Dharmasthala: From Legendary Roots to Unstoppable Growth

October 29, 2018

Dharmasthala and its Dharmadhikari are in media focus day in and day out because the latter is currently marking golden jubilee of his ascending as head of the ever-expanding world of dharma and beyond. It had legendary roots and has a record of dynamic, self-sustained and unstoppable growth. In the midst of flash-bulbs and media headlines, there is a tendency to ignore its roots going back to 800 years.

The origin of Dharmasthala is coalesced in legend and lore. A pious couple, Birmanna Pergade and Ammu Ballalthi, lived in Nelliady Beedu. According to lore, the guardian angels of Dharma assumed human form and visited the couple in search of a place where Dharma was practised and could be continued. The visitors were well received and treated by the couple. Pleased over this, the Dharma Daivas appeared in a dream to Pergade and instructed him to set aside the Beedu for the Daivas and dedicate his life to propagate Dharma. This worship continues to this day.

In a subsequent dream, Pergade was asked to build separate shrines for the four Daivas. As per instructions he chose two persons as oracles of Daivas and appointed four persons to help him in his duties as executive head of the shrines. Brahmin priests were appointed to perform rituals. As per their desire, a Shivalinga was installed beside the Daivas and later the Manjunatha Temple was built around the Linga. The Kshethra has since been nurtured by the Heggade family – this surname being a derivation from Pergade.

Over the last 100 years Dharmasthala has expanded the domain of dharma to encompass charity, solace, justice, education, healthcare, conservation, community service, Ayurveda, yoga and nature cure. But, first the spiritual domain to which everything got added, especially during the regime of the last three Dharmadhikaris – Manjaya Heggade (1918-1955), Ratnavarma Heggade (1955-1968) and Dr Veerendra Heggade (1968-till date) now being in the midst of celebrating his ascending the head seat. The Heggade genealogy starts from Bhirmanna Heggade and the present Heggade is the 21st down the line.

From that legendary beginning, Dharmasthala today has grown into a vibrant township with thousands of devotees descending on it in quest of spiritual and temporal solace. Such visitors receive free lunch and dinner. Hundreds of people get free hostelry in its streamlined guesthouses. When I visited the kshetra, I came across instructions not to get married in the rooms. Such marriages can be solemnised in the temple itself. Once in a year Dharmasthala hosts mass marriages where the expenses are met by the Kshethra and the couples are given presents. The bride is presented a gold mangalasuthra and the couples are given clothes. Started in 1972, in one such events I monitored, 230 couples were married. Wedding celebration or not, it may be noted that smoking, drinking alcohol and eating non-vegetarian food are taboo in the township.

That takes us to Dharmasthala’s characteristic as a Kshetra of peace and non-violence. It is because there is a fusion of Jain and Hindu traditions here. The main Deity and Daivas are Hindu, the priests are Brahmins and the Dharmadhikaris are Heggades – Jains. This fusion accounts for its hosting an architecturall attractive Chandranathaswamy Basadi and the 39 ft. tall monolithic granite statue of Bahubali (Gomateshwara) installed on a hillock. While the other three Gomateshwaras in Karnataka – at Shravanabelagola, Karkala and Venoor – are a few centuries old, the one at Dharmasthala is of recent origin. It was commissioned by Ratnavarma Heggade in 1967, completed in 1970, installed in 1975 and inaugurated in 1982. It was carved from a single rock by Ranjala Gopala Shenoy at Karkala. The 170-tonne
statue was transported over a distance of 64 KM on a trailer with 64 wheels and three tractors of 250 HP. The statue has a 13 ft. pedestal and is installed atop a hill.

Ranjala Gopala Shenoy

The statue takes me back to 1970s and my first tryst with another Jain centre, Karkala, 60 KM north-east of Mangalore. Sitting next to me on a Bangalore-Mangalore flight was a Japanese Buddhist monk heading for Karkala to meet the master of monolithic granite statues – Ranjala Gopal Shenoy. The Japanese ordered hundreds of large and small granite statues that brought fame and dollars to Karkala. When I met Gopala Shenoy, I discreetly checked his fingers. For, it was common for petty kings of yore to chop off the fingers of outstanding artists so that they would not replicate the works of art for their rivals.

The institutions started by Dharmasthala are concentrated at Ujire, off the Mangaluru-Chikkamagaluru highway, and are also spread all over Karnataka. These include educational institutions under SDM Educational Trust and Society such as SDM College, Ujire, SDM Law and Business Management School, Mangaluru, SDM College of Dental Science, Dharwad, SDM College of Engineering and Technology, also at Dharwad, SDM Institute of Management Development, Mysuru, SDM College of Naturopathy and Yogic Sciences, Ujire and SDM College of Ayurveda, Udupi and Hassan. This list needs updating which is beyond the scope of this article.

