Shravanabelagola is a small town, with a population of less than five thousand people, in Hassan District of Karnataka. It is situated around one hundred and fifty-eight kilometer from Bangalore and is around eighty-two kilometer from Mysore. It is sandwiched between two rocky hills – Chandragiri (around 3000 feet) and Vindhyagiri (around 3250 feet). The monolith of Bahubali is on top of the higher hill – Vindhyagiri, however the lower hill Chandragiri is not less important. Historically it is even more important than the Vindhyagiri and I would like to talk about it in my next article.
Belagola in Kannada means “white lake”. Once there was a large pond between Vindhyagiri and Chandragiri. The pristine water of the pond prompted people to call this place Belagola. The first half of the name of the place owes its origin to a large number of ascetics (Shravans) who lived around this area and hence the name “Shravanabelagola”. The large pond later dried away. In seventeenth century Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar, the Wodeyar ruler of Mysore (then a principality in Southern India) from 1673 to 1704, built a temple tank in its place which can be seen even today. In my opinion, it is also possible that year around presence of a large number of white-clothed Jain sadhu prompted people to call it white-lake of ascetics – Shravanabelagola.
This is my second visit to the place. Earlier I visited the place with my parents when I was only thirteen years old. I still remember the awe the monolith generated at that time. I wonder, will it be the same this time!
December 2014: Shravanabelagola and its surroundings exults an old world charm. This is a harvesting season. At several places we notice harvests spread on roads, it seems it is a common practice of taking help of a vehicle crossing the road to separate grain from husk. An innovative idea!
We reach Shravanabelagola at around half past eleven and decide first to have our lunch before attempting the climb on the Vindhyagiri hill to see the Bahubali’s monolith. We leave the home-run eateries behind and move straight towards the Jain Bhojanshala. There are interesting old houses on the way. The food at Bhojanshala is good, still the Bhojanshala appears mismanaged.
After lunch, we start our climb on Vindhyagiri approximately at an angle of fifty degrees over well-carved stone steps and reach Odegal Basadi (or Odegal Basti). Basti or Basadi in Kannada means Jain temple. This granite temple is known as Odegal because of the stone props strengthening its outer wall. The temple with simple outer walls looks impressive because of its commanding position. It has a lofty terrace with high flight of stairs leading upto it. There are three sanctum with beautiful idols of Lord Adinath, Lord Shantinath and Lord Neminath carved in schist. As there are three shrines, in literary works this temple is also known as Trikuta Basadi.
Close to this temple there are several glass protected rock inscriptions. In Shravanabelagola, more than five hundred rock-cut writings are found; greatest of such writings to be found at single place that cover a long-span of time. The most ancient inscription is of sixth century and the latest was etched in 1889. These inscriptions are mainly etched in Tamil and Kannada; also among them is an inscription that is the oldest evidence of written Marathi.
Adjacent to it is Tyagada Brahmadeva Kamba. In the centre of a small open pavilion, with an upper storey, lies an exquisitely carved pillar. This pillar was erected in 983 CE. Free standing pillars are a characteristic feature of the Western Ganga art and are broadly classified as “Mahastambha” (or “Manastambha”, “Indrastambha” or “Brahmastambha). It was a common practice at that time to erect such free-standing pillars in front of Jain Basadis. There is a reference of Brahmadeva in the name however these pillars neither carry the image of Brahma nor of the Brahma Yaksha. They usually carry an image of Sarvanubhuti Yaksha (a benevolent spirit) and the name Brahma probably refers to “Brahman” the wandering nature of this Yaksha.
Sarvanubhuti Yaksha was introduced to Jain pantheon of icon making in and around middle of sixth century. His icons were introduced near the pedestal of Jina image. He is shown having Kubera like features, usually carrying a citron and a money bag.
This sixteen feet pillar is unmatched in its beauty with its scroll design, elegant workmanship, and bold lines. On the shaft of the pillar are floral carvings depicting creepers and bell-shaped flowers. It has a square base with images of two important tenth century Jain personalities, Chamundaraya and his guru Nemichandra carved in relief on one face of the base. They are seated on a platform (adhisthana) and the guru appears to be receiving an object from his disciple with his right hand. They are flanked by attendants (fan bearers) while Chamundaraya’s queen Gagan, her hair tied in a knot, is seen in the background. This pillar is amongst the best of Ganga workmanship.
