Banavasi – The First Kannada Capital


Chapter I

Past References and Political History

Banavasi holds a very important position in the history of Karnataka. It enjoys the reputation of being the capital town of the first indigenous Kannada dynasty, the Kadambas. Though it rose to the position of a capital town during the Kadambas, however it was already playing the same role during the rule of the Chutus who were a feudatories under the Satavahanas.

Political History – If we exclude the pre-historic period, then Banavasi might emerge as the oldest town of Karnataka, probably contemporary to Shravanabelagola. However, its antiquity before the Mauryas is still not established. One major reason for this missing piece of information is inadequate number of excavations carried out at this site.

With the distribution of Ashoka’s inscription in southern India, it can be safely assumed that Banavasi was under Ashoka’s dominion. After the disintegration of the Mauryas, there were different regional powers in north and south India and Banavasi came under the Satavahanas. Nasik cave inscription of the Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni was issued from the victorious camp of Banavasi. Satavahana activities around the Banavasi region is also attested from various coins and a solo Satavahana memorial inscription found here.

The Chutus ruled after the Satavahanas and Banavasi became their capital. Though there are not many inscriptions of this dynasty, however most of those are found in and around Banavasi region only. Many of their coins have also been discovered here. They were prominently Buddhists as evident from their inscriptions. After the Chutus, Banavasi became the celebrated capital of the first indigenous Kannada dynasty, the Kadambas. Though it was their capital city, however there is only one Kadamba inscription found here.

While the power of the Kadambas was on decline, an another south Indian dynasty, the Badami Chalukyas, was on the rise. Chalukya inscriptions mention defeat of the Kadambas in the hands of the Chalukya king Kirtivarman I. However it seems that he was not able to conquer Banavasi as this victory is attributed to his son, Pulakesi II. In his Aihole prashashti, it is mentioned that Banavasi appeared to be a water-fort (Jala-durga) due to its being surrounded by river Varada on three sides.

Since then, Banavasi remained as a province under the Badami Chalukyas. It would have been an important province as at one point of time it was being governed by the brother-in-law of  the Chalukya king Vijayaditya. The Shiggaon plate (Epigraphia Indica vol XXXII) mentions that Vijayaditya visited Banavasi to see his brother-in-law, the Alupa king Chitravahana in 708 CE. Chitravahana’s father, Gunasagara, was the first Alupa king who was made the governor of the Kadamba-mandala by the Chalukya king Vikramaditya I as evident from Kigga inscription (Epigraphia Carnatica vol VI).

Though no Rashtrakuta inscription has been found in Banavasi yet, from various inscriptions it is clear that it was under the Rashtrakutas, being governed by their feudatories. Shrinivas Ritti believes that under the Rashtrakuta, the Banavasi region was extended quite considerably and became Banavasi-12000, comprising of 12000 villages. Marakkarasa family was the first one to govern Banavasi under the Rashtrakutas. After them, it was Chalukya Rajaditya and Chellaketana families who governed this region.

With the Kalyana Chalukyas taking over most of the Karnataka into their control, Banavasi also came under them. By then Banavasi-12000 had gained a reputation of an important and coveted place. It was hence administered by important feudatories under the Kalyana Chalukyas.

Kadambas of Hangal administered Banavasi-12000 under the Kalyana Chalukyas. They continued their rule even after the fall of the Kalyana Chalukyas. With the fall of the Kalyana Chalukyas, Karnataka went into the hands of two powerful dynasties, the northern part to the Sevunas and the southern to the Hoysalas. Both these dynasties tried their best to prove their supremacy but none succeeded.

Due to its strategic location, being situated at the border of the Hoysala and Sevuna territories, Banavasi became the point of tussle between these two dynasties. Both had their small stints over Banavasi however it did not remain with them for long. Hoysala Vishnuvardhana conquered Banavasi in 1135 CE for a small time but later driven out by the Kadamba Mallikarjuna. Sevuna Singhana II also ruled over Banavasi in about 1215 CE.

Banavasi was with the Kadambas, as the feudatories of the Sevunas, when the Vijayanagara empire rose. Later it moved to Sode chiefs and from them to Hyder Ali. With the defeat of Tipu Sultan, Banavasi along with other major portion of Karnataka came under the British rule in 1799 CE.

