The Profound Value System of Kuvara-Lakshma and his Heroic Unit of Garudas

The Garudas were a select unit of bodyguards who safeguarded Hoysala kings. Kuvara-Lakshma was the head of one such unit comprising 1000 bodyguards. When his master Vira Ballala died, Lakshma and his unit gave up their lives in his honour.
The Profound Value System of Kuvara-Lakshma and his Heroic Unit of Garudas

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The Profound Value System of Kuvara-Lakshma and his Heroic Unit of Garudas

THE HALEBIDU GARUDA PILLAR INSCRIPTION is outstanding on several counts. First, like all inscriptions of this nature, it extolls the unmatched virtues of its protagonist, Kuvara-Lakshma (he is also colloquially called, Kuvara-Lakkayya). Second, its poetic excellence is of a high standard. For an aspiring Kannada poet, it is a rich mine suffused with linguistic vigour, eloquence, and imaginative prowess. Third, it is a valuable historical record that casts many eye-opening sidelights on the climate of that period. 

The previous episode described Kuvara-Lakshma’s unflinching loyalty to his emperor, Vira Ballala II. However, by the sheer dint of his innate character traits, Lakshma had soared far above and beyond being a mere loyalist. Here is how the inscription describes these traits: 

The word uttered by Kuvara-Lakkaya was one single word, true and firm as letters engraved on stone, not like the speech of others, resembling letters written in water. Of the sixty-four branches of learning, there was not one of which he was ignorant. But he was ignorant of only two things —how to say no to supplicants, and how to suffer defeat. He gave his word to king Ballala that he would keep him free from fear. 

“He was not like those ministers who bound a todar [an ornament signifying dignity and high status, typically bestowed by the King] on the leg merely as a decoration. Such ministers guarded only the wealth they obtained from the king, and acted as if they were afraid to lose it.They only took good care of their own personal interests, and in the time of trouble to their master, they accepted service under another family. But Kuvara-Lakshma remained remained faithful to king Ballala in all circumstances.” 

What follows is a lovely example of imaginative poetry imbued with picturesque detail:

Kuvara-Lakshma had a todar on his left leg, but it was like the ring bound on the leg of an elephant to strengthen it, while the images engraved on it resembled ministers whose words fail in the time of trouble, clinging to his feet through fear. The pearl peṇḍe [an anklet worn as a mark of honour conferred by a king for extraordinary valour] round his lotus foot resembled the serpent Sesha, which Murahari (Vishnu) coiled round Kanakadri (mount Meru)… The tinkling of the anklets and ornaments on his left foot was like a voice proclaiming that his word alone could be trusted. He was thus both a hand-mirror and a protective dagger to Ballala-Deva. The clusters of pearls in his ganḍa-peṇḍāra shone like the stars, and the golden toḍar on his ruddy left foot like the fresh opening champaka blossom — tokens of the acceptance of the devotion to and union with his master.”     

Kuvara-Lakshma’s wife, Suggala Devi proved to be his equal in her devotion and loyalty to her husband and to Vira Ballala II. In a public ceremony, she bound a toḍar to her left foot, signalling her fidelity. The inscription reserves laudatory words for her on this occasion. Its language is quite revealing of the social morals of that era. 

Suggala-Devi gave her word to king Ballala’s dear son, the general Kuvara-Lakshma, not to desert him. She was not like other women, who after eating, dwelling and passing a time with a man, leave him for another.”   

As we shall see, she kept her word in ways that sound unbelievable to us today. 

HIDDEN IN THIS INSCRIPTION is information about a vital component of politics and statecraft. This is related to the protection of the person of the king: what is known in lay terms as the king’s personal bodyguards. This system dates all the way back — for example, to the Mauryan Era. Chandragupta Maurya maintained variety of personal bodyguards including a specially trained unit of Greek female bodyguards. 

