The Temple of Punyakoti and the Slaughter of Punyakoti

This article is part 8 of 13 in the series Analysis of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's Novels

For countless centuries, Hindus have been abundant temple-builders, another central theme of Sanatana civilisation that characterises its unbroken continuity. There is no hamlet or village that doesn’t have one temple at the least. Indeed, temple-building is one activity that continues to bring Hindus together like few things can.

And so it is in Tabbali when the elder Kalinga Gowda takes a solemn Sankalpa (vow, decision) to build a temple for the (original) Punyakoti cow who epitomises truth, non-violence, and Dharma. The entire Kalenahalli and surrounding villages are not only overjoyed when he announces this news but enthusiastically participates in the sacred task. Dr. Bhyrappa’s description of the temple-building activity from the conception to the final execution stage with all its minute details is truly brilliant. It is for no small reason that Dr. Bhyrappa has also distinguished himself as the master of details.

The Punyakoti temple atop the hill also becomes both a centre of devotion and a superb literary motif. The fact that Dr. Bhyrappa upheld this age-old tradition of Hindu cultural continuity in an era in Kannada literature that actively encouraged temple destruction is another demonstration of his prowess.

The Punyakoti Temple is the fruition and fulfilment of several things for the elder Kalinga Gowda. His devotion to the Gomata apart, the whole episode brings out Kalinga Gowda’s magnanimity, which leaves the reader mute and moved. In one shot, he provides for the livelihood of two people: the first is the orphan Honna, his farm help, and the second is Venkataramana. Kalinga Gowda donates substantial portions of his land to both of them. Honna would till the land on a sharecropping basis and would give part of the harvest to Venkataramana. In turn, Venkataramana has to ensure that Puja in the Punyakoti Temple must continue uninterrupted, something which he is only glad to perform. 

This bequest to Venkataramana is rooted in Kalinga Gowda’s fear that the former would leave Kalenahalli in search of livelihood because the ancient, settled ways of life are being fast eroded. In a telling passage, Venkataramana notes how that although the faith of people in things like Dharma, Karma, and Shraddha has been diluted, there is a sudden surge in demand for horoscopes and predictive astrology.

Kalinga Gowda’s appeal to Venkataramana—who is young enough to be his grandson—is truly heartrending:

Swami, if you go away from this village, who will remain to tell people about the matters of Dharma and Karma? Don’t go. I will make arrangements for your livelihood. I will ensure that you always have enough food for your family. Till I make a more permanent arrangement for you, I will send provisions and food grain for your family. Just give me some time.

Venkataramana sees the truth and wisdom in his words and stays back. He also works as a schoolteacher in the neighbouring village and his daily routine is gruelling. Venkataramana never misses his daily puja at the temple and admonishes his wife who suggests that they hire an Archaka. To Venkataramana, breaking the word he had given to Kalinga Gowda is a grave sin.

To the grandson Kalinga Gowda, the Punyakoti Temple is a “waste of productive resources,” which does not contribute to moneymaking in any way, and every person who visits the temple is superstitious and backward. He is also angry at his grandfather who has “emptied out almost all the money in the family” for building that wasteful temple. As he takes over his family affairs, he begins to undo and destroy the very things his grandfather had held as sacred, a few facets of which we have seen earlier.

However, to his credit, Kalinga does not directly interfere with the Punyakoti Temple. To the meagre extent that his cultural roots still remain, he infrequently visits the temple with Hilda but only to have a conversation with Venkataramana and not out of genuine devotion like the villagers. Kalinga cannot spot within himself the irony in the fact that while he correctly recognises Venkataramana’s blazing intellect and knowledge, he doesn’t understand why his friend finds fulfilment in his calling as an Archaka and a Purohit.

As a Vaidika rooted in his tradition, Venkataramana is a self-fulfilled and therefore a content person who generally minds his own business. As a member of the society, as a Purohita (literally: one who wishes for the welfare of the Pura or village/town/city), he participates in and contributes to its spiritual and moral well-being. He lends a helping hand and comforting shoulder to people in trouble. As a devout Hindu, he upholds the primacy of the Gomata and defends her sanctity and participates in a nationwide movement to ban cow slaughter. As the Archaka of the Punyakoti Temple, it is his single-minded devotion that transforms and elevates its status from being a remote, humble village temple to that of a sacred Tirtha-Kshetra, a place of pilgrimage.

Both singly and collectively, Venkataramana becomes a metaphor and a symbol of a focussed cultural assault by the Nehruvian establishment, which wants to uproot everything he stands for. His father did not need to explain the sanctity of the cow to the elder Kalinga Gowda in the manner in which he repeatedly explains to both Kalinga and Hilda. The Hindu society in his grandfather’s era did not feel the need to launch a national agitation to protect the cow. And it was inconceivable that a cow in the elder Kalinga Gowda’s own barn—a cow from the Punyakoti stock at that—would be slaughtered so brutally by a Muslim servant, commanded by their own daughter-in-law.

This episode forms one of the central, critical junctures in Tabbali. Indeed, Hilda’s slaughter of the Punyakoti cow occurs precisely because of Venkataramana’s passionate, heated argument with her as we’ve seen earlier. The cow slaughter causes an irreparable rupture in his relationship with his childhood friend and his wife. Neither is it a mere rupture. Venkataramana actively punishes Kalinga for this transgression, a punishment that gets out of hand because the inflamed villagers destroy Kalinga’s crop, which was just on the anvil of harvest.

Kalinga still does not realize that the mistake lies with him. As someone who intimately knew the social mores and beliefs of his own village, he has indirectly abetted cow slaughter but blames Venkataramana for not supporting him on the grounds of friendship. The train of arguments at this point is what precisely leads to the aforementioned irreparable rupture. By this time, Venkataramana has already realized that Kalinga has been completely alienated from his roots but tolerates him owing to their childhood friendship and because he has physically caused no damage to the ancient traditions and customs so far. However, slaughtering Punyakoti is the last straw.

To be continued



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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