This folk divinity is very closely identified with two others namely the Mallanna, the popular folk god of Andhra Pradesh, who is often identified with Mallikarjuna of Srisailam in the Kurnool district, and Khandoba, also known as Mallari (enemy of Malla) or Malhari (killer of Malla), of Maharashtra. The interregional identity of Mailara, Mallanna and Khandoba is confirmed by gypsy devotees and medieval literature, an identification that is explicit in border areas of the three adjoining states. For example, at Pembar near Bidar, at the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka, the deity is referred to as Mallanna, Mailara and Khandoba. This god was primarily a folk god, rather than the sectarian or Puranic form of Shiva. Yet, through the gradual process of Sanskritization, he was also accepted by his votaries as an ‘avatara’ of Shiva.
The cult of this god, though borrowing values from other traditions, is expressive of the autonomous current of folk religion, which interacts with other religious streams but is not necessarily subordinated to them. This divinity was mainly worshipped in the dry or forested areas of the Deccan. His devotees belong to a wide range of groups, known by different names in the three states but following the same occupations. Prominent among them are the traditional agricultural, trading, pastoral, nomadic, hunting and predatory castes. Many of these castes had martial proclivities in the past, but his devotees include untouchable castes as well as Brahmans
Besides Maharashtra, the Mailara cult was popular in Karnataka, Andhra and parts of Tamil Nadu, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. In some of the vacanas (sayings) of Basava, the founder of Virashaivism, Mailara is mentioned.
This deity, commonly known as Mailara in Karnataka and as Khandoba in Maharashtra, has a plethora of other names as well, such as Khanderao, Khandnatha, Malhari, Mallari, Mailala, Mairala, Martanda, Maliari-Martanda, Martanda-Bhairava, Mhalsakant (that is, husband of Mhalsa), Yelkoti-Mahadev, Mallukhan, Ajmatkhan and so on. This deity is also found in the form of an immoveable ‘swayambhu-linga’, a carved moveable linga and as a murti. In the murti form the deity is often depicted seated, standing or on a horse. Whether seated or standing he is generally seen holding a sword, trisula (trident), a damaru (hour-glass shaped drum) and a bowl. Bhairava has the same four attributes; but in his case, along with the bowl, in the same hand, is a man’s head held by the top-knot, from which blood drips and a dog is seen drinking the blood. However, Khandoba, though it is called Martanda-Bhairava, is less fierce than the typical Bhairava, for in the Martanda-Bhairava murtis the severed head is not found, although the dog is present.
Khandoba, as an avatara of Shiva, has Nandi as his vahana. The horse, which Khandoba is said to have accepted from the demon Mani, is also an important vehicle. Being Bhairava, Khandoba is also accompanied by a dog. This deity is a mixture of Shiva, Bhairava (a form of Shiva) and Surya, as is evident from the names and the attributes of the deity as well as the animals (that is, the bull connected with Shiva, the horse of Surya and the dog of Bhairava) associated with him. When Khandoba is on a horse, his wife is usually seated behind him, and they are often accompanied by a soldier and a dog. Mailara can be depicted either alone or in the company of one or both his consorts.
The ancient connection of Khandoba with the Lingayats (Virasaivas) is manifest in the belief that his first wife is of a Lingayat merchant caste. In Maharashtra she is known as Mhalsa, while in the Dravida country she is called Malawa. She is also known as Bhairavi. Her brother is one of the two ministers of Khandoba. The term for minister is Hegade or Hegadi in Maharashtra and Hegappa in Karnataka. The other minister is the brother of Khandoba’s second consort, called Banal, who is said to be of the Dhangar or Kuruba (pastoral) community.
This folk deity, in course of time, was ‘Sanskritized’. The Sanskrit work Mallari Mahatmya and certain other texts purport to establish the Brahmanical credentials of the cult of Mailara on puranic grounds. The Sanskrit work is a masterpiece, not only because of its beautiful narrative style, but also for its skilful attempt at transforming a rather ‘rustic’, ‘impure’ and ‘violent’ cult. According to it, Shiva took the avatara of Mailara on the request of the seven rishis, or Brahmans, as Indra and Vishnu were unable to defeat the two demons, Mani and Malla, who had become invincible on account of their tapas, which had aroused a boon from Lord Brahma. Thus everything that is sacred to the Brahmanical order was at stake. It was Martanda-Bhairava, Shiva fought and defeated Mani and Malla in a tremendous battle. After their defeat, they surrendered to Shiva and attained the status of demi-gods after their deaths.
