The bathroom comprised of a bathtub, a massage place and a cot replete with a stone-cut pillow raised to the optimum height to offer a comfortable nap.

With the water source in place, here comes the interesting part. The steps leading into the dark cave dwelling is extremely uneven. One might wonder why would someone cut rock steps so unevenly in such depths and darkness? But the reason was as simple as it could get for the times. Only people familiar with the Gurukul could climb down the stairs without tripping. Any intruder was bound to fall and crash through the narrow stairway.

Walking down those cold and dark stairs, we arrived at the prayer hall. With a large platform in the centre and cavities for hundreds of lamps to be lit, it was a sight to behold even under the dull torch light that lit our path. To the left of this prayer hall was a slightly lower-levelled hall that possibly was the classroom.

As we walked down to the deepest levels and crossed the bathroom, we were intrigued by the maze of stairs, each narrow and only known to someone who was familiar with the place. One flight of stairs took us right down to the base of the bathroom, where an opening high up the rocks filtered in sunlight to keep the air clear off the dampness, and a channel directed the unused water back to the lake to replenish it. We turned to our left here and slid into a suite of bedrooms. With stone bunks cut into the walls of the cave, these bedrooms were a sight of simplicity to behold.

In case of an emergency and if the lamps were put off, how would the residents have known which room was what? Well, these architects of the ancient times had that sorted quite well. The bathroom had three doorways, each with unique engravings. In the event of complete darkness, people could feel the engravings and understand which doorway led them to what part of the cave dwelling – to the gurukul, the king’s chamber or the bedroom.

Ruins of the Shiva Linga that was once consecrated and prayed to by the Ankali Saints at Chandravalli.

Next door to that at a slight elevation was a temple. Despite being around for thousands of years and having borne the brunt of invasions, the remnants of the Shiva Linga and faint colours of the paintings on the wall continue to mesmerise one as the light from the torch slowly moves along the wall, highlighting every small detail..

A destroyed painting on the wall in the music chamber of Ankali Mutt cave.

We took a new flight of stairs again and walked up a level higher to reach an interesting meeting room. While the chairperson’s bench had nothing but the wall to support the back, the seats of the council members were cut into the wall. And it was fascinating to understand why! The king of the times often conducted high-level meetings here. The walls are said to be sound-proofed to ensure absolute secrecy. And the reason for the alcove seats for the council was to ensure they do not see each other and send out secret signals to each other in betrayal of the king or head. However, the king or the chairperson of the meeting could see each one of them from his vantage seat.

Closer here was an extremely narrow stairway that led to the treasury on a separated higher floor. The idea behind the extreme narrowness of the stairway was to ensure that only one person could either go up or down the stairs at a time. A perfect way to keep a check on any possible thefts.

As we climbed out of the underground cave, the large auditorium set a completely different vibe altogether. High roofed and airy, we squinted our way out until the bright sunlight troubled us no more. Now this auditorium was not just one for performances. A rock cut out into the side of the hill offered a first floor, which we were told by locals there, was used as a hostel for people to board.

We stepped out and entered the kitchen which had nothing but two massive rocks forming an inverted V to provide a roof and natural chimney in the gap they were not joined at, and also ensure that no rain water seeped in! The water from the lake had a channel flowing here as well. The engineering here is pretty interesting, considering that the kitchen is way elevated than the lake. Huge stone-cut fireplaces painted quite an illusion of the busy kitchen in the days of yore to feed the residents and probably a continuous flow of guests.

So the next time you decide to visit a historical place, do check out the Chandravalli caves of Chitradurga. Situated at a four-hour drive from Bangalore, your itinerary to Chitradurga can include a visit to the Chitradurga Fort which offers an eclectic mix of massive boulders, resplendent stone architecture and sings the heroic story of Onake Obbavva, the lady who saved the Kingdom Of Chitradurga from Hyder Ali’s invasion. Plan a strong trek up the Chitradurga Fort Wall, and soak into the calm and cool surroundings of the Adu Malleshwara temple and mini zoo. Enjoy the scenic beauty and incredible architecture of the Vani Vilas Sagar Dam in nearby Hiriyur or rush away to the hill station of Jogimatti.

And if you have kids travelling with you, do not miss an evening visit to the Muruga Vana. Replete with life-size tableaus of a multitude themes, it makes for quite an inspiring walk before you end your day at the adjoining Sri Jagadguru Murugharajendra Brihan Mutt.

By Keerthana Venkatesh

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