Architecture of serenity in the hills


Architecture of serenity in the hills

The bus weaved its way from the town of Channarayapatna towards Shravanabelagola. The rocky hillock with the famed monolith of Bahubali loomed ahead of us growing larger as we inched closer and then unexpectedly vanished from our view. Percy Brown, the author of  the book Indian Architecture has mentioned that the Jains made a departure from the Hindu and Buddhist styles of the same period by using sacred sites as ‘mountains of immortality’. In Shravanabelagola, the 58-feet monolithic statue of the first Jain Tirthankara Bahubali sits atop the Vindhyagiri hill.

At the base of this Vindhyagiri (also called the Indragiri) hill rests the small Bhrammayaksha temple. The local people of Shravanabelagola make daily visits to this shrine and stand with their hands folded in devotion facing the direction of Bahubali’s monolith on the summit. Their devotion marks the spirit of this unique piece of boulder and stone architecture. It has provided us with a glimpse of the ineffable tranquility to be found at the summit. Scaling the hillock is a passage of devotion for visitors to the shrine.
 We discovered that the winding trail that we had seen from afar was actually several hundred narrow rock cut steps (620 to the summit). We began the journey to the hill top. The dramatic panorama of the city unfolded in a surprising revelation behind us and we paused to take in the compelling views of the city every hundred feet or so. The Chandragiri hill faces the Vindhyagiri as a striking counterpoint. The rock outcroppings are visible. At the convergence of both the hills is nestled the beautiful Belagola temple tank, an emerald green mirror etched into the boulder landscape.

The periodic thresholds were the gateways. The first occurred midway up the hill in the form of a stone archway. The next was the stacked stone enclosure wall and the entrance gateway containing a vast open space with the basadis. It took about 500 steps to reach this enclosure.

A 14th century shrine
This elevation contained the Odegal basadi,  a 14th century triple shrine with images of the three Jain Tirthankaras, Adinatha, Shanthinatha and Neminatha all carved out of dark gleaming schist. The basadi has been built out of granite and is situated on a high plinth. The priest sprinkled jasmine water, and smeared our foreheads with sandalwood paste; the glow of the small oil lamps broke through the cloistered darkness. And as we emerged from the dim interiors of the temple, our eyes struggled to transition into bright sunlight. The mandapa of the basadi acted as a vantage point providing theatrical bird’s eye views of the city.

The beautiful archway
We progressed towards the Tyagada Kamba, a small pavilion containing a craved pillar from the 10th century. We still had about 100 steps to climb to reach the summit with the monolith. Early into our next climb we arrived at an enclosed platform in front of the Akhanada Bagilu, a beautiful gateway with carvings of Goddesses Mahalakshmi.  The shrines of Tirthankaras Gomateshwara and Bharateshwara have been built concomitantly at the entrance to this gateway. In a grotto like effect the carved boulder melded into the masonry.

The space within the Akhanada Bagilu was most interesting. Entering this threshold we encountered a pavilion like space and a wide flight of steps, the dramatic play of the light on the uneven boulder wall and a single boulder perched poetically over the roof. We moved through these episodic thresholds acutely aware of the layered spatial transitions they created.

Arriving at the summit we faced Bahubali who soared above us into the horizon from his earthbound enclosure, face and shoulders visible over the walled space. The entry to the monolith was through a pillared mandapa.

Beyond the framed doors of the mandapa we encountered Bahubali’s creeper entwined legs and the silhouettes of devotees rapt in solemn prayers. We crossed threshold into the dark suttalaya space which contained at its core an open to sky courtyard with the monolith.

This central courtyard provided space for devotees to sit and to immerse themselves in prayers.

Breaking away from the darkness and shadows of the surrounding enclosure the imposing monolith of Bahubali Bhagawan rose into the sky. The grey granite synchronised perfectly with the blue of the skies and white of the fleeting clouds. Bahubali looked ahead with calm eyes and a harmonious smile.

The monolith was carved by Arishtanemi in 983 AD and is the tallest monolith in India. To one side of Bahubali was the shrine of Sri Kushmandini Devi. The suttalaya was a dark low ceilinged pillared chamber that formed an enclosure around Bahubali and contained the images of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras.

Simplicity of shape, not experience
While the way to the summit was an introspective passage our way back was easier we followed the steps, tracked the runnels carved into the stone, and faced the breeze. We descended lighter with the transmitted serenity into the welcoming verdant plains. My friends from abroad who had accompanied me on this trip seemed quite taken by the sensory experience of Shravanabelagola including scaling a 400-foot-hill bare feet.
As the artist Robert Morris has stated, “simplicity of shape does not equate with simplicity of experience.” 

The collective experience of Vindhyagiri is richer than the individual spaces we encountered. In Shravanabelagola the design is inextricable from the site, where the built is in consonance with the surrounding boulder landscape. Often treated as a prescribed stop on the way to the Hoysala temple cities of Belur and Halebid, Shravanabelagola is singularly worth visiting for its architecture of tranquility.

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