Likewise, all Hoysala rulers including Vira Ballala II maintained a contingent of personal bodyguards known as Garudas. Any warrior — irrespective of rank and status — who wished to become a Garuda had to take a public oath swearing loyalty only to the monarch. After the oath-taking, the aforementioned ganḍa-peṇḍāra would be fastened to their left ankle, signifying the Garuda status. Each time they walked, its jingling sound reminded them of their vow. However, the extraordinary aspect about the Garudas was the fact that they could not outlive their king. In other words, they had to commit self-sacrifice the moment the king died. Which they did with a sense of duty, pride and joy. 

The choice of the word Garuda is quite profound. Garuda is the most loyal vehicle and companion of Vishnu himself.   

It appears that the Garuda system left a deep imprint in Southeast Asia as well. Even today, the Indonesian Peacekeeping force is known as the Garuda Contingent (Kontingen Garuda, abbreviated as KONGA).

Apart from the Halebidu Pillar Inscription, we find several Garuda Inscriptions scattered all over the Old Mysore region. 

KUVARA-LAKSHMA WAS HIMSELF A GARUDA. He was the head of a unit of fifty Garudas who guarded Vira Ballala II. Apart from this, Ballala’s wife — the queen — also had her own  unit of fifty Garuda. 

In turn, Lakshma was also the Master of One Thousand Garudas, his own personal unit. The Halebidu Garuda Pillar Inscription which he set up, narrates the story: 

“…the general Kuvara-Lakshma had heroes so bound to him to the number of one thousand… [these heroes] gave up their lives and died at the same time with him, the exceedingly great warriors who had devoted themselves to the general Kuvara-Lakshma.

The vira-sasana stone [i.e., the Garuda Pillar Inscription at Halebidu] which he set up proclaimed the greatness of his fame to the eight points of the compass who is equal to Kuvara Lakshma in fulfilling the vows he has given? Thus did the world praise with affection Hoysala-Raya’s lusty elephant.

“As evidence that in faithfulness to his master, Garuda alone was his equal, and that he and no others were equal to Garuda, the images of Kuvara-Lakshma and of Garuda were equally engraved thereon.”

In 1220 CE, the hour finally arrived. Vira Ballala II was on his deathbed. An inscription found in Channarayapattana describes his final hours: “Ballala-Deva being of full age, established [i.e., coronated] Narasimha [Vira Narasimha II] in the kingdom and went to heaven.” The same inscription also gives us the date of succession: April 18, 1220.

The king’s death shattered Kuvara-Lakshma. Yet, he bore it stoically because he had to fulfill his vow as a true Garuda. On a fine day, Lakshma, Suggala Devi and his entire unit of a thousand Garudas approached the same Stone Pillar. After a while, he climbed atop it with his wife and addressed the citizens of Dorasamudra (Halebidu). In a moving speech, he reaffirmed his loyalty to his deceased Master, Vira Balalla II. The inscription describes what happened next.

… the dandesa [Commander-in-Chief] Lakshma, together with his wife, mounted up on the splendid stone pillar, covered with the poetical vira-sasana [heroic inscription], proclaiming his devotion to his master: and on the pillar they became united with Lakshmi and with Garuda.

“They became united with Lakshmi and with Garuda” is a pious way of saying that Kuvara-Lakshma and Suggala Devi chopped off their own heads with a sword. It was a cue. The moment they spotted this supreme sacrifice of their noble Master, Lakshma’s contingent of one thousand Garudas followed suit. 

The Garuda Pillar Inscription in the Hoysalesvara Temple, Halebidu
The Garuda Pillar Inscription in the Hoysalesvara Temple, HalebiduImage Courtesy: Wikipedia

Even today, on the Garuda Pillar Inscription, we can see sculptures of scores of men chopping off their arms and legs and necks with swords. 

Our ancestors had sculpted their lives which were worthy of admiration even by our Devatas.

You know what to do the next time you visit the Hoysalesvara Temple.  

Series Concluded

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