Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

October 20, 2023

First published October 7, 2023

 in Times Of India

How Hinduism Took Roots in the Telugu Lands

Telugu-speaking lands emerge where the black soil of Karnataka region turns red as the rivers Godavari and Krishna move east towards the sea. The word Telugu is derived from the proto-Dravidian word ‘ten’ which means south. Telugu emerged from the larger Proto-Dravidian language over 2000 years ago, but was formalised only during the reign of the Kakatiyas about 1000 years ago, who carved out a Telugu speaking kingdom from the erstwhile Chalukyan empire.

Warangal Fort

The first great piece of Telugu literature was the Mahabharata – a story of brothers fighting over property and dividing the kingdom. Today, the old Andhra Pradesh state, the first linguistic state of independent India is split into two: Telangana and Andhra? There are many cultural reasons that can explain this split, other than modern political and economic issues.

First, geography. Telangana is the dry upland, full of mountains, mines and millet fields, Andhra is the wet, lowland, rich with deltas and coastline, full of rice farms.
Second, language. A more Sanskritised Brahman-influenced Telugu emerged in Andhra, while the less Sanskritised Janu Tenugu is spoken in Telangana, which later came to be influenced by Arab and Persian languages, which gave rise to Deccani Urdu.
Third, religion. While we find Buddhist and Jain caves scattered across both regions, relatively speaking, a more egalitarian form of Shiva worship (Lamudigalam sect) emerged in Telangana, while the more Brahmanical forms of Vishnu worship is prevalent in Andhra Pradesh. Later, Telangana came under rule of Muslim kings while Andhra was ruled by Hindu Vijayanagara kings.

Rayalaseema (royal border), located between the two, is dry, famous for water scarcity and hence water tanks. Ceded by the Nizam to the British, atop hills of this land are the famous Hindu shrines such as Tirupati (Vishnu Balaji), SriSailam (Shiva Mallikarjun), and Ahobilam (Narasimha) built by Vijayangar kings.


The land of Iron Age warriors

In the Sanskrit Ramayana, we have reference to the Godavari river, not the Krishna river. As per archeologists, when Vedic culture was establishing itself in the Gangetic river plains, between 1000 BCE and 300 BCE, Telangana and Andhra was in the Iron Age. Warriors were buried, along with weapons, in pits and large stones were placed on top of their graves. This is called the Mesolithic culture. While grey-black coloured pots are in the Gangetic region, red and black coloured pots are found in Telangana-Andhra region.

The earliest deities that the people propitiated were linked to plants and animals. Amongst animals the snake (Naga) was venerated along with the humped Zebu bull (Nandi, Basava) and the buffalo (Mahisha), who was killed by the Goddess, and whose meat was consumed by all.

Mother goddess images of clay have been found from this period in this region. The earliest goddesses were visualised in lotus ponds with grain, flowers and parrots in their hands. This gave rise to images we now refer to as Lajjagauri, Telugu Talli, and the famous Bathukamma festival, where people carry flower pots to indicate the end of the rainy season.


The monastic migration

Mythologically speaking, Aryan culture spread to the south via Agastya who crossed the Vindhya mountains and never returned. Historically, however, the migration is linked to Buddhists and Jain monks.

Buddhist monks referred to the river Godavari as Teli Vaha (white current) while river Krishna (which means black) was called Andhaka (dark). So the two rivers that flowed from the Decccan mountains to the eastern coasts, mirrored the white and dark rivers, i.e. Ganga and Yamuna of North India. As per some, Teli Vaha gave rise to the name Telangana while Andhaka eventually became Andhra.
Jain and Buddhist monks travelled along river banks and along coasts. With these monks came ideas of renunciation and fasting, contrary to the old ideas that celebrated fertility and abundance. But they also spoke of restraint, and contentment, thus countering the narratives of war, pleasure and power. This made them very popular especially amongst traders who established the “Cotton Highways” 2000 years ago. Both ends of this highway is marked by many rock-cut Buddhist and Jain shrines: towards the west coast, at Maharashtra (Bhaja, Karla, Ajanta, Ellora), near the sources of Godavari and Krishna, and near the east coast in Andhra (Undavalli, Bodhikonda, Ghanikonda), near the delta of Godavari and Krishna.

Some of the oldest, most stunning Buddhist artworks with stupas and images from Jataka tales are found at Nagarjunakonda in this region, built by Ikshavaku kings. These are about 2000 years old, built during the Satavahana period. The kings patronised Vedic rituals and Brahmins but the merchants patronised the Buddhist caves, stupas and monasteries.

Two great names in Buddhism are traditionally traced to the Telangana-Andhra region: Nagarjuna who lived around 250 CE and Buddhaghosha who lived around 500 CE. Nagarjuna travelled north and spread the Mahayana doctrine of shunya-vada (emptiness) while Buddhaghosha travelled south to Sri Lanka and revived the Pali canon of old Buddhism (Theravada).

Buddha’s Life’s Scenes

Rise of Hindu gods

Telangana name also comes from Tri-linga referring to three popular Shiva shrines: one located in current Telangana (Kaleshwaram), the others located in Rayalaseema (SriSailam) and the Andhra coast (Bhimeshwaram). This reveals the rise and popularity of Hinduism in this region.

Hindu artworks appear in North India from 500 CE, after marriage relations were established between Northern Gupta kings and southern Vakataka kings. Around 1300 years ago, we see sites with Hindu artworks increasing (Akkanna Madanna caves, Bhairavakona caves, Mogalrajapuram Cave) with images of Shiva, Nataraja, Ganesha, even events from the life of Krishna.

