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Mekkikattu Nandikeshwara Temple: Worshipping the Holy Bull

By Rashmi Gopal Rao

Located about 20 kilometers from Kundapur and just about 8 km from the temple town of Barkur is a rare temple, the Nandikeshwara temple of Mekekattu .  Legend has it that this temple located near Saibre katte in Shiriyara village was built by Parashurama and dates back to over 1000 years.  Another theory says that the temple was built by one of the Alupa kings, who were a minor dynasty that ruled the state between 450-1400 C.E.

Exteriors of the Nandakeshwara temple in MekkikattuExteriors of the Nandikeshwara temple in Mekkikattu

Uncommon features

The temple has several unique features that are not found commonly in other traditional temples of South Canara.  Firstly, the main deity of the temple is Lord Nandi or the holy bull which is the vehicle or vahana of Lord Shiva.  The body of the bull is strong and bulky with a raised head and open tongue.  A symbol that depicts the omnipresence of Lord Shiva, the Nandi here is known as the “Akasha Nandi” as it believed that the bull can actually fly.

Main deity at Mekkikatu Nandikeshwara temple
Main deity at Mekkikatu Nandikeshwara temple

Goddess Durga too is another chief deity who is seen with four hands here and is locally known as “Ammanavaru”.  Interestingly, while Goddess Durga always rides a lion, She is seen riding the bull here which again is a unicorn and five faced.  Also, the crown of the Goddess known as the ‘Karanda mukuta’ is shaped differently and resembles a spath.

Sanctum sanctorum at Nandikeshwara temple
Sanctum sanctorum at Nandikeshwara temple

The most distinguishing feature is that both these as well as all other idols of the temple are made up of wood and hence there is no “abhisheka” to the idols in this temple.  Incidentally, the “abhisheka” refers to the holy offering of milk, curd, honey and coconut water to the main idols of the temple.

Wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple
Wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple

In fact, the entire temple has a whopping 156 wooden idols that are worshipped daily.  Some of them are over almost 10 feet in height.  A majority of them are displayed in a gallery adjacent to the main idol complex and this is called “Urusale” with the word “Uru” meaning wooden images and “sale” meaning gallery. According to the priest, there is no other temple where the daily worship of so many wooden idols together is carried out actively in this manner.

Wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple
Another view of the wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple

Multiple myths

Mekkikattu is a center of indigenous religious beliefs and aboriginal customs which includes the practice of worshipping various nature, animal and human spirits.  There are several mythological connections associated with this temple and its wooden idols that are believed to be spirits.  One of them says that sage “Jambukeshwara” installed Nandi along with a number of “Bhutas” (spirits) here as a protection against evil forces.

Wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple
Wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple

Another story says that Lord Shiva came here to bless Sage Markandeya and while leaving left behind His “Ganas” (spirits) along with the bulls in the village. Yet another myth is that sage Adakattaya got several “Ganas” here so that he could be protected while performing penance.

The wooden idols

Being a treasure house of folk beliefs and practices, the temple has a plethora of major and minor divinities.  Apart from the Akash Nandi and Ammanavaru, the sanctum sanctorum has several other idols like Lord Vishnu, Nandini and Tottila Devi.  The latter is worshipped by couples for the fulfilment of their desire to have children.

Just outside the sanctum there are two striking idols, one an ascetic in a seated position while the other is a monkey with its hand on his head and is often considered as Lord Hanuman.

Some of the other wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple
Some of the other wooden idols at the Nandikeshwara temple

In the quadrangle (Urusale) outside the main sanctum complex, the space is filled with wooden figurines of all kinds including that of Gods, Goddesses, demons, soldiers, caretakers, elephants, horses, bulls, birds and monkeys.

Miscellaneous wooden idols at the Mekkikattu temple
Miscellaneous wooden idols at the Mekkikattu temple

Important festivals and rituals

The annual festivities of the temple include a wide array of traditional pujas like the “Mari puje”, “Dhakke Bali” and “Gende seve”.  “Tulabhara” and “Basavana kanike” are also special offerings by devotees which are performed by them once their wishes are fulfilled.  The temple attracts patronage from several tribal and local communities like the Shetty community, the Koragas and the Mogaviras (fishermen).

Artisans of the wooden idols

The makers are of these magnificent wooden idols are an exclusive community called the Gudigaras who reside in the neighbouring villages like Uppunda.  It is believed that these people who are highly skilled in wood carving migrated from Goa and settled in coastal Karnataka.  The idols are characterized 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.

Wooden idols at the Mekkikattu temple
Wooden idols at the Mekkikattu temple

This exclusive craft is a dying art today and there are a few people in the village who are still involved in this profession.  Nonetheless, it is these people who help maintain the idols of the Mekkikattu temple, that were recently repainted a few years ago.  There are a number of ongoing efforts to preserve this unique style of woodcraft and there are workshops and trainings conducted in Uppunda to train the interested in the Mekkikattu style of wood carving and painting.

This article was originally published in Deccan Herald here.  To read about other temples in South canara click here and here.

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