Dharmsthala itself, beyond being a pilgrim magnet hosts a number of things of tourist interest. The Automobile Museum is unique. It has 51 vintage cars, the oldest dating back to 1903. There is also a 1915 Fordson tractor with crane, a 1926 ambulance and a 1926 fire engine. There are grand, opulent bullock carts used by Kathakali troupes in Kerala and 13 decorative horse carriages or wagons, the earliest dating back to 1864.

Now there is a specially designed museum, named Manjusha Museum, inaugurated on the 51st Pattabhisheka Vardhanthyotsava on October 24, 2018 by Minister H D Revanna, in the absence of his brother, Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy. It has on display over 8000 artefacts exhibited in a specially build structure spread over one lakh sq ft with state-of-the-art facilities.

Just outside the old museum there was a trainer aircraft. Close by, when I was there, three elephants swung their trunks to ward off flies. They were not tethered nor was there a mahout to control them. But, that is the non-violent chemistry of Dharmasthala. On an earlier visit, the elephants, then stationed near the temple, kissed my Parsi and Gujarathi lady friends from Mumbai with the snout of their trunks. We took photos of the visitors caressing the elephants.

I had taken for granted many tourist sites of Tulu Nadu. But, when I had to escort visiting friends and relatives, I have to be more than a driver and become a tourist guide. One of the magnets that draw my guests is Dharmasthala, 75 km east of Mangaluru. From my childhood, I had an image of Dharmasthala where everything, mainly meals, came free. This was dinned into me by our farm workers for whom meals meant the world. As I confirmed through repeated visits, lunch and dinner are still served free daily to thousands of pilgrims through ultra-modern kitchens and large dining halls.

Finally, the continuous stream of devotees look beyond freebies and queue up for the darshan of Lord Manjunatha and his local representative, Dharmadhikari Veerendra Heggade. When he is in station, he sits on his high chair, listening to the woes and pleadings for charity. In the 1980s, I also joined the snaking line of people to enlist his sponsorship for my proposed book, ‘Journey through Tulu Nadu’. He flipped through my supporting letter and documentation, allowed me to have my say and responded. He explained how inflation has hit his budget to feed and house his pilgrims. He returned my papers. I opted to leave them back. I had been told that none who goes to Dharmasthala with a request returns empty handed. As I ruminated on this after returning to Bombay, a cheque arrived with a letter signed by him wishing success for my project. That I did not do the project and I returned the cheque amount with interest is another matter.

By John B Monteiro
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Comment on this article

  • Pundalik Prabhu, Ujire/Canada

    Fri, Nov 16 2018

    Dear Mr. Monteiro: I am writing this comment in a hurry to beat the closing date of colomns in Daijiworld. So please excuse me for my typos and deficiencies in the syntax etc.

    When I read your excellent article , I felt thrilled and also felt deeply saddened too. Let me explain. First, you may like to know that I am an octogenarian born in mid 1930s in Ujire and lived one third of my life there. I am one of 26 students in the very first batch of Ujire high school in the year 1951. The head master of the school was then Renjal Hari Shenoy. Many of my memories of Ujire , Dharmasthala and surrounding Male Nadu are still vivid. My father was a very good life long friend of late Dharmadhikari Manjayya Heggade (M.H) . I was very fortunate to receive a prize for my acting in that year's drama

    Secondly, I Feel a sense of loss. In those days, perhaps until 1960s, both places and Malenadu were sparsely populated where one could see and enjoy the pastoral beauty of rolling hills, mountains of Western Ghats, clean air , loveliness of clouds, pitch dark nights with brightly shining stars of brightly lit stars of the Milky Way and gentle or ferocious rains of the monsoon. There was abundant wild life , birds, fish and thick ever green forests. Year after year , they have diminished if not extinct and have been replaced by uncontrolled population growth, pollution, urbanization noise and other pollution. Rivers and lakes now have been poisoned by pollution.

    For reasons of limited space, let me briefly mention about Manjayya Heggade. . He was a visionary who was responsible for bringing benefits of education to people in the surrounding areas by establishing the first high school. He was a fine artist in his personal life and promoted study of classical Hindu and Jain philosophies in residential Campus at Siddhavana village. When he was alive, mass weddings were conducted for poor couples who couldn't afford wedding expenses such as dowries! I recall that during his administration, mass camps were held to restore eye sights by performing cataract procedures. In the annual religious festival held in Dharmasthala, perhaps the most important event was to conduct interfaith religious discussions known as "Sarvadhrna sammelana" . Religious scholars from Jain, Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities participated in this function!

    I give great credit to the current Dhamasthal, Shri Virendra Heggade for continuation of these progressive reforms, charities and other efforts.

