The swollen Tungabhadra flows lazily behind the world-famous Vijaya Vitthala temple complex at Hampi in Karnataka. Across the river lies Anegundi, the early capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. From the vantage of the river bank, one can see a panorama of hills and boulders, and amid them the white streak of a path that zigzags its way up the tallest hill, where the outline of an ancient temple is visible. This hill, locally known as the Anjanadri Betta (“Hanuman’s Hill”), is in one popular interpretation the birthplace of Hanuman.
According to local people, until a few years ago, there were hardly any visitors to this shrine. Over the past three years, the BJP government in the State has doled out generous grants for the temple and involved itself in a legal joust with at least eight other sites in south India which also claim to be Hanuman’s birthplace.
The commencement of the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya spurred the Karnataka government to link this site to the religious circuit associated with Ram. On March 14, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced an ambitious Rs.125 crore plan to develop the whole area. A 600-bed guest house, a laser light projection and sound show, road widening, large parking lots, and a ropeway to the top of the hill are part of the plan.
A similar plan is afoot in Ramanagara in south Karnataka where senior BJP Ministers have declared that the Ram temple atop the Ramadevara Betta (“Rama’s Hill”), called Pattabhirama temple, will be expanded over 19 acres and known as “Dakshin Ayodhya” (southern Ayodhya). This renovated temple will be modelled on the one coming up in Ayodhya. One has to climb 400 steps to reach the temple; the hillock is located in a vulture sanctuary of 856 acres that is under the control of the Forest Department. On the way to the temple, forest guards point to a cliff where a long-billed vulture is nesting on a precipice. At the summit, there are around 100 devotees, mainly weekenders from Bengaluru.
Santosh, one of the trustees of the temple, explained: “During Ram’s anointment in Ayodhya, Sugriva, who was the ruler of Kishkinda, met Rama and brought back a sanctified stone to south India. When Sugriva came to Ramanagara, he left the stone at this site. During Rama’s search for Sita, he came to this hilltop and established this temple here.” Another trustee, Narasimhaiah S., said: “Over the past five years, the path leading to the temple and the area around it has been cleaned and during the month of Shravana thousands of devotees visit.”
ALSO READ: BJP’s devious game plan in Karnataka
Sharanabasappa Kolkar, a historian and the principal of the Kalmatha Sri Channabasava Swamy Arts and Commerce College for Women in Gangavathi, has argued that the Anjanadri Betta in Anegundi is the actual birthplace of Hanuman. He said: “Anjanadri Betta is located close to sites such as the Pampa Sarovar lake and the Rishyamukha Hill which corresponds to the region of Kishkinda mentioned in Valmiki’s Ramayana. On top of the hill, there is a Hanuman temple dating back to the Vijayanagara era. Towards the northern base of the hill lies Anjanahalli village. Anjana Devi who was living there gave birth to Hanuman on the summit of the hill. That is why the hill is known as Anjanadri Betta.” Kolkar has written a booklet providing puranic, inscriptional, architectural, and sculptural evidence to establish his case.
Thus there is a fair amount of local legitimacy for the origin-stories of both these temples, which are administered by the government’s Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Department (formerly known as Muzrai department). However, there is also opposition to the development plans. In Ramanagara, environmentalists have raised concerns that any development of Ramadevara Betta will wipe out its already minuscule population of vultures.
In Anegundi, where the Hanuman temple sees more than 30,000 visitors on Saturdays, opposition to the proposed development is two-pronged. Local farmers are upset that the plans were announced without taking them into confidence; they have also opposed any land acquisition for the purpose.
Sudarshan Verma, a farmer who grows sandalwood and banana at the foothills of the Hanuman hill, said: “The site requires basic development, but if 600 rooms must be built for visitors, provide facilities for this in the seven neighbouring villages. If amenities have to be provided to visitors in the vicinity of the temple, allow local villagers a share in these activities.”
Mohammed Rafi, who grows paddy and coconut on 2.5 acres of land, said: “The farmers are unwilling to sell their land but the district authorities are now approaching us individually and offering different rates. No farmer is willing to sell his land but even the price being offered is much lower than the market value.”
Also opposing the plan are heritage activists such as the Anegundi-based convener of INTACH, Shama Pawar. She said: “The government’s proposal is not in tune with the way Kishkinda was described in the Ramayana. Let the development plan conform to the authentic concept of Kishkinda which is a place of natural beauty.”
