While we all know that Emperor Ashoka renounced the sword to adopt Buddhism, legend tells us that the subcontinent’s first empire builder, the great Chandragupta Maurya, gave it all up and spent his last years as a Jain ascetic on a hill in Karnataka, hundreds of kilometres from his home. What made the emperor go there, and why is this pocket of Karnataka a great centre of Jainism, even today, more than 2,200 years later?
It all started with the prediction of a 12-year drought in the Mauryan Empire during Chandragupta’s time.
The famine had been predicted by Acharya Bhadrabahu, a noted Jain monk who is said to have written many of Jainism’s sacred texts like the Niryuktis, Samhitas and Kalpa Sutra. In Digambar tradition, he is said to have been the last Sruta Kevali (an ascetic who has complete knowledge of the Jain scriptures).
The impending drought is said to have prompted Bhadrabahu to move to what is present-day Karnataka with some of his disciples, including Chandragupta, who had given up his throne, embraced Jainism and became an ascetic. This was also the beginning of Karnataka’s tryst with Jainism.
The group reached Shravanabelagola more than 2,000 km away from their home. It was, and still is, a small village flanked by two hills – Vindhyagiri and Chandragiri. While Bhadrabahu and his disciples are said to have meditated in these hills for years, Bhadrabahu and Chandragupta are believed to have also taken the vow of sallekhana (voluntarily fasting to death) and passed away here. In fact, legend has it that Chandragiri hill is named after Chandragupta.
On Chandragiri, one can visit the cave where Bhadrabahu and Chandragupta are said to have meditated.
This shift down South was also a significant event in the evolution of Jainism and led to the development of the two sects of the faith – the Digambar and Shwetambar sects. It is said that, a few years after the famine, some of the disciples returned to Magadha and found that those who had stayed back had started many new practices, like wearing white clothes. This led to the schism in practitioners of the faith and the creation of two sects – Digambar (sky clad) and Shwetambar (white clad).
This makes Shravanabelagola much more significant for the Digambars than the Shwetambars and the historic temples there also follow Digambar iconography. Over the centuries, Shravanabelagola became a significant site for Jainism and many temples were built here. Of course, one of the most significant icons here is the colossal sculpture of Bahubali.
The name Shravanabelagola is derived from ‘Shravana’, which means ‘ascetic’ in Sanskrit and ‘Bela-gola’, which means ‘white pond’ in Kannada.
The town has a large tank in its centre (which also probably gives it its name) and 37 Jain temples, which were built between the 8th and 18th centuries CE. The town also has over 800 inscriptions dating from 600 CE to 1830 CE.
Although, Jainism has never had a very large following, it received significant patronage from kings and dynasties across place and time. In the region that is present-day Karnataka, it received patronage from the Chalukyas, Kadambas, Rashtrakutas and Vijayanagara Empire. One can find many Jain temples known as ‘basadis’ across the state which go back to the time of these dynasties. The most significant of these are at Shravanabelagola due to its history and legendary association with Bhadrabahu.
The Kalabhra dynasty, which ruled over a large kingdom including much of modern-day Tamil Nadu from the 3rd to the 7th century CE, is believed to have originated in Karnataka and was of Jain origin. However, the Kalabhra period is shrouded in mystery and there is no trace of their existence at Shravanabelagola in the form of temples they may have built. Neither are there any inscriptions about them despite the fact that they were in close proximity to the town and are believed to have been practitioners of Jainism.
The village of Shravanabelagola was a significant Jain pilgrimage centre during the early medieval period, and a monolith of Bahubali on the Vindhyagiri hill was built by Chavudaraya, a practising Jain who was a minister, military commander, poet and an architect, in 983 CE. He was a minister during the time of Kings Marasimba II, Rachamalla IV and Rachamalla V of the Western Ganga dynasty, who were feudatories of the Rashtrakutas. He was also a devotee of Jain Acharya Nemichandra.
Chavundaraya wrote an important piece of prose called the Chavundaraya Purana, also known as Trishasthi Lakshana Purana in Kannada (978 CE), and the Cāritrasāra in Sanskrit. He patronised the famous Kannada grammarians Gunavarma and Nagavarma I, and the poet Ranna, whose Parusharama Charite may have been a eulogy of his patron. Because of his many contributions, Chavundaraya is an important figure in the history of medieval Karnataka and in Jainism.
The Vindhyagiri hill is the taller of the two mountains and is also called ‘Doddoa Betta’ or ‘big hill’.
It is on this hill that the iconic 57-ft-tall sculpture of Bahubali stands. This sculpture is said to be one of the tallest free-standing historic monoliths in the world.
Bahubali and Bharata were sons of Adinath, the first Tirthankara, both of whom renounced worldly possessions and became ascetics. According to legend, Bahubali stood and meditated in Kayotasarga posture for so long that trees sprouted around him and their shoots grew on him. This is also reflected in the way he is depicted in sculptures and paintings, with creepers around his arms and legs.
The statue of Bahubali on the Vindhyagiri hill, sculpted in light grey, polished granite, is extremely important for practising Jains. He is depicted with stiff arms and legs in Kayotasarga posture with his arms not touching his body. He has the lakshanas (symbols) of a mahapurusha (great man) like elongated earlobes and overly long arms.
One can see the creepers around his arms and legs, along with other signs of life living and growing on him like snakes and ant hills.
The mahamastakabhisheka is performed every 12 years at this site, when the sculpture is anointed with milk, saffron, sandalwood, turmeric and other holy materials.
The Chandragiri hill, where Bhadrabahu and his disciples including Chandragupta Maurya are believed to have lived and meditated, has many historic temples. A sculpture of Bharata, Bahubali’s brother, has also been found here. According to legend, a temple called Chandragupta Basadi is said to have been commissioned by Emperor Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. One of the temples on Chandragiri has a sculptural frieze which depicts dreams that Chandragupta Maurya is believed to have had and which were interpreted by Bhadrabahu.
The hill is dotted with inscriptions on the rocks and stones along with inscribed stone panels and votive footprints.
Interestingly enough, even though Bahubali wasn’t a Tirthankara, he is very significant in the Jain faith. According to Jain beliefs, he triumphed over human passions through meditation and became the first human of the Kalpa (world age) to gain liberation.
There are many large monoliths of him at Jain shrines in Karnataka and in other parts of the country including Mumbai. Karnataka itself has four other monoliths, at Karkala in Udupi district, Dharmasthala in Dakshina Kannada district, Venur in Dakshina Kannada district and Gommatagiri in Mysore district. The one in Mumbai is at the Jain temple in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in suburban Borivali.
However, the colossus on Vindhyagiri hill in Shravanabelagola is the most iconic and significant sculpture of Bahubali.
Shravanabelagola has played a significant role in the evolution of Jainism in India, and over 2,200 years after it hosted a band of ascetics, including an emperor who had embraced the life of an ascetic, it continues to be a place of faith and wonder.
LHI Travel Guide
Shravanabelagola, in Hassan district of Karnataka, is 144 km west of Bengaluru and is a 3-4 hour drive from the Karnataka state capital. It is 85 km north of Mysuru. The town has a railway station and is well connected to the railway network in Karnataka. The closest airports are at Bengaluru and Mysuru.