The guru Nemichandra who is depicted in the semi-relief is among the most distinguished of the Jain-Acharyas. He is known to have devoted to his life in the pursuit of learning, and authored books like Dravyasamgraha, and several others. Chamundaraya was one of his favourite disciple. In-fact on Chamundaraya’s suggestion and request he wrote a book on the essence of all available work of the Jain Acharyas. He named it Gomattasar.
It is believed that Chamundaraya distributed alms from here. It is also believed that at the same place, later on Chamundaraya renounced all his worldly possessions including his own life.
The original inscriptions on the base of this pillar were erased in about 1200 AD by Heggade Kanna. He installed a Yaksha statue (an attendant of Kubera) on the top of this pillar and got his own record engraved at the pedestal by erasing the original record; an act of vandalism as in getting his own two-three lines of record that didn’t reveal much about him or his contributions, he got erased much ancient inscriptions that might have given insights about the historical significance of this pillar and Chamudaraya. Some five hundred years later an upper Mantapa was built-in brick and mortar.
A stairway built-in around 1130 AD leads us to Akhanda Bagilu, a monolithic doorway carved from a single boulder on the instructions of Chamundaraya himself. The doorway displays a well-preserved relief of Gajalakshmi. Goddess Lakshmi is seated on lotus, flanked by two elephants anointing her with pots held in their trunk. This sculpture of Gajalakshmi is believed to be one of the largest of that period and unique of its kind in India. The interpretation is that in Gajalakshmi iconology, the elephant represents the sky. The sky in turn anoints or showers rain, fertilizing the earth represented by the Goddess herself and the lotus on which she sits.
There are two cells around this door-way, carved from a single rock with statues of Bharata and Bahubali. The two shrine are believed to be constructed by Bharathamayya, a general of king Hoysala Vishnuvardhana, in AD 1130.
There are two more doorways before we reach the top. On both the following doorways dwarpals are carved on either side. As we cross the first doorway, I notice pillars carved with a Tirthankara and dancers. There is nothing written around to tell more about this strange choice by the artists. I wonder, does the choice reflects the event where the death of court dancer Nilanjana germinated the seeds of vairagya in Bhagwan Rishabhdeva. In one corner a boulder has a hidden Goddess or a Yakshini or a devotee carved on it.
The second doorway has four pillars and figures of elephants are sketched on its either side. The lintel of the doorway is carved with Tirthankara. Just before entering this doorway we see a beautiful relief statue probably of a Vidhyadhar carved on one side; faint relief figures of fish, monkey and crocodiles can also be seen on a sidewall.
Among Jain icon-makers besides Tirthankaras the Jain pantheon has sixteen Vidhyadevis, eight Dikpals (representing the eight directions), Goddess Lakshmi and Saraswati, Vidhyadhars (literally carriers of knowledge), Vinayaka (Ganesha), Kinnars and Pratihars. Vidhyadhars are mostly represented playing musical instruments, holding a lotus, a knife and a shield.
After crossing this doorway, we reach the upper complex. Immediately to the right of the entrance leading into the outer enclosure around the Gommateshwara image is a small west-facing shrine known as Siddhara Basadi. This small temple was built-in 14th century. It is notable for two commemorative columns in the hall erected in 1398 and 1432 in honour of saint Panditharadhya and Shrutmuni respectively. The text of the second memorial was composed by Mangaraja, a famous Kannada poet.
From here we arrive at Gullekayi Ajji Mantapa. This open shrine with five pillars houses the idol of Gullekayi Ajji about whom I wrote in my previous article. The idol of Gullekayi Ajji is a constant reminder that God is won by innocent devotion and in this particular case even Chamundaraya, who commissioned the statue, didn’t feel that he deserves the honour of Bahubali’s company. The upper floor of this shrine has a Yaksha idol constructed by minister Baladeva in early twelfth century. The way Yaksha idols were added later on makes me think that probably the belief on Yakshas was greatly enhanced in Jainism in later centuries.
We sit down in front of the Mantapa to relax. The pillars around have beautiful carvings of lion, peacocks, dancers and musicians. After relaxing for a while, we enter into the inner courtyard and look with an awe at the marvellous monolith of Lord Bahubali – the tallest free-standing monolith in the world.