Ramadevaraya, the 80-year-old descendant of the Vijayanagara dynasty who lives in Anegundi, said, “We want to preserve the architectural heritage of Anegundi. Local people have not been consulted in any of the decisions that are being taken here. Where is the plan?” His nephew, Krishnadevaraya, the current titular Vijayanagara ruler, added: “We should not focus on building new temples; just revive the old temples that are in a dilapidated state.”
Political observers interpret the focus on these two temples as part of the BJP’s strategy for the election due in May, which involve social engineering and reconfiguring the caste-political equations of Karnataka. Top BJP leaders such as Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah are expected to visit Ramanagara and Anegundi closer to the election. The significance of the BJP’s support for the two temple sites lies in the concept of “subaltern Hindutva”.
The political analyst Sajjan Kumar Singh states: “The concept of subaltern Hindutva was an outcome of my field studies in the Hindi heartland between 2009 and 2013. During this period, while the BJP was witnessing an electoral decline nationally and in UP, the social outlook of Hindutva was gaining prominence among a large section of the subaltern. A scrutiny of this process revealed a shift in the political psychology of the Hindu subaltern, who felt left out under the secular or social justice parties.”
If we transpose this concept to Karnataka where the BJP has been successful in building a broad coalition of upper castes and Lingayats and sections of the backward castes, Dalits, and tribals in the past (but needs to expand its social base further if it wants to secure a simple majority), we can see subaltern Hindutva in action.
Ramanagara is part of the Vokkaliga heartland where the BJP is largely absent. The party is trying hard to woo the community, which is a landed peasant shudra caste, and the development of the Ram temple is part of this effort. It is no coincidence that C.N. Ashwath Narayana, Minister of Higher Education and the BJP leader who is at the forefront of the temple campaign, is also a Vokkaliga.
S. Rudresh, a Kannada journalist based in Ramanagara, said: “The movement for the construction of a grand Ram temple here will not lead to any immediate gains for the BJP as this constituency is represented by Anita Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular), who is the wife of former Chief Minister and JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy. Kanakapura, which is also part of Ramanagara district, is the stronghold of Congress leader D.K. Shivakumar.” While this may be so, the pitch for the development of the Ram temple is part of the party’s long-term efforts at expanding its social base in southern rural Karnataka.
The case of Anegundi is different. According to local observers, the BJP has already mobilised, socially and politically, the “subaltern” tribal and backward caste communities of the region through the work of its affiliates such as the Bajrang Dal. B. Peer Basha, a Kannada poet and writer who is based in Hosapete, said: “The Sangh Parivar is constantly working on bringing backward communities into its fold. They adopt different strategies in different parts of the State and country to do this. In this region, where the tribal population is high, they have wooed communities such as the Valmikis, Nayakas, and Talwars who are all categorised as Scheduled Tribes [ST], through events such as Hanuma Mala, which started in 2015-16. When this event takes place at the end of every year, there is tremendous religious fervour among these communities.”
While Anegundi is in Koppal district, it is also located right in the middle of the four districts of Koppal, Raichur, Vijayanagara, and Ballari, all of which have a high proportion of voters belonging to tribal communities. The four districts cumulatively elect 21 MLAs, of which eight are reserved for STs.
‘Social engineering, not bhakti’
A senior tribal studies scholar based in Hosapete told Frontline: “Hanuman is certainly a totem of south India but it was a gentle Hanuman. Over the past few years even his depiction has changed and the aggressive picture of the god has become popular here. The mood of the participants in the Hanuma Mala is militant. This is social engineering, not bhakti.”
ALSO READ: Wooing the Vokkaligas
A senior Kannada newspaper journalist from Hosapete said: “This was a solid Congress belt, but things are changing now as the BJP has captured tribal voters through the development of Anjanadri Betta. Even though the region has not seen any communal violence except for a fracas in Gangavathi in 2016 during Hanuma Mala, anti-Muslim hate is spread regularly through social media.”
Shivasundar, a Bengaluru-based political commentator, said: “The BJP government in Karnataka is reeling from charges of corruption and the focus on these two temples is clearly meant to distract attention away from this aspect. A second aim seems to be to bring in shudra and tribal populations under a brahminical Hindu fold which will eventually lead to support for the BJP.”
- On March 14, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced a Rs.125 crore plan to develop Anjanadri Betta, purportedly the birthplace of Hanuman, near Anegundi.
- Similarly, in Ramanagara in south Karnataka, senior BJP Ministers have declared that the Ram temple atop the Ramadevara Betta would be expanded and modelled on the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
- These projects have faced opposition from local farmers and heritage activists in Anegundi as well as environmentalists in Ramanagara.
- Political observers interpret the focus on these two temples as part of the BJP’s strategy for the election due in May, which involves social engineering and “subaltern Hindutva”.