Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Located in the Hassan district of Karnataka, the small town of Śravaṇa Beḷagoḷa – frequently transliterated as Shravana Belgola – is one of the most important Jain sacred places, especially for Digambaras. It is closely associated with the early history of Jainism and with Bāhubali, the spiritual hero whose colossal statue has dominated the site since the tenth century. The idol is the focus of celebrations every 12 years in a grand festival that draws thousands of pilgrims and tourists.
Shravana Belgola also commemorates devout Jains who have chosen to fast to death at this holy site and those who have died as warriors. The twin hills and lake of Shravana Belgola help give the site a special atmosphere of peace and serenity, which is remarked on by almost all those who visit.
The setting of the holy site of Shravana Belgola is striking, with a lake positioned between two hills on a flat plain. The hills and lake form the heart of the small town of Shravana Belgola. The historical name for the lake probably gives the place its name. Both hills are holy sites, with the larger gaining most attention from pilgrims thanks to the huge statue of Bāhubali on its peak.
Since the tenth century the colossus has drawn generations of religious visitors and tourists, many of whom have left written evidence on the landscape. Hundreds of inscriptions can be seen all over the rocks and structures on the hills, some dating back centuries.
The ancient site of Shravana Belgola is made up of a lake, two hills and a small town. Both hills are steep and rocky, the lake and town sitting between them.
Found in a very shallow valley, the lake is mentioned in ancient inscriptions as the 'White Lake' – Dhavala – or Śveta-sarovara in Sanskrit. Beḷagoḷa – or 'Belagola' – is a Kannada term with the same meaning. Śravaṇa – or 'shravana' – is another form of the Sanskrit term śramaṇa. It means 'ascetics', especially 'Jain ascetics'. Today this lake is known as Kalyani. At some point in the 19th century the lake was given walls on each side and therefore is now square.
The larger of the two hills is known by three names – Vindhya-giri, Indra-giri or Doddabetta. These all mean 'Large Hill'. It is a great dome of smooth grey granite strewn with mighty boulders and masses of broken rocks. It is 3,347 feet above sea level and 470 feet higher than the surrounding plain. Since the end of the tenth century the enormous image of Bāhubali has stood at the summit. Built by a philanthropist from Bombay in 1884, the flight of 500 steps leads to the top. Everybody has to climb to the top barefoot. As it boasts such an awe-inspiring statue, this hill attracts the lion's share of attention and there is a tendency to think less about the other one, although it is equally rich.
The smaller hill is on the other side of the village and also has several names, all meaning 'Small Hill'. Called Candra-giri, Tīrtha-giri, Ṛṣi-giri, Kaḷavappu – from the Sanskrit Kaṭavapra – and Chikkabetta, it rises 175 feet above the plain. History shows that Jains used it as a holy place earlier than the large hill and it boasts several important vestiges of the Jain past. Seeing far fewer visitors than its sister hill, Candra-giri's atmosphere is very peaceful and it is seen as an appropriate place for meditation and asceticism.
The town of Shravana Belgola nowadays has a population of approximately ten thousand inhabitants. It has several temples, the most prominent of which is the so-called Jain maṭh or maṭha, spelt 'mutt' in English. It is ornamented with mural paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. These depict episodes from the life of Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, and the legend of a Jain character, Nāgakumāra (see Doshi 1981).
For centuries the maṭh has been the residence of a Digambara religious leader – bhaṭṭāraka -– who holds the title of Charukirti. The present bhaṭṭāraka is Karma-yogi Swasti Shri Charukirti Bhattarakaji. Born in 1949, he is the force behind the development of Shravana Belgola as one of the principal Jain pilgrimage sites and general tourist attractions in the last forty years. He supervised the organisation of three of the ritual Anointings of Bāhubali, those in 1981, 1993 and 2006.
The two hills at Shravana Belgola are covered with antique inscriptions carved directly into the stone of the rocks on the hill, the walls of temples, pillars and so on. Nowadays, some of the important ones, particularly the rocks on the hillside, are protected by glass frames and have been provided with a caption. Modern visitors are not allowed to add their own inscriptions.
There are 573 inscriptions in total, which makes Shravana Belgola a unique site in the number of inscriptions.
Number of inscriptions
The inscriptions have been edited and translated in a special volume of the scholarly collection Epigraphia Carnatica. Dating back to a period between 600 and 1820 CE, these inscriptions testify to the presence or visits of mendicants and laity for pilgrimage or other purposes.
