Sunday, March 6, 2016

India Adventure III: Jain Pilgrimage to the city of Shravanabelagola

When I last wrote, it was mid-December. I was sitting at a chic rustic wood table in newly opened Dreamcatchers Café in Bangalore, listening to the café’s music – jazz, and the occasional Spotify ad. I had just finished my delicious free breakfast - two large dosas and a dish of coconut chutney.
This is another kind of Dosa I had for lunch in Bangalore:
Paper Masala Dosa, sambar and coconut chutney ... also tasty.
This is the free vegetarian breakfast that comes with a night’s stay (500 Indian rupees = $7.60/night = a bit expensive) at the Electric Cats Hostel. (The café and hostel are in the same small building; café on the street level, and hostel rooms just above it.)

Electric Cats Hostel bunk beds.

Business card front side.

Business card back side.
The hostel and café are owned and operated by Stan, a young man from Bangalore. He said there is only one other hostel in all of Bangalore; he is in the process of opening a third one in a lot nearby his Electric Cats Hostel.

I stayed at Electric Cats Hostel for several nights, beginning on Dec 9, the night I arrived in Bangalore from Delhi. I learned Stan had two cats. One had disappeared, and was found in a puddle horribly injured. The cat needed to have metal rods inserted into his legs, and was to stay at the vet’s office for 2.5 months. Sadly, he died there while I was at the hostel. Stan put an 8x11” photo of him on display in the café that day, in memoriam. Stan’s other cat used to enjoy hanging out in the café with us.
Stan's remaining cat, lounging on the chair next to mine at Dreamcatchers Cafe
the morning I checked out of Electric Cats Hostel. Those are my bags behind
the chair.
When not eating dosas and writing at Dreamcaters Café (or trying to coordinate a time to see my wonderful dentist in Bangalore, Dr. Jagdish Rohira), I was at my friend Sowmya’s new apartment in the Banaswadi neighborhood of Bangalore. Sowmya is the founder of Prafull Oorja, a Bangalore based NGO. Her new apartment is a corner unit on the top floor of an apartment building in a quiet, residential neighborhood. Two of the apartment’s four sides are flanked by potted plant covered verandahs. It is a beautiful space.

View of Bangalore from Sowmya's apartment.
Sowmya and I became friends the year I completed school and moved to San Francisco. Sowmya, her parents, and grandmother used to invite me over to their house in a San Francisco suburb. Being so far away from home, I always enjoyed spending time at their house with their family. So I was so happy to hear Sowmya’s parents were coming to Bangalore while I would be there, and that I would get to see them.
Sowmya's parents and Sowmya on our Jain pilgrimage.
We enjoyed home cooked meals at Sowmya’s apartment and great conversations. Sowmya and her mom showed me the saris they would be wearing to a fancy wedding in Mumbai, and afterwards I got to see wedding photos and videos.


One of my favorite memories of my three trips to India is the weekend Hindu pilgrimage Sowmya, Maddie, and I took in December 2013. So I was excited when Sowmya invited me to join her, her parents, and roommate Kishore on a one day Jain pilgrimage to the city of Shravanabelagola (Śravaa Beagoa – I believe this is the Sanskrit name).

We left from her new apartment at 6AM on December 12. Although we would spend several hours in the rented SUV driven by a hired driver to reach our destination (typical way small groups reach the tourist sites and not that costly), we never left the Indian state of Karnataka. The city of Shravanabelagola is 157 kilometers from Karnataka’s capital city, Bangalore. We got lost on some back roads while en route to Shravanabelagola, which meant I got to see several small rural south Indian villages. I was so happy.

Shravanabelagola is marked by the red circle. Bangalore is to the east (Bengaluru). 
The city of Shravanabelagola is one of the most important tirthas (pilgrimage destinations) for Jains, who are followers of the religion Jainism.

While Jains comprise less than one percent of the Indian population, Jainism has played an influential role in India for the past 2,500+ years. Jainism is based upon the teachings of Mahavira (“Great Hero”) who, like Shakyamuni Buddha rejected family life at a young age and spent years wandering as an ascetic, striving to conquer attachment to worldly values.

