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.]
- 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.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Mysore and its surrounds over 5 days in end-January 2020. To read more posts on Karnataka, click here.]