A dolmen, a shop and a Jina

A dolmen, a shop and a Jina

Another visit to Palkigundu, a place famous for its minor Ashokan edicts continues to throw up surprises as Meera Iyer traces the nishidhi memorial of a Jain monk and the relatively unheard-of Mauryara Angadi. 

My visit to Palkigundu, near Koppal had a single-point agenda – re-visit Palkigundu’s most famous historical relic, a rock edict of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Little did I know that by the end of the day, we would end up seeing a very unusual Jain relic from the 10th Century, see no less than 15 inscriptions, look for megalithic remains, and sit in a cave that went by the quaint name of ‘Mauryan shop’!

Palkigundu means palanquin rock. The closest town, Koppal, was earlier known as Kopana, Kupana, Kupanadri and Kupanachala, all of which mean a heap or small hillock, according to scholars. So we were quite prepared for a rugged landscape full of rocks and boulders, craggy piles and slippery slopes. What we had forgotten was how beautiful it was. The sun chased the clouds in the sky above, creating a sun-dappled mosaic before us. Jungle babblers babbled. The peace and quiet outside seeped into our minds and bodies, making Palkigundu a place where gods, goddesses and spirits might well still walk the earth.

Palkigundu’s Ashokan edict, written almost 2,300 years ago, has been chiselled onto a rock on top of a hill and is protected from the elements by a large rock canopy that seems to have been carved out for the purpose. This protective canopy is supported by two rocks below it, somewhat akin to how a palanquin is supported, hence the name palanquin rock.

It is one of Ashoka’s so-called Minor Rock Edicts and like most of his edicts, is written in Brahmi script. In this edict, he speaks of how even after becoming a lay disciple (of the Buddha), he was not very zealous. “Now for more than a year, I have drawn closer to the Sangha and become more ardent,” he says. And this is his message, he adds: that all people, whether humble or great, can make progress if they put in an effort.

Well, that is what Ashoka originally said, but all that is left of his message on the Palkigundu rock are a few faint fragments of words – water and time have long erased most of it.

A few feet away from Ashoka’s weather-beaten message is a carving of a pair of feet. This is a nishidhi memorial, and it indicates that a Jain fasted to death at that spot in a ritual known as sallekhana.

From between the 9th and 16th Centuries, Koppal was famed as a Jain pilgrimage centre, rivalling Shravanabelagola in importance. In the late 10th Century, many members of Ganga dynasty underwent sallekhana at Koppal. Later, its fame grew as several renowned Jain priests and teachers set up monasteries here. Koppal was said to have had 772 Jain temples, or basadis, because of which it was famed as an Aditirtha and a Maha tirtha. None of those basadis remain, but the hills around Koppal are littered with Jain epigraphs and memorials.

R Athani, who worked with the Archaeological Survey of India and had accompanied us to the Ashokan edict, told us about one such Jain inscription. When we had climbed back down from Palkigundu’s edict rock, he casually asked us if we would like to look for an inscription that he said had last been seen in 1931. Of course, the answer was a resounding Yes! He had with him a very rudimentary map that showed the Palkigundu Ashokan edict and two other sites guaranteed to set the history buff’s heart racing: one was marked dolmens or Mauryara gudis, the other was equally tantalising, marked Mauryara angadis. A note on the map explained that the Mauryara angadis were natural cave-like hollows that were locally referred to as shops of the Mauryas. According to Athani, the inscription we sought was located in those caves.

And so it was that some minutes later, our small party went crashing through thorny bushes and scrambled down a rocky slope a little south of the Ashokan edict. Some slips, slides and falls later, when we still seemed nowhere near anything, we called out to a speck of a goatherd in the valley below us: did he know of the Mauryara angadi? His faint reply came floating back up: No! But not long after, we came upon a large, deep cleft in the rock.

The 12m-long cave so formed had a bed of rock and soft sand. And on the low roof facing the entrance of the cave, was the Kannada inscription we sought! In fact, there wasn’t just one, there was a whole bonanza of inscriptions.

In his classic tome about Jainism in south India, archaeologist P B Desai says the oldest inscription in the cave was written 1,005 years ago, during the reign of the Chalukyan ruler Vikramaditya V. It records the death of Simhanandi, a priest who undertook the ingini marana vow, whereby he devoted his life to meditation, looked after himself alone eschewing all help from others, and fasted to death. The record was inscribed by a disciple named Kalyankirti who, it says, erected a magnificent temple commemorating the spot where Simhanandi died. We did indeed find a few ancient bricks not far from the cave – probably all that remained of the basadi that Kalyanakirti built.

The other inscriptions in the cave are not chiselled but are written with a kind of paint and are the only painted inscriptions in Koppal district, according to Desai. Though some of them were written almost a millennium ago, the paint still looks remarkably fresh.

These short records mention a series of visitors to the cave, some from as far away as Kolhapur and Guntakal: Parisakirti, Indranagamma, Mahanandi, Basadiya Santappa…. The list of 15 names stretches right through the centuries from the 10th until the 14th Century.

Directly under the oldest inscription, a life-sized outline of a Jina had been chiselled into the rock, an unusual relic of a kind I had never seen earlier. Some archaeologists aver that this kind of a life-sized floor carving is rare. However, S K Aruni, deputy director at the Indian Council for Historical Research, speculates that the Jina outline may have been a statue project that was later abandoned. To a layperson like me, it looked like perhaps just a representation of the ascetic Simhanandi who had undergone sallekhana in the cave.

We had our lunch in the Mauryara angadi cave and then set out to look for the pre-Ashokan monuments Mauryara gudis, or dolmens. We trekked up and down the hills, looking for signs of the megaliths. At one point, we thrilled at the discovery of a few low-slung, table-like monuments, only to sober down when we realised that the dolmens we were looking for were supposed to be large, port-holed constructions.

No matter which way we looked at the map and the landscape, we just couldn’t find the dolmens. Had they been destroyed or were we looking for them in the wrong places? The sun had dipped below the horizon and its last rays had withdrawn from the rocks, turning them blazing orange before leaving them grey-brown. Reluctantly, we left the hills, vowing to return another day to reach into Palkigundu’s megalithic past.

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