Jains follow a path of asceticism and meditation. As I understand it (and I understand very little) unlike Buddhists, Jains assert in addition to humans and animals, plants, water, fire, earth, and air are also capable of attaining liberation.

Inspired by my respect for Jains’ practice of ahisma (nonviolence), in 2014 I paid a visit toa Jain temple in Delhi, Lal Mandir. I had read in my Rough Guide to India that the temple has a bird hospital that cares for rescued injured birds, even common sparrows. The bird hospital was very sweet – and noisy.

The history of the city of Shravanabelagola is linked with Mauryan emperor Chandragupta. It is said Chandragupta starved himself to death on one of the city’s two hills around 300 BC, in accordance with a Jain practice. This marked the arrival of Jainism in south India. That hill was renamed Chandragiri hill after the emperor and still bears that name.

Shravanabelagola’s architectural and sculptural activities reached their peak under the patronage of the Western Ganga dynasty of Talakad. I imagine Jain pilgrims visit Shravanabelagola primarily to see one of those sculptures - the statue of Gommateshvara.

The monuments on view in the city likely date no further back than the 10th century, when military general Chavundaraya (or Chamundaraya?) visited the city in search of a Mauryan statue of Gommateshvara. When he could not find such a statue, he had the sculptor Aristenemi carve one in 981 AD, in the spot where the general’s arrow landed - on the top of the city’s other hill, Indragiri hill (also known as Vindhyagiri hill).

Statue of Gommateshvara in Shravanabelagola.
The base of the general’s Gommateshvara statue has inscriptions in Kannada, as well as the oldest evidence of written Konkani (devnagari script) dating from 981 AD. The inscriptions praise King Rachamalla who funded the statue’s construction and his general, who had it built for his mother.
You can see some of the referenced script carved into the white graniteGommateshvara statue base,
visible behind this black stone deity.
The city’s main sites are located on two hills, separated by a (perfectly rectangular, manmade looking) pond located in the middle of the city. Shravanabelagola means “White Pond of the Shravana” or “Monk of the White Pond”, a reference to the pond and the Gommateshvara statue.
The pond and Chandragiri hill are visible in this photo of Shravanabelagola,
taken while climbing up Indragiri hill.
Sowmya, her parents, Kishore, and I visited both hills in Shravanabelagola – Indragiri hill, followed by Chandragiri hill.


Approaching the base of  Indragiri hill and the stone steps leading up to the top.
We ascended to the top of the steep, bald rock Indragiri hill by way of six hundred and fourteen shallow steps carved away from the rocky hillside itself. Since it is a holy place, shoes must be deposited at the base of Indragiri hill. We found it is easier to climb the slippery staircase barefoot as opposed to in sock feet.
Ascending Indragiri hill.
Don’t worry - I took my time on the steps. There was plenty to see – many school groups and extended Indian families were climbing up and down Indragiri hill alongside me. The view from the staircase was beautiful – tropical, south India style.
We passed by, but did not stop at a smaller temple. I enjoyed watching the school girls scramble down its steps.
Temple we passed on the way to the top of the hill.
Students on the temple steps.
It then became clear we were approaching the main pilgrimage site. After passing by stone carvings protected by sheets of thick sheets of glass, walking through decorative doorways, and climbing more steps, we arrived at the top of Indragiri hill.
(Unprotected) stone carvings at our feet, visible while climbing the hill.
You can see a pane of thick glass protecting a carving to the left of this one,
on the left hand edge of this photo.
Kishore, Sowmya's parents, Sowmya
passing through a doorway en route to the top of the hill.
Me en route to the top of the hill.
More steps. We fed this sweet street dog the little food we had with us.
What we saw when we reached the top of the hill.
The flat hilltop is principally occupied by the 58 foot high smooth, white granite statue of Gommateshvara that as mentioned earlier, was carved by Aristenemi in 981 AD. It is said to be the world’s tallest statue carved from a single stone, as well as the largest free standing sculpture in India. Gommateshvara is so tall that he peers out from above the temple walls.
White granite statue of Gommateshvara visible above the temple walls on the hill top.
Local people call him Gommateshvara; Jains call him Bahubali. The son of emperor Vrishabhadeva, Bahubali later became the first Jain tirthankar (revered teacher) Andinath. He realized the futility of material gains, renounced his kingdom, and became a recluse, meditating in complete stillness in the forest until he attained enlightenment.

