Legend of the white pond
The town of Shravanabelagola, ‘the white pond of Shravana’, was also known as the city of Gommata in the past. The town, located in the taluk of Channarayapatna in Hassan district near the Bangalore-Mangalore highway, has a pond flanked by two hills, the larger Vindhyagiri and the smaller Chandragiri. This place is not only of religious significance but is of great historic importance as well.
The relatively unknown Ganga Rajas who ruled the State between the fourth and 11th century were responsible for this structure as well as for much of southern Karnataka’s early polity.
Jains in South India
Bhadrabahu, a famed Jain acharya (‘teacher’), led a group of monks to South India. Some of them, including Bhadrabahu, settled down in Shravanabelagola. Others moved south to Punnad, a region which included Eastern Kodagu, Western Mysore and Salem. A number of Jains settled down in southern Karnataka and the surrounding parts during that period.
Chandragupta Maurya, the emperor of Magadha, abdicated the throne in 298 AD and became a disciple of Bhadrabahu. He followed the Guru into South India and to Shravanabelagola. He tended to the aged Bhadrabahu during the last years of the preceptor’s life. A cave called ‘Bhadrabahu Guhe’, on the smaller hill, is supposedly the place where the Guru passed away. Thereafter, Chandragupta worshipped the foot prints of the celebrated teacher.
Some years later, he died upon performing Sallekhana, a religious penance which involved fasting unto death. There were several basadis (Jain monasteries) in southern Karnataka. Chandragupta basadi, on Chandragiri hill, is the supposed monastery where Chandragupta had lived. It originally had only three cells in it.
Ancient Karnataka was a bastion of the Jain faith. The Rashtrakutas (753–982 AD), empire-builders of the South, and the Gangas, their feudatories were Kannada-speaking Jains. The Ganga Rajas were rulers of southern Karnataka. The realm of the Gangas was called ‘Ganga mandala’ or ‘Ganga-wadi’.
The Ganga Rajas were of the ‘Kanva gothra’ and of the Jahnavi (Jain) faith. The early Ganga kingdom consisted of parts of Bangalore, Kolar and Tumkur by the fifth century. By 470 AD, Sendraka (Chikmagalur and Hassan) and Punnad (largely consisting of Western Mysore) came under the Ganga dominions.
They were sovereign for the first two centuries of their reign but thereafter accepted suzerainty under the emperors of Karnataka, at first the Chalukyas (of Badami) and later, the Rashtrakutas.
Shravanabelagola was known as Sri-belagola or Sramana-belagola in the past. There were many belagolas (‘white ponds’) in southern Karnataka but it was the ‘Belagola of Shravana’ that was to become the most famous of them all. Sanatha Belagola was another famous belagola of the region. The larger hill, Vindhyagiri, is also called Indragiri or Doddabetta while the smaller hill, Chandragiri, is also known as Chikkabetta. Both hills are of granite and the bigger one in particular is quite steep.
A long flight of steps, numbering nearly 80, lead up the hill of Vindhyagiri.
Nearly 1,000 inscriptions have been found in Shravanabelagola, probably the largest number of inscriptions found in a single place in Karnataka. A few inscriptions (the oldest dating 600 AD) speak of the munis (ascetics), Bhadra bahu and Chandragupta, whose footprints were found on the hill Chandragiri. Legend has it that they were teacher and disciple; Chandragupta being none other than the Maurya emperor.
The Bhattaraka (head of a Jain monastery) of the Mula Sangha (an order of monks) in Shravanabelagola was called the Charukirti and he was the head of the Jains in Karnataka.
The most significant monumental legacy of the Gangas, who belonged to the Digambar (‘sky-clad’) sectary, is the statue of Gomateshwara. This was dedicated to Bahubali, son of first tirthankara, Rishabha, and brother of Bharatha. Rishabha was a renowned emperor who renounced worldly pursuits and went into the jungles for penance. After their father had abdicated the throne, the two brothers duelled fiercely for it. Bahubali won, but he felt remorse at having humiliated his brother. So he renounced the kingdom in favour of his brother.
This monolith must be considered a wonder of the early medieval age. To bring the monolithic stone up the smooth round hill must have been a very daunting task for the labourers. This large monolithic statue in Shravanabelagola was commissioned by Chavunda raya around 982-983 AD. The monolith Gomateshwara is 58 feet high. A Gajalakshmi panel next to the gateway set up between two boulders upon the hill was also built by Chavunda raya. Inscriptions dating around 981 AD lie at the base of the statue, the largest monolithic statue in the world.
Chavunda raya (also called Chamunda raya) was a general, a minister and a scholar under the Ganga Raja. He was a true polymath. His best-known written work is called the ‘Chavundaraya Purana’ (written in 978 AD), a work on Jain mythology influenced by Pampa’s ‘Adi Purana’.
Chavunda raya was the son of Mabalayya, a feudatory of the Ganga ruler Marasimha II. He served under three Ganga rulers, Marasimha II, Rachamalla IV (and Rachamalla V who was called Rakkasa Ganga.
Stone inscriptions, dated around 980 AD and which recorded the names of pilgrims, calls Chavundaraya Chavundayya and the Ganga Raja Marasimha Marasimhayya.
Chavunda raya was a disciple of Nemichandra Jain acharya. Nemichandra supervised the construction of the Gomateshwara in the tenth century, upon Chavunda raya’s insistence. The celebrated works of Nemichandra were ‘Dravyasamgraha’ and ‘Gomattasara’ which were based on the works of older acharyas.
During a war which broke out between the successors of Marasimha II, Chavunda raya supported and made Rachamalla IV the next Ganga ruler. Thus Chavunda raya became a kingmaker as well.
He won several battles for the Gangas against their enemies. Chavunda raya patronised his contemporary, poet Ranna, one of the tri ratnas (three gems) of Kannada literature.
Chavunda raya basadi on Chandragiri was probably built by his son, Jinadevana, in the eleventh century in his memory. However, popular tradition stated that Chavunda raya had constructed it himself.