The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 26, 2000

A shrine becomes a heritage site

The Archaeological Survey of India made history recently when it annexed the renowned Gomateswara Temple in Karnataka and declared it a heritage site. Saikat Neogi writes about this historical site.

IT was a legal tug-of-war between the temple priests and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for one of India’s oldest religious shrines in Karnataka. And after years of court battle, the ASI has acquired the famous Gomateswara Temple in Sravana Belagola and declared it a heritage site.

The Gomateswara statue in KarnatakaThe monolithic statue of Gomateswara, a Jain saint, rising up to about 60 feet is a structural marvel. There are several Jain temples in Sravana Belagola some of which are built in the Hoysala style. This imposing statue was erected in the 10th century AD.

Apart from the restoration of the statue, the ASI will document the history of this temple. The Indian government is issuing a commemorative stamp of the shrine which completed its first millennium way back in 1981.

"It was a historical annexation and we will rope in top experts to maintain it," says an official of the ASI. However, though the temple may have been declared a heritage site, religious rituals will continue to be conducted by the temple’s Trust. The funds generated from offerings will be spent on its maintenance.

  The town of Sravana Belagola lies in the low hills along the western coast of Karnataka. And the Gomateswara Temple is situated amidst lush paddy fields and coconut groves and palms.

The history of the town goes back to the 3rd century BC, and it has been an important Jain centre since. Not many know that Karnataka’s connections with the Jain religion go back to the 6th century when Lord Mahavira toured the region, teaching people the path to moksha or release from the cycle of birth and death.

In ancient times most of the Jains who lived here were wealthy traders and merchants by profession, conducting their business in distant lands through the ports on the western coast. It lay east of the ports and was surrounded by luxuriant bamboo forests.

At some point in the early Christian era this rich and prosperous town was struck by a severe earthquake, and was deserted. Over the years large vegetation grew turning the town into a thick jungle.

The Gomateswara Temple ... a seat of religion for the Jains.Legend has it that one day, while passing through this forest, a renowned Jain Muni, Sravana Belagola, saw a cow and a tiger drinking from the same pool of water. Convinced that there was a divine hand in this unnatural phenomenon, he had the area cleared and discovered a magnificent statue of Tirthankara Parshvanath, a Jain saint, Belagola had a temple built at the site in 981 AD.

However, with the passage of time the temple degenrated and disappeared. In 1750, the mighty king of Karnataka, Chamundaraya, rebuilt the temple. He commissioned a statue of Lord Bahubali atop a hill. The statue built in 1755 came to be known as Gomateswara, which in local parlance means ‘a handsome young man’.

In addition to rebuilding the Gomateswara Temple, Chamundaraya constructed a two-storey structure called basadi for higher education of priests. This was a superbly crafted structure with an open porch, a pillared courtyard and well appointed rooms.

Enshrined in the courtyard is a statue of a local God, Neminath. Another important step taken by Chamundaraya was to appoint an adhyapati or head of the temple.

As Sravana Belagola became the centre of religious activities it began attracting pilgrims from all corners of India, and also built an impressive royal and aristocratic list of patrons. Since the temple received rich endowments, it spawned a number of other magnificent shrines which were built and adorned with sculptures and images of metal. The Jain matha, an elegant structure of the Vijayanagar period built around an open courtyard is one of them. Its walls are adorned with paintings depicting scenes from Jain scriptures. Going by the artistic styles of these paintings, historians have dated them back to around 1775 AD.

Even in present times the most important festival at the Sravana Belagola temple is the Mahamastak Abhisheka. The sheer size of the statue does not permit any devotee to bathe the entire Gomateswara statue everyday and only the feet are washed.

However, every 10 to 15 years, when there is a favourable conjunction of the stars and planets, the bathing ceremony of the deity is held not only as a ritual but also as a re-enactment of the ceremony conducted by Sravana-Belagola himself in 981 A.D.

Legend has it that when King Chamundaraya mounted the scaffolding to pour a pitcher of holy water on Lord Gomateswara he was filled with great pride at having commissioned such a superb statue.

The pride turned into arrogance as he began pouring the water on the head of the statue. But to his great dismay he discovered that the liquid would not flow down from the knees. Chamundaraya poured huge quantities of the holy water but to no avail. It would flow to the knees and then stop descending.

The king was greatly perplexed. Just then came an old woman with milk in a conch shell. The king laughed and exclaimed that if all the holy water from the royal pots could not do the job how would a few drops of milk wash it?

But when the old woman poured milk from the shell, it went cascading down the statue into the pond below. She proved to Chamundaraya that it was his ego which had annoyed the Lord.

In 1981 the Gomateswara statue was a 1000 years old and the event was marked with great pomp and festivities. Leading priests from all over the country assembled at the shrine for the rituals and pilgrims in thousands flocked around the temple to witness one of the greatest religious events of the millennium.

Now its glory is all set to be revived with this all important Jain temple being declared a heritage site. — Newsmen Features