His lengthy meditation period is denoted in the white granite statue on Indragiri Hill – creeping stone vines curl around his legs, and stone ant hills and snakes can be seen at his feet.
Sign outside of the temple explaining how to make offerings to
The feet of the white granite statue of Gommateshvara.
White granite statue of Gommateshvara.
Every twelve years thousands of people gather at the statue to perform the Mahamastakabhisheka ceremony, covering him in milk, curds, ghee, saffron, and gold coins. The next Mahamastakabhisheka will take place in 2018.

I enjoyed meeting the Pandit, Kumar, the statue’s caretaker. I got to watch as a young Indian family received what I imagine were blessings, administered by Pandit Kumar.
Pandit Kumar in front of the white granite statue of

Pandit Kumar in front of the white granite statue of

Pandit Kumar and a young family at the base of the statue.

A closer view of Pandit Kumar and the young family.
I then toured the temple grounds, carefully treading through the semi-dark stone passageway that wraps behind the white granite statue of Gommateshvara. It was like walking through a cave, where the walls were lined with statues of what I presumed were Jain deities.
Jain deity (?) stone statues behind the white granite statue of Gommateshvara.
Back in the daylight, nearby the statue of Gommateshvara I found some alcoves housing more beautiful deities.
Alcove containing a deity inside of the temple, just near
the white granite statue of Gommateshvara.

Stone statue inside of that alcove.

Another beautiful stone statue in an alcove inside of the temple
near the white granite statue of Gommateshvara.
On the way out we stopped to take in the view of the city and surrounding sugar cane fields, and greet some students.
Entry and exit to the temple containing the white granite
statue of Gommateshvara. This it the view when
approaching the temple to enter.

View from the plaza just outside of the temple.

Fellow pilgrims looking out, too.
Another student group posed for photos with their teachers.
Student group with their teachers just outside of the temple.
A family visiting the temple. I loved the girl's purple and black dress.
They were kind enough to let me take this photo.
Before leaving the hilltop, I peeked into the 14th century temple in the courtyard, Siddhara Basti.
Me, Kishore, Sowmya's parents and Sowmya standing in front of
Siddhara Basti. Photo taken by Pandit Kumar.
Information sign outside of Siddhara Basti.

Inside of the very small Siddhara Basti temple.

On the way back down Indragiri hill we stopped to take some more photos.
Kishore underneath an archway. Behind him is the city.

Me, just beyond the archway. Beyond me is the city.
Once back at the base of Indragiri hill, we stopped at the shoe stall to collect our shoes. We were happy to find a coconut stand had been set up right there, next to the shoe stall.
Coconut stall at the base of the hill, next to the shoe stall.
Coconut water is popular in India because of its known health benefits, including electrolytes which are good for treating dehydration. It was a hot day and with few trees on the hillside to provide shade, we were feeling the heat. We were all happy to gulp down some coconut water.

There is an abundance of coconut trees in south India. Coconut stalls like this one are a common site.

First, you order a coconut, specifying if you want “water” or coconut meat. The coconut seller then selects the proper coconut for you from his pile of coconuts, and then uses a big knife to chop off the end of the coconut shell. The coconut shell is then carefully handed to you so the coconut shell, which is almost brimming over with coconut water, doesn’t tip over and spill.

Some sellers shape the remnant coconut shell piece into a spoon, to be used to scrape out the coconut meat. Most of the time, (unfortunately) customers are also offered a brightly colored plastic straw to insert into the coconut.

Then, you present your money to the seller. An order of one coconut costs on average 30 Indian rupees (45 cents).

Customers often enjoy the coconut on the roadside, and then hand the empty coconut shell back to the seller. Your coconut shell is added to his pile of empty shells. Or you can walk away with your coconut and then toss the empty shell onto the roadside when you are finished. Uncomfortable with discarding trash in general in India, I am not really comfortable either way. What to do.

After enjoying a coconut each and returning the empty shells to the seller, Sowmya, her parents, Kishore and I walked a short distance across the city to the base of Chandragiri hill.
The city of Shravanabelagola.


