travel diaries: in search of shravanabelagola’s bahubali

The entire 615 steps carved into the rock’s gleaming surface rose straight above me. No left or right turns. Just straight up, with a rudimentary metal rod for support along its length. Some of the steps were shallow, others steep. All equally worn out under the bare feet of countless pilgrims and travellers over a thousand years. The steps themselves were just as bare under the scorching sun, minus any shade whatsoever.

Only one spiritually legitimate way exists to reach the 58-feet-8-inch-high naked granite monolith of Bahubali Gommateshwara, the inimitable deity-hero in Jainism perched on top of the sacred Vindhyagiri Hill in Shravanabelagola. It is by climbing up these steps.

Though another flight of steps winds its way up on the western side of the 470-feet-high hill, this is the original path cut into the rock by Chavundaraya, a Ganga dynasty minister and commander way back in 981 AD. And by now you know me. It had to be the original path for me. 😀

It was 1 in the afternoon when I reached the minuscule town of Shravanabelagola after exploring the Hoysala temple at Somanathapur. My plan was to use one of the palanquins I had read about to reach the top. But do plans ever go as planned?

There were no palanquins around when I reached since it was low season. Plus, they had this funny criterion that you needed to be below 60 kg. Ouch. There I disqualified straightaway. I am tall, and definitely not skinny. I looked up at the steps again longingly. It was also very hot.

I dilly dallied a couple of hours by gorging myself on delicious Mysore fare at Raghu Hotel and exploring Bhandar Basadi and Akkana Basadi. That is, till I had to face the fact that if I did not go up by 4 pm I would not be back before dark. Lord knew how much time it would take me and I doubted if the steps were lit.

So, gulping down my bottle of water and refilling it for the climb ahead I set off. I panted and my heart raced all the way up. I was all sweaty and convinced my unbridled love for travel was perhaps indeed a tad crazy as my family often purported it to be. Apart from me there were just a handful of others on the way. However, on the bright side, with every step I took up, the view behind me became more magical.

Down below the water tank called ‘belagola,’ meaning white pond, after which the town was named glittered a turquoise blue. On the other side of the pond was Shravanabelagola’s second sacred hill—Chandragiri. I felt like a bird with my bird’s eye view.

Forty minutes later, I reached the hill-top and feet of Bahubali, one of the world’s largest monolith statues and most sacred sites in Jainism. Around me were ancient floor and wall tablets recounting its story and a corridor packed with 43 Tirthankaras in a neat row. The gigantic statue was especially made to fulfil the wishes of Chavundaraya’s mother, Kalala Devi.

Since 981 AD, every 12 years, a grand Jain festival called Mahamastakabhisheka is held wherein the statue is anointed with milk, curd, ghee, saffron water, coconuts, flower petals and turmeric and sandalwood powder.

An interesting story recounts Mr. Bahubali’s feats. Bahubali by the way means the ‘one with the strong arms.’ The son of the first Tirthankara [spiritual teacher] in Jainism, Bahubali lived a million years ago and had an elder brother called Bharata, after whom India [Bharatavarsha] is named.

To cut a looooong epic short, the two brothers fought over their inheritance through a series of contests. Bahubali won them all. But instead of finding joy in his victory, he was filled with disgust with the world and the evils of wealth. He gave up everything, including his clothes, became a monk and meditated for a year whilst vines and an anthill grew over his arms and legs. In the end, the two brothers patched up and Bahubali achieved moksha.

As I walked into the hill-top temple I saw a Jain priest performing prayers for pilgrims. I asked him to say a few good words for me too. I did not understand much of what he said, but I did hear him end it with the phrase “moksha prapta” which translated to me also “receiving moksha.”

It felt good except when I started climbing downhill and my socks almost made me slither on the slippery granite steps stretched out in front of me. All I could think was, “Damn, no moksha now or here please!”

Anyways, I was back at the bottom of the hill in two hours. This included going up, exploring the temple on the summit, taking loads of breaks climbing up and down for pictures and visiting the Jain basadis on the way as well.

Moral of the story—Nothing is as tough as it looks and we are capable of far more than we give ourselves credit for! Oh, and there is another one: The view from the top is always spectacular. ❤

PS: Jainism is an ancient Indian religion [7th – 5th Century BC] that teaches a life lived on the principles of non-violence and renunciation is the way to liberation and bliss.

Shravanabelagola is a small sacred Jain town 85 kilometres north-west of Mysore. Its two claims to fame are 1) the Gommateshwara Temple with its huge monolith statue of Bahubali, and 2) Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan empire died here in 298 BC after he became a Jain monk.

[Note: Click any of the below images to navigate through the set and read the captions.]

