Doorway to Jaina history

-Article by: T.S. Subramanian
Photos by : K. Bhagyaprakash

At Artipura / Aretippur in Karnataka the ASI unearths a Jaina centre that flourished during the time of the Gangas and the Hoysalas. By T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

It is hard not to relish the sights along the way to Kanakagiri, a granite hillock at Artipura village in Karnataka’s Mandya district. At the foot of the hillock is a pond with water lilies abloom amid leaves floating on the water. And more pleasantly, we come across a quaint custom—a house-warming ceremony for which brightly-coloured sarees are laid on the street for the new homeowners to walk on. It is not clear whether it carries vestiges of the past, but up the granite hillock situated some 110 kilometres from Bengaluru, there are more sights and stories that will lead us to a rich heritage and culture.

Midway up the hillock, as one approaches a flat area on the rock, a depression springs into view. On one side of it is a natural cavern, with a ridge carved above the doorway to prevent water from entering the cave. A man-made trough in front of it collects rainwater to cater to the needs of visitors. Inside the cavern is a brief, faded inscription in the Nagari script. Outside the cavern, is a series of bas-reliefs of Jaina tirthankaras, some seated and others standing. Significantly noticeable is the sculpture of Parsvanatha, the 23rd tirthankara in the Jaina pantheon, standing on a lotus pedestal under the hood of a snake.

Thirteen tirthankaras are carved in the series and above them a 14th one stands alone. Below these bas-reliefs are a couple of faded inscriptions in the Kannada script and language used in the ninth/tenth century C.E. The outline of a tirthankara chiselled into the rock and for left unfinished for some reason provides us an insight into how these bas-reliefs were made.

On the rock floor lay a variety of loose sculptures. They were probably left near the bas-relief sculptures decades ago by people who brought them from the hilltop. One of the sculptures is of Parsvanatha, standing under the hood of a seven-headed snake. Carved out of chloristic schist stone, the sculpture belongs to a time when the Ganga kings ruled areas near Artipura from the fourth to the tenth century C.E. This Parsvanatha sculpture is rather plain, with just the Asoka vriksha (tree) carved on the stone borders and three umbrellas, or chatra triya, above the hood of the snake.
In contradistinction to this is an ornate sculpture of Parsvanatha belonging to the time of the Hoysalas, who ruled this part of the country from the 11th to the 14th century C.E. The wealth of sculptural details on this is remarkable. Here Parsvanatha is seen standing on a simha (lion) throne that has carvings of lions and celestial beings. On either side of him at the bottom are figurines of yaksha Dharnenda and yakshi Padmavathy, and at shoulder lever are chamara (fly-whisk)bearers and above them Asoka trees.

Other sculptures include that of yakshis, yalis, a headless tirthankara, Kubera, fly-whisk bearers, a portion of a bali peeta (where offerings are made), and broken pillars, some of them plain and others with carvings on them.

Scientific clearance

On top of the hillock, the team of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Bengaluru Circle, led by T. Arun Raj, P. Aravazhi and R.N. Kumaran, has, in what is called “scientific clearance” in archaeological parlance, unravelled a Jaina complex consisting of 12 Jaina basadis (temples) and mathas (monasteries). Scientific clearance, as opposed to excavation, involves an element of certainty because it is based on the knowledge that collapsed structures are sure to be found in a site or mound. After documenting a site or mound, archaeologists remove the soil slowly to unearth structures that lie buried or half-buried there.

In 30 big trenches at Kanakagiri lie the remains of basadis, built in brick first by the Gangas and later rebuilt and strengthened with stone veneering by the Hoysalas. Among the ruins of these Jaina temples are sculptures of Adinatha, the first tirthankara; highly embellished pilasters with carvings of different tirthankaras and their lanchanas (representative symbols such as the monkey, the horse, the rhinoceros, the elephant and the kumbha (pot) of each tirthankara); a large, superbly sculpted tirthankara in seated position in the sanctum of one of the 12 temples; sculptures of Kubera, yakshi Ambika, Chakra Dharini, dwarapalakas (doorkeepers), chamara-bearers; nishidi pillars to commemorate sallekhana (a Jaina vow to embrace death by fasting); big slabs with inscriptions in Kannada, datable to the 11th century; and long-running inscriptions on the plinth of collapsed temples and carved stone stairs.

