The sacred hill is right in front of me. Called by various names – Chandragiri, Katavapra, Rishigiri, Chikka Betta etc., it is one of the oldest Jain pilgrimage centres in the South. I had read that many Jain devotees had taken ‘Sallekhana’ here. Sallekhana is the religious practise in Jainism of fasting to death. Hence Chandragiri is witness to numerous Jain temples, rather basadis, memento pillars, and inscriptions. `
Chandragiri is located 143 km from Bangalore. It is so named because as early as 290 BC, Chandragupta Maurya – the great Mauryan Emperor resided here and breathed his last. Now why would a Mauryan Emperor migrate to such a remote location in the South? There is an interesting story behind this.
When Chandragupta Maurya was the King of Pataliputra he had vivid dreams. One night he dreamt of setting sun, black elephants fighting, a 12-headed serpent approaching, etc. Disturbed by the dreams, the king discussed this with a Jain Acharya, Shrutakevali Bhadrabahu. Bhadrabahu Muni predicted a gloomy future and also forecast a 12-year famine in the area. Thus the Muni and his disciples decided to migrate. Bhadrabahu along with 12,000 followers and the Mauryan Emperor shifted south. When Bhadrabahu reached Katavapra he realised that his end was approaching and so he asked his disciples to move further south. The Guru along with Chandragupta Maurya remained back and resided at a cave atop the hill. He observed Sallekhana, and after his death, Chandragupta remained at Chandragiri worshiping the footprints of Bhadrabahu. The cave is still present with the footprints etched inside the cave.
A set of 190-plus steps are carved on Chandragiri Hill. It does not take more than half an hour to reach the top. Apart from the Bhadrabahu Cave, there is a huge courtyard housing numerous basadis and memorial pillars at the top. The basadis were built during Ganga and Hoysala times. There are numerous inscriptions mainly in hale Kannada or old Kannada that gives details about the Jain devotees observing Sallekhana and gaining salvation here.
Attractions at Chandragiri
There are 14 basadis inside the big compound. There are also free standing pillars, memento pillars and numerous inscriptions protected by thick glasses. As you enter the courtyard, at the entrance you will find the Kuge Brahmadeva Pillar – a 30-feet high decorative pillar with the image of Brahmadeva in the sitting posture. The pillar is also called as Marasimha’s Manastambha as it was constructed in honour of the Ganga King, Marasimha, who died in 974 AD. The inscriptions at the base of the pillar detail the life and events of the king.
Just next to the Manasthamba on the left, is the Shantinatha Basadi. It is dedicated to the 16th Jain Tirthankara – Shree Shantinatha. Tirthankara are Jain religious gurus who are responsible for preaching Dharma (righeteous path). Jainism has 24 such Tirthankaras. The idol of Shanti- natha Tirthankara is 11-feet high and is inside the inner sanctum of the temple. Adjacent to this basadi and to the north lies the statue of Bharateshwara, two metres in height. He is the elder brother of Bahubali. The statue which is unfinished, faces the Vindhyagiri Mountain that has one of the largest monolithic statues of Gomateshwara/Bahubali. The statue of Bharateshwara is said to have been built during the Ganga period by sculptor Arishtanemi. To the east of this statue, there are twin towers that are memento pillars raised in honour of the dead.
Suparshvanatha and Chandranatha Basadi
The Suparshvanatha temple is dedicated to Parsh- vanatha – the 23rd Tirthankara, while the Chandranatha Basadi that comes next has the idol of the eighth Tirthanka- ra known as Chandraprabha. The image of Parshvanatha has a seven-headed serpent behind his head, and is also flanked on either side by Chamara bearers.
Chavundaraya and Megala Basadi
The Chavundaraya Temple was constructed by the son of Ganga chieftain – Chavundaraya Jina Devanna, in 982 AD. It is a beautiful Dravidian structure dedicated to the 22nd Tirthankara known as Neminatha. The horse-shoe shaped arches, the parapet, the reliefs of Yakshas, Gandharvas, and Tirthankaras near the tower are all very artistically done. The Neminatha idol – five feet high is seated in a Padmasa- na posture, and was sculpted by a Hoysala artist known as Gangachari. Observe the Yaksha and Yakshi outside the inner sanctum. They are the beautifully carved images of Sarvanha Yaksha and Kushmandini Yakshi, probably of the Hoysala period. Yaksha and Yakshis are guardian deities with supernatural powers. They are believed to look after Tirthankaras. And are worshipped as well.
