Following the Footsteps of the Saint
“I’m going to do this,” I muttered under my breath, giving myself the boost I needed. Heck my enthusiasm surely counted for something. Hitching the strap of my camera bag to a more comfortable position, I started to climb.
There were 650 steps in total, with steel handrails for support. The steps were cut roughly into the side of the rocky mountain, which would lead me up to the very old Jain temple at the top. In the temple’s courtyard, the fifty-eight foot, approximately eighty ton statue of the ‘Gomateshwara’ stands. Carved from a single granite rock, it is, to date, the largest free standing monolith in the world.
At the bottom of the ascent, the stone cut steps were shallow, but became increasingly more steep as I ascended higher. After climbing about a hundred steps, I took a break, presumably to passersby to take pictures, but actually just to catch my breath. Behind me was the promise of a view that would get more spectacular as I continued on my adventure.
The Vidhyagiri hill, on which the Gomateshwara stands, dates back to the third century, and in ancient times was a place where monks resided and meditated. Most Jain places of pilgrimage are found in secluded forests or mountain tops, the onus being on peaceful surroundings conducive to meditation.
Exactly opposite is the Chandragiri hill; in between these two hills lies the sleepy little town of Shravanabelagola (Shravana meaning ‘saint’ and Belagola meaning ‘white pond’). The cosmopolitan hi-tech city of Bangalore in Karnataka, India is just 143 kilometers from this town. It was as if the fork in the road led to a different world, far removed from the modernity so close by.
“Are you sure you can climb those steps?” The voice in my head played spoilsport as I stood at the bottom of the dual stairway and looked up at…well nothing actually. The top of the mountain seemed to disappear somewhere where the staircase ended. The fact that I was having doubts about my own ability to reach the top pointed to one stark fact – I needed to cut down on cheesecake and ice-cream, pronto.
It was 10 a.m. on a March morning; the blazing sun would show its prowess later on in the day. A few eagles soared languidly above, looking down at the futile pursuits of humans below. I could feel the age of this place and the spiritual essence too, the latter likely induced by the sight of orange clad monks on the pilgrimage path.
There were other men and women dressed in pure starched white, trying visibly to segregate themselves on the narrow staircase from camera wielding tourists and sinners alike. I gave them a wide berth as I could see they were not open to disturbance or impurity of any kind – their eyes downcast, their minds prayerfully focused on the ‘darshan’ (auspicious sight) of their God waiting at the top. For them, this was the stairway to heaven.
The Prince Who Gave Up His Palace
The story of “The Prince Who Gave Up His Palace” goes that Gomasteshwara, whose birth name was Bahubali, was the legendary son of Adinatha, the first ‘Tirthankara.’ (There are twenty-four tirthankaras in Jainism and they are the mythical sages who attained enlightenment after mortification and rigorous penance.) Bahubali was born a prince and fought his half-brother Bharat over a dispute pertaining to his father’s kingdom. Though he defeated his brother, he was overcome by remorse and denounced his worldly possessions. He went to Mount Kailash (now in Nepal) where he meditated in an upright motionless position for a year until he attained ‘Moksha.’ The Jains believe he was the first human to gain ‘Siddha,’ or liberation.
‘Moksha’ is a concept that has enticed the human species from ancient times - an elusive liberation from all things ‘samsara’ (worldly) pertaining to the never ending cycle of death and rebirth. Apparently, the final break from earthly consciousness is what gets a mortal to the much sought after state of beatific fulfillment known as ‘Nirvana.’
The search for the higher ideals of truth, though, has rarely found agreement among human beings, which is why ‘Moksha’ ultimately became the sign of contention between various religions. While Buddhists believed moksha could be attained in this life, Jains were convinced it could only be attained after death, in the elevated soul state.
Also, unlike Buddhism, Jainism did not cross the shores of India and to this day remains mainly inside its borders. The main belief of Jainism however, is based on the Tri Ratna (Three Jewels) – Right Philosophy, Right Knowledge, and Right Character.
Never Too Old For This
It is mandatory to climb the steps either with bare or socked feet. I opted to keep my socks on. Since I could not depend on religious fervor to provide impetus to my feet, I opted to be inspired by the perseverance of the devotees who evidently made this climb as a sort of atonement. The aged and the differently abled have the option of being carried on bamboo litters manned by four men, who make about four trips a day to the top with their human loads.
Somewhere around 300 steps, when I took my third break, I discovered to my dismay that I had left my water bottle in the car. I was too far up to turn back, so I just climbed on, looking enviously at the others who were glugging from their water bottles. My objective now was to get to the top as quickly as possible to avoid the sun’s rays later on in the day. Plus, I was pretty sure my day of atonement was not here and now.
In the interim, a German tourist and I chatted with each other, making a one-time connection at a self-imposed resting spot. She was on her way down and sympathetically said I still had a long way to go up.
I was also a bit disappointed that, so far, I had not caught even a tiny glimpse of the Gomateshwara. Instead, after 300 more steps, I reached a courtyard with an old shrine, carved pillars, and some ancient inscriptions on the stone floor, encased in glass for preservation. I had to climb another set of sixty steps to get to the topmost inner temple. As I stepped through the carved doors, the Gomasteshwara finally came into full view.
And Moksha was Finally Attained
Standing tall and upright, the statue faces north and is depicted in the meditative posture known as ‘Kayotsarga’ (dismissing the body). It is also sculpted in the nude tradition of the ‘Digambara’ or ‘Sky Clad’ Jain sect, the other sect being Shvethambara or ‘White Clad.’ Bahubali’s spiritual ascent into divinity and the ultimate attainment of ‘Gyana’, or omniscience, is reflected somberly in the sculpted stance.
Having searched for peace in various places myself, I can perfectly identify with the faith and determination of these devotees to attain Moksha. Mostly, I feel humbled that despite everything I have, I still ‘feel the need’ to reach out to something more powerful, something more ‘divine.’ Will I be complete then? I’m yet to find out!
Every once in twelve years, in the first week of February, the ‘Mahamat abhisheka’ (ritual bath) ceremony is held at Shravanabelagola. The last one took place in 2006 and the next one will be performed in 2018. One of the main customs will include pouring thousands of gallons of milk, water, ghee, and rice, mixed with sandalwood, herbs, and saffron over the statue from specially built platforms. The mixture is collected again at the bottom of the statue and distributed to the pilgrims. The ceremony attracts about one million pilgrims and behind the scenes preparations for next year have already begun.
A good hour later, I began the descent down just as it started to get warmer. As I drove away from Shravanabelagola, at a turn in the road, I caught a brief glimpse of the top of the Gomateshwara, looking into the distance, broodingly oblivious to the tourists and devotees below him.
Like all Jains, in his lifetime, he did not believe in the existence of a creator God. I wonder if he disapproves of the reality - that his quest to attain moksha had in the end, elevated him to God status.
Shaly is a freelance writer, blogger, and habitual traveler who loves to write about people and places. A lethargic soul and coffee addict, she hope's someday to find that place in her soul that connects her to the divine. Until then, she walks the trail of life searching, feeling, and writing.