A nishidigai is a memorial erected for a Jaina monk or a layperson at the site of his or her sallekhana. The petrograph indicates the number of days of the fast. The ornate and intricate carvings on the pilasters are typical of the Hoysala period. Ubiquitous among the sculptures are Adinatha, or Rishabhanatha, who is popular among Jaina devotees.

“Kanakagiri is now a veritable open-air museum of Jaina basadis and sculptures,” said Arun Raj, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Bengaluru Circle.

Two phases of activity
The site lasted from the ninth to the 14th century, patronised by the Ganga, the Hoysala and the Vijayanagara dynasties. Structural activity on the site was essentially in two phases. During the first phase, the Gangas built basadis with bricks. In the second phase, the Hoysalas provided a granite stone veneering to these structures. Besides, they expanded the structures by adding ardha mantapas, mukha mantapas, and so on. But they did not change the direction of the temples.

“This is one of the biggest scientific clearances undertaken at a Jaina site,” said Arun Raj. “Here the inscriptional evidence confirms the archaeological discoveries we have made. We first exposed a Jaina temple on the western side last year. Then from October 2015 to March 2016, we unearthed 12 Jaina basadis on the eastern side. After the rains in 2016, we will resume the scientific clearance.”

Summing up the importance of the Artipura site, Aravazhi, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, said: “It is here that we get various types of Jaina architecture. We have bas-relief carvings of tirthankaras near the natural cavern. We have exposed 12 structural temples built of bricks and also the remains of monasteries. There is rock-cut architecture, monolithic sthampas and nishidi pillars. Besides, Sravanabetta, the hill with its 10-foot-tall, free-standing sculpture of Gomatesvara, is situated nearby. The complete set of Jaina architecture of south India is available here at Artipura.”

K.P. Poonacha, former Joint Director General, ASI, who was at Kanakagiri on February 26 when the Frontline team was visiting, said, “During its heyday, between the ninth and 14th centuries, this site was one of the most important Jaina religious complexes in this part of Karnataka.” He said the information available from the inscriptions at the site was corroborated by the archaeological discoveries in the scientific clearance.

Date of the site

Aravazhi said the site can be dated to 917 C.E. according to the inscriptions. He said the site formed “a transitional phase from bas-relief sculptures to free-standing sculptures”. The sculptures found here bear similarities with the bas-relief sculptures of tirthankaras carved on hills around Madurai in Tamil Nadu, he said.

In his book Temples of the Gangas of Karnataka, first published by the ASI in 1962, the late I.K. Sarma, who retired as an ASI Director, says that “two indigenous kingdoms rose in Karnataka during the middle of the fourth century A.D.”. They were the Kadambas of Banavasi and the Gangas of Talakadu which controlled territories in the southern and eastern Karnataka for a long period up to the end of circa 10th century A.D. The Gangas were great patrons of Jainism. It was during the reign of the Ganga king Nitimarga II (regnal years circa 904 to 919) that several of the brick-built basadis on the Kanakagiri hill were built.
Sarma says: “It is not known why Nitimarga II built an extensive Jaina basadi in brick at this place and gifted all the income from the village to the great Jaina teacher Kanakasena Bhatara. The very name of this place, Kanakagiri Tirtha, seems after this great teacher who inspired the Ganga kings to consolidate Jainism in this area. More interestingly, this sacred Jaina-tirtha with brick basadis continued to enjoy royal patronage not only during the time of Hoysala kings Vishnuvardhan (1117) and Vira Ballaladeva II (1220) but also during the Vijayanagara period and became a sacred resort for great Kannada litterateurs.”

Owing to the dominance of Jainism in the village and its association with scholars and saints, it was affixed titles such as Kavikandarpa Tippeyur during the Hoysala period and Bastiya Tippuru during the Vijayanagara rule, Sarma says. (In ancient days, Artipura was known as Tippuru.)

