On a spiritual quest

history hunt

On a spiritual quest
India’s Jain legacy extends from celebrated cave shrines at Ellora and Badami to Udayagiri-Khandagiri in Odisha, exquisitely carved temples at Dilwara and Ranakpur to Gomateshwara statues at Karkala and Shravanabelagola. Though stone sculptures may erode and paintings might fade, Jainism’s impact goes beyond art and architecture to more fundamental concepts.

The five cardinal principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness), represented by an upturned palm with a wheel encircling the word ahimsa, is a defining symbol of Jain faith. The wheel or dharmachakra represents the resolve to halt the cycle of reincarnation. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology of satyagraha was partly inspired by his correspondence with Jain saint Shrimad Rajchandra; eventually freeing India from centuries of slavery.

The roots of Jainism

Jains consider their religion timeless, without origin or end, occasionally forgotten by humanity and revived by tirthankaras (ford-makers, who help cross the ocean of life). One of the world’s oldest religions, Jainism predates Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism (the 24th and last tirthankara, Mahavira, was Buddha’s contemporary). Like Buddhism, Jainism too originated in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

When human civilisation was still in its infancy, Rishabha, the first tirthankara, was born to Nabhi Raja and Marudevi at Ayodhya. He taught people 72 sciences including arithmetic, agriculture, tending animals, cooking, poetry, art, sculpture, song, dance, art of lovemaking and rituals for marriage, funerals and festivals. Even extraction of sugarcane (ikhsu) juice was taught and the Ikshvaku dynasty claims lineage from it.

Rishabha divided his kingdom between his 100 sons, making Bharata, the eldest, king of the north, and Bahubali in charge of the southern capital at Paudanapura. Rishabha left to meditate in the forest, gained kevala jnana (supreme enlightenment) and became the first jina (conqueror).

Over time, Bharata expanded his dominions and became a chakravartin samrat. Some claim India was named Bharatavarsha or Bharat after him and not the Kuru king in Mahabharata. Everyone accepted his rule, except his brothers. They renounced their kingdoms and joined Rishabnath while Bahubali, the Strong-Armed, refused to acquiesce.

He defeated his brother in combat but abdicated the throne and undertook severe penance in remorse. He shed his clothes and attained a kayotsarga position, standing still in meditation. Vines and anthills grew around him, but he didn’t relent till he gained enlightenment. To commemorate this, Bharatha erected an emerald statue of Bahubali in Paudanapura. Later, Bharatha attained moksha and was worshipped as a siddha. Subsequently, the statue was lost and no trace of Paudanapura could be found.

Rishabha was greatly revered in the ancient city of Pithunda, capital of Kalinga (modern Odisha). When Magadha king Mahapadma Nanda conquered Kalinga, he destroyed the city and brought a statue of Rishabha to his capital Pataliputra. After Rishabha, a succession of tirthankaras preached the faith through a body of scriptures, memorised and orally passed down the ages. History only records the existence of Parshvanath (877–777 BCE) and Mahavira (599–527 BCE).

On a recent trip to Bihar, we drove to Vaishali, erstwhile capital of the Lichchavis. Against the rustic backdrop of paddy fields, a red arch announced the birthplace of Lord Mahavira. We were the only visitors on the winding trail to Baso Kund. Construction of a grand shrine and dharamsala was underway. A flight of stairs led us to a serene statue of Mahavira in meditative repose.

We followed his footsteps to Rajgir, whose hills are sacred to Jains as Panch Pahari. As per the legend, when Mahavira placed his foot on each mountain, it sparked a divine event — a mountain moved (Vipulachal), it rained jewels (Ratnagiri) and gold (Sonagiri), the sun arose from darkness (Udaygiri) and streams started to boil (Vaibhavgiri). Pilgrims do a full-day trail across the five mountains, ending with a visit to the Jain dharamsala.

While Rishabha attained moksha on Mount Ashtapad (Kailash), and Neminath on Urjayant (Girnar), both Mahavira and 12th tirthankara Vasupujya attained samadhi in Bihar at Pavapuri and Champapuri. The remaining 20 tirthankaras attained nirvana at Sammed Shikharji, the Jain pilgrimage centre atop Parasnath, Jharkhand’s highest hill. Pavapuri was also the site of Mahavira’s final sermon. After his cremation, the scramble to collect his ashes caused so much soil to be dug out that a pond was created!

Hills and caves played an important role in Jainism. The lonely perches were ideal spots for meditation and contemplation. Jainism flourished under royal patronage of King Shrenik of the Shishunag dynasty to Nandas, Mauryas, Guptas, Pratiharas, Parmars and Chandelas. From Pataliputra, Rajgir and Vaishali, the faith spread across Central, Northern and Western India via Varanasi, Kausambi, Sravasti, Ujjain, Ahicchatra, Mathura, Hastinapur, Saurashtra and beyond.

