The collapse of the royal tower of Sri Kalahasti temple marks the crumbling of a culture.

The headlines screamed “The Raja-Gopuram (royal tower) of Sri Kalahasti temple has crumbled ….” I was stunned at seeing visuals of this magnificent edifice come tumbling down.

It is sad that Sri Kalahasti, which has been an important forum for creation of some of South India's tangible and intangible cultural heritage, should hit the headlines this way.

It is even greater irony that the raja-gopuram was reduced to dust in less than five minutes in the year celebrating the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Vijayanagara emperor Sri Krishnadeva Raya, one of South India's most illustrious monarchs.

The 135-foot high, seven-storeyed Kalahasti raja-gopuram that now lies devastated was, in fact, constructed by Krishnadeva Raya in 1516 AD as a token of his gratitude to Shiva-Kalahasteeswara following the successful Kalinga campaign wherein the Raya vanquished the Surya-vamsa Gajapati kings of Orissa and reclaimed lost territories of the Telugu people. Krishnadeva Raya also constructed the hundred-pillared mantapam at Sri Kalahasti. In 1529 AD the coronation of King Achyuta Raya of Vijayanagara was performed here.

The Rayas of Vijayanagara headed a vast empire which virtually covered the entire southern peninsula. They built temples to Shiva and Vishnu. Typical Vijayanagara style architecture is found at Sri Kalahasti, Tirupati, Tadipatri, and Penukonda.

“Sree-Kalattipuranam” by the brothers Karunapprakasar, Sivapprakasar and Velappa, “Tirukkalattipuranam” by Aanandakoottar and “Tirukkalatti Ula” by Seraikkavirayar were inspired by this holy place.

Poetic works

Adi Shankara, Sambandar, Appar, Manikkavachagar, Sundaramurti, Pattinathar and Ramalinga Swami of Vadalur worshiped Shiva at this temple, which has also inspired great poetic and musical works.

The foremost Telugupoet ofSri Kalahasti was Dhoorjati, one of the eight official court poets of Sri Krishnadeva Raya. Dhoorjati expressed his devotion to Kalahasteeswarain “Sri Kalahasteeswara Mahatmyam”and “Sri Kalahasteeswara Shatakam”.

Music and dance

Kalahasti is interlinked with South Indian music and dance. Telugutemple dancers of Sri Kalahasti and other areashave traditionally performed to compositions dedicated to Kalahasteeswara, a tradition which continues today in Vilasini Natyam. Their repertoire featured “Adhyatma Ramayana Keertanalu”composed in Sri Kalahasti by Munipalle Subrahmanya Kavi, an eminent Telugu scholar and court poet of the Telugu king Damera Kumara Venkatappa, whose family ruled here until the British times. Ghana ragamalika varnam (“Intha kopamela”) and Sriranjani varnam (“Kaliki ninne”) by Kalahasti Veena Venkataswami Raju which are dedicated to Kalahasteeswara are important compositions in the Telugutemple dance repertoire.

Muddhuswami Deekshithulu (Muttuswami Dikshitar) sang of this temple in his “Sree Kaalahasteesa” (raga Huseni, tala Jhampa). Ramaswami Deekshithulu also composed a song on Kalahasteeswara. Kakarla Thyagaraja's maternal grandfather Veena Kalahasti Ayya belonged to this place and later joined the Tanjore court. Thyagaraja's disciple Veena Kuppayya composed five songs in praise of Kalahasteeswara, including the popular “Koniyaadina” in Kambhoji ragam. Sivarama Sastri, an accomplished musician from Kalahasti, enjoyed the patronage of Maharaja Swati Tirunal of Travancore.

Edifice of faith

Thousands of pilgrims visit Sri Kalahasti, also called Dakshina Kailasam and Dakshina Kashi.Kalahasteeswara temple stands on the banks of River Swarnamukhi and adjoins a hill which provides support to the temple wall at some points. According to local people, the gopuram developed deep cracks over the past 25 years and temple structures weakened on account of irresponsible sand quarrying of the riverbank and hillock by local builders. They lament that the gopuram's fate was finally sealed by the moisture which seeped through the cracks during the cyclonic storm which recently hit Andhra Pradesh. They query why the cracks were not repaired earlier. While no ready answers are available, a new question arises in my mind.

Does Sri Kalahasteeswara's Vayu-linga control the wind's fury, which is why Sri Krishnadeva Raya's statue remained unscathed by the stones falling from the raja-gopuram he erected nearby? The oil lamp which glows steadily in the airlesssanctumof Sri Kalahasteeswara conveys a silent answer.

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A small town in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, Sri Kalahasti is amongst the most sacred pilgrim centres. Its temple enshrines a Vayu-Linga, one of Shiva's Pancha-Bhoota Lingas, the others being manifest at Arunachala (Agni-linga), Kanchi (Prithvi-linga), Chidambaram (Akasa-linga) and Thiruvanaikaval (Jala-linga). The Shivalinga at Sri Kalahastiis marked by symbols of three creatures — that of a spider at the bottom, a five-hooded snake on top and elephant-tusks on either side. Legend informs us that Sri (spider), Kala (snake) and Hasti (elephant) were cursed by Brahma, Shiva and Parvati but attained moksha by worshipping Lord Shiva here. Hence Shiva came to be called Sri Kalahasteeswara. The temple also has a statue of the hunter Thinnan who offered his own kannu (eyes) to this Shivalinga and gained renown asBhakta Kannappa

(The author is an eminent Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam exponent and scholar and has played a leading role in propagating the little known arts of the Andhra Pradesh region.)