    On a personal note, I am pleased that you are writing a book about the history of Malenadu . Such a work is badly needed in these days to remind readers about its rich cultural and religious history. Btw, the historical name of Ujire had been forgotten and only recently was found to be ! Possibly a Sanskrit name , Uchita Bhoomi. Should you need additional true stories of the region , please contact me on my email ID p_prabhu99@hotmail.com.

  • Prescilla Fernandes, Mangalore

    Thu, Nov 08 2018

    Monteiro sir, appreciate your reply to Prabhumam. We are in and out of these potholes every day. Those NRIs visit their native place once in a while and find it difficult to reach their destination/native place. But for us who are permanently staying here, pots and holes is a non-stop story and we digest it with a pinch of salt.

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Wed, Nov 07 2018

    All the world’s a stage
    And all men and women merely players,
    They have their exits and entrances…
    --William Shakespeare in As You Like It

    Thank you Sandesh Prabu, US/Ujire for your response.
    Your comments on the national highway from Mangalore to Ujire and on pedestrian pathways and drainage are accepted. However, your wish that Mr John Monteiro and Daijiworld can surely write on these local conditions as a supplement to this article are misplaced.
    I have been to Dharmastala several times to write about this holy place and Daijiworld has provided a platform for such writings and comments thereon. It is beyond both to write about pedestrian pathways and drainage along the highways. It is open to anyone to highlight these and agitate for action-- including NRIs who have greater weightage.

    It reminds me of a story wherein an old man on his deathbed calls his son and tells him that in his next birth, he would be born as a pig and would visit his home shortly thereafter. He commands his son to shoot the pig dead. Sure enough, a month after he passed away, a pig approached the house, grunting loudly and with a dozen piglings in tow. The son came out with a loaded gun and leveled it to shoot the pig. The pig beseeched his son not to shoot it, saying:“Andige ade sooka, indige ide sooka.” (It was a joy then to live as man; it is a joy today to live as pig).

    It is easy to criticize conditions back home for those who have voted against India with their feet but the opportunities to get involved in India’s growth story are not foreclosed for anyone.

  • Sandesh Prabhu, United States / Ujire

    Tue, Nov 06 2018

    It is an impressive note on Dharmastala.

    During my recent visit to my native at Belthangadi, I was shocked to see the condition of National Highway from Mangalore to Ujire that leads to Dharmastala, which is full of potholes and just around 4 to 5 meters wide everywhere.

    In one occasion, our Car from Mangalore to Ujire has to STOP to clear the road for 30+ minutes at Guruvayankere, which is a multi road junction. I just saw, there is no margin left for Pedestrian pathway and even a drainage donot exists. It so happened, when I got down from my car to look around, the gushing rain water on the road smashed on me due to a side by moving vehicle tyre slipped to a pothole.

    I really don't know why the Pilgrimage centre, Local politicians or the Ministers who often visit Dharamstala, did not impress upon the National Highway authorities to widen this stretch till now?.

    *I wish, Mr. John B Monteiro and Daijiworld can surely write on this Road condition as a supplement to this article, and I am sure it would certainly become an eye opener to the concerned authorities to prioritize on the development of this road stretch very soon*

  • Mohan Prabhu,, Mangalore (Kankanady)/Ottawa, Canada

    Sun, Nov 04 2018

    Enjoyed reading your extremeky well written article and the splendid description. I had not heard of Dharmasthala until recently, but then I lived in Mangalore only for the first sixteen years, and there was no publicity of this institution whilst living in Mumbai.
    Thank you for bringing this gem of history to the attention of all, especially of mine.

  • Prescilla Fernandes, Mangalore

    Tue, Oct 30 2018

    Very informative article Sir. It is a pleasure to read your articles. I read your articles with interest and enjoy reading and enhance my knowledge. Thank you.

  • Henry Mascarenhas, Greenville, NC, USA

    Mon, Oct 29 2018

    Thank you for your article so well written and informative, look forward to your future works

  • Mangalurian, Mangaluru

    Mon, Oct 29 2018

    As always with the articles by the author, it was a pleasure to read this one as well.

    Thank you Mr Monteiro.

    I would have liked a little more information on the Jains when covering a place such as Dharmasthala.

    It has been said that Jainism was a dominant religion in western areas of Karnataka - until about 16th century. Many Jains then became Hindus. Likewise, Jain temples became Hindu temples. However detailed research on the matter is not readily available.

    I believe the couple mentioned - Birmanna Pergade and his wife Ammu Ballalthi - were Jains.

  • Antony D'Cunha, Permude/Muscat

    Mon, Oct 29 2018

    Well written article. Very informative.

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Title: Dharmasthala: From Legendary Roots to Unstoppable Growth

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