The legend of Shravanabelagola
By Maxwell Pereira
mfjpkamath@gmail.com

My father’s interest in coffee growing took us to Sakleshpur, which became our second home after Mangalore. Affording us, an opportunity to explore the rich history and heritage around Karnataka’s malnad – male-nadu, as in local Kannada.

Touching Sakleshpur to its west was Tippu’s Manjarabad Fort perched on a peak overlooking the winding paths meandering up the Western Ghats from coastal Mangalore. Next door to our north, the famous temples of Belur and Halebid. And to the east on the other side of district headquarters Hassan, just 13kms from the Bangalore-Mangalore Highway off Channarayapatna, the world’s tallest standing monolithic digambar statue of the Jain icon Bahubali at Shravanabelagola.

Having read in early school the legend of Bharata and Bahubali, and earlier seen the 43 feet high Gomateshwara in black granite at Karkala in Mangalore’s suburbs, the 58 feet high Gomateshwara in white stone at Shravanabelagola had assumed special significance for our young romantic minds. And as the years rolled on and the mahamastakabhishekas (grand ceremony for anointing the head and bathing of the statue with milk, coconut water, and sandalwood & turmeric paste) returned with each 12-year cycle, that significance has never waned.

Jainism - one of the ancient religions of India, dates back to the 3rd century BC, Jaina originates from the Sanskrit word 'jina' meaning conqueror, denoting here the one who has freed himself from the bondage of Karma. One learns Jainism is also attributed to the 'Tirthankaras' the teachers of this religion, believed to be 24 in number - the first being Vrishabhanatha or Adinatha, and the last – Mahavira, who lived nearly 2500 years ago. Historically the existence of only Mahavira is traceable.

Legend has it how Vrishabanatha renounces the world on seeing the sudden death of celestial Nilanjana while dancing in his court, and takes sanyas giving his kingdom to his sons Bharata and Bahubali, dividing it between them. Bharata soon sets out to conquer the world, guided by 'chakra-ratna' the divine wheel. From one kingdom to another, all kings accept Bharata’s suzerainty. But realizing that Bahubali has not been conquered, and yet not wanting to fight his own brother, he asks Bahubali to surrender. On his refusal, they decide on a unique battle – to engage each other in drishti-yuddha (to stare each other down), jala-yuddha (a battle in water) and malla-yuddha (wrestling). Bahubali wins all three duels.

Enraged and ashamed, Bharata orders the divine wheel to destroy his brother, but the wheel instead salutes Bahubali respectfully. But his brother’s moves Bahubali greed and attitude, decides to renounce the world, and stands still in meditation. Years roll by, anthills and creepers grow at his feet, and his surroundings become inaccessible. Lord Adhishwara tells Bharata that even though Bahubali is within reach of enlightenment, is troubled by the fact that he stands on his brother's land. Bharata then worships his brother and releases him from the thought. Enlightenment soon dawns, and Bahubali, attains the awaited moksha.

While there are many who believe that Bharat-varsh the Indian sub-continent got named after King Bharata, about the enlightened Bahubali there are some who believe he was a Tirthankara while others do not. In all Jain temples, the central figure of worship is always a Tirthankara.

Not many perhaps know that Shravanabelagola is the final resting place of one of India’s most famous rulers of ancient times – emperor Chandragupta Maurya. Jain traditions link this Mauryan Emperor and his teacher, the Jaina saint Bhadrabahu, with the place - more aptly, with Chandragiri (small hill) in Shravanabelagola. Chandragupta is influenced by Bhadrabahu's teachings when he was in Ujjain, especially regarding his prediction of an impending 12-yr famine. He becomes Bhadrabahu’s disciple, and follows him to south India – to Shravanabelagola and remains there at Chandragiri till his own end.

Early literature puts Chandragiri as a favourite haunt of saints and sages who came there to liberate their souls. The place then was unfriendly and highly inaccessible, infested by wild animals and birds…. and seekers of spiritual death called it Tirthagiri. Bhadrabahu laid the foundation for Shravanabelagola, converting the arid jungle into a more hospitable zone.

Centuries later, during the reign of the Ganga king Racamallah Satyavalkya, his minister Chavundaraya is fascinated with the tale of Adinatha and his two sons, Bharata and Bahubali. That night, his mother Kalaladevi sees a colossus erected by Bharata in Paudanapura, which leads Chavundaraya to study the history of the Tirthankaras and he sets his goal on Paudanapura. During his search he reaches the valley of Shravanabelagola between a small hill and large hill. Spell bound by its stunning beauty, he camps there. Towards fulfilling his dream, a celestial nymph, Padmavati, tells him to shoot an arrow at the boulder crowning the large hill.

At daybreak next day he shoots an arrow at the target. Amidst thunder and lightening, the face of Bahubali takes shape. Chavundaraya then gets the rest of the boulder carved by skilled craftsmen. Since then the Gomateshwara has stood tall in Shravanabelagola, which flourished as the seat of Jain culture and faith. Since it took 12 long years to complete the statue, the ritual of anointing – Mahamastakabhisheka is held without fail once in every 12 years. February 2006 being the date this year, even as I am penning these lines.

Today the place is one of the foremost of Jain pilgrimage centres. Of historical significance, Shravanabelagola also abounds in inscriptions denoting the reign over the place of the Ganga, Rashtrakuta, Hoysala, Vijayanagara and the Mysore Wodeyars. Among the numerous inscriptions is also one near the statue’s feet in a version of the Devanagari, suspected to be in Konkani language and its defunct script. This contention of scholars though, is disputed by the Marathi lobby.

Feb 13, 2006: 950 words: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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