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The myth and relity of Vathapi
As usual I was busy working on my research project as the final date for submitting the project was almost there. My research supervisor Prof. Kedarnath wanted me to submit my project on time. I knew am already late. Being the professor and head of the department of History in my college, I seldom got extra time to work on my own project. Yet I was tinkering with my computer on the last para of my project when my mobile buzzed.
It was my close friend SK from Kochi. He is the special correspondent of The Vanguard, an English daily, a photojournalist and a well known Illustrator and artist. Our friendship began since our college time.
“Hi Sree? You there?” SK called from the other end.
"Yes, tell me SK?"
“Are you busy or not? I just want to ask you something.” SK said.
“I am finishing off my research paper on Vathapi Chalukyas and their contributions. I will be totally free in a couple of days.” I said.
“Great. Should I also come with you if you plan to go to Vathapi?” SK asked.
“You are most welcome. But I'm not free till the end of this week.”
SK disconnected the phone. I knew he was interested in traveling and asked me about going with me to some historically important unexplored sites. This trip with SK seemed perfect for me also. Because we both think alike and never contradicted on anything since our youth. This time I ignore what Budha said about travel: “if you want to travel, travel alone.”
A week has gone. SK came as we planned our trip to Vathapi over phone. SK knew ‘Vathapi’ is the name of modern day ‘Badami’ in in northern Karnataka.
Badami at sunrise
It was a cold October morning when we reached the town called Badami. The Badami town was yet to awake from its cold slumber as our car stopped nearby a street-side tea seller. We ordered two Kadak tea. The very sight of steaming kadak tea with its masala flavor in that early morning was enough to envigorate our mission. Sipping slowly the tea, we asked the chaiwalah how to reach Badami Fort. Listening to some song through a transistor from a Kannada FM station, the chaiwalah pointed uphill a little distance away and told us in half Kannada and in half Hindi: “park your car there at the bottom of the hill near the museum and climb uphill to reach Badami Fort.”
Thanking the tea vendor, we drove to the place he has pointed to us. We parked the car near the museum at started climbing the sandstone hill. Soon the security of the museum greeted us and told apologetically:
“The museum will be open only at 9.30 Sir.” We knew we were too early for a museum visit. We proceeded to the top of the hill in the early morning sun as a cold breeze beat against our faces. We were standing upon a rugged sandstone cliff that once protected the ancient Vathapi town from any attackers.
Vathapi, the capital of Pulakesin I
Vathapi was the capital town of early Chalukyas, founded by the Chalukya King Pulakesin I. Even today Vathapi seems to be the largest town in this area. The Vathapi Chalukyas built their triangular centres of power at Vathapi, Aihole and Pattadakkal. These areas were confined to the valley of Malaprabha river, flowing in a North-Easterly direction. We found, for our surprise, a man attired in saffron clothes and yellow turban watching us curiously from a distance. His forehead and arms were covered with ashes and he was sitting upon a step. An Ek-tara was lying lazily in his lap.
SK walked upto him and asked him to tell us about Vathapi. Instead of talking, he picked up the music instrument, ek-tara, from his lap and started playing the evergreen “Hamsadwani” composition of Muthuswamy Deekshithar. The keerthan was none other than “Vaathapim ganapathim bhajeeee…” Everyone who has heard Carnatic Music recitals is sure to have heard of this keerthan. In other words, all know about the 'Vathapi' in this keerthan, but not sure of it as the name of today’s Badami.
As the yogi immersed himself into the keerthan on his ek-tara, SK interrupted him and asked what was so special about the Ganesha of Vathapi?
The monk watched us silently for a little time and slowly asked us: ’Do you know gentlemen, how many Ganeshas are there?’.
As we both stood speechless he continued.
“There are eight Ganeshas according to the tradition and they are collectively called “Ashtaganapathy’. But "Vathapi Ganapathy" does not belong to this group at all.”
The myth of Vathapi
“Vathapi is not a placename." The monk continued. "It is one of the names of a couple of rich asuras. The brother of Vathapi is called Elvala. The brothers, Vathapi and Elvala, were residing at Manimal Pattanam.
“The legend says that the asura Elvala once approached a Brahmin yogi and prayed for a son who is as powerful as Indra. The Brahmin yogi ignored the request of Elvala which resulted into a strong anti-brahmin sentiment in both in Elvala and his brother Vathapi. From that day onwards they chalked out a plan to annihilate any Brahmin who approach them for help.”
“Weird” said SK. “ We also have a legend like this in Kerala too. The story of Vamana and Mahabali. How can we believe such stories that is alien to realities?” I nudged him to remain calm. The yogi continued.
“Elvala and Vathapi made a plan to treat the Brahmins who paid a visit to their palace. Vatapi knew black magic, and used this skill to transform himself into any life form. As a skilled master of the "Mrit Sanjeevani" mantra, Ilvala could bring the dead back to life. They used to invite people and offer goat meat to them by transforming Vatapi into a goat. After the guests finish eating the meat, Ilvala would recite the mantra, causing Vatapi to come alive and tear apart the body of the person.
Vathapi turning himself into a goat with his black-magic powers. Elvala would kill the goat, cook it and serve as a dish to the Brahmin. When the feast is over Elvala would call aloud the name of Vathapi. When his name is called, Vathapi would turn back into his human form and come out of the stomach of the Brahmin, killing him on the spot.”
SK just sat there as if he is listening to a folk tale. The yogi said.
Agasthya visits the Vathapi brothers
“Through this technique the Elvala and Vathapi brothers killed a lot of Brahmins who visited their palace. But one day the sage Agasthya visited them seeking some financial help from the rich asura brothers. Agasthya and his retinue were treated reverently by the brothers as usual, and asked them to take part in the feast. The sage and his followers were given the food made of the goat’s meat by Elvala. As soon as the feast was over, Elvala called aloud the name of Vathapi.”
“Sage Agasthya who knew well all about this process with his divine powers. The moment Elvala called the name of Vathapi, Agasthya uttered these words "Vathapi jeerno bhava” before Vathapi could retain his form. Thus Vathapi’s life ended. Suddenly, the horror stricken Elvala fell at the feet of sage Agasthya and gifted him with 20,000 cows, gold, a chariot driven by two horses named Iraavan and Suraavan.” Said the yogi watching us curiously.
As we stood up to move on leaving the yogi who was now into a trance, a middle aged man dressed in a safari suit came to us. He introduced himself to us with a welcoming smile.