Sunday, October 3, 2010

Shravanabelagola: Giant Monoliths, Bigger Rocks

Walking up the to monolith at Shravanabelagola.

Karnataka is a big and remarkably historical state, and one of its primariy attractions are the temples of Belur and Halebid. Curiously enough, these historical and remarkably beautiful places - located not too far from Bangalore - get very little traffic from foreign tourists. Which is a shame. This is Southern Indian art at its absolute zenith, under the creative and artistically inclined rule of the Hoysalas, and it is absolutely worth seeing.

I ended up renting a taxi for the day through the Sumanjay Home Stay, my guesthouse in Bangalore. The proprietress, Summa, and her daughter, ended up joining me. This was wonderful: having locals to interpret and explain everything to me really helped. They're also very interesting and well-read people, and we had a lot of nice discussions in the car about the similarities and differences between American and Indian culture. Intellectually minded Indian friends are worth their weight in gold. The drive up began in the very early morning and provided a nice look at Karnataka's rural and village areas. It is really a uniquely blessed and verdant land, full of swaying palm trees, lush rice paddies, meandering groups of water buffalo and women, women everywhere, threshing wheat in saris and shouting without seriousness at one another from across the road. Granite hills rise up from the pancake flat greenery: these lucky repositories of rock provided the base material for most of the historical wonders of ancient Karnataka.

The Hoysalas ruled the area between the 10th and the 14th century, their kingdom stretching into Tamil Nadu and bits of Western Andhra Pradesh. The name derives from a somewhat doubtful story concerning one of their young and charismatic founders. This young hero, Sala, supposedly saved his beloved Jain guru from a tiger that the two encounter near the Vasantika goddess temple at Sosevur. "Hoy" means "to strike", and so the two were combined into Hoysala. An agricultural kingdom, the Hoysalas operated off a landlord system, and also collected taxes on irrigation systems, marriage, spices, and whatever else seemed apropo. They are best known for their zealous patronage of incredible temple art, and hundreds of their distinctive soap-stone temples remain dotted around the lush tropical landscape of rural Karnataka. The Hoysalas were known for their religious tolerance, and seemed to get along fine with various Hindu sects. There were also a large number of Jains in their kingdom, as is evidenced at my first stop, the sacred Jain center of Shravanabelagola.

A view down the rock.

Shravanabelagola is about 158 KM from Bangalore, and is considered to be one of the most important places to the Jains. The Jains, as most people know, are an ancient religious sect of India with a strenously anti-violence philosophical basis. Cut down to a state of somewhat brutal simplicity, a Jain seeks to use persaonl efforts to move his soul to a state of divine conciousness and liberation, with the eventual goal of becoming a a Supreme Being or jina. Jains today are a prominent and powerful religious minority in India, and their business acumen is renowned throughout the world. There are plenty in my hometown in California.

The town below.

Shravanabelagola is an ancient place of worship situated on top of a strikingly large rock. The name means "White Pond of the Jain Monk", in allusion to the impressive tank that may be seen from the top of the mount. The town has two hills - one has a Basadi built by the Emperor Ashoka himself, though we didn't go there - and the Vindyagiri hill, which is what we are concerned with here. Vindyagiri features a profusion of temples dedicated to various saints and martyrs.

Entry to the monolith's temple.

Vindyagari also contains the 57 foot tall monolithic statue of Bhagavan Gomateshwara Bahubali. The statue is very large and truly striking, albeit in a slightly distorted fashion (his legs are too short). To reach the statue, there are a bit of stairs. Which is a gross understatement, as there are many many stairs, right up the mountain. The powers that be were kind enough to provide some metal railings. The sick and exceptionally lazy can hire four guys to carry you up on a palanquin, though this is more then a bit embarrassing. It was drizzling a little and the stairs were a bit slippery, which added an element of fun and adventure to things.