The Great Famine & the Schism

In the Ramayana, Rama pays homage to Jain monks living in South India en route to Lanka. Ancient Tamil epic Silappatikaram was written by Ilango Adigal, a Jain. Even the main characters of his work, Kannagi and Kovalan, were Jains! Though Jainism had been prevalent in South India, a tragedy in the North gave the faith a monumental push in the South.

In 3rd century BCE, when Ujjain served as a secondary Mauryan capital, Jain acharya Bhadrabahu predicted a 12-year famine that would ravage North India. In those days, Jain scriptures were memorised and passed from guru to disciple orally. Bhadrabahu taught his disciple Sthulabhadra 11 of the 12 Anga Agams, except the last one called Drashtivada, containing 14 Purvas. But the famine prompted Bhadrabahu to appoint Sthulabhadra as the leader of the monks who stayed in Magadha while he migrated with 12,000 disciples to Karnataka. Among them was Chandragupta Maurya, who had renounced monarchy and turned to Jainism. He performed sallekhana (starving to death) around 300 BC on Chikka Betta, a hillock at Shravanabelagola, called Chandragiri in his memory.

Soon, Jain practices in the North got corrupted and monks realised that their scriptures were being forgotten. After the famine, Sthulabhadra held a convention in Pataliputra to recompile Jain doctrine. When Bhadrabahu’s followers led by Vishakha returned to Pataliputra, they found that the monks in Magadha had started wearing white clothes.

The Shwetambars or ‘white-clothed’ no longer believed that nudity was essential to asceticism. They also believed that Mahavira was not a bachelor and women could obtain moksha as they considered the 19th tirthankara Mallinath to be a woman. The southern camp, Digamber, rejected all the Angas compiled by Sthulabhadra and the faith got divided into two sects.

After the bloody Kalinga war, Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson Ashoka found solace in Buddhism, which jostled for royal patronage at the expense of Jainism. Life came full circle as Ashoka’s grandson Samprati adopted Jainism and helped propagate it. In first century BCE, it received another boost from Emperor Kharavela of Kalinga, who conquered Magadha, retrieved the old statue of Rishabha and installed it at Udayagiri. With earlier wooden buildings long destroyed, the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri near Bhubaneswar are the only surviving stone Jain monuments in Odisha.

One of the earliest Jain rock-cut shelters, these austere cells served as ascetic retreats. Their richly-carved facades depict royal scenes and daily life; each cave named after a distinguishing feature. Of Udayagiri’s 18 caves, the largest and most beautiful is the double-storeyed Rani Gumpha. However, Hathi Gumpha is significant because of Kharavela’s 117-line inscription noting his victory over Magadha. A trail leads up Khandagiri’s 15 caves, ending at the 18th century Jain temple on the summit dedicated to Rishabnath.

Jainism down South

From Kalinga, the faith found another route to South India, via Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Jainism enjoyed the patronage of the Kadambas of Banavasi, Gangas of Talakad, Chalukyas of Badami, Pallavas of Kanchi, Cheras of Mahodayapura and Ay kings of Ezhimala.

Just off the Trichy-Pudukkottai highway is the fascinating archaeological site of Eladipattam. We climbed 100-odd steps towards a natural cavern where 17 rock beds were carved into the floor with raised headrests for stone pillows. The stone had acquired a mirror-like polish, weathered by time and use. This was where Jain ascetics performed penance. The oldest of the Tamil and Brahmi inscriptions etched on the bed dates back to 2nd century BCE.

Nearby, Sittanavasal exemplifies early painting traditions of South India. The 2nd century AD rock-cut Jain temple (Arivar koil) bears bas-reliefs of a Jain acharya and 23rd tirthankara Parsvanath sheltered by a five-hooded serpent. In a sunless cell that thrummed and magnified even our breaths, our torch caught vestiges of mural art in mineral colours on the ceiling. Based on Samavasarana, the exalted heavenly pavilion where Jain tirthankaras impart knowledge to all beings, we caught delicate images of fish, geese and elephants swimming in a lotus tank. The Jain imprint was visible deep South, with several cave shelters around Madurai and the Chitharal hill shrines near Nagercoil, a serpent shrine believed to be an old Jain temple.

The legend of the lost Mauryan statue of Gomateshwara drew Ganga ruler Rachamalla’s general Chavundaraya to a place dominated by two hills and a pond. Following a dream, he shot an arrow from Chandragiri to adjacent Indragiri and the figure of Gommateshwara flashed from the big hill. At the place where the arrow landed, a 57-feet-high monolithic statue of Bahubali was carved under the supervision of sage Arishtanemi in 983 AD. The spot was called Sravana Bela Gola (White Pond of the Monk). It became a template for other Gommateshwara statues at Dharmasthala and Karkala, where the mahamastakabhisheka draws the devout every 12 years.

Sites like the Chalukyan capital of Badami, and more famously Ellora, the jewel of the Rashtrakutas, bear fine specimens of India’s cave-temple architecture as well as the confluence of three faiths. Of the 34 caves carved into a basalt hill, the 12 southern caves are Buddhist, 17 are dedicated to Hinduism while 5 caves to the north, excavated around 9th and 10th centuries, are Jain. Like the Gangas, 11th century Hoysalas too owed their kingdom to a Jain saint, Acharya Sudatta. Jainism soon became a powerful state religion in North Karnataka.

