Karnataka is known for its multifarious temples and the legends associated with them. The temples are not only places of worship, but centres of artistic expression through which the gods and goddesses are propitiated.
Likewise, located about 20 km from Kundapur and 8 km from the temple town of Barkur is a rare temple known for its wooden idols: the Nandikeshwara Temple of Mekkikattu. Legend has it that this temple located near Saibre Katte in Shiriyara village was built by Parashurama. Some believe that the temple was built by one of the Alupa kings, a minor dynasty that ruled the region between 200 BCE and 450 CE.
One of a kind
The main deity at Nandikeshwara Temple is Lord Nandi, the holy bull, which is the vehicle of Lord Shiva. The body of the idol is strong and voluminous with a raised head and an open tongue. The Nandi here is known as 'Akasha Nandi' because of the general belief that it can actually fly.
Another important deity of this temple is Goddess Durga, seen with four hands, and locally known as 'Ammanavaru'. Interestingly, Goddess Durga is seen riding a five-faced bull here, instead of a lion, as commonly depicted. Also, the crown of the goddess, known as the karanda mukuta, is shaped differently.
The most important feature of this temple is that all the idols, including the main deity, are made of wood. To maintain the idols intact, abhisheka is not performed on them. An abhisheka is essentially a holy offering of milk, curd, honey and tender coconut water to the main idols of a temple. The temple has as many as 156 wooden idols that are worshipped daily. Some of them are almost 10 feet high.
A majority of these idols are displayed in a gallery in the quadrangle adjacent to the main complex, in the urusale. The word 'uru' means wooden images and 'sale' means gallery in the local language. According to the priest, there is no other temple where daily worship of so many wooden idols is actively carried out. Mekkikattu is a centre of indigenous religious beliefs and customs, including the practice of worshipping spirits. There are several mythological stories associated with this temple and its wooden idols, which are believed to be spirits. One of the stories states that Sage Jambukeshwara installed the Nandi idol along with a number of bhootas (spirits) here as a protection against evil forces.
Another story says that Lord Shiva came here to bless Sage Markandeya and while leaving, he left behind his ganas(spirits) along with the bulls in the village. And, the other myth is that a sage got several ganas here so that he could be protected while performing penance.
A treasure trove of folk beliefs and practices, this temple has a plethora of major and minor divinities. Apart from Akasha Nandi and Ammanavaru, the sanctum sanctorum has several idols like Lord Vishnu, Goddess Nandini and Tottila Devi. Outside the sanctum, there are two striking idols, one is an ascetic in a seated position while the other is a monkey with its hand on its head. This is said to be the idol of Lord Hanuman.
Idols & the artisans
In the quadrangle outside the main sanctum, wooden figurines of all kinds including that of gods, goddesses, demons, soldiers, caretakers, elephants, horses, bulls, birds and monkeys are displayed.
These wooden idols are crafted by the Gudigar artisans residing in the neighbouring villages. It is believed that the Gudigar community migrated from Goa and settled in coastal Karnataka long ago.
These idols are characterised by their bright red, yellow and black colours that were originally obtained from natural sources. Today, however, natural pigments are being replaced by synthetic colours. There are only a few people in the village who are still engaged in this profession. Nonetheless, they help maintain the idols of the temple.
There are a number of ongoing efforts to preserve this woodcraft. There are workshops being conducted in Uppunda town in Udupi district to train those interested in the Mekkikattu style of wood carving and painting.