A perceptible feature of the ‘Sanskritized’ version of the Mailara story is the tendency to explain all the elements of it in terms of the Shaivite Pantheon. Not only is Khandoba the avatara of Shiva, but Mhalsa is the avatara of Parvati, Hegadi Pradhan is explained as an avatara of Vishnu and Banal is said to be an avatara of Gariga. Mani is believed to be the avatara of Madhu and Malla of Kaitabha, and the horse, although still thought of as a gift of the conquered and reformed Mani, is also considered an avatara of Nandi.
Khandoba or Mailara is worshipped in a number of places, out of which eleven from Karnataka and Maharashtra are the most important. These are called the ‘jagrit kshetras’ (especially wakeful places) of Khandoba. The eleven ‘jagrit kshetras’ of the God claims to be the original place where he came to earth to conquer the two demons, Mani and Malla. The dominant among these in the northern part of the cult and throughout the whole of the Deccan is Jejuri in the Pune district of Maharashtra. The ones in Karnataka are Mangasuli in Belgaum district, Mailara-purpembar in Bidar district, Mailara-linga in Dharwad district, Mailaradevaragudda in Dharwad district and Man-mailara in Bellary district . Of all the festivals of Mailara, the two great festivals are Dussehra festival at Devaragudda (Dharwad district) and the eleven day festival in the month of Magha (February-March) at Mailara (Bellary district). The Mailara cult would have had a following at Vijayanagara for a number of reasons, for this site falls within the zone in the Deccan where the Mailara or Khandoba or Mallanna cult was, and still is, widely prevalent. Also the cult of this god was already popular in the Deccan between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, that is, before the Vijayanagara Empire was established as well as around the time of its foundation. Mailara is a warlike deity, with a wide appeal to castes leaning towards martial activities.
The earliest inscriptional reference to this deity at Vijayanagara mentions a temple dedicated to Mailara and is evidently the temple of Oreteya Mailaradeva which is a small, insignificant temple and is the earliest dated temple at the site. Moreover, the earliest dated religious structure at Vijayanagara is a shrine dedicated to Mailara proves the importance of this deity at Vijayanagara. The inscriptions derived from different places highlight the prevalence of the cult of Mailara in the area around Vijayanagara and the absorption into it as early as the fifteenth century of certain aspects that came to characterize the Mailara tradition in its mature form. It also hints at the fusion of the traditions of Mailara or Mallana or Khandoba and that of god Mallikarjuna. These inscriptions also signify that the Mailara cult had a following not only in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century but down to the late sixteenth century after Hampi ceased to be the centre of royal power. Evidently it was a cult with local roots, and was not dependent on court patronage for its survival.
There are umpteen number of sculptures of Bhairava at Vijayanagara that are carved on boulders, stone slabs, wall-surfaces, pillars and so on. Though generally identified as Bhairava, these could be depictions of Mailara. Again, Mailara is worshipped both in the murti form as well as a linga. In temples, as well as carved on boulders, within rock-shelters and on the sheet-rock there are innumerable lingas still be to seen at the site, though possibly there were many more during the hey-day of the Vijayanagara empire. The majority of the extant lingas bear no inscriptional indication of the name of the Shaiva deity they represent and some of them were once worshipped as Mailara. The Mailara cult was not one of the major ones at Vijayanagara and was not an officially sponsored one, and there is no evidence of royal patronage of Mailara worship through imperial grants. It was, apparently, more of a popular cult, supported by a section of the populace.
From the limited evidence available it would appear that the Mailara cult was more popular during the early Vijayanagara period, especially during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Although there is a late sixteenth-century epigraph at Anegondi, there are no inscriptions mentioning Mailara from the early or mid-sixteenth century or even the late fifteenth century, before the city ceased to be the royal capital. The evidence extant at Vijayanagara of Mailara worship is rather scanty. It can provide only a glimpse into what must once have been a fairly active cult at the site. Mailara appears to have been a folk deity, not directly connected with the officially sponsored religious worship and practices in the capital city. Mailara was undoubtedly one among the large pantheon of divinities, classical and folk, worshipped at Vijayanagara.
(Last Updated on : 31-03-2010)