CHANDRALAMBHA TEMPLE In a remote village in Karnataka, we find legends of goddesses and kings at the Chandralambha Temple

It is one of those days when the journey becomes the destination, when the mountains and fields seem to follow you wherever you go, when the sunflowers nod at you, local women laugh shyly, and the sun gently peers at you from behind the clouds. There is a charm about rustic India that is simply inexplicable.

I am travelling from Yaadgiri, a small town in north Karnataka, towards Kanaganahalli, a nondescript village on the banks of the river Bheema. My destination is a small temple dedicated to Goddess Chandralamba, which is almost 800 years old. A couple of children look lost in the antiquity of the temple, while a few old men gather in the courtyard to share their stories. They tell me a fascinating tale of a goddess who came here all the way from North India to protect two devotees from an evil king.

Legend goes that Chandrala was captured by a local ruler while Narayan Muni, her rishi husband, was away. The rishi travelled to the Himalayas to entreat the goddess to help him defeat the king. The goddess agreed to follow him but asked him not to turn around and look at her during the journey. But as they neared River Bheema, Narayan Muni was unable to control his curiosity and turned around, only to see a stone idol. Thankfully, the goddess still kept her word and helped him defeat the king.

My interest in the small hamlet is, however, courtesy Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty, who left his mark here several centuries ago. The story, I am told, begins with the discovery of an edict belonging to the Ashokan era when the roof of the temple collapsed years ago. The inscription was apparently used as a pedestal for the idol.

The discovery eventually led to an excavation where the remains of an ancient Buddhist stupa were found. I walk quietly into the site, where I find the edict placed at the entrance. Written in Brahmi script in the Prakrit language, it speaks about religious tolerance. A group of school children walk around the many panels of sculptures carved in limestone. They are strewn around, broken but glistening in the afternoon sun. There are larger then life panels surrounding the main drum of the stupa. Dated between 3 BC and 3 AD, this Maha Stupa, as it was referred to, was probably built by Ashoka and then rebuilt by the Satavahana kings.

The site is a treasure trove of antiquities but the most priceless treasure belongs to Ashoka himself — a broken portrait of a king with his queens gently pieced together and lying a little away from the main stupa under the shelter of a tree. I am told this could be the very first inscribed panel of King Ashoka to be discovered in India, as it uses the phrase ‘Raya Ashoka’.

I am joined by the school children as we look at the sculptures. We learn that the conservation of the stupa is in progress and pains have been taken to restore it as scientifically as possible. As we peer at the king and walk past the Buddha sculptures, I marvel at how a simple journey into rustic India can turn into a very historic one.

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