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The vanished Haleri dynasty of Coorg

Lakshmi Sharath
12 September 2012
Coorg Haleri dynasty
The tomb of the Haleri kings in Coorg

I am always in a fix when I visit Coorg. While my mind wishes to linger in the verdant greenery around me, my feet get all itchy and demand that I explore the heritage and historic sites that nestle in the luxurious landscape.

So when I revisited the coffee country last time, I decided to soak in a bit of history. We started with Madikeri and ended in Kakkabe where we heard stories that traced the beginning and the end of the Haleri dynasty that ruled Coorg for more than 200 years from the 17th to 19th centuries.

We were in Madikeri when we first heard this story. A Haleri king was on a hunting expedition when he suddenly saw his wild dogs chased by a hare in a small hillock. He felt that a powerful energy must vibrate in the village which could turn a meek hare into a courageous beast. The king built a fort there and set up a mud wall garrison. The hamlet, which became the capital of the dynasty, was named after the king, Mudduraja. His dynasty was Haleri and the capital was called Muddu Raja Keri or Muddurakayray. Today, we know it as Madikeri.

The origin of the Haleri dynasty is traced to Veeraraja, a nephew of Sadashiva Nayaka of the Ikkeri Dynasty. As the Vijaynagar Empire crumbled, Veeraraja, who dreamt of establishing his own dynasty, was looking to exploit the weakness of local kingdoms. His ambition took him to Kodagu, which was then ruled by various Nayaks.

Disguised as a “jangama” or a priest with healing powers, he established a small group of followers in Haleri. He overthrew the local Nayaks, including the chieftains of Bhagamandala and Talacauvery, and went on to become the lord of Kodugu with Haleri as his capital. His grandson, Mudduraja, later changed the capital to Madikeri. 

Madikeri Fort is today one of the few remnant symbols of this powerful dynasty. It was eventually rebuilt in granite by Tipu Sultan who named the site Jaffarabad. It was recaptured by the Haleri ruler Doddaveer Rajendra in the 18th century and it later fell into the hands of the British who renamed it as Mercara.  Today the fort houses a palace, a temple, a chapel, a prison and a museum where you can see hero stones or virakkals among other artifacts.

We embarked on the trail of this dynasty. Further away from the city is Gaddige or the Raja’s samadhis, which are the tombs of the kings Doddaveerarajendra and Lingarajendra. A solemn air hung around the deserted tombs. The tombs of the diwans and army commanders were also placed here. We passed a few boys who were playing cricket as we took in the domes and minarets touching the evening sky.

A visit to Madikeri is never complete without a visit to the 19th century Omkareshwar temple built by Lingarajendra II. Dedicated to Shiva and built in the Indo-Saracenic style, it has elements of Gothic and Islamic architecture as well. It is said there could have been a secret passage below that led to the palace of the king.

I heard that the temple resonated with the tale of a king haunted by a ghost. Our story starts one summer morning when a poor Brahmin comes to Madikeri with the intention of giving his daughter away to the Raja’s harem as he was unable to take care of her. He, however, changed his mind and left Madikeri after listening to stories about the king from Subarasaiah, another Brahmin who lived in the town. When the king heard about the incident, he mercilessly beheaded Subarasaiah’s sons, besides slaughtering the Brahmin as well.

Lingarajendra went to sleep that night only to be woken up by Subarasaiah staring at him. The visits continued. The king became distraught as the spirit hovered around him. The dead Brahmin had become a demon or a Brahma Rakshasa. Tantriks advised the king to build a Shiva temple and bring a linga from Varanasi to appease the demon. The king, however, did not recover fully and died within a year.

A light, it is said, perpetually glows from the sanctum. Even today, I hear, the spirit of the demon roams freely in the sacred grove within the temple premises where the Brahma Rakshasa resides.

Our next stop was Virajpet – one of the key towns and erstwhile capital named after Virarajendra, the Haleri king. It is said that Dodda Veerarajendra established the town in the 18th century to commemorate his meeting with the British General Abercrombie during their joint war against Tipu Sultan.

We then went in search of a small palace where the Haleri Dyansty came to an end. Our trail ended in a small hamlet called Yavakapadi in Kakkabe where Nalknad Aramane, built by Dodda Veerarajendra in the 18th century, awaited us.

There were coffee plantations all around. A small mud road appeared out of nowhere. A beautiful two-storey structure painted in red with a tiled roof, old wall paintings and pillars gazed at us as we opened the portals of the palace. A small mandapa in white was located close by. A drizzle started as we heard a sound behind us. A caretaker had silently moved in and was opening the main door for us. We were the only visitors. As we soaked in the moment, we were given a capsule of history.

During one of the wars with Tipu Sultan, Dodda Veerarajendra had to retreat and he came to this dense forest. He converted it into an operations base and built a palace and even got married here. This palace was the final refuge of the last king, Chikkaveerarajendra before he was deposed by the British and it symbolised the end of the Haleri dynasty. The caretaker showed us around as we climbed a small ladder, saw the hidden chamber in the roof, the torture room, the royal bedrooms, and the main.durbar.

It was ironic that the Haleri kings, who had befriended the British to fight Tipu Sultan, were finally deposed by the Europeans. As we walked back, we saw a few tourists who had just returned from their trek to Thadiyandamol, the highest peak in Coorg. The sun had set as we walked back to our homestay, wondering how this silent monument would have once been a scene of battles fought and won.




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