Beyond Karnataka’s well-worn Jain trail, we sought out the Saavira Kambada Basadi (1,000-pillared temple) at Moodabidri and the Jalmandir (water temple) at Varanga near Someshwara. The priest rowed us across to the shrine in the middle of a large pond with tiny kumudni (frilled lotus) flowers. During the reign of the Vijayanagar kings, Bhatkal was their chief port. Many shrines and basadis were built, the largest being the twin-storeyed Chandranatheshvara Basadi. A wishbone’s throw away from Bhatkal’s old biryani hotel Kwality, another Jain shrine was discernible only by a roadside pillar.

Between 12th and 16th centuries, many Jains migrated from Mysore to Wayanad and Kerala’s ports like Calicut and Cochin. They settled as traders, dealing in cash crops and spices. Located on hill slopes and in coffee plantations are remains of Jain shrines like Ananthakrishnapuram Temple near Kalpetta, Kottamunda Glass Temple at Vellarimala and the exquisite shrine at Puthangadi close to Panamaram–Nadayavayal Road.

The most intriguing shrine is the 14th century Jain temple at Sultan Bathery. To dodge the British, Tipu Sultan cleared the idols and hid his ammunition there. The place was thus called Sultan’s Battery. The Jain temple is well preserved, barring the missing idols. Hanneradu beedhi (12 streets) remains one of the traditional Jain settlements in Sultan Bathery.

We were fortunate to be at the Sri Vardhman Sthanak Vasi Jain Sangh at Kochi’s old quarter of Mattancherry around noon. For once, it wasn’t a meal to partake, but one worth witnessing! In a unique avian ritual, resident pigeons circled the temple spire thrice before landing in the courtyard to feed. They swooped into our palms for grains in a flurry of wings. Spotting the white pigeon is considered auspicious, but we seemed too burdened by our karmic sins to get that lucky!

Jain traders controlled maritime trade along the Spice Route in South India, Gujarat and the Silk Road skirting Rajasthan. A major stop for camel caravans since the Gupta period, the region was an important centre for the Gurjar Pratihara dynasty and Jain merchants who channelled their wealth to construct magnificent shrines.

The people of Osian, an old trading town, converted to Jainism inspired by Jain Acharya Ratnaprabhasuriji. However, the locals continued to worship serpents and Hindu goddess Sachiya Mata, whose hill shrine displays Jain-style carvings. Many Jain clans conduct their mundan-sanskar (head tonsuring) here. Osian is an important pilgrimage centre for the Maheshwari and Oswal communities who derive their name from ‘Osian-wale’. There are 15 Jain temples, the most important being the Mahavira Temple, built by Gurjar Pratihara King Vatsaraja in 783 AD. Red sandstone carvings depict the life of 22nd tirthankara Neminath besides a 32-inch-tall sculpture of Mahavira in padmasana.

We visited the stunning Adeshwar Nath Jain Temple along the dry lakebed of Amar Sagar before continuing to Jaisalmer Fort to see exquisite 15-16th century Jain temples. Fashioned out of yellow sandstone without using mortar, the masonry blocks were held by iron staples. Jaisalmer Fort’s shrines have often been compared to the famous Dilwara temples of Mount Abu and the filigreed carvings at Ranakpur.

Legend has it that Dharma Shah, a local Jain businessman, constructed the Ranakpur temple in 15th century following a divine vision. The town and the temple were named after its chief patron Rana Kumbha as ‘Ranakpur’. Located in a valley of the Aravalli Range, the chaumukha (four-faced) shrine symbolises the cosmos and the tirthankara’s conquest of the four cardinal directions. Its turrets rise dramatically and no two of the 1,444 carved marble pillars are alike!

Jainism flourished in Gujarat under the Solanki ruler of Patan, Kumarpal, disciple of Acharya Hemachandra. Adinath, the first tirthankara, supposedly meditated atop Shatrunjaya Hill at Palitana. Today, shrines dot the entire hill. In 2014, Palitana became the world’s first city to be legally vegetarian. Girnar hill near Junagadh is equally sacred as 22nd tirthankara Neminatha attained moksha here.

Another stunning example of rock-cut Jain art can be found at Gopachal Parvat in Gwalior. Halfway up the fort on Urwahi Road, hundreds of images of Jain tirthankaras, large and small, standing and seated, are carved in small caves or niches on the rockface. The 57-feet-high monolithic figure of Parshvanath, seated on a lotus, is spellbinding. Built in 15-16th century by Tomar kings, these Jain tirthankara statues are one of a kind.

Despite persecution in the past and religious tussles, over five million people practice Jainism in India today. At the Chintamani Parshvanath Temple at Lodhruva, we watched Jain priests in mukhapattis (masks) grinding sandalwood, decorating idols and dangling colourful pennants for a festival. The wind swept across the courtyard and flags fluttered gently in the breeze, carrying the message of peace and tolerance across the land...
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