Article: Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Religious importance of Shravana Belgola

Digambara monks live naked and without possessions as part of their renunciation of the 'householder' life. After they take religious vows to become wandering ascetics, Digambara monks use only a water gourd and a peacock-feather broom to sweep insects

Digambara monk sitting cross-legged
Image by Jainworld © Jainworld.com

Shravana Belgola is one of the main religious sites for Jains, particularly those in the Digambara sect. It has been a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years because of its importance in the early history of the Jain faith.

Shravana Belgola has attracted pilgrims for centuries, who initially came to pay homage to two key figures in early Jainism. Ācārya Bhadrabāhu and Emperor Candragupta completed the ritual of fasting to death at Shravana Belgola. Devout Jains have come to the site to follow their example for at least 13 centuries.

The tenth century inaugurated the development of Shravana Belgola as a principal centre of Digambara Jainism. Temples and memorials to Jain warriors began to be built, along with the huge statue of Bāhubali, a figure in Jain Universal History.

Above all, the site of Shravana Belgola is associated with Bāhubali. Though he is not a Jina, Bāhubali achieved enlightenment and, according to some Digambara sources, was the first person to gain liberation in the present era of time. Worshipped primarily by Digambaras, Bāhubali has numerous statues throughout India, the most famous of which is found here.

Bhadrabāhu and Candragupta

Sacred footprints in Bhadrabāhu’s Cave on Candra-giri at the pilgrimage site of Shravana Belgola, Karnataka. These footprints – caraṇa – are considered to be those of the 3rd-century sage Bhadrabāhu, who fasted to death at Shravana Belgola

Bhadrabāhu’s sacred footprints
Image by Ilya Mauter © CC BY-SA 2.5

The longstanding sanctity of the place to the Jains first comes from its association with the religious teacher Bhadrabāhu and the emperor Candragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty. The hill of Candra-giri has several artefacts that are traditionally connected with these important figures of the Jain past.

The historical details are vague but it is believed that a severe drought of 12 years led Bhadrabāhu and Candragupta to migrate from northern India in the 3rd century BCE. They brought a large portion of the mendicant community to southern India. This mythical event is recorded in an inscription of 600 CE on the hill of Candra-giri. According to Digambara traditions, Candragupta renounced his kingship and became a mendicant and both Bhadrabāhu and Candragupta undertook the ritual of fasting to death at Shravana Belgola.

According to tradition, the presence of both men can be traced principally in the following three venerated features of Shravana Belgola:

  • Bhadrabāhu's Cave
  • Bhadrabāhu's footprints
  • Candragupta Basadi.

The cavern known as Bhadrabāhu's Cave is found on Candra-giri and shelters what is considered to be Bhadrabāhu’s footprints – caraṇa. The Candragupta Basadi is a small temple on Candra-giri, built to mark the place where the emperor is supposed to have died. It looks ancient but it is impossible to know when it was built. The temple contains a remarkable screen panel of stone in two parts, with 90 scenes relating to the legends of Bhadrabāhu and Candragupta. The screen is a later addition, probably dating back to the 12th century. One of the scenes depicts the 16 dreams seen by Candragupta, which were interpreted by Bhadrabāhu, revealing the predictions they concealed.

These features are meant to underline the connection with these revered figures but are historically dubious. Bhadrabāhu's Cave is an example of a phenomenon found in many pilgrimage places as they rise and fall in prominence over the centuries. The claims of religious sites may rarely be able to withstand historical scrutiny but Bhadrabāhu's Cave 'in fact [...] represents an anachronistic attempt to enhance the prestige of an emerging holy place' (Dundas 2002: 225).

Fasting to death at Shravana Belgola

Cave temple at Shravana Belgola in Karnataka. The cave where the sage Bhadrabāhu is believed to have fasted to death in the ritual known as sallekhanā is a very holy site for Jains.

Bhadrabāhu's cave
Image by Ilya Mauter © CC-BY-SA-2.5

The legendary example set by Candragupta and Bhadrabāhu is the basis of the fame of the two hills at Shravana Belgola that lie at the heart of the site. The hills became the destination of those who wanted to carry out the ritual known as fasting to death – sallekhanā.

Several stone pillars, reliefs and temples are memorials – nisidhi – to those who have performed the ceremony. A large number of inscriptions engraved directly on the rocky ground or on pillars, walls and so on record periods of fasting undertaken by ascetics and later also by lay men. Dubbed sanyasa or sanyasana – 'complete rejection' – in the inscriptions, these fasts are a way of embracing the experience of the original two fasters.

The oldest memorials date back to a period between the seventh to tenth centuries. An instance is this simple epigraph:

Upasena-guravaḍigaḷ, disciple of Paṭṭini-guravaḍigaḷ of Mālanūr, having observed the vow of sanyasana for one month, ended his life.

Epigraphia Carnatica, Number 28, Candragiri hill

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