Mythological Origin – A Banavasi Kaifiyat provides a legend for the origin of the Madhukeshvara linga. It is told that Madhu and Kaitabha, two demons, were killed by Vishnu on instance of Shiva. However, as both the demons were great devotee of Shiva, hence two lingas were consecrated after their names as madhukeshvara and Kaitabheshvara. It is believed that an aspect of Shiva himself is enshrined in these lingas.

John Wilson points to a reference of ‘Story of Allama Prabhu subduing Maya’ from the Mackenzie Collection. Once Shiva and Parvati were seated in their court and Chandeshwara arrived. He saluted Shiva only with one hand. Parvati asked Shiva that everybody salutes him with two hands but why Chandeshwara saluted only with one hand. On this, Shiva turned into his ardhanareeshvara form. Chandeshwara then turned to right where half-Shiva was and saluted him alone.

Parvati got enraged over this and turned Chandeshwara into a skeleton which was later known as Bhringi. Then Parvati said to Shiva that she has conferred her half body to Bhringi and Brahma, Vishnu and rest are concentrated in her, then who is greater, Bhringi or Shiva? Shiva asked Parvati to send a part of her essence to the mortal world and he would send Bhringi there and she might then examine its spiritual truth.

Thus Parvati was born as Maya or Mohinidevi as the queen of the Banavasi king named Mamakara raja. She became a harlot and got associated to the musicians of the Madhukeshvar temple at Banavasi.  Bhringi was born as Allama Prabhu at Karure. Later Allama Prabhu subdued the musicians of Madukeshvar temple and Mohinidevi, and obtained the title ‘Niranjani’.

The Name of the Town – With such rich history and culture, it is not surprising that Banavasi was known with many names in its past. The town has been identified with Banauasei mentioned by Ptolemy. As per a local Kaifiyat, it was known as Kaumadi in the Krita Yuga, Jayanti in the Treta Yuga, Beindivi in the Dvapar Yuga and Banavasi in the Kali Yuga or present age. The various names with this the town has been referred in the past are:

  • Vanavasa/Vanavasaka
    • Mahabharata
    • Mahavamsa
  • Vanavasi
    • Varahamihira’s Brihat-Samhita
    • Pampa’s Vikramarjuna Vijaya
    • Somadeva’s Yashatilaka
    •  Aihole prashasti of Pulakesi II (No 22 of the Inscriptions of the Calukyas of Badami) mentions that he conquered the town of Vanavasi which was bound by river Varada.
  • Vaijayanti
    • Ramayana
    • Nasik cave inscription (Epigraphia Indica vol VIII) of the Satavahana king Gautamiputra Sri-Satakarni (78-102 CE) is dated in his 18th regnal year and was issued from the victorious camp of Vaijayanti.
    • Karle cave inscription (Inscriptions from the Cave-temples of Western India) mentions that Seth Bhutapala from Vejayanti, established a rock-mention which is the most excellent in Jambudvipa.
    • Mahakuta pillar inscription of Mangalesha (No 8 of the Inscriptions of the Calukyas of Badami) mentions that the Chalukya king Kirtivarman I conquered Vaijayanti.
    • Malavalli pillar inscription (Epigraphia Carnatica vol VII/Indian Antiquary vol XLVI) – ‘Vaijayanti-pura-dhamma-maharajadhiraje-Kadambanam raja’ makes a fresh grant of a village which had been previously by the ‘Lord of Banavasi Haritiputra Shiva-[skanda-)varman (Siva[khada]-vammana-Hariti-puttena Vaijayanti-patina)
  • Sanjayanti
    • Naga stone inscription (Epigraphia Indica vol XXXIV) at Banavasi
  • Kanakavati
    • A Sode chief inscription (no 256 South Indian Inscriptions vol XX) in Virbhadra temple

Banavasi in Literature – Banavasi has been mentioned in the literature of different periods and of different languages. Few prominent references are listed below:

  • Mahabharata – Mahabharata places Vanavasaka in the southern India which most probably be the present Banavasi.Reference in its Bhishma-parva goes like

Athapare Janpadah dakshina Bharatarshabha | Dravidah Keralah prachya Mushika Vanavasikah ||”.