Broad-shouldered Bahubali monolith is soaring eighteen meter above the summit; his long hands reaching upto his thighs; he is in meditating pose with his half-closed eyes focussing on the tip of his nose; there is a mystique smile on its six-feet six-inch face, that reflects inner contentment and immense serenity.
Bahubali is represented here in Sampada posture, with a youthful body, absolutely erect with evenly placed feet and long arms stretching down to the knees, an embodiment of immovable strength and indestructible power.
The image carry a colossal calm and a simple dignity. As an expert once described “The image represents the likeness of one who knows the boundless joy that lies beyond the senses as is grasped by intuition and who swerves not from the truth, like that of a lamp in a windless place that does not flicker”.
The above panel with Goddesses facing Bahubali has yakshi Ambika on extreme right. She is generally seen holding a bunch of mangoes and a child in her left lap. In this image she is sitting in lalitasana. Her carrier Lion can also be seen here.
It is believed that Ambika was thrown out of her house with her two sons when she offered the food cooked for brahmins to a Jain monk. Dejected she went to a forest and sat under a mango tree. Her virtues transformed the tree into a Kalpavrikhsa, nourishing her and her two kids with whatever they wished for. There was a dry tank. It started overflowing with water whenever she went there to drink water.
The Gods were angry with the Brahmins who rejected the food calling it impure when they saw her offering it to a Jain monk. They burnt down the whole village where she and the Brahmins lived except for Ambika’s own house. Everyone start believing that it happened because of Ambika’s saintliness. Brahmins bagged for the same food which they earlier called impure. It made her husband sad and remorseful.
He then started searching for her and came to know about her living in the jungle. When he came to bring her back, Ambika feared that he has come to cause further atrocities on her. Fearing him she jumped into a well with her two sons. Her husband also followed her and all of them died. In her next birth she was born as a Yakshi and her husband as a lion. Her two sons were then initiated in Jainism by Lord Neminath.
The third idol from left is of Gajalakshmi, Here she is shown as seated in Padmasana yogic posture, and has four arms. In each of her upper pair of arms, she carries a lotus, and the lower hands are generally shown in abhya and varadamudra. In Abhaymudra right arm is raised to the shoulder and the palm faces outwards reflecting charity. In Varadmudra, the right arm hangs down and the palm faces viewer as if the Goddess is blessing the devotees.
The idol of Devi Saraswati (fourth from left) – the Goddess of learning, is also seen among the five Goddesses depicted here. She is seen along with her carrier swan.
The enclosures on the three sides of the Bahubali colossus, were built-in two successive stages and today they houses many idols of twenty-four Tirthankara. These idols are of great interest to the pious Jains as well as to the students of Jain art and iconography. The Tirthankara images are identified from the records and cognizance engraved on the pedestal, and from the attributes held by attendant deities. The Tirthankara images are represented either in standing position or seated in meditation like an ideal yogi. Seated Jinas are invariably in the position of meditation or dhyanmudra with both hands placed in the lap, one on top of the other.
After doing the darshan and the parikrima of the statue we move towards other side to have a view of the surroundings. The hill has a sharp descend on this side, different shades of green and brown farms can be seen from there.
Tanmay pulls me along a barren shiny slope to explore further. Normal-usual stepped route does not interest both the kids. It is really steep, making it difficult to descend; in the last stretch of the slope, I suggests him to descend in sitting position; he prefers to slide down.
We realize that following this route we have reached Chennanna Basti; built against the boulder from which we descended. This shrine has an open mantapa and houses the image of Lord Chandraprabhu, the eighth Tirthankara. A thirty feet Manas-Stambh is in front of the basadi. On the pedestal of this pillar is an image of a female Goddess. There is also an open hall having twenty-four pillars. The Basti and the pillared hall were constructed by Chennanna, son of Puttaswamy Setti, in 1667 AD.
I read somewhere that the Manas-Stambh gently reminds devotees to shed their egos while entering the preaching hall. I infer it differently. These soaring pillars, in my opinion, encourages devotees to build strong determination to follow the righteous path.
It is time to return. We descend slowly, imbibing the pious atmosphere of ancient surroundings and the religious monuments. There were no wars to gain possession of Shravanabelagola and hence the temples, sculptors and the statues remained saved from the clutches of iconoclastic zealots, providing us information about our glorious past, connecting dots in our understanding of the traits of our ancestors that defines and influences our way of thinking today as well.