Article: Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa

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.

Main features

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.

Topography

View from Vindhya-giri over Lake Kalyani towards Candra-giri. The town of Shravana Belgola is built on the plain between these hills and has several temples, including a mutt. The pilgrimage sites, including the statue of Bāhubali, are on the hilltops.

View across Shravana Belgola
Image by Pradam © CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

Inscriptions

An 8th-century inscription in Kannada carved into the rock of Candra-giri at Shravana Belgola. Now protected by glass, this is one of 573 inscriptions found at this important pilgrimage site.

Inscription in Kannada
Image by Dineshkannambadi – Dinesh Kannambadi © CC BY-SA 3.0

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 at Shravana Belgola

Place

Number of inscriptions

Candra-giri

271

Vindhya-giri

172

Shravana Belgola

80

Surrounding villages

50

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:

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