Was Manteswamy a rebel god?

Manteswamy, one of Karnataka's two great oral epics, harks back to a pre-historic past. Post-12th century, it asserts the identity of the neglected artisan classes, writes Dr Hi Chi Boralingaiah

The Kunduru Hill episode
Read a selection from the epic


The 12th century radically changed the thinking of Kannadigas. The bhakti movement led by Basavanna stressed the dignity of common people, and boosted the self-confidence of the artisan and other working classes. This grand cultural struggle gave pride of place not to Sanskrit but to Kannada, which common people spoke, and inspired poetry of great beauty and vitality.  

Basavanna and Allama Prabhu shaped the movement with their fearless moral leadership. Their magnificent personalities drew millions into their fold, and lit in people's minds the lamp of self-realisation.

The sharana movement, as it was called, tried to destroy caste distinctions, and encouraged marriage across communities. It shifted the focus of spirituality from karma (fate) to kayaka (honest toil). Its egalitarian objectives were not easy to achieve, and social turmoil spread in the Kannada-speaking regions.

Did the second generation of sharanas, post-Basavanna and Allama Prabhu, neglect the working classes? Did some leaders of the lower castes, appalled by the forward-thinking sharanas turning into an exclusive caste, rebel and come out?

We must look at the two oral epics of Manteswamy and Madeshwara against this background. Both refer to their central characters as coming from the north (Basavanna lived near the northern tip of Karnataka). Some passages even describe them in dialogue with Basavanna. There is no historical evidence to show that they were contemporaries of Basavanna, but enough evidence exists to show that they come from a later period, and that they hailed from castes low down in the social hierarchy.

The Manteswamy tradition constantly alludes to Allama Prabhu, the most intensely complex of the vachana poets. Manteswamy is often referred to as Allama Prabhu, 'Jaganjyoti' (Light of the World) and 'Paranjyoti' (Light of Heaven). Allama was special among the sharanas of Basavanna's time. He stressed fidelity to an inner god rather than to an external symbol like the linga. The Manteswamy tradition also believes in this principle. A major debate of Shaivism concerns the validity of such symbols. The Manteswamy tradition takes up the debate again. At several points, it appears as though Manteswamy is a personification of Allama Prabhu's ideas.

Throughout the saga of Manteswamy, he picks up infants for his cause. This is symbolic. Each child represents a community that comes into the Manteswamy fold. Rachappaji, Doddamma of the Grove, Channajamma, Madivala Machayya, Phalaradayya and Siddappaji are his chief followers. How he brought them into his fold, through ritual, craft and magic, makes up the saga. Nowhere does Manteswamy use or endorse violence.

The Kempachari episode, a short excerpt of which is presented in translation, is one the high points of the epic. Kempachari belongs to the ironsmith caste, which Manteswamy probably wanted to bring into his tradition. Manteswamy comes in the guise of a beggar and seeks some iron as alms. That must have been a time when farmers had discovered how they could use iron for ploughing. In a sense, the episode shows the relationship between iron producers and iron users. The arrogance of Kempachari comes across as the arrogance of the producing class. Can such a hotblooded, wealthy boy be transformed into a mendicant like Manteswamy? To singers of the Manteswamy epic, the furnace becomes a metaphor for the ordeal that transforms Kempachari. The furnace burns not just metal but all the worldly attributes of Kempachari. It makes him capable of renouncing his wealth, and turning into a saint. The new Kempachari gets a new name – Siddappaji.

In Prabhulingaleele, Chamarasa's classic 16th century biography, Allama Prabhu sits in a cave and gains enlightenment. Kempachari also lives in a cave for many years before he can become the enlightened Siddappaji. He eats snakes and scorpions as he endures his ordeal, and such eating habits echo the lifestyle of a very distant past.

Translated by

S R Ramakrishna