The narrow carved stone steps at the entrance of the Chavundaraya Basadi takes you to the Megala Basadi at the top that has the image of Parshvanatha. The idol is said to have been built by the son of Chavundaraya.
This basadi is dedicated to Adinatha – the first Jain Tirthan- kara. Adjacent to this basadi there is an inscription of Queen Shantaladevi, consort of Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana.
Savati Gandha Varana Basadi and Terina Basadi
The Savati Gandha Varana Basadi was built in 1123 AD by Queen Shantaladevi. It has the idol of Shree Shantinatha Tirthankara and has an inscription inscribed on the pedestal that mentions about the basadi being built by the queen.
Terina Basadi is so called because the altar in front of this basadi is in the form of theru or chariot. The basadi dedicated to Bahubali – 4-feet in height – was constructed in 1117 AD by Machi Kabbe and Shanthi Kabbe, the mothers of two royal merchants during that period.
Other basadis nearby are Shanteeshwara Basadi dedicated to Shantinatha Tirthankara, Majjiganna Basadi dedicated to Ananthanatha – the 14th Tirthankara, and Shasana Basadi, that has the idol of Adinatha. Near the entrance to Shasana Basadi is a large stone inscription (Shasana in Kannada), and so the basadi got the name. It was built by Gangaraja, a general of King Vishnuvardhana, who is assumed to have built the basadi for his wife.
Savati Gandha Varana Basadi and Terina Basadi
This is one of the biggest basadis in this hill. Built by Gangaraja, it has the statue of Adinatha. The basadi is also known as Padmavathi Basadi, as it has the image of Yakshi Padmavathi in it. The basadi was built for Pochikabbe – Gangaraja’s mother.
The Chandragupta Basadi nearby is the oldest, probably constructed in the ninth century, and has three shrines housing the images of Parshvanatha, Padmavathi and the Kushmandini Devi. The relief panels at the lattice windows inside are very beautifully carved by Dasoja, and details the events of Bhadrabahu muni, his migration to the South, and also about Chandragupta Maurya.
Near the exit is the Parshvanatha Basadi that has the 15-feet high statue of Parshvanatha. A seven-headed serpent lies behind him. The statue, the serpent and the canopy are all carved out of one single block of Schist mentions a signboard. In front of this basadi is a late 17th century Manastambha – 65-feet high, that has the images of the 24 Tirthankaras.
As you exit the courtyard, you can check the Bhadrabahu Cave on the left. There are plenty of benches to help you relax. Signboards are plenty inside the courtyard, and will help you understand the significance of this place better. Take note that you will have to remove your footwear before climbing the steps. This is a pilgrimage centre and hence wearing shoes while climbing is not permitted.
As I stand beside the Gomateshwara/Bahubali statue, I feel very humble. Devotees are pouring vermillion filled water, flowers and rice over the head of Bahubali. The 58.8-feet tall grey granite statue of Bahubali has turned red. The Jain Acharyas nearby are chanting the texts, devotees in saffron coloured garments are filing in to touch the feet of Bahubali who is standing on a lotus pedestal. Amidst the chants and faith, I am lost or rather in trance for a moment, before the loudspeaker starts blaring in with instructions not to crowd near the statue.
Every 12 years the Mahamastakabhisheka or head anointing ceremony of Bahubali takes place. On this day, the statue is given a bath – water, milk, rice flour, vermilion, turmeric paste, sandalwood paste, saffron etc., are poured on top of the statue. This consecration is said to be very auspicious and thousands of Jain devotees from all over the world come here to be a part of this ceremony. Though the main anointing ceremony got completed in February this year, for the next six months similar rituals are performed every Sunday. And this is what I witnessed when I visited Shravanabelagola on a Sunday.
A bit of lore
Rishabhanatha was the first Tirthankara in Jainism. He used to rule Ayodhya and he had a hundred sons – Bharata and Bahubali were two among them. After ruling his kingdom justly for many years, he decided to go on a spiritual quest. When he decided to become a monk, he divided his kingdom among his sons. Bharata was given the northern portion with Ayodhya as capital, and Bahubali the southern half with Podanapura as capital.
