Although I am not especially religious, I enjoy visiting old temples, for the beauty of their construction and the tranquillity of their surroundings. I live in Bangalore, a city whose colonial architecture is sparse and whose modern buildings are horrendously ugly. When friends come visiting, I take them on a day-trip either to Somanathapura, an exquisite Hoysala temple off the road to Mysore, or Lepakshi, just across the border into Andhra Pradesh, whose stone cobra is one of the jewels of Indian sculpture.
These two temples I still love, but to them has now been added the Chandranatha Temple in the southwestern town of Moodbidri. I first heard of the town when I met Padmanabha Jaini, whose books on Jain philosophy and morality are enduring works of scholarship. Professor Jaini is the most reticent of men, but when a mutual friend told me that he came originally from Moodbidri I decided I must visit the place. When I went there I was enchanted. There were Jain havelis built in the coastal style, with tiled roofs and spacious balconies, and doors and windows of solid, solid, wood. There was a Jain high school, and a Jain dharamshala. And there were several small Jain temples, their traditional architecture largely intact.
I walked around the town, and then walked into the Jain Mutt. Here I was introduced to the keeper of Moodbidri's flame, a young acharya in his late-30s named Charukeerthi Swami. I watched, and listened, as he spoke to a stream of devotees, who included local Jains as well as some pilgrims from Rajasthan, who had travelled across India to see the 'Jain Kashi'. The swami struck me as a man of considerable intelligence, whose Hindi and English was as fluent as his Kannada, and who was deeply sensible of the depth and sophistication of the spiritual tradition that he now represented. I couldn't help contrasting his dignity and composure with the vanity and self-regard of the post-modern gurus who appear on television.
After the devotees departed, the swami asked where I was from. On learning that I was a historian, he said I must see the Chandranatha or 'thousand pillar' temple, and pointed me in its direction. It lay at the end of the road on which the Mutt was sited, its beauty and capaciousness masked by the wall that enclosed it.
At the entrance to the temple is a stone column some 50-feet high. The temple behind has three long hallways. The building is held up by gorgeous carved pillars. It is surrounded by grass on all sides, and beyond, by a high wall that has weathered several hundred monsoons and seems set to see out several hundred more. From the compound's edges one gets a quite lovely perspective on the temple as a whole.
One thing that struck me about the temple was its long, sloping roofs. On returning home, I consulted Percy Brown's classic Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu Periods), where it is argued that the pillars, columns, hallways and roofs all closely resemble temples in Nepal and Kashmir, with the difference that the material used here was stone rather than wood. Brown thinks that the parallels are not accidental; as he puts it, "in the case of these Moodbidri temples some of the similarity to the Himalayan style may be accounted for by the builders in each region endeavouring in their construction to solve problems presented by the extreme changes of climate, in mitigating the effect of the fierce tropical sun alternating with heavy monsoon rains. Yet it is difficult to believe that the analogy between the two styles of building and methods of construction is due to both people reasoning alike."
Brown writes of the carvings in the Chandranatha temple that they are 'all executed with incredible precision, patience, and skill.' So they are. Their beauty is enhanced by the immediate setting, of grass and trees within a stone wall, and of the wider context, namely, of a town that nobly carries forth an ancient spiritual (and architectural) tradition.
That tradition may now be under threat. When I revisited Moodbidri recently, I headed straight for the Mutt to meet Charukeerthi Swami. He said a seminar on the heritage of the town was due to start in half an hour. After a quick round of the temple I went to attend its proceedings. Apparently a four-lane highway was being planned, that would cut right through the town. The swami, and, following him, other speakers, spoke of how the road, if built, would damage the town's integrity and sanctity. One speaker sarcastically remarked that had this been a temple town close to Delhi, the proposal would have been shelved at the first protest, whereas voices from so far South rarely reached the nation's capital.
At this seminar I met Dr M Prabhakara Joshy, a respected educationist and writer, who explained to me how Moodbidri might be saved. First, re-activate an alternative proposal to build a bypass that would rejoin the main road two miles from the town, thus keeping heavy traffic away from it. Second, declare Moodbidri and its precincts a 'heritage town', with strict rules regulating the nature of new constructions. Unlike some other temple towns, Moodbidri largely retains its integrity - its shrines have not been refashioned as mock-Tirupatis, and the town centre still has few large buildings. There is a lot to save, and, therefore, also a lot to lose. With this column perhaps the voices of the citizens of Moodbidri might finally reach New Delhi. One hopes, and trusts, that they are heard.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy.The views expressed by the author are personal.