Travel tips:

  • Gommateshwara Temple: Open from sunrise to sunset; No charge; Photography allowed. Try to avoid going up between Noon and 4 pm. It gets way too hot.
  • Other sights: Bhandar Basadi and Akkana Basadi at ground level are worth a dekko. Please note they close for lunch.
  • Getting there: I hired a car with a driver from Fox Travels. The town itself is small enough to cover on foot.
  • Eating: I loved the grub and service at Raghu Hotel.

poetry, myths and stone: the millennia-old sculpted hoysala temples of karnataka

Cries of “Hoy, Sala” [Strike, Sala] rang out as Sala, a Jain youth, single-handed fought a tiger to save his guru. It was around 950 AD, in the Deccan plains of South India. He immortalised this cry in the name of the dynasty he founded—Hoysala—which ruled the region till 1355 AD. The incident became its emblem.

Sandwiched between the Chalukya dynasty in Badami and the ruling Cholas in Thanjavur, Sala and his descendants created a flourishing agrarian empire populated by a sophisticated society, and where the arts thrived. Their capital was Belur, then called Velapuri. Vishnuvardhana [1108 – 1152 AD], the 5th Hoysala king, later moved his capital to Halebidu, 17 kilometres away, where it stayed till the end.

Though Hoysala palaces and homes are long gone, their stone temples still stand. Even time and wars have not been able to diminish their exquisite beauty, a fascinating peek into a by-gone society’s values and aesthetics.

So, if you ever thought all temples in India look the same, think again. Each dynasty and empire have created its own inimitable style through history. Hoysala temples are typified by being star-shaped, compact structures on a raised platform, ornate with a focus on dance and music, and carved out of soapstone. Continue reading

why tipu sultan’s dariya daulat bagh will take your breath away

Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago lived a man renowned for his opulence, and bravery. He was fearless. Nothing scared him. Or perturbed him. He also had a deep abhorrence for the British East India Company and its colonial inroads into India.

His name was Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. And his capital was Srirangapatna [spelt Seringapatam by the British], an island plonk in the middle of the mystical Cauvery River in present-day Karnataka.

It was to this tiny little, steeped in history, sleepy town that I found myself one day during my Mysore travels. Where.time.stood.still. And there were stories galore. Continue reading

global travel shot: the durbar hall in mysore palace

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I could never get tired of exploring India. This past week, I stumbled upon a new found love. A love for India’s southern states. I was in Mysore.

The Durbar Hall, also known as Sajje or Dasara Hall, in Mysore Palace is the most photographed room, for a better word, in the city. I had visited the palace earlier, many moons ago, as part of a college educational two-week trip. I remember, distinctively, I had found it kitsch and over the top, and was quick to dismiss it.

I guess I have changed. It is still kitsch, but this time I found beauty in its perfect symmetry. The grandeur, imposing. The stories in its walls – riveting. Continue reading

a self-guided walk through biblical mount of olives

Caution: This post is for travellers. Not tourists.

Whew. Now that I have got that out of the way, let me write on. Comforted by the thought you and I are on the same page.

Some of us like to wander. To immerse ourselves at a particular site just because, inexplicably, it touches a chord within us. To gaze at the details. Behind and under the obvious. To look at all versions of history and legends with an open mind.

The reason I bring it up particularly for my post on the Mount of Olives is because one cannot not visit the Mount of Olives while in Jerusalem. For that would be blasphemy. But you’d like to do it at your own pace.

Why? Because you are in the Holy Land. And Jesus Christ spent his last night before his crucifixion as well as ascended to heaven from here. Christian communities from around the globe have built a string of lovely churches down a near perpendicular street between these two key sites. Because you do not have to be believers of the Old or New Testament to believe in a higher sacred self. Or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. But also, because the view from the top and the walk to the bottom is what memories, which make you all starry-eyed once back home, are made of. 🙂 Continue reading

36 hours in tel aviv

Flashback. 11 April, 1909. There are 66 Jewish families standing in a circle on a desolate sand dune, just north of Jaffa, the ancient Arab port-city on the Mediterranean coast. Inside the circle are two boxes. One contains 60 grey seashells with plot numbers and the other has 60 white seashells with names of the families. A girl randomly picks up a grey seashell while a boy picks up a white seashell.

And hence, the first 60 plots of Tel Aviv meaning the ‘hill of spring’ are assigned and Israel’s future city is born. Within one year all the homes are built along with the main streets.

Flashforward. November 2019. The Tel Aviv I am standing in is futuristic and forward-looking. It is an IT hub, gay capital of the Middle East, vegan capital of the world, secular, hedonistic, and has an all-night party scene and 15 kilometres of sun, sand and sea.

There are around 3,000 high-tech companies and start-ups in the city, the highest outside Silicon Valley, to the extent Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas are called Silicon Wadi [Wadi is Arabic for valley]. The technology behind all chats, the world’s first anti-virus software, and USB stick were invented here.

I see lesbian couples indulging in heavy PDA and muscled men in leather briefs strut down the jogging paths on Rothschild Boulevard. Everyone seems to have a dog. According to statistics, Tel Aviv has a 17-to-1 people to dog ratio and 60 dog parks. And yes, it is also one of the top 10 cities for the most beautiful women … and men.

But Tel Aviv is not just all beauty and brains and their furry best friends, as I discovered. Continue reading