Centres of serenity
Shravanabelagola near Hassan is one of Karnataka’s most popular tourist attractions, but there are several other such massive Jain monoliths and numerous ancient Jain temples elsewhere in Karnataka, especially along the Arabian Sea coast, writes Yoginder Sikand
Although this is not widely known, Jainism has had a very long history in Karnataka, spanning almost two thousand years. Some historians date Karnataka’s first contact with Jainism to the second century AD. The gigantic Gomateswara statue at Shravanabelagola, near Hassan, is, of course, one of Karnataka’s most popular tourist attractions, but there are several other such massive Jain monoliths and numerous ancient Jain temples (called basadis) elsewhere in Karnataka, especially along the Arabian Sea coast. Surprisingly, these are still quite off the conventional tourist trail.
Almost all the literally dozens of centuries’-old Jain shrines in coastal Karnataka are linked to the Digambara Jain sect. Perhaps the best way to see the major shrines is to base yourself, as I did, in Kundapura town, in Udupi district, and then travel around, most of the major shrines being well-connected by bus with Kundapura.
Karkala is a short bus drive from Kundapura. It boasts of an enormous, 42-ft-high statue of Bahubali, the son of the first of the 24 Jain spiritual masters or tirthankaras. Built in the mid-15th century and carved from a single rock, it is located atop a rocky promontory, which commands a majestic view of the densely-forested Western Ghats and endless forests of coconut trees. Bahubali stands perfectly calm and unshakeable in his resolve under the open sky. He appears wholly impervious to the noisy tumult of the world around him, so much so that he is supremely unconcerned about the creepers that grow over his feet and the cobras that have intertwined themselves around him. His sublime face indicates that he has gone far beyond the snares of the sensual world.
The nearby flat-roofed Chaturmukhi (four-faced) temple, so called because it has four entrances that lead into its sanctum sanctorum, is an architectural marvel. It dates to the mid-16th century, when Karkala was ruled by a Jain ruler, Immadi Bhairava. Its walls and pillars are profusely decorated with intricate sculptures. Inside, it is silent, dark and cool.
An ancient brass lamp casts pale flickers of light on the life-sized black granite statues of three Jain tirthankaras, which seem indistinguishable from each other, and several smaller images of other Jain spiritual masters.
There are more than a dozen more centuries’-old Jain basadis in and around Karkala, most of them well-preserved. Not to be missed, in particular, are the 15th- century Neminatha basadi in Hiriyangadi, with its intricately carved 54-ft-high pillar, and the Kere basadi, which is located in the middle of a lake.
All of them are constructed in the distinctive coastal Karnataka style. The enormous statues of the tirthankaras that they contain display local influences and motifs that clearly mark them from Jain images from northern India.
Not far from Karkala, and surrounded by forested hills, is the sleepy town of Moodabidri. For centuries, Moodabidri was an important centre for Jain scholars, earning for itself the name of ‘Jain Kashi’, because it was considered the Jain equivalent of the Hindu town in north India believed to be a leading centre for Hindu learning. The town hosts 20 Jain basadis, all dating to medieval times.
The most celebrated of the basadis of Moodabidri is the gigantic Tribhuvan Tilak Chudamani basadi, or the ‘Thousand Pillar Temple’. It is an exquisite work of art, with, so it is said, a thousand ornately-carved pillars, each distinct from the others. Like the other old Jain temples in coastal Karnataka, it is built in a distinctive local Jain style. Its enormous slanted wooden roof is decorated with numerous stunningly beautiful wooden sculptures. The temple houses several dozen statues of various Jain tirthankaras, made of stone as well as different precious and semi-precious metals. You might, if you have the time, make a quick round of the other basadis in Moodabidri, most of which are located in a separate quarter, where many of the town’s Jain families still live. Each of these is an impressive work of art. Some of them, however, seem to be closed—perhaps because there possibly aren’t as many Jains left in Moodabidri as there must have been when, centuries ago, the town was ruled by the Chowtas, a Jain dynasty. The Chowtas’ palace, which dates back to the 17th century, is now in a state of considerable ruin, though you might wish to drop by just to see the remnants of what must once have been an enormous structure.
Wandering in Varanga
Located a short drive away from Moodabidri is Varanga, set amidst placid countryside at the foot of densely-wooded hills. Centuries ago, Varanga must have been a thriving Jain settlement, although today it is a small, unassuming hamlet. Meandering down a path that cuts through paddy fields, I rested for a while in the cool comfort of the courtyard of the quiet Jain monastery attached to the Chandranatha basadi, and chatted with a friendly priest about Jain history and traditions. The monastery has halls for visiting monks (who are meant to be almost constantly on the move, and barefoot at that), and beautifully-carved pillared corridors that lead to a little temple.
Close by is a delightful 13th century Jain temple, guarded by two stone elephants. It contains intricately decorated pillars and houses dozens of exquisite Jain statues. At the far end of Varanga’s Jain settlement is the Kere basadi, situated in the middle of a large lake bursting with lotuses in bloom, which you must definitely visit—but only if you can manage to find a boatman to ferry you across.
My travels on the coastal Karnataka Jain circuit had been hurried and unplanned, but, really, the best way to do it is to give yourself at least a week to see all the many major shrines, and the numerous other, smaller ones that I missed out. And, most of all, it ought to be done more in the way a Jain pilgrim might do it—slowly and meditatively, so that you can drink in the beckoning silence of the temples, forgetting, at least for a while, the frenzy of the world beyond, and turning, at last, to trying to know your own self. And that’s when you might come to really appreciate the hidden message of the Jain tirthankaras and the enormous, centuries’-old shrines dedicated to them.