  • Ramayana –  Ayodhya Kanda’s chapter 9 mentions Vaijayanti which most probably refers to present Banavasi.

दिशमास्थाय वै देवि दक्षिणां दण्डकान् प्रति | वैजयन्तमिति क्यातं पुरं यत्र तिमिध्वजः || ९-२-१२

Translation – “…to a famous city called Vaijayata in which the demon Timidhvaja lived in a southern direction in the forest of Dandaka”.

  • Mahavamsa
    • It is mentioned that shortly after the Thirds Buddhist council, held at Patna during the eighteenth regnal year of Ashoka, various Buddhist monks were set off to different countries to spread Buddhism. Buddhist monk Rakshita was sent to Banavasi for the same purpose.
    • The thera Rakkhita, who had gone to Vanavasa, preached, floating in the air in the midst of the people, the Anamataggasamyutta. The conversion of sixty thousand persons took place, thirty-seven thousand in number received the pabbajja from him. Five hundred, viharas were founded in the country. Thus did the thera establish there the religion of the Conqueror.
    • It also mentions that on the invitation of Dutthagamini (Dutugamunu), monk Chandra Gupta visited Sri Lanka with his 80,000 followers to attend the inauguration of the Mahastupa (modern Ruwanweliseya).
  • Varahamihira’s Brihat-Samhita (Sixth century CE) –  Chapter XIV, shloka 12 has mention of Vanavasi which would be the present Banavasi most probably.

Kantakkankadvanavasishibikphanikarkonkanabhira | aakarvenavartakdashpurgonardkeralaka ||”.

  • Somadeva’s Yashatilaka (Tenth century CE) – While describing the charm and beauty of women of different countries, Somadeva mentions about the women of Vanavasi.

“Vanavasi yoshidadharmritarha
Simhala Mahilanana tilaka barha |
Vanavasi yoshidikhshana vimugdha
Karnara yuvati Kaitava vidagdha ||”

Translation – “The women of Vanavasi were so charming as to cause a spell of wonder and amazement.

  • Pampa’s Vikramarjuna Vijaya (Tenth century CE) – Pampa is a celebrated Kannada poet. Banavasi would have been an integral part of Pampa’s life. Though there is no consensus among scholars about the period of time Pampa spent in Banavasi, however all agree that he spent a quite good time there. The often quoted passage from his work is,

Sogayisi banda mamarane teltelevalliye putajatisam
Pageye kukilva kogileye paduva tumbiye nallarol mogam |
Nagemogalol palanchaleye kuduva nallare nolpodavabe
Ttugalolamava nandanavanangalolam Banavasi deshadol ||

Chagada bhogadakkarada geyada gottiyalam pinimppuga
Lgagaramada manasare manasarantavaragi puttale |
Nagiyumeno tirdapude tiradodam maridumbiyagi men
Kogileyagi puttuvudu nandanadol Vanavasi deshadol ||

Tenkanagali somkidodamolnudigeldodamimpanalda ge
Yam kivivokkadam birida malligegandodamada kemdalam |
Pamgedegondodam Madhumanhotsavamadodamena nembena
Ramkusavittodam nenevudenna manam Vanavasi deshamam ||

Translation- “Banavasi is full of fruit bearing mango tress; finely inter-wined betel creepers; full of jaji and sampige flowers; cuckoos singing melodiously at the top of the pitch; humming bees; smiling faces of loving damsels and their lovers. Banavasi is full of patrons known for sacrifice, enjoyment, education, musical concerts. Is it possible to take birth here? If not one should take birth here at least as a small bee or a cuckoo. Whenever I enjoy the cool breeze of south or hear fine words or good music or see the mallige flowers or meet the beloved or vasantotsava is approached, my mind immediately remembers Banavasi, even when somebody is tormenting with a goad”.