What made the ASI staff to take up the scientific clearance atop Kanakagiri was an inscription on a stone slab found among a heap of bricks. Both its script and language were in Kannada of the Hoysala period of the 13th century. The inscription, which was done at the instance of the poet Balachandradeva, is about the existence of a temple complex built of bricks and how the Hoysalas rebuilt it with stone. Balachandradeva did this in memory of his father, the poet Kandarpadeva, and mother, Sonnadevi. Kandarpadeva, known as “kavi chakravarti”, belonged to Tippuru itself. The inscription, in Kannada, can be dated to 1220 C.E. during the reign of the Hoysala king Vira Ballaladeva.

The scientific clearance has also unearthed several other inscriptions. On paleographic grounds, most of the inscriptions, belonging to the eighth/ninth century C.E., were that of the Gangas, said Anil Kumar R.V., Assistant Epigraphist, ASI, Mysuru. Most of the short inscriptions or those which are found in fragmentary form are in praise of different persons. “We are currently getting inscriptions that belong to the Hoysala period,” he said.

The ASI staff has taken estampages of long inscriptions on the plinth of a Jaina temple in the complex. “Although these inscriptions are not dated, they belong, on paleographic grounds, to the Hoysala period,” Anil Kumar said.

The scientific clearance has also thrown up notable sculptures such as that of the pot-bellied Kubera. “This sculpture is important because it belongs to the Ganga period. We have plenty of Hoysala sculptures but Ganga sculptures are only a few,” Aravazhi said.

The second season of excavation on the eastern side of the hilltop has brought to light temples originally built with bricks by the Gangas and later buttressed with stone veneering by the Hoysalas.

Referring to two nishidi pillars/slabs to commemorate the sallekhana, Aravazhi said the first slab had carvings of a Jaina sage granting diksha to a king, with his three wives, before the king undertook his vow. The second slab had carvings of a Jaina teacher granting diksha to a woman to undertake sallekhana.
Professor K. Ajithadoss Jain, former head of the Department of Plant Biology and Plant Biotechnology, Presidency College, Chennai, and a specialist in Jainism, said the slabs with the carvings might not be nishidi pillars. “The carvings show Jaina acharyas preaching Dharma to the members of a royal family. In the second slab, there is a bookstand next to the acharya,” he said.

The scientific clearance gives insights into how the Jaina temple complex would have flourished for several centuries before it came to ruins. The rocky surface of the hill was first levelled before the entire temple complex was built. Pointing to a particular temple, Aravazhi explained how it came up and underwent changes later. He said: “There are two working levels for this temple: the brick structures belong to the Gangas and the stone masonry to the Hoysalas. There is a big, wide brick wall of the Ganga period. There are two garbha grihas adjacent to each other, belonging to the Ganga and the Hoysala period. When the Hoysalas came to this area, the original temple had been abandoned. So they built another temple adjacent and above the earlier one.” Each temple had a math for the monks to stay and learn the scriptures.

At the far end of the eastern side is a temple showing early Hoysala influence. In the sanctum sanctorum is the sculpture of a superbly carved Rishabhanatha in a seated position radiating tranquillity. The sanctum has no roof and three of the four pillars that would have supported the roof remain. Stone veneering to the brick walls of the various structures are visible and the stone walls have carvings of flowers and animals.

“The Hoysalas rarely used granite for making sculptures,” said Aravazhi. “But in this temple they have used both granite and schist in this temple. The seated tirthankara is made of schist stone. The same stone was used for making sculptures at Belur and Halebid [in Karnataka].”

Arun Raj said the ASI had plans to conserve the Artipura site. The mahamastakabhisheka (a Jaina festival held once in 12 years) of Gomatesvara at Sravanabelagola in Hassan district in the State is scheduled to be held in 2018 and several lakhs of devotees are expected to attend it. “We need the support of the local panchayat and the local people to popularise Artipura because Jaina pilgrims can visit Artipura on their way to Sravanabelagola. There is a Jaina site at Kambadahalli in Mandya district which can also be popularised,” he said.

(Article Intially Published in the fortnightly magazine Frontline, April 29, 2016 Edition)

Post Author: JHC