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Friday, August 8, 2008

Travel Sravanabelagola

Spread across India are innumerable Jain Shrines associated with the lives and activities of the Jain Tirthankars or religious preachers, who spread the message of peace, non violence, love and enlightenment. The essence of this great religion is palpable in the cave temples, in the elaborately decorated carved stones and in the numerous illustrated manuscripts. These religious places are perhaps some of the best destination options for tourists and pilgrims, who wish to explore the history, religion, art and culture of the Jains.

Sravanabelagola, a great centre for Jain culture, is located in the town of Karkala, in Hassan district, 110 kms from Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka. It was here that Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty in 6th century BC, became a Jain ascetic after relinquishing his throne. Sravanabelagola is famous for its colossal statue of Gomateshwara, who is also referred to as Lord Bahubali. Starkly simple, the beautifully chiseled features of the statue embody serenity. Moulded in calmness with a soft smile, the statue of Lord Bahubali has been propagating the message of peace and non-violence for the last 1,025 years.

Carved out of monolithic stone, the imposing 17 meters high statue stands in majestic splendour atop a hill, called Vindhyagiri, on the verge of a picturesque little lake and is visible even from a distance of 20 kms. The gigantic statue of Lord Gomateshwara was created around 983 AD by Chamundaraya, a general and minister of the Ganga King Rachamatta and installed by the then ruler Chavundaraya. The 45-feet tall statue is estimated to weigh 80 tons. From the base a flight of 614 steps, finely carved from the granite of the mountain, leads to the summit, where the great statue of Sri Gomatheswar stands.

The statue of Lord Bahubali is featured nude and stands upright in the posture of meditation after his renunciation at his most victorious moment. The statue has curly hair in ringlets and long, large ears. His eyes are open as if viewing the world with detachment. His facial features are perfectly chiseled with a faint touch of a smile at the corner of his lips, embodying calm vitality. His shoulders are broad, his arms stretch straight down and the figure has no support from the thigh upwards.

There is an anthill in the background which signifies his incessant penance. From this anthill emerge a snake and a creeper which twine around both his legs and his arms culminating into a cluster of flowers and berries at the arms. The entire figure stands on an open lotus. On either side of the statue stand two tall, richly ornamented carved figures. At the rear of the anthill is a trough for collecting water and other ritual ingredients used for the sacred bath of the image.

According to Jain mythology, Lord Gomateshwara is the son of Bhagwan Adinath, the first Teerthankara or Supreme God of the Jains. Known as the tallest, bravest and most handsome prince, Bahubali won a momentous battle over his power-hungry brother Bharatha. At the time, Bahubali realized that anger, greed and pride could lead to fraternal conflicts. He renounced his kingdom and other worldly pleasures, and decided to undertake penance to purify his soul. He stood in total meditation for a year, without food and water, and attained Nirvana, i.e., release from the cycle of birth and death.

Sravanabelagola means 'the monk on the top of the hill' and hermits, mystics and ascetics have journeyed and lived there since the third century BC. Shravanabelagola has been a great seat of learning for thousands of years and is home to some of the most beautiful Jain fine arts. In those early times the hill was thickly wooded and from the mid-tenth century AD, temples began to be built and the site grew to be one of the most important pilgrimage centers of the Jain religion.

The chief festival of Sravanabelagola is the auspicious ceremony called Maha Masthaka Abhisheka, or the 'Head Anointing Ceremony'. The festival is performed once every 12 years during periods of rare astrological significance and it attracts a huge number of devout worshippers from all over the world who make a pilgrimage to its base to chant holy mantras. During this incredible event a scaffolding structure is built around the statue and as part of the ceremonies that last for about 20 days, the image of Bahubali or Gomateshwara is anointed with 1008 kalashas (painted earthen pots) of water, milk, coconut water, clarified butter, saffron, jaggery, bananas, sandal paste and marigold flowers.

On August 5, 2007, the magnificent statue of Shravanbelagola was voted by Indians as the first of the Seven Wonders of India. The Buddha images of Bamiyan in Afghanistan were three times bigger, but they were not hewn of granite boulders. The image of Rameses II in Egypt is probably nearest in height, but that is not a freestanding image. In the words of writer S Setter, in the historical period, no artist in the world so dared to plan and brave the odds to achieve the aesthetic perfection as the one who made the Gomateshwar colossus on the Vindhya Giri.

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