The rise of Hindu artwork marks a shift from old Vedic Hinduism to a new form of Hinduism based on Puranic stories, which embraced local gods and goddesses. While Brahmins transformed local gods into manifestations of the divine, who enjoyed song and dance and pleasure and power, Buddhists and Jains remained monastic and saw local deities as simply serving Buddha or Tirthankaras. This made Brahmins more popular with local chieftains, who gave Brahmins land grants (deva-bhoga) where rice could be grown to feed their gods. The wealth from these lands funded the building of grand Hindu temples. By 1000 CE, we see a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism in South India and the rise of Shaivism and Vaishnavism.


Bhakti in tension

‘I affectionately adore the linga that is placed on my head, tied with my hair.’ This line is found carved in Telugu script on a granite stone, above the image of man with a Shiva-linga on his head, found at the Agastisvaraswamy temple complex at Abbayapalem village in Maripeda Mandal of the distric, and dated to 12th century, indicating the presence of Shaivism in the Kakatiya period. This reminds us of the practice of tying the atma-linga around the neck instituted by Basava-anna, a revolutionary saint from Karnataka, and the rise of the Lingayat and Veera-shaiva movement in this region around this time.

Carrying images of gods on the head, on pots and in baskets, is common in the Deccan region. We find this in the worship of goddesses like Yellamma. Jain scriptures speak of Yakshis like Ambika carrying images of the Tirthankara on their head all the time. This may have influenced the practice of keeping the linga stone either around the neck or tied to the hair.

Lamudigalam was a Shaiva sect, similar to the Lingayat movement, that rejected the hierarchies and boundaries created by caste. So they rejected Shiva worship as practised in temples managed by Brahmins and sought direct access to the divine. At the same time they rejected the Jain faith that valued the individual soul (jiva-atma) but denied the existence of a cosmic soul (param-atma). This form of devotional Shaivism saw Shiva as the formless divine, present everywhere, and distinguished itself from temple-based Brahmanical Shaivism, favoured by kings, as well as Jainism, favoured by merchants. All of them rejected Buddhism that denied the existence of the soul itself. These tensions and transformations are most visible in Adavi Somanapalli caves, which was a Jain shrine, later converted to a Shiva shrine by placement of a Shiva-linga.

Arrival of Islam

In the 14th century, the Delhi Sultanate made its way into South India, and they were followed by Sufi missionaries of Islam. This period witnessed the rise of the Vijaynagar empire that pushed back against the Bahmani Sultans. They fought over control over the old “Cotton Highways”. The Vijayanagara kings were centred in Karnataka and they originally venerated Shiva as Virupaksha, located in their capital. But after the city was sacked by the alliance of Muslim Sultans in the 16th century, we find the Vijayangar kings (forced to move South) venerating Venkateshwara Balaji (a form of Vishnu), at Tirupati, more and more, in their official documents.

From this period Telangana came under greater control of Muslim kings – the Bahamanis in the 14th century, then Qutb Shahis from the 16th century, and from the 18th century, the Asaf Jhahi. The great wealth of Telangana Sultans, Shahs and Nizams came from the Golconda diamond mines which inspired stories such as those of Sinbad the Sailor who travels from Arabia in search of diamonds to India.

These diamonds adorned the crowns of Tirupati Balaji who descended from his heavenly adobe of Vaikuntha, chasing an angry Lakshmi, and found a home in the seven hills of Tirumalai which reminded him of the seven hoods of Adi Sesha, the cosmic serpent. To stay here, he had to marry a local princess, Pamdavati. For this he had to take a loan from Kubera, the treasurer of the gods. To repay this debt, he seeks help from devotees. Those who pay him either by giving him gold, or donating their hair (sold in international wig markets), are repaid with interest, which brings them fortune. This belief, and the patronage of Vijaynagar kings, made Tirupati Balaji the richest Hindu temple.

No story of Hindu history of Telangana is complete without referring to Madanna and Akkanna, Hindu courtiers of the Qutb Shahi kings, in the 17th century, who collected jizya tax from non-Muslim people but used it wisely to create public works that benefited traders and travellers and pilgrims. This made them popular and powerful, but also earned them the ire of conservative Muslims who felt their king was being too lenient to the kafirs, and so invited Aurangzeb to attack the land. To keep the peace the brothers offered the Mughal Emperor a huge tribute. But that was not enough to satisfy the ambition of the Delhi king who wanted to conquer all of India. The two brothers were beheaded and became the stuff of nationalist lore.

Akkanna and Madanna Brothers

Their sister’s son, Gopanna, was a celebrated Sri Vaishnava bhakti poet, linked to the temple of Ram at Bhadrachalam. Like his uncles, he was an officer of the Qutb Shahi state. When he used the funds to repair the Ram temple, he was accused of fraud and arrested. This was when Aurangzeb attacked Telangana. Realizing this was punishment for arresting Gopanna, the king released the poet-saint. To make peace, the practice of sending pearls by the rulers of Hyderabad to the temple of Ram at Bhadrachalam started.

Bhadrachala Ramadasu

Also popular in Telangana is the famous Bonallu festival just before the start of the rainy season. Pots of food are carried by women on their head in long processions to the shrines of the local forms Kali (Maisamma, Pochamma, Yellamma, Peddhamma, Dokkalamma, Ankalamma, Poleramma, Maremma, Nookalamma). They feed her (Bonalu comes from the word Bhog) to appease her to protect the land from disease. The spirit of the goddess enters these women, who are led by a Pot-raju, considered to be the wild brother and protector of the goddess. This ritual reminds us of the ancient subaltern foundational and native beliefs of the land, watered by Godavari and Krishna, that predates the arrivals of Muslims, Brahmins, Jains and Buddhists.

Bonalu Dance

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