Bahabuli is a very important figure in Jainism, the second son of the first Tirthankara, Lord Rishabha. As the story goes, Bahabuli's brother, jealous of his money and success, decided to challenge him in battle for the throne, in lieu of entering into a total war. The competition duly arrived, but as the fight began, Bahubali realized that such a battle for resources, against his own brother, was a pointless and repellant act. Instead of striking his brother, he pulled out his own hair, ceding the battle. Afterwards, Bahubali renounced all his possessions and went to live as a solitary hermit - inspiring his brother, Bharat, to eventually do the same.

The reason that vines climb up the statues leg relates to this solitary period. Bahabuli was determined to achieve enlightenment, but his ego refused to allow him to visit his father's court, which was the final hurdle needed to achieve his goal. If he visited his father's court, he'd have to bow down to his 98 brothers, who had taken up the mantle of asceticism before him, and this would be entirely too embarrassing. Unmoved, Bahabuli kept on meditating anyway, remaining so inert that vines grew up around his legs. The saint's worried sisters asked Tirthankar Adinath how he might be helped. The sage replied that Bahabuli had failed to realize that he "was standing on an elephant," which of course represented ego. His sisters promptly went to him and asked him (logically) to please get down from the elephant. After a bit of thought, he realized his colossal error, and achieved enlightenment. In the stories happy ending, he went and reconciled with his father and brothers, and soon became an icon of the Jain religion.

Stone inscriptions outside the temple.

A more obvious question remains. Why the hell is he naked? Well, there are two sects of Jains. The Sky Clad monks (Digamabar) wear no clothes, whereas the Svetambar monks wear only white. Digambara monks don't consider themselves nude: they are literally wearing the environment around them, and they feel this is entirely adequate for their needs. The monolith here of Bahabuli examplifies this ideal. As a result of this, you will see a remarkable number of naked guys climbing up the stairs to the temple. Try not to stare. (As an aside, a Jain temple is called a Basadi).

The Bahabuli statue is the subject of an immense Jain festival every 12 years. In the Mahamasthakabhisheka festival, devotees gather here in huge numbers to smother the statue in offerings of milk, sugarcane juice, saffron paste, and precious stones, jewels, and flowers, all possessing great symbolism to Jains. The last event was covered live on TV. I imagine this is fascinating to see. The next ceremony takes place in 2018, if you want to make advance plans.

Temple on the hill. There's a number of them built up here, mostly very old. People have been coming up here for a very, very long time.

Excellent rock carving. There's interesting stuff scattered around everywhere here, most of it under-interpreted.

A statue of a female saint.....

The Gulleyaki to be precise.

The Tyagada Kampa, a pavilion housing a pillar. Which is explained below.

Jain saints are big on renouncing stuff. Go figure.

Some nice paintings on the wall. Summa's daughter was suspicious as to their antiquity. Having seen some very vivid rock paintings in the Western USA of great age, I'm more credulous.

Summa bowed down and prayed briefly at a number of the icons inside the main temple. I didn't pay this much (if any mind) but like many of my Hindu friends do in such situations, she felt a need to qualify herself. "You must think me very religious," she said, as she got up.

"And I'm not - but Hinduism is all encompassing, you know. It's not really a religion, more of a way of life." The icons inside the temple are very old and weather-blackened, and have offerings from various passerby slowly rotting in front of them.

"We Hindus can pray to anyone we feel we should pray too," she said, her voice tinged with a bit of pride. "There are not many rules."

The men at the front don't technically charge to enter the sanctuary, but you are prompted to give a Donation. You will receive a polite but extremely disdainful look if you don't give. First timers in India's religious and historical places are often shocked and a bit disgusted by these overt displays of capitalism in a theoretically holy place, but it doesn't bother me over-much. All religious organizations and localities operate by some form of a tithing or donation system: so what if these guys are out in the open about it?

Lovely orange gecko on the rocks. Don't ask me for the species.

After Shravanabelagola, it was time to make for the temples at Belur. Next blog post.

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous! Enjoyed this post very much. Good photos.

    Auntie Lyn