Holy hills beckon

Holy hills beckon

With ancient Jain basadis, awe-inspiring statues and picturesque ponds, the twin hills of Vindhyagiri and Chandragiri in Shravanabelagola leave Chitra Ramaswamy mesmerised...

An overview of Chandragiri Hill

Faith, art, history and bounteous nature are inextricably intertwined in Shravanabelagola, the tapobhoomi of monarchs and monks of eons ago, and a much sought-after tourist attraction in the present century. The small town has been a Jain religious centre and a repository of Jain culture since the third century. For most visitors, Shravanabelagola, referred to as Jaina Badri, is synonymous with the sun-kissed Vindhyagiri Hills which is home to Asia’s largest monolithic statue, that of Lord Gomateshwara or Bahubali, a gigantic 57-feet-tall statue. The 2,300-year-old town gets its name from bel meaning white and gola meaning pond in Kannada, thus alluding to the picturesque pond in the middle of the town.

However, Shravanabelagola is cocooned by Vindhyagiri (also known as Indragiri) and Chandragiri hills, 3,350 feet above sea level. Though lesser known on the tourist radar, Chandragiri, the smaller hillock which lies opposite Indragiri Hill at an elevation of 3,052 feet, is replete with history. Known variously as Chikka Betta, Thirthagiri, Rishigiri and Katavapra or Black Hill, it contains a wealth of monuments of architectural beauty that date back to the eighth century and earlier.

Serene & stately

With a couple of days at our disposal to explore the verdant town, we begin with a visit to the taller hill to pay our obsequies to Lord Gomateshwara. At the foothills, we first circumambulate Lord Parshwanath at
Brahmadeva Temple before embarking on the 500-step climb to Vindhyagiri. En route, we pass several shrines dedicated to various deities before coming upon the towering statue of Lord Bahubali, which is located in an enclosure that also boasts of several stunning sculptures of the 24 tirthankaras. The akhanda-bagilu — the entrance to the enclosure is a carving on a single stone that displays a seated Gajalakshmi flanked by two elephants.

A serene and stately Bahubali stands in a meditative posture, over anthills and serpents, with creepers encircling his legs and waist. Kannada and Tamil inscriptions adorn the base of the statue. The base also boasts the oldest evidence of written Marathi that dates from 981 CE.

History records the statue as being erected by Chavundaraya, a general of Rachamalla, the Ganga king, following a divine vision he had. According to the legends, Chavundaraya’s mother, Kalala Devi, yearned to have the darshan of the golden statue of Lord Bahubali at Podanpur. The dutiful son who started out for Podanpur with his mother halted at Shravanabelagola for the night. The sleeping general was blessed with a dream in which he was given instructions to build an edifice of the lord. On rising early the following morning, Chavundaraya, as directed in the dream, hurled his golden arrow from Chandragiri Hill. At the spot where the arrow fell on the opposite Vindhyagiri Hill, the idol of Bahubali was discerned. Chavundaraya then had the mammoth idol of Bahubali sculpted out of a single block of granite under the expert guidance of the famed sculptor Arishtanemi. The statue took 12 years to build.

Legend says...

Needless to say, the once-in-12-years Mahamasthakabhisheka Mahotsava, the anointing of Lord Bahubali commemorating his first consecratory bath, is an event that sees Shravanabelagola throb with feverish activity with thousands of visitors converging upon the town from across the country. As the story goes, in subsequent years following the erecting of the statue and performing its consecration ceremony, Chamundaraya was overwhelmed by ego and arrogance at his achievement. As a result, the anointing liquids — coconut water, milk and other fragrance substances — miraculously ceased to flow below the idol’s navel. It was only after a pious old lady Gullikayajji was called upon to perform the ritual did the liquids douse the Lord right up to his feet and toes. A statue of Gullikayajji, who is believed to be none other than Goddess Padmavati, was then sculpted and is seen in a pillared hall adjoining the Gommateshwara enclosure.

