The monolith dominates the landscape. When we drove closer to the pilgrimage town of Shravanabelagola, however, the shrugged shoulder of the rock hid the monolith from view. Coaches disgorged pilgrims. Schoolgirls on cycles pedalled shakily down the pilgrim-crowded road, a woman in a black burkha picked her way carefully along a pavement alive with haggling visitors, while scooters and motorcycles wove their way through the teeming street with rash dexterity. We cruised through a grey ceremonial arch and parked near the reception centre.
Ahead of us rose the huge, revered hill. Two parallel flights of 620 stone-cut steps snaked up it. While the elderly and the less active rode up in dolis (chairs mounted on two poles and carried up by porters), the majority of visitors strode, trudged or huffed up slowly. According to a guidebook, over 900 steps wind up the 143-metre-high hill. More fascinating than these statistics are the legends that have been woven around this great image. They are truly Indic, combining the beliefs of two ancient faiths. According to a widely held belief, the great statue is the image of one of the sons of Emperor Rishabhadeva. He is better known as the first of the preceptors, or tirthankaras of the ancient Jain faith. He is also called Lord Adinatha.
Shortly after the emperor renounced the world and retired into the wilderness, his two sons, Bharata and Bahubali, fought each other for the throne. Bahubali was victorious but, at the height of his triumph, he renounced the world and all worldly possessions, including clothes, and stood in unmoving penance for many years. Anthills grew around his feet, snakes writhed out of the anthills, creepers sprouted from the earth and wound their tendrils around his body. This great act of self-sacrifice has been captured in the earth’s greatest free-standing sculpture towering atop Vindhyagiri Hill.
The sun was fairly high in the sky when we took off our shoes, left them in the reception building, walked across to the base of the steps and began to climb. Sometimes, we stopped to catch our breaths and take pictures of the bastis and plains of Karnataka spreading below. A breeze had sprung up and cooled us. Swetha Sarovara, the White Lake, was a great rectangle of water caught between encircling walls. The town massed around with its red-tiled roofs and the white blocks of more modern buildings.
At the end of our climb, we entered a square enclosure. There, before us, rose the great white statue of Bahubali known as Gommateshwara. And yet, for all its immense size, it neither overpowered or awed us in any way. The sculptors had captured an expression of sublime serenity and that was what was so reassuring about this huge statue. Its creators had kept strictly to the accepted traditions surrounding this victorious emperor who had renounced the world. There were the snakes emerging out of the anthills, the creepers entwining around his body. But there were other, more subtle signs that we associated with another ancient faith.
A priest prayed for us at the feet of Bahubali. Jainism is a non-theistic faith: they do not believe in an all-powerful god who needs to be propitiated. Their 24 tirthankaras were advanced souls who decided to forego their absorption into eternal bliss, a state that Christians call the ‘beatific vision’, to help lesser mortals ford the river of existence and perfect themselves.
Sacred & pure
We strolled around shrines dedicated to the 24 tirthankaras. Each of them had an identifying icon and, often, a female assistant called a yakshni. We walked back to the statue where, every 12 years, thousands of people assemble for the holy anointing ceremony. After 1,008 pots of blessed water have been poured on Lord Bahubali’s head, he is bathed with milk, yoghurt, ghee, silver and gold coins, flowers, vermillion, saffron and sandalwood in a rich outpouring of devotion.
Significantly, however, the word ‘Shravanabelagola’ also speaks of the concern of Bahubali for even the poorest of his devotees. At the first anointing, according to legends, the kings and prelates present were dismayed because the precious offerings did not flow below the statue’s navel. And then a tiny old woman poured her minuscule offering of milk from a tiny cup the size of a little white gula nut.
To everyone’s surprise, this minute offering of milk not only covered the whole statue, it also flowed down the hill and collected in the great pond at the bottom. Ever since then, the town has been called Shravana, which is the generic title of any Jain saint, bili-gula, or white nut.
We don’t have to choose between the two explanations of the name. After a thousand years of devotion, meanings mutate and only the ‘omega point’, where all faiths converge, remains.