The first siting of the monumental statue at Shravanabelagola takes place a few kilometres away. It is of a round object perched atop of a hill rising out of the plains, a handle for the gods to lift up the earth’s crust and peer in.
The town of Shravanabelagola whose name means ‘Monk of the White Pond’, sits between the two hills of Indragiri and Chandragiri on which are sited Jain temples with fascinating stories. Jainism is an old religion. Not as old as some, but certainly older than Christianity. It started about the same time as Buddhism and in fact they have a lot in common. Dates vary according to which book you read but certainly by the time Chandragupta was ruling his empire (circa 322-298 BCE) Jainism was relatively common across the Indian subcontinent and between the 4th and 10th centuries CE it positively flourished.
The large monolith at the top of Indragiri hill is a statue of Lord Bahubali. He is also known as Lord Gomateshwara, which is the name of the temple within which the feet of the 17.5 metre monolith stands. Actually, the height of the statue appears to vary between 57 feet to 58 feet 8 inches according to which guide book or website you look at, though people seem to be more particular in the Imperial measurements than in the metric. Anyway, it is very tall. Built in 982 CE, the monolith is said to be the largest statue in the world carved out of one solid piece of granite. Lord Bahabuli stands rooted to the spot, anchored by vines that spiral up his arms. His mouth is closed but his eyes are open as though he is meditating, in a position known as kyotsarga.
To reach the temple and to see the statue in all its glory, we climbed the hill on foot, the only alternative being to trust our lives to be carried in a pallenquin. One of the guide books says that there are six-hundred-and-forty-one steps to the top. Some quote other figures. It possibly depends upon where you start counting - and what do you do about the places where there are no steps just rock?
The climb could have been exhausting but taking our time, stopping to look at the view and chatting with others on their way up made it a pleasant experience in itself. As we approached the top I was struck not by the climb that those regularly coming for prayer and supplication must make but the fact that the buildings were constructed here at all with tools and supplies having to be brought up.
So, already duly reverential, seeing the monolith in its fullness could be said to be almost sublime. Despite its size, even close to it has a stillness and calmness that is tangible. A mixture of awe and peace floats in the air and there is nothing to do but to look.
Afterwards we walk round the temple precinct. Kites fly at eye level as I look out across the dry plains below. This region has seen little rain for a few years and everywhere is brown, yellow or gold but up here you can see all and yet feel distant from it, allowed for a brief moment to separate yourself from the realities of this life and consider your path to the next.
Voices break my reverie and there are families also walking around, looking at the view, parents passing on the lore to their children. Some stop and we attempt conversation. I ask if we can take some pictures. Two boys dressed in their best suits are posed for us by a proud father. I see a woman holding her young daughter. Could I take your picture please? They assent. When I look at it later both pairs of eyes pull me in. The child, perhaps three years old, has a slightly defiant look that is almost challenging. The mother looks straight at me. Her eyes say “Look in here and see my life…” She knows that the path to the next life is the one she constantly treads now.