A hidden architectural treasure

A hidden architectural treasure
Splendid carvings. Take a trip to this beautiful and lesser known town of Kambadahalli and experience the magic of age-old architecture writes Meera Iyer.

Secreted away in a village about 15 km from Shravanabelagola, is the almost forgotten Jain pilgrimage centre called Kambadahalli, which in contrast to the world-famous site with the monolithic statue, is  rarely visited. 

Kambadahalli takes its name from a pillar (khamba) that dominates the village. 

The stone pillar is a manastambha, a pillar that graces many Jain temples. 

This grand pillar stands on an octagonal base and soars to a height of 57 feet. Bands of floral creepers at regular intervals, decorate the well-crafted shaft. 

At the top is a platform which holds an image of a yaksha facing east. 
 
Four small bells dangle from the platform and are the focus of a somewhat macabre local legend. 

According to Raju, an attender at the monument, the bells never ring or so much as tinkle no matter how strong the breeze blows. 

The only time they chime is when someone in the village is about to die. 

Heand other villagers swear solemnly that they have noted this phenomenon several times. 
 
A long chain of history

At the base of the manastambha is an inscription dating to about 1118 AD, which records how the Hoysala ruler Vishnuvardhana promised his minister Gangaraja a boon if he helped him win Talkad from the Cholas. 

When he succeeded, the able Gangaraja, one of whose colourful epithets was ‘a millstone to traitors’, asked his king for a piece of land at Kambadahalli. Gangaraja in turn donated it to a Jain guru who presumably had a hand in building some of the temples here.
 
Some temples in Kambadahalli’s panchakutabasadi, or five-shrined Jain Temple, predate the pillar. 

The oldest part of the complex, dating to about 900 AD is a trikutachala basadi, where three shrines were built branching off from a common pillared hall.

To the north of these three cells are twin shrines, giving the complex its title panchakuta basadi. 
 
This basadi is of particular interest to architectural historians because the vimana or tower of each of the shrines in the temple is built in a different style. 
 
The shrine on the east, dedicated to the 16th tirthankara, Shantinatha has a circular vimana which corresponds to the so-called Vesara style. 
 
The central shrine of the first tirthankara, Adinathaha has a square vimana in the Nagara style. 

The western shrine dedicated to the 22nd tirthankara Neminatha is an octagonal vimana in the Dravidian style of temple architecture. 
 
This is why the archaeologist K R Srinivasan called the three shrines an ‘outstanding landmark in southern vimana architecture’, giving ‘textbook illustrations’ of the differing southern styles of construction.
 
The guardians of the world

Indeed, for those interested in temple architecture and iconography, the temple is a veritable feast, full of little things to notice. Apart from the three styles of vimanas, the other element I found remarkable was the unusually styled bali-peetha, or sacrificial platform. 

Instead of the usual squat base topped with a circular platform, this one is a three-tiered structure, with a square base, an octagonal second layer and finally a round tier on which has been placed the bali-peetha. 

Most interestingly, the octagonal tier has the ashta-dikpalakas – the guardians of the eight directions, carved on each face. 
 
The guardians here are Ishana, Indra, Agni, Kubera, Yama, Varuna, Nritti and Vayu. Like in most temples, the dikpalakas are arranged in a grid of nine. 
 
Instead of  the central square being occupied by Vishnu or Shiva, here the central panel is a either a jina or a yaksha. 

In one depiction,the central panel has the yaksha Dharanendra standing gracefully, almost casually, holding a bow in his left hand and a conch in his right. 

In another shrine, the central panel is a jina seated on a lion throne and surrounded by attendants, an elegant piece of sculpture that the eminent historian and author M A Dhaky has labelled ‘one of the most beautiful compositions known from Jain art.’
 
Like the pillar, the twin-shrines dedicated to Shantinatha and Adinatha are dated to the early 1100s, built under Hoysala patronage, rather than during the Ganga period.
 
Though the overall idiom remains the same, there are small changes in architecture that betray the later date. 
 
Chiselled beauties
 
The most noticeable and charming are the little friezes of animals along the outer basement. 

Lions chase each other, sometimes playfully, sometimes snarling. Elephants march along in a procession, teasing each other, while their mahouts chat amiably. 

There are also some mythical creatures with elephant trunks and lion-shaped bodies.
 
Truly, their sculptors were masters of their art, able to breathe life even into hard granite. 
 
Raju, the attender at the monument, informed us that some years ago, several of the larger sculptures in Kambadahalli had been sent abroad as part of display of the event ‘Festival of India’. 
 
As we stopped by Kambadahalli’s pillar again on our way out, I pondered over the strange twists in the grand sweep of history. 
 
A thousand years ago, kings, commanders, ministers and merchants made donations to the temples here at Kambadahalli, making it one of the biggest pilgrimage centres in the region. 
 
The temple walls would have echoed the murmur of hundreds of pilgrims from around the kingdom visiting, worshipping, praying. 
 
Outside, you would have heard the steady chipping of chisels on granite as sculptors, masons and architects fashioned more temples for this cultural centre. 
 
Today, Kambadahalli’s manastambha is known more for its death knells than its association with the basadi. 

The basadi itself has gone from being a vibrant religious centre to being a slightly forlorn and forgotten monument that attracts only the occasional diligent Jain pilgrim, the rare tourist or the architectural historian. 

 


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