Soon Bharata became ambitious, wanting to become an emperor. Though he subjugated all opponents, Bahubali refused to acknowledge his supremacy. Thus there was a battle between the two brothers. They engaged in eye-fight, i.e., a battle of glances, water fight, and wrestling. In all the three challenges Bahubali won. In anger Bharata hurled a divine wheel to destroy his brother. But instead of attacking, the wheel circled Bahubali and did not harm him.
Though Bharata surrendered, Bahubali felt disgusted with the whole episode, and renouncing everything, he went in search of peace. It is said that he meditated for a year in a standing posture without food and water. Anthills grew around him, creepers enveloped him, and serpents roamed all around him. On the last day of the year it is said that Bharata came to him and worshipped him. With this, the final regret that Bahubali had, that of humiliating his elder brother disappeared, and he soon attained liberation.
This meditative stance is depicted in the carved Gomateshwara statue atop Vindhyagiri Hill/Dodda Betta. The statue was installed by Chavundaraya, a minister of a Ganga King in 982 AD, at the behest of his mother. The figure was carved out by the famous sculptor Arishtanemi. It depicts the contemplative and meditative mood of Bahubali. On either side are the Chamara bearers of Hoysala period. The surrounding mantapa, monastery etc., came up only later in the 12th century.
Other attractions in Vindhyagiri Hill
At the centre of a town there is a pond known as white pond or Billi Kola. Just across the pond there is a main entrance that points the way forward towards Vindhyagiri Hill and Gomateshwara. There are more than 600 steps carved in the hill to help you reach the top. There are plenty of basadi, pillars and elegant doorways en-route the trek. For people who cannot climb, there are doli services as well. One of the first doorways you encounter is the silver doorway; before that there is a small basadi for Parshvanatha.
After crossing the doorway you get a Trikuta Basadi called Odegallu. The name Othekallu is due to the fact that the temple is supported by stone pillars (kallu in Kannada means stone) that are kept in a slanted position at the basement. As it is a Trikuta structure, there are three sanctums inside the basadi. Each sanctum has the statue of Adinatha, Shantinatha and Neminatha Tirthankara. The basadi was built in 10th century by minister Chavundaraya.
The Sacrifice Pillar
As you move upwards you will find the sacrifice pillar or what is known as Thyagada Khamba. It is a four- pillared small structure with an upper storey at the top. The pillar was erected in memory of minister Chavundaraya, who gave generous gifts to the poor. Another version is that Chavundaraya renounced everything here, and hence the name sacrifice or Thyaga in local language. A yaksha image can be spotted on the top of a pillar.
If you go slightly west you find the Chennana Basadi. It has the idol of the eighth Tirthankara. Hence it is also known as Chandrana Basadi in honour of the Jain Tirthankara. This structure was built in 1667 AD by Chennanna, son of Puttaswamy Setti. Nearby is a Manas- tambha – a 30-feet high pillar, and an open mantapa with 24 pillars.
After some ascent you will find the main doorway said to have been constructed in 980 AD. As it has the image of goddess Gajalakshmi on the doorway, it is also called as Gajalakshmi doorway. There are two elephants on either side of her holding a pot in their trunks. On either side of the doorway you will find shrines of Bharata and Bahubali. They were added in 1130 AD by a general of King Vishnuvardhana named Bharathamayya. After this you will get two more doorways before you hit the outer compound of Gomateshwara. Here you will find Siddhara Basadi, Odeyara mantapa and Gullekayi Ajji mantapa.
Gullekayi Ajji mantapa
The Gullekayi Ajji mantapa has the figure of a five-feet old woman carrying an eggfruit, hence the name Gullekayi Ajji. She is said to have taught the minister Chavundaraya a lesson on humility. The story goes that after erecting the Gomata statue the minister was very proud of himself. To break his pride and teach him a lesson Yakshi Padmavathi took the form of an old woman (ajji in Kannada). When the first Mahamastakabhisheka took place the minister generously gave offerings to cover the statue, but whatever he gave failed to cover the statue. However, when the old woman gave her humble offerings, the statue got completely covered.
Getting there: Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri Hills are located in Shravanabelagola town near Channarayapatna of Hassan district. Buses and trains are available to the town from Bangalore city. Taxis too are available from the city, and will normally take around four hours to reach the place. There are plenty of hotels en-route the Bangalore-Hassan Highway.