Chandragiri hill is a small hill in comparison to its neighbor Indragiri hill. Chandragiri hill is topped by Chandragupta Basti (Chandragupta Community), a walled enclosure housing various buildings that are likely temples. It was hard to know because when we visited I found just one sign containing an overview of the site, and no guides. The sign mentioned one of the buildings is Chandragiri temple, built as early as 4th Century BC (2,300 years ago). So I just enjoyed walking in and out of the buildings, paying respect to the Jain pilgrimage site.

The highlight of our visit to Chandragupta Basti was a stairwell Sowmya and I found inside one of the temples, tucked away in the left corner just inside of the temple door. We climbed the short, winding, extremely steep staircase (hard to even call it a staircase because we scrambled up as if we were rock climbing) to the second story. We found ourselves standing on an open deck, with stone carved deities close around us. It was special.

I would have taken photos on Chandragiri hill and particularly of this spot, but I had exhausted my camera battery while taking photos on Indragiri Hill.
Bharata statue at Chandragupta Basti on Chandragiri Hill.
I found this photo online here, along with more information about the city.
This was my favorite statue on the hill. It is larger than a human and seems to be
rising up from the ground.
I later learned 800+ inscriptions have been found in the city of Shravanabelagola, mostly on Chandragiri hill. Dating from 600 – 1830, the inscriptions are written in the Kannada, Sanskrit, Marathi, Konkani, Tamil, Marwari and Mahajani languages. These inscriptions help modern scholars understand the nature and development of the Kannada language and literature. You can see examples of these inscriptions in the above photos from Indragiri hill.

There are many languages in India: the Indian constitution recognizes eighteen major languages, but numerous minor ones and 1,000+ dialects are also spoken across India. AMAZING. Hindi is the predominant language in the north, and the official language of India. (However, according to my Rough Guide to India, the first language of educated Indians is English, and because of the variety of languages, the English language is an important means of communication across India.)
I found this on another blog. It originated from
However, it seems Hindi has been resisted in the south, where there are four widely spoken languages: Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, all belonging to the Dravidian family. Written Tamil dates back to 3rd Century AD. Kannada is spoken in the Indian state of Karnataka, Tamil is spoken in Tamil Nadu, Telugu is spoken in Andhra Pradesh, and Malayalam is spoken in Kerala. So my friends who grew up in Bangalore speak Kannada and English, but not necessarily Hindi. Sowmya’s mom grew up in Tamil Nadu; Sowmya speaks Tamil. I think she also speaks some Kannada and Hindi. When we were in the car traveling to and from the city of Shravanabelagola, there were several languages being spoken between passengers and driver in an attempt to communicate directions.

India truly is a geographically large, diverse, and fascinating country. You can see that while it would be helpful and polite if I could speak Hindi (never mind Tibetan), speaking English works well, too. However while I understand very little, the sounds of the various languages spoken in India are becoming increasingly familiar and recognizable, like new friends.

On our way back down Chandragiri hill, Sowmya, Kishore and I took a detour, following a narrow path through the sparse, rocky wilderness hillside that led us to a meditation cave. A sign outside of the cave indicated it was Muni Bhadrabahu’s cave, and that his footprint can be viewed on the cave floor.
Muni Bhadrabahu's cave. Photo found here.

Footprints inside of the Muni Bhadrabahu cave. Photo found here.
The visit to the cave was my favorite part of our day long pilgrimage. Although I didn’t (and still don’t) know anything about Muni Bhadrabahu, it was powerful to walk inside and pause for a few minutes.

I later learned Chandragiri hill contains memorials for monks and Śrāvakas who have meditated on the hill since the 5th century AD. The last king of the Rashtrakuta dynasty of Manyakheta, as well as Acharya Bhadrabahu and his pupil Chandragupta Maurya are believed to have meditated on Chandragiri hill.

India has such a rich history. It is amazing.

Sowmya, her parents, Kishore and I were back in Bangalore in time for dinner. It was another amazing pilgrimage with Sowmya. I am so fortunate to have such amazing friends.

After our Jain pilgrimage, I began to prepare for my mom’s December 15 arrival in India and our first big activity. My mom and I would be spending two weeks studying Tibetan Buddhism with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (and 30,000+ other people) at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Bylakuppe Tibetan refugee settlement, south India. That will be my next blog post.

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