There are many temples of different antiquities in Banavasi. Madhukeshwara temple is the oldest and the most important one.
Madhukeshwara Temple – Madhukeshvara temple is the epicenter of the town as the town has grown around it. The temple was originally considered to be dedicated to Madhava, one of the twenty-four incarnations of Vishnu. However at present it is dedicated to Shiva who is represented in his linga form. Due to its honey-like color, this linga, and consequently the temple, is named as Madhukeshwara (Madhu = honey). The temple has undergone substantial additions and alterations from the times of the Western Chalukyas right up to the Sonda (Sode) chiefs.
The present temple compound has a prakara wall housing the main temple and various other subsidiary structures. This prakara wall along with many of its subsidiary structures can be dated to the Sonda period of sixteenth century CE. The prakara wall has two entrances, main entrance from the east, and an another entrance from the north. Two magnificent stone elephants are placed outside the eastern entrance. On entering inside the compound, a visitor is greeted with two tall dipa-stambhas.
The temple faces east. The main temple was probably constructed by the Kadambas and comprises of a square garbhagriha, a small sukhanasi and a pillared navaranga hall. A pradakshinapatha (circumambulatory path) around the garbhagriha puts the temple in sandhara temple category. At present the garbhagriha enshrines a large Shivalinga however it seems that it was placed at some later period.
There are two niches on either side of sukhanasi in the navaranga hall. There is an image of Adi-Madhava in one of the niche, many believe that this might be the original image of this temple. The sculpture depicts features and style which may be attributed to the Kadamba period. Super structure above the garbhagriha is a later renovation, in the Vijayanagara times, which is carried in the Kadamba stepped shikhara style.
A later navaranga of the Kalyana Chalukya times was constructed in 11th or 12th century CE. It has three entrances, one on east, south and north. In contrast of the square base pillars of the original navaranga, this navaranga hall has ornate lathe turned pillars. Local tradition mentions that it was here where Allama Prabhu defeated the dancer queen Shantala. On the eastern entrance of this hall, a large stone Nandi is placed. The local guide and priest will tell you the engineering behind the turned face of the Nandi as with one eye he sees the Shivalinga and with another the Parvati temple. The slanted roof of this mandapa reminds of the various similar Kalyana Chalukya structures strewn across the Western Ghats region.
During the period of the Sonda chief Sadashiva, Parvati temple was added. The exquisite Trailokya mandapa which is at present kept under the navaranga hall was also donated by the Sonda chief, Sadasivarajendra of sixteenth century CE. Virabhadra temple on the right of the main temple was built in 1369 CE by one Nagappa during the Sode Nayaka rule. A stone cot of majestic craftsmanship was also a gift of a Sode chief, Raghu Nayaka. Rangamandapas were added to the Parvati and Narasimha temple during the Vijayanagara rule in 1552 CE.Narada and Parvati temples around the prakara were added during the Vijayanagara period.
Many other small shrines were also added to house dikpalas, Ardha-Ganapati, two-armed Narasimha etc. The unique Ardh-Ganapati statue is only finished in half such as cut vertically into two parts. It is said that this sculpture represents Ganesha in his bachelorhood, without his wife. Two-handed Narasimha image is also worth noticing as there are legends about the eyes of this sculptures that they look different in different period of the day. Narasimha here is shown in his peaceful (saumya) attitude.
A small museum is set up on the left of the eastern entrance of the temple compound. Calling it a museum would not be proper as all the sculptures and other findings are just strewn around the hall. The priest mentioned that efforts are in place to setup the museum properly with proper tagging.
Banavasi Fort – Very few vestiges are left of this early fort, which might be among the earliest ones in Karnataka. S K Joshi mentions that the fort was built at the sharp curve of river Varada, with exterior measuring 850 m, north-south and 600 m east-west. Total length of periphery is about 2140 m.
During an excavation around the fort area, three separated and distinct phases in construction were observed:
- The earliest phase was of brick structure which belongs to the late Satavahanas and the Chutus
- The next phase was the enlargement of the fort with laterite blocks, bricks and mud which belongs to the early Kadambas
- The last phase was extension at northern side with full laterite stones datable to the late Kadambas
Excavations – Till now only one major excavation has been carried out here on the behalf of the Dr M. Sheshadri of The Department of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Ancient History and Archaeology of the Mysore University. The excavation was conducted for three seasons beginning from 1969-70 and ending 1971-72.
The most important discoveries of the excavations are:
- Inscribed pottery bearing a Brahmi inscription datable to third century BCE
- Two apsidal brick structures of the Satavahana period which are among the largest such structures in Karnataka
- Due to missing evidences, it can not be said with certainty if these structures were Buddhist or Hindu
- A stone Skanda sculpture was found in one of the structure which suggests its Hindu affinity, however it might be a later addition
- 11 coins including 1 punch-marked, 3 Satavahana and 2 Chutu coins
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