  • Chamarasa’s Prabhulinga Leele (Fifteenth century CE)

Adarol avani Kantegoppuva
Vadanavo sringarasarada
Sadanavo sobagina sumanada sukhada nelevido |
Sudatiratnagalogeva cheluvam
Budhiyo pelene sakalasauram
Bhadalli sogasihudalli Banavaseyemba pattanavu ||

Translation – “The beauty of Banavasi was that it is looked as if the face of the goddess earth; very essence of decoration; abode of happiness; and a sea of giving out the fine gems”.


  • Xuanzang (602-664 CE) – Xuanzang visited Kong-Kin-na-pu-lo (Konkanapura) after visiting the Dravida country, travelling northwards. Identification of Konakanapura is not done satisfactorily, V de St. Martin, George Mark Moraes take this as Banavasi, Alexander Cunningham takes it as Anegundi, James Fergusson takes it as Nagapattanam and Samuel Beal suggests to look it nearby Golconda, Bharat Patankar as Kolhapur, Schwartzbergs to some town near Badami. Xuanzang tells that the country was 5000 li in circuit while its capital was of 3000 li. There were about 100 sangharamas with about 10000 priests dwelling inside those. They study both the branches of Buddhism, Mahayana and Hinayana. Hindu deities were also highly revered by the natives.The largest sangharama was located by the side of the royal palace. Some 300 men of highly distinction were residing in this vihara. A precious tiara belonging to Sarvarthasiddha (Yih-tsai-i-s’hing), the prince, was also kept inside it in a jeweled casket. Another large vihara was located by the side of the city. In it was placed a ten feet high sandalwood figure of Maitreya Buddha.He mentions about a tala tree forest, leaves of which were used in writing. Another stupa nearby had the relics of Arhat Srutavimshatikoti. To the east of the city was another stupa which as per tradition is said to have enshrined the relics of Tathagata. On religious days, this stupa exhibits miraculous light. To the south-west of the city was located another stupa, about 100 feet high, which as per tradition was built by the Mauryan king Ashoka. At this place Arhat Srutavimshatikoti exhibited his miraculous powers and converted a great number of people.
  • Francis Buchanan (Nineteenth century CE) – He writes, ‘Banavasi in Hyder’s government, contained 500 houses, which are now reduced more than one half. Its walls are ruinous, and, although it has been a place of great celebrity, do not appear to have been ever of great extent.’ Buchanan met the then priest of the Madhukeshvara temple, named Madhu Linga Bhatta. He tells that this priest had devoted his considerable time in copying and studying inscriptions at Banavasi and nearby places.The priest told Buchanan that the oldest inscription is of the year 168 of the Yudhishtara’s era, which corresponds to 2934 BCE. Another inscription is dated in 96 year of the Vikrama era, corresponding to 39 CE. The priest, Madhu Linga Bhatta, told Buchnan about a prophetic inscription composed by a Jaina named Muru Jamadeya, the guru of Maha Sholia, a Jaina prince who was a sovereign king of the five great divisions of the world. The prophecy was about the British who are supposed to rule over the region stretching from the snowy mountains to Rameshvaram from Saka 1900.

The Buddhist Connection – As Banavasi is an important town since the Mauryas, hence it is fairly to check if there is any Buddhist connection to the town. Indeed there are many evidences to support this hypothesis. These various evidences are given below:

  • Banavasi has been mentioned in Mahavamsa on two times, first that a Buddhist missionary under monk Rakhsita was sent to Banavasi on the closure of the Third Buddhist Council, and second, monk Chandra Gupta of Banavasi was invited the then Sri Lankan king on the inauguration of  the Mahastupa.
  • The earliest inscription mentioning Banavasi is from Karle and it mentions the construction of a temple by a merchant from Banavasi. This suggests that there was a sprawling Buddhist merchant community, prosper enough to support the constructions of massive nature.
  • The Chutus, ruling from Banavasi, were also Buddhist as evident from the famous Naga stone inscription found here.
  • A Nagarjunikonda inscription mentions that the Chutu king, Vishnurudra Sivalananda Satakarni, attended the great celebration at the temple of Ashtabhujasvami.
  • If Xuanzang’s Konkanapura was Banavasi then his mention of various Buddhist artifacts located there would also attest the Buddhist influence over the town

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