In the first week of April 2010, I was in Karnataka. Southern Karnataka has historical connections with Kerala from pre-historic ages onwards. The Sramana culture of Buddhism and Jainism came to Northern and central Kerala through Karnataka. I visited Sravanabelgola which has been the centre of Jain culture from BC third century onwards. The very place name suggests the Vella Kulam of the Sramanas or the white pool of the Jain Munis. In Sravanabelgola a large granite stepped pool with four carved gateways separates two hillocks. Both are rich with history and cultural memory.
Emperor Chandra Gupta Maurya along with his Jain guru Bhadra Bahu migrated down south to this beautiful hillock now called Chandra Giri, after him and spent his last days here in ascetic renunciation. The temple complex built in their memory still adorn the top of this hill after a series of renovations by various dynasties across millenniums. Beneath the hill there is an ancient tank that is full even in summer.
On the neighbouring hill called Vindhya Giri stands the colossal monolith of Bahubali, the first Thirthankara of Jainism. This 58 feet monolith is one of the tallest ones in the world. It was carved by Aristanami, the renowed South Indian sculptor in the mid tenth century under the decree of Chamunda Raya, the Ganga king. With the stark stone-nakedness, the calm and open posture, being one with nature with all the creepers, snakes and ants and anthills around him and at his feet the one and only Gomateswara statue represents the pinnacle of Indian visual culture and philosophy.
The unique temple around this beautiful and eco-aesthetically harmonious gray-granite monolith houses the exquisitely carved smaller sculptures in granite and schist of all the other 24 thirthankara’s and Jain sub-deities. Gaja Lakshmi, Yaksha/Yakshini, Saraswati, Ganesh… to name a few. All most all these sub-deities and motifs of Jain sculpture and architecture are now being Hinduized in various temples across South India after the Brahmanical internal invasion that gained cultural hegemony by the 12th and 14th century through royal usurpation and patronage.
The granite reliefs and carvings on the pillors and side walls are
amazing and enchanting. The images of men, women, and animals are evocatively animate and thrillingly dynamic. There are also images of abstract forms and ideas like the music generated by a string instrument depicted in intricate carved patterns in stone. The woman playing the Vina could be none other than the goddess of music. Thee are monochrome murals depicting elephants, horses and bulls. The rough semi carvings on the outer granite wall embellish with images of twin fish, snakes, apes, wrestlers, contortionists etc. A visit to this ancient cultural center reveals the fact that it is the true center of South Indian temple architecture, murals and iconography.
The striking northward facing Gomateswara or Bahubali in his gray-granite nudity atop the Vindhya Giri hillock is visible from miles afar as we approach and leave Sravanabelgola from Bangalore or Mangalore. It is 150 km west of Bangalore on NH 48. Other Jain centers like Karkala and Venur are also nearby.