Most inscriptions are in the Kannada language and script although some are in the Sanskrit or Prakrit languages using Kannada script. A few of the more recent examples are in Marwari, a language used in Rajasthan, and are records of pilgrims who came from north India.
The inscriptions' forms and style vary. Some consist of a single laconic sentence while others are detailed accounts of genealogies or religious events, or even poetry. Some describe events from the distant past. It is not always easy to know whether these record legendary traditions or historical facts.
Generally, the subjects of inscriptions relate to:
Anointing ceremony for a king, a Jina, a Jina image or any other holy image, with water or milk. Part of daily or special worship.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.
One of the hundred sons of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, Bāhubali is one of the most revered Jain saints. After fighting with his half-brother Bharata, he renounced the world and finally conquered his pride to reach enlightenment. He is always shown in the kāyotsarga pose in art and immense freestanding statues of him are a feature of southern India.
A term for a Jain temple common in Southern India.
One of the Lands of Action or Karma-bhūmi in the first continent, Jambū-dvīpa, in the Middle World where humans live. Bharata is also the name of the eldest son of the first Jina, Ṛṣabha, who succeeded his father as king.
Sankrit term meaning 'pontiff'. This title is given to a type of Digambara clergy who are not mendicants. Instead of practising the 'wandering life' – vihāra – of Jain monks and nuns, a bhaṭṭāraka stays in one place, living in a kind of monastery called a maṭha. There are several bhaṭṭārakas in south India, who lead the local Jain community.
Founder and first ruler of the Mauryan Empire, Candragupta (circa 340–298 BCE; ruled from circa 320 BCE) is an important figure in Jain history. According to Digambara tradition he abdicated his throne to become a monk and followed the sage Bhadrabāhu. The pair fasted to death at Shravana Belgola and are commemorated there.
Hindu society is traditionally divided into numerous jātis or classes, which are usually grouped into the four varṇas – often called 'castes' – of:
Relating to ritual purity, castes are hereditary and probably based on occupation. Members of different castes performed particular socio-economic roles and did not mix or eat the same food. People outside the caste system were usually looked down upon.
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
A ritual in which an item or place is declared to be holy. A person may also consecrate a specific time or activity or be consecrated, which means becoming dedicated to a religious purpose.
Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
State in south-west India.
'Absence of concern for the body'. This commonly refers to a standing or sitting posture of deep meditation. In the standing position the eyes are concentrated on the tip of the nose and the arms hang loosely by the body. The individual remains unaffected by whatever happens around him.
Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.
A plant noted for its beautiful flowers, which has symbolic significance in many cultures. In Indian culture, the lotus is a water lily signifying spiritual purity and detachment from the material world. Lotuses frequently feature in artwork of Jinas, deities, Buddha and other holy figures.
Taken from the Sanskrit term for the dwelling of an ascetic, the term maṭha is nowadays often rendered as mutt in English. Associated with Digambara Jains, maṭhas are complexes of buildings centred on a temple and are similar to a Christian monastery. They usually comprise a manuscript library, mendicant dwelling-hall and pilgrim facilities, such as a refectory and dormitory. A maṭha is the seat of a bhaṭṭāraka, a clerical leader. Most maṭhas are in southern India.
The capital of the state of Mahārāṣṭra, the city of Mumbai is the biggest and richest in India. Formerly known as Bombay, Mumbai is the centre of Indian film-making and commercial activities.
The Digambara mendicants are 'sky-clad' because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers went nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This vow entails renouncing all possessions, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white saris and are thus technically spiritually advanced celibate laywomen. Śvetāmbara mendicants of both sexes, however, wear white clothing. The difference of opinion over whether the vow of non-possession includes clothing was one reason for the Jain community's split into these two major sects early in the Common Era.
A journey to a place of religious significance. Some religions encourage pilgrimage as ways to advance spiritual progress and deepen the faith of those who make the trip – pilgrims.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
Ritual installation of an idol in a temple. A new statue or picture is often the centre of a noisy procession through the streets to the temple, where a ceremony to consecrate the image takes place. Public rejoicing surrounds the pratiṣṭhā.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.
An avatar of Viṣṇu, the preserver or protector who is one of the three major Hindu gods. Rāma is a prince of Ayodhyā and is often shown with blue skin, holding a bow and arrow. The epic poem Rāmāyaṇa recounts his adventures as he searches for his wife Sītā, who has been kidnapped by Rāvaṇa. Blending Jain values into the story, the Jain Rāmāyaṇas cast him and other figures in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.
The progressive eradication of passions and other negative features in order to reach total spiritual purity. In practice, it is the ritual of fasting unto death.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.