Rendezvous With Karnataka’s Jaina Trail

Idol of Lord Bahubali at Venur
Idol of Lord Bahubali at Venur

The more I see, the more I’m fascinated with temple architecture in India. This urge has been fuelled manifold since our taking up residence in Bengaluru a few years ago. For Karnataka is strewn with monuments that are as varied in their construction style and ornamentation as the dynasties that gave birth to them. One of my most recent trysts with this new found love set me on the Jaina trail in this state. It took us all of two months of almost continuous travel by road, to cover most of the spots where Jaina monuments still exist in a fairly good state of preservation, though not all of them are functional. And any mention of Jain monuments in Karnataka would immediately conjure pictures of the giant monolith statue of Lord Gomateshwara at Shravanabelagola or the impressive thousand pillar Basadi at Moodabidri. While some monuments are absolutely breathtaking for their large size, there are innumerable ones that overwhelm you with the sheer detail and intricacy of workmanship they display.  Though the beginnings of Jainism in Karnataka are unknown, tradition and literature date it to the 3rd century BCE, and also hold that it was the State religion of Karnataka for centuries. The century witnessed a mass exodus of Jains from North India to Karnataka, led by Acharya Bhadrabahu and his disciple Chandragupta Maurya. This move towards southern India by the guru, was in response to a forewarning he received, of a 12-year famine and calamity that would plague the north. The hills of Shravanabelagola became their new home and soon it assumed importance as a great centre of pilgrimage and learning. Chandragupta continued to inhabit the hills of Chandragiri after his guru took Samadhi or sallekhana here, and spread the religion till he himself took Samadhi. The rock cut Bhadrabahu Cave and the Chandragupta Basadi bear testimony to this. The footprints of Bhadrabahu whom Chandragupta worshipped, are still to be seen at the hilltop. From the perspective of tourists coming from outside the State, most throng to see the mammoth statue of Lord Bahubali at Shravanabelagola. They are blissfully unaware of Dharmasthala, Karkala, Vennur and Gomatagiri – important pilgrimage sites for Jains and home to the remaining four of five gargantuan statues of Gomateshwara in Karnataka. Each of the five monoliths has its distinctive attributes – be it the calm and undisturbed face at Shravanabelagola or the child-like smile at Vennur or the meditative face with gravitas at Karkala. They form a special feature of the native art and the most outstanding examples of Jain architecture. Similarly, the basadis in Belgaum, Gadag and Lakkundi are noteworthy. Just as impressive are the basadis that dot northern Karnataka. The Kadamba rulers of Banavasi were the foremost in establishing Jain architecture with the Basadi at Halasi in this region. The cave temples of Badami and Aihole, the handiwork of Chalukyan artisans, were strongholds of the faith, and to date attract tourists by the droves for the sheer sculptural grandeur. Jain art under the Chalukyans finds expression in one of four sculpture-ridden caves of Badami. A must visit spot, both from artistic and scenic perspective, the last of the four caves contains life size relief sculptures of Parshvanath, Adinath, Gomateshvara and other Tirthankaras.  Hampi and Halibedu boast a few Jain temples and ruins. The temple dedicated to Adinatha is located in the historically important temple town Lakkundi in the Gadag District of Karnataka. The temple is protected as a monument of national importance by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Chandranatha or Matada Basadi, Neminatha Basadi and Kere or Chaturmukh Basadi also known as Jal Mandir, for its location in the middle of a lake, are Varanga’s pride. Jainism as a religion enjoyed patronage of major dynasties that held sway over Karnataka during various eras. The Western Gangas, Kadambas, Chalukyas, the Hoysalas and the Vijayanagara rulers left their indelible imprints on the number of basadis or temples, sthambas and statues of Gomateshwara throughout the State. Jainism witnessed its golden period in Karnataka under the Rashtrakutas, evidence of which is borne in the temples at Pattadakal, Koppal, Lakshmeshwar, Bankur and Malkhed, in the northern part of the State. That the Jaina contribution to the socio-cultural and educational development of Karnataka was manifold and significant, is borne by the works of distinguished grammarians, lexicographers of the Kannada language, and poets like Pampa, Ponna, Ranna and Janna, who were Jains. Stupendous monuments in the Jain basadis or temples, and bettas or hill with an open courtyard containing the image of Gommateswara, bear testimony to the high degree of architectural, sculptural and artistic prowess of the Jaina people. One of the concrete expressions of the intensity of Jaina art is palpable in the elegantly sculpted free standing pillars in front of every basadi – the Brahmadeva sthambha portraying Brahminical deities, and Manasthambha depicting Jaina faith. While the Manasthambas are universally present in Jain basadis everywhere, the Brahmadeva pillars are unique to South India.   