While Shravanabelagola boasts of the largest number of Digambar Jain temples as well as rock inscriptions in the country, the vast majority of over 800 inscriptions are found in Chandragiri. The writings provide insights into the life of ascetics of the times and also throw light on Kannada language and literature. The inscriptions also reference the rise and fall of several dynasties, including the Gangas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagar emperors and the Wodeyars.

A flight of 260 steps brings us to the top of Chandragiri, which is believed to have been sanctified by the visit of Acharya Bhadrabahu, the spiritual teacher of Chandragupta Maurya. Upon reaching the top, we first visit Bhadrabahu Cave that lies close to the landing on the right. The cave was inhabited by Bhadrabahu whose footprints are engraved here and worshipped meticulously by Jaina pilgrims to Chandragiri. Chandragupta Maurya, having received diksha from the guru, is believed to have worshipped these footprints until his death.

Impressive structures

The hilltop comprises several structures which are an artist’s delight for the sculptural excellence they display. Kuge Brahma Sthamba, also called Marasimhana Manasthambha, a finely ornamented free-standing pillar with the idol of an east-facing Brahmadeva at its top, welcomes us to the complex. The pillar commemorates the Ganga king Marasimha II who died in 947 AD. While this structure is an interesting aspect of Ganga art, it also reflects the importance of Brahmadeva in the Jain cult. In fact, brahmasthambas and manasthambas, the two types of Jain pillars, can be seen in all Jain temples. While manasthambas, also called Indrasthambas, comprise a pavilion at the top which contain figures facing the four cardinal directions, brahmasthambas hold aloft the figure of a seated Brahma at their pinnacle.

A cluster of mantapas, sthambas, stone pillars with inscriptions and 15 basadis dot Chandragiri, and lie encircled by an attractive stone wall that gives the appearance of a fortress. Almost all the basadis are built in the Dravidian architectural style.

We begin our explorative tour of Chandragiri from Kuge Sthambha, moving in the conventional clockwise direction along a systematically laid out path with directions to cover every basadi and construct that is a part of the hillock. As we move from the shrine of Shantinatha, the 16th tirthankara whose 13-feet-tall standing idol adorns the sanctum, our attention is drawn to a unique statue that stands encased within iron railings. It is of Bharata, the elder brother of Bahubali, damaged below the thighs. The image, which is carved out of soft soapstone, closely resembles the Bahubali statue on the Vindhyagiri Hills and is attributed to the artisans of 10th-century Gangas.

Chavundaraya Basadi
Chavundaraya Basadi

Some of the most impressive structures here are Suparshwanath, Chamundaraya, Kattale and Chandragupta basadis. The seated idol of Suparshwanath is sheltered by a canopy of a five-hooded serpent and flanked by chamara-bearers. The mandara or temple chariot-like edifice stands in front of Terina Basadi, also known as Bahubali Basadi. Figurines of lions and that of people adorn its four sides.

The two-storeyed, 68-feet-long, 36-feet-wide Chamundaraya Basadi dedicated to Neminatha, the 22nd tirthankara, has a shikhara built in Dravidian style. It is one of the largest Jaina shrines in Shravanabelagola with distinct ornamental niches that hold figures of yalis and Jaina rishis in sitting posture. Its architecture is credited to the era of the Western Gangas which is believed to have evolved out of the Chalukyan styles seen in Aihole and Badami.

The three-celled Chandragupta Basadi, named after the Mauryan king, is one of the best shrines seen here. In addition to its finely carved towers and idols that speak volumes about the artistes of the times, there are the twin perforated stone screens. Veritable poetry in stone, the screens which may be treated as lattice windows, narrate the story of the migration of Bhadrabahu. The carvings are attributed to the Hoysala artist Dasoja.

Shravanabelagola is also home to some of the finest paintings at Jain Mutt, portraying episodes from Jaina mythology. Enriched with natural dyes, the 18th-century wall murals depict festivities, royal processions, forest scenes with feral creatures, and also shed light on the lives of monks and householders alike, of the times.