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Gommateshwara - Colossal Images

In Saravanabelgola, a small village about 160 kilometres from Bangalore, two rocky hills rise abruptly out of the plains. On top of the larger hill stands a 58 foot tall granite statue, an extraordinary image of a Jain saint, Gommateshwara, in the nude. This colossus, reputedly the largest monolithic sculpture in the world, has been carved in situ out of a living rock. The figure dominates the landscape and can be seen from as far away as 25 kilometres. Steps carved on the rocky slope lead upto the statue. Rows of devotees walk their way up to get a closer look at Gommateshwara and take one more step towards escape from the cycle of birth which is the ideal of all Jains.

This sculpture was carved nearly a thousand year ago, when Jainism was flourishing in south India. King Rachamalla of the Ganga dynasty, a great patron of Jainism, was ruling over this area. His minister and commandant Complished poet and a pious Jain, installed this gigantic figure of character from Jain mythology.

The story of Gammateshwara has been an enduring theme in the art and literature of the southern state of Karnataka. Adinatha, the first of the 24 defined Jain saints (tirthankaras) had two sons—Bharatha, the first mythical king of India and Bahubali, who later came to be known as Gommateshwara. The two brothers competed for the Kingdom of the father and faced each other in many duels, both physical and intellectual. Bahubali emerged as the victor in all the encounters but gave away the kingdom to Bharatha, preferring to seek enlightenment. He stood in penance, naked in the open in the forest, unmindful of the snakes that crawled over him, the vines that clambered up his legs and the ant-hill that arose around him. Years passed and Bahubali unflinchingly waited for enlightenment. It came the moment his brother, Bharatha recognised his spirituality and worshipped him. Bahubali became Gommateshwara.

Legends tell us that Chavundaraya’s mather dreamt of seeing a mammoth statue of Gommateshwara and vowed not to eat till she saw her dream realized. The mother and son set out on pilgrimage and across the two hills at Sravanabelgola which had already been venerated as a sacred spot. It was here, in the 3rd century B.C. that Badrabahu, the preceptor who brought Jainism to south India and his royal disciple Chandragupta, the Mauryan emperor, had stayed for many years and made it the center of their evangelical activities. Here Chavundaraya chose the larger hill for the dream and ordered the carving of the monolith out of a tor that stood on top. The images was consecrated in 980 A.D. According to local tradition, it was Aristanami the sculptor who created the image.

The Gommateshwara statue at Sravanabelgola is a magnificently rendered figure, symbolic of the glorious state of Jainism in the 10th century A.D. The gargantuan proportions of the sculpture have not reduced the sense of feeling and life in the sculpture. The body is perfectly proportioned and reflects effectively the serenity of a soul in search of enlightenment. The head with its curly spirals of hair and the expressive eyes seem to endow the statue with life. The saint’s steely determination in penance has been beautifully brought out by the sculptor.

Jainism for centuries was the foremost religion in this area. There are many inscriptions, monuments and literary works that give us an idea of this period. The Jain-church at that time was very well organized with different orders. The sect that dominated was the Digambara, which literally meant ‘sky-clad’. The monks of this order went about naked and practiced an ascetic way of life. They lived in monasteries often located in rocky caverns and subsisted on alms from devotees. So the sculptural representations of Jain monks and saints are all naked and they are depicted only in two positions, either sitting as in a yogic pose or standing straight, with hands hanging down along the body, without any flexion. Gommateshware is always shown in a standing posture and his distinguishing feature is the creeper growing around his legs.

The unclothed male figures of the Jain pantheon are expressive of the ascetic aspect of the faith. These images are totally naked. But this nudity is very removed from sensuality. It is indicative of the isolation of one who has transcended every bond. The empty space that the sculptor provides between the hands and the body and between the legs of the image are meant to emphasis the splendid aloofness of these saints. Contrast this with the early Greek nudes which glorify the human body and depict it in different postures.

Interstingly, Gommateshwara is worshipped only in south India. The earliest sculptural representations of this saint are in the form of relief sculptural representations of this saint are in the form of relief sculptures in the rock-cut cave at Aihole and Badami, about 350 kilometres form Bangalore. Both these sculptures are attributable to the 6th century A.D. From then on the cult began to spread around this area and images of Gommateshwara can be seen along the west coast and in Tamil Nadu also. But it was in Karnataka that the cult was most popular, as evidenced by the occurrence of these colossal images of Gommateshwara in different parts of the state.

In subsequent centuries, some kings of this area also erected granite colossi of Gommateshwara, hewn from massive rocks, in the manner of the one at Sravanabelgola. But none of them match the size and grace of the first one.

Near the west coast at Karkala, not far from the port town of Mangalore stands another Gommateshwara, erected in 1437 by Veerabandya, a lacal ruler. This 42-foot high figure is atop a rocky hill of 300 feet. This statue was not carved in situ but was sculpted and hauled up to the summit of the hill with what must have been truly Herculean efforts. The question that strikes the visitor is how the statue was moved up? Fergussen, an art historian of the British days, records with awe, “to move such a mass up the steep, smooth side of the hill seems a lobour beyond their power, even with all their skill in concentrating masses of men on a single point”. According to local ballads, the staue was placed on a train of 20 iron carts, with steel wheels and this contraption was drawn by thousands of worshippers on an inclined plane, right up to the top.

Close to Karkala is Venur, a small town on the banks of a river and there on platform stands 38-foot tall statue of Gommateshwara. This is the work of Veera Thimmanna, who ruled this area in the 16th century. When he was planning the installation of this statue, the ruler of Karkala, a descendant of the king who had installed the colossus at Karkala, objected to the idea of another statue being erected close to his kingdom. He was concerned that the importance of the monolith in his place would diminish. Anticipating trouble, the king of Venur buried the statue he had made in the river bed. However, in the battle that ensued the king of Karkala was defeated and the statue was dug up and consecrated at Venur in 1604.

About 30 kilometres from Mysore on the Hunsur road is a sacred spot called Gommatagiri. There on a 100-foot high rock stands an 18-foot tall statue of Gommateshwara, which on stylistic grounds is assignable to the 14th century A.D. It is much less still and rigid than the figures at Karkala and Venur. All these statues of Gommateshwara face