Shravanabelagola We too, began our explorative sojourn at the beginning! So, it is with the most renowned, and visited Jain pilgrimage centre – Shravanabelagola, we, my husband and I, begin our Jaina circuit in Karnataka. As our car cuts through swathes of rippling green paddy and sugarcane fields, the monotony of endless verdure is broken only by the white of the egrets and black of the buffaloes. The spiritual and natural are so inextricably intertwined in Shravanabelagola as to take your breath away. Its sun-drenched rolling hills, verdant fields and crystal clear lakes blend effortlessly into the exquisite manmade environs that throw up intricate sculptures in its numerous basadis, not least of all in the towering image of Gomateshwara that defines the town’s skyline. The abode of Lord Bahubali, Shravanabelagola is nestled between the Vindhyagiri, aka Indiragiri and Chandragiri hills in the Hassan district and lies 3,350 feet above sea level. It gets its name from bel meaning ‘white’ and gola meaning ‘pond’ in the Kannada language, thus alluding to the picturesque pond in the middle of the town. Though a small town, it boasts the largest number of Digambar Jain temples and also the largest number of rock inscriptions in the country. Further, it is a leading centre and repository of Jaina culture, religion, architecture and art. However, for most visitors to the place, the 2,300-year-old town referred to as Jaina Badri, is synonymous with Vindhyagiri or Dodda betta, known world over for its gargantuan 57-feet tall monolithic statue of Lord Gomateshvara and the grand Mahamastakabisheka ceremony held once in twelve years. But few people are aware that the smaller hillock, Chandragiri is replete with history and contains a wealth of historical and architectural monuments datingback to the 8th century and even earlier. In fact, it is from here that Jainism in Karnataka began, and spread its wings far and wide.  Shravanabelagola – Chandragiri A flight of 260 steps brings us to the top of the hillock that is 3052 feet above sea level and is believed to have become sanctified by the visit of Acharya Bhadrabahu, the spiritual teacher of Chandragupta Maurya. Except for the Bhadrabahu Cave that lies close to the landing, the cluster of mantapas, sthambs, stone pillars with inscriptions and fifteen basadis, is encircled by an attractive stone wall that gives the appearance of a fortress. Almost all the basadis are built in the Dravidian architectural style. At the entrance to the hilltop complex, we are greeted by the Kuge Brahma Sthamba also called Marasimhana Manasthambha. The commemorative pillar that honours the Ganga king, Marasimha II, who died in 947 AD, regally holds aloft an east-facing idol of Brahmadeva at its top. We begin our tour of Chandragiri from here, moving in the conventional clockwise direction along a systematically laid out path with directions to cover every basadi and construct that is a part of the hillock. As we move further from the shrine dedicated to Shantinatha, the 16th tirthankara whose 13 feet standing idol adorns the sanctum, we come across a striking idol of Bharata, Bahubali’s older brother. The statue which is attributed to the artisans of the 10th century Gangas, is carved out of soft soapstone, is damaged below the thighs and is enclosed by iron railings. It bears a striking resemblance to that of the Bahubali statue on the Vindhyagiri Hills. The several basadis on the hilltop enchant us with their exquisite sculptures. The two-storeyed, 68 feet long, 36 feet wide Chamundaraya basadi with its Dravidian-style tower, is one of the largest Jaina shrines in Shravanabelagola. It represents a distinctive decorative style with niches that are embellished with figurines of yalis and Jaina rishis in sitting posture. The shrine dedicated to Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara, is credited to the era of the western Gangas and is believed to have evolved out of the Chalukyan styles that we see in Aihole and Badami.  Shravanabelagola – Indiragiri Before we begin the trudge up a whopping 500 and more steps to come upon the imposing statue of Gomateshwara on the summit of Indragiri, we rest our begging knees and feet while refuelling our hungry selves. There is not much scope here to pamper our gustatory urges or gallivant on a gastronomic adventure. Most eateries are modest and offer standard South Indian fare. Appetites appeased, we begin our climb to the peak of Indiragiri.  Legend has it that the Jaina ruler Bahubali, son of Lord Adinatha, was overcome by guilt and sadness after defeating his brother Bharata, who challenged his accession to the throne. He turned to asceticism and the pursuit of ultimate bliss to atone for his guilt. The statue, serene and sublime, is the very embodiment of the teachings of Mahaveera and expresses delicately the emotions of the penitent king and renunciate. The idol, which stands in kayotsarga meditation posture was commissioned by Chamundaraya, the prime minister and commander in chief of Rachamalla, a Ganga king, in 981 AD. Considered to be a landmark in the annals of world art, it took twelve years to get carved. It is not only considered the most magnificent among Jaina art works, but is held in great veneration as Jainas believe Bahubali was the first to attain salvation, an aspect highly valued by followers of the faith.  Bahubali’s attainment of ‘moksh’ is celebrated every 12 years as Mahamastakabhishekha or the sacred anointment  of Lord Bahubali. – Article & Image Courtesy: milleniumpost.in & Chitra Ramaswamy

Post Author: JHC