Exploring a lost Jain trail

Heritage

Exploring a lost Jain trail

Was it a prototype of sorts for Shravanabelagola? Was it an important place for nuns? Was the site, linked to various dynasties that ruled the region, deliberately destroyed? The historic site of Aretippur in Mandya district provides a mass of tantalising but confusing clues to what might once have been, writes Meera Iyer

It is always exciting to watch history being discovered. On a hillock in a small village near Maddur, archaeologists are hard at work unearthing the past even as we speak, in the process answering a lot of questions, but raising several more.

The story of the excavation at Aretippur begins in the 1970s when I K Sarma, an eminent archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), surveyed the remains of a Jain pilgrimage site here. Sarma reported on how one hillock at Aretippur had a statue of Bahubali, while another hillock nearby had the remains of several basadis or Jain temples. According to an inscription, these basadis were built in 916 AD, during the Ganga period. This meant Aretippur’s religious establishments were several decades older than those of Karnataka’s most famous Jain site, Shravanabelagola. Historians were, however, struck by the similarity in the layout of these two places: two hills, one with a statue of Bahubali, the other with several basadis, and a pond. This raised the intriguing possibility that Aretippur may have been a prototype of sorts for Shravanabelagola.

The Jain religious centre at Aretippur continued to grow and flourish even after the Ganga dynasty. Inscriptions from the time of Vishnuvardhana and later Hoysala kings talk of donations to basadis and of poets, saints and teachers who hailed from Tippuru, as the village was then known. In the 1400s, we learn about a young man from the village who died a hero’s death: the village was then known as Bastiya Tippuru. But what of the basadis themselves, did they still exist?

Aretippur then disappears from the historical record. The next we hear of it is in the 1800s when scholars who visited the site noted the statue of Bahubali atop an adjacent hillock, but of its once-famous temples, the only traces that remained were some mutilated images of Jain tirthankaras, a few pillar parts, and the numerous ancient bricks that lay scattered over the hillside.

Giant beehive

In October last year, the Bengaluru Circle of ASI began ‘scientific clearance’ at Aretippur to understand the history of the site and why it had declined and disappeared. The excavation, which is still underway, is being supervised by R N Kumaran and Aravazhi Parthan, both assistant archaeologists with the ASI.

I had first visited Aretippur eight years ago and had come away feeling slightly melancholic over the broken images and the brick-strewn hillside that had looked abandoned and desolate. Today, that same hillside is barely recognisable. The flat summit is now a vast network of neat trenches of 10m x 10m squares, making the place look a little like a giant beehive, albeit of squares not hexagons. In one trench, men and women sat gently brushing away mud from ancient bricks. In another, a lady used a small pickaxe to carefully and deliberately dig deeper into the trench. Elsewhere, three men pored over a sheet of paper, preparing a diagram of the site. And everywhere, the very air seemed to breathe the history that was being exposed after centuries of lying hidden underground.

We were taken around the site by the enthusiastic Muljee, a draughtsman hailing from Kutch, who has earlier worked on several Harappan sites and has been at Aretippur since the excavation began. Listening to him and to the archaeologists, one is struck by how detective-like they are, having to carefully piece together the evidence they find to try and understand events that happened several centuries ago. So far, according to Muljee, the excavation has revealed 12 temples, with suggestions of two more. Five of these face south, three east, two west and two face the north. Interestingly, 10 of these open out onto a central space on the hillock, where stands a long stone inscription from the Hoysala period.

Of course, where archaeologists saw 12 temples, I could only see the basements of 12 temples, and precious little remains of the rest of the structures. There are pillars lying prone in some trenches while elsewhere a few pillars that were found fallen have been stood upright. There are stray sculptures of tirthankaras and door guardians, most of them found lying face-down. Some of these have been set in their appropriate places in what was once a temple’s sanctum sanctorum, today defined only by its plinth walls and a few pillars. Some trenches have uncovered steps that once led into a temple but today lead only to the top of a basement. The overwhelming impression for a layperson like me was a mass of tantalising but confusing clues to what might once have been.

A unique blend

Archaeologist Kumaran demystified some of the evidences for me. At Aretippur, there appear to have been three broad periods of construction. The first three temples to be built here were made entirely of brick: these are from the Ganga period, a dynasty known for its partiality for constructing with brick. At a later period, several new temples were built here with stone basements and pillars, some right over the three older Ganga temples. A third phase of construction seems to have taken place which once again used brick to repair and renovate some of the temples built in the second phase.

Kumaran explained that, based on the different construction styles, at least some of the building and expansion activity in the second phase was during the Hoysala period. Clear evidence of this is seen here in the form of some idols carved in the typical Hoysala style and executed in schist, the favoured material of Hoysala sculptors. Further, one of the temples excavated just last month has a typically Hoysala style frieze of prancing lions and elephants running along its outer walls.

Curiously, the frieze had intervening blank stretches and even some spots where the damaged portions of the parade of elephants and lions had been plastered over. According to Kumaran, this temple had probably not been constructed on site but assembled rather hastily with materials brought from elsewhere. He theorises that some portions might have been damaged during transport and that the plastering was to conceal these defects. Which brought to mind the question: Why? “We will have to do further study to know more about that,” he says.

The frieze immediately reminded me of an exactly similar lions-and-elephants frieze at a Hoysala-period shrine in the Jain temple complex at Kambadahalli, 80km away. At Kambadahalli, apart from the Hoysala shrines, there are also older stone temples that are assigned to the Ganga period. Is it possible that at Aretippur, too, in addition to the Ganga-period brick shrines, some of its stone temples were also from the later Ganga period? Again, according to Kumaran, further research of the site will be needed to properly understand the history of temple construction at Aretippur.

Several inscriptions have been found during the excavation, most of them short ones bearing the names of devotees who undertook sallekhana, the Jain ritual of fasting to death. Two among the inscriptions are noteworthy. One, which Muljee pointed out to us on the floor of a natural cavern, is in the script typical of the Kadamba period, which implies that Aretippur was a religious site even before the Gangas built their temples here. Kumaran said that another inscription found last month spoke of an important lady preacher at Aretippur. Given that the excavation has also found nishidhi stones (memorials) which commemorate the death of nuns at Aretippur, he suggests the fascinating possibility that the site may have been particularly important for nuns. All the inscriptions have been sent to the Epigraphy department of the ASI to be properly deciphered.

So why did Aretippur suddenly disappear from the pages of history? According to Kumaran, all the evidence currently points to a deliberate destruction of the site. He adds that many of the sculptures seem to have been deliberately buried upside down, likely to keep them safe. Perhaps the intention was to unearth them and reinstall them later at a safer time? But to understand who might have perpetrated such destruction, or why nearby Jain centres like Kambadahalli and Shravanabelagola continued to thrive while Aretippur was destroyed, we will have to wait for further research and study.
 

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