Lasting impressions of a king’s last journey

Lasting impressions of a king’s last journey

Famous for its monolithic statue of Gomateshwara, the serene town of Shravanabelagola is dotted with two hills, the larger Vindhyagiri (Doddabetta) and the smaller Chandragiri (Chikkabetta).

The latter owes its name to King Chandragupta Maurya, who is believed to have a spiritual connection with the place.      

Chandragupta’s reign is considered one of the mightiest and his empire one of the most expansive in all of history. With his ascension, his Indian empire covered the Himalayas in the north and the Kabul River valley (Afghanistan) in the west and the Vindhya Range in the south. 

Due to a famine that was foreseen by his guru Shrutkevalin Bhadrabahu, Chandragupta moved southwards and led an exodus. Their stories, it’s largely believed, can be traced on two stone screens inside the Chandragupta Basadi on the hill. 

Professor Shadakshari Settar, a stalwart historian, archaeologist and writer, says that although there is evidence for the migration of the duo through an inscription dated 600 AD, there is no reference to the date of the migration itself, set at 300 BC. 

The basadi, along with two more, was built in the 8th or 9th century AD, in the Ganga style of architecture. Years later, a doorway flanked by two intricate stone screens was attached to it. One depicts the life of Chandragupta and the other illustrates the life of Bhadrabahu.

The stones are interspersed with carved panels on them. The odd rows contain four squares (or rectangles, since they are of slightly varying sizes) and the even rows contain five squares each. The beginning and the end of every row has a blank square.

Vinod Doddanavar, a history scholar and an expert on Shravanabelagola, says these screens appear stylistically different and hence can be interpreted as built elsewhere and fitted here later, since the stone used for the other basadis is granite, but these screens seem to be crafted from schist. One panel depicts the arrival of Acharya Bhadrabahu and King Chandragupta welcoming him at the city’s outskirts. Humility of the king and his family in serving the ascetic, the offering of food, ahardaan — a tradition in which Jain munis accept select food from a householder to fit their cupped palms — are also pronounced on the panels.

Then there is the depiction of Chandragupta’s 16 dreams that changed the course of his life... The king approaches Bhadrabahu to seek clarifications about his dreams, who then explains that they are made of bad omens. Now warned about the impending, inevitable famine and the ill-meaning of his dreams, the king, helpless, decides to renounce his worldly attachments. He is also seen coronating his son Bindusara. 

Another story finds mention within these 45 panels. It’s that of Bhadrabahu, who enters a house seeking food. But the baby inside cries so loudly that none can hear the monk. He leaves without food. The monk correlates the meaning of this incident with the king’s dreams and the impending famine.

He returns to the Munisangha (religious gathering) and preaches the importance of penance and restrain. Then they both decide to leave the capital and move southwards.

The last few panels depict the savants and the king embarking on their journey with the Munisangha to ensure that their food and travel continue smoothly. 

The holy men reach the hilly region near Mysuru, where the monk realises his final destination and asks all his disciples except Chandragupta to proceed. The hill has a small cave where Bhadrabahu is believed to have embraced Sallekhana — a Jain vow and a path to death by gradually abstaining from food and drink — and later, in his footsteps, Chandragupta himself.

More than hundred nishidhis (stone inscriptions recording death) that record the Sallekhana by kings, queens, ascetics and commoners are found in Shravanabelagola.

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