A hairless, black and orange caterpillar, with white spots, winds into a corner of one of the 614 rock-cut steps leading up to the feet of Bahubali. Any Jain pilgrim would watch out for tiny creatures in her path, and step around them, but this caterpillar is taking no chances. The stray climbers on this overcast day don’t look like pilgrims. There are three European tourists, some idle boys and a couple with a six-year-old who is already petitioning for a plastic car he saw in a shop down below. Even the guides seem to have gone off for a holiday and visitors have only postcard sellers to steer by, and the steps themselves.
In season, between September and July, Sravanabelagola gets about 4,000 visitors a day. It is the highlight of the Jain pilgrimage circuit in Karnataka. Even during the off-season, says the official at Tourist Information, about 500 people come every day, but just now we seem to have plenty of elbow room. The village, a string of vegetarian hotels and shops selling ten-inch and five-inch Gomateswaras in every colour, lies between the two granite hills of Vindhyagiri and Chandragiri, which are dotted with shrines to the 24 tirthankars or ‘ford-crossers’.
The climb up Vindhyagiri is steeper than we expected, each pitted granite step face sloped a bit down and back, and since we haven’t been climbing in reverent silence we are very quickly out of breath. We hang on to the galvanised iron railing so as not to slide backward, our bare toes curling into the stone. Two men trot down the ‘down’ stairs, offering us a doli, a capacious cane chair obviously made for more ample figures. We wave them off, and take our minds off the climb by calculating that seventeen-and-a-half metres should be well over fifty-four feet.
The man himself was apparently larger than life. Bahubali was the son of the second wife of King Rishabhadeva of Ayodhya, who became Adinath, the first of the twenty-four tirthankars. The son is described as being taller and stronger than his ninety-nine brothers. When Rishabhadeva renounced his kingdom, Bahubali fought his brother, Bharat, for succession in a three-part duel. First he stared his brother down, then the two splashed each other with water till Bharat gave in. Finally, Bahubali overpowered Bharat in a wrestling bout. But at the moment of triumph, he realised the futility of his struggle and left for the forest to seek liberation. For years he meditated in the kayotsarga pose, while creepers wound around his limbs and anthills rose at his feet, till his soul found release.
At no part of the climb is there a hint of the colossus at the top. But there are, as always, shrines all the way up the hill. The first encloses Kushmandini Devi, the yakshi or guardian goddess who watches over Bahubali. It is said that the goddess appeared in a dream to Chamundaraya, telling him to shoot a golden arrow to the top of Vindhyagiri. In the legend, the arrow shattered rock and uncovered the enormous idol of Bahubali. But the guidebooks say the image was commissioned by Chamundaraya and sculpted by Aristenemi about a thousand years ago.
Two-thirds of the way up is a mandapam that houses idols of three tirthankars gleaming black among squat pillars. It’s a welcome stretch of level ground from which to overlook the tiled roofs of the village and the shivering green square of a temple tank. Scooters purr around the tank and a white eagle hangs in the air, staggering against the breeze.
We turn our faces back to the hill. A pair of feet, only life-size, bulges from the rock, marking the spot at which some monk left his body, I forget his name. We go through a gate, turning again and again till we have lost direction. Finally there is a temple courtyard. And, in the sudden sunshine, a pair of huge feet, ankles, shins, creepers spiralling symmetrically on broad thighs and embracing massive hips.
“It’s smaller than I thought.” “What do you mean? It’s huge. Is the Statue of Liberty bigger than this?” “Oh yes. But of course this is said to be the largest monolithic statue.” In fact, I have the measurements in a pamphlet I bought for ten rupees in the tourist office below. The head, eleven feet. Navel to neckline, ten feet eleven inches. Length of arms, thirty feet. Length of nose, three feet nine inches. Length of ears, five feet ten inches. Length of penis, four feet.
To relieve our necks, we look at the snakes winding in and out of the anthills at the feet of the ever-still monk. Apart from the exuberantly carved dvarapalakas at Bahubali’s feet, which look like they were hauled in from the more voluptuous temples at Belur and Halebid, all is restraint, contemplation. The temple walls are ornamented almost randomly and odd images float at different heights. Here a fish, there a monkey exploring a beehive, reminder of the illusory nature of our happiness on earth.
The slippery walk back down the hill leaves us with trembling knees. In the shadow of a pillar we eat our packed idlis and bananas. It is an appropriately frugal meal. And besides, that’s all we’ve brought. The architecture at the bottom of the hill is all bustle, the here and now. At the Jain math, idols swarm and paintings riot along the walls. Tiny green and yellow people warring, playing, praying, marrying, tending their gardens, kitchens and closets, and their gods. From here, the monk on the hill is invisible and, by the time we get back on the highway to Bangalore, I’m shuffling through my postcards to keep him in my mind’s eye.
The nearest airport to Sravanabelagola is Bangalore. The nearest railhead Hassan (50km away) is connected to many cities, including Delhi (Rs. 2,052 on 2A) and Mumbai (Rs. 1,272). There are buses that run daily from Bangalore (about 3.5hrs away) and Mysore (roughly 2.5hrs) to Sravanabelagola.
Where to stay
Hassan has more stay options that Sravanabelagola, among them: Hotel Gurudev (from Rs. 800; 08172-261048), Ashhok Hassan (Rs. 3,799; 268731) and Hoysala Resort (from Rs. 6,900; 256764). In Sravanabelagola, try S.D.J.M.I. Committee (Rs. 135; 08176-257258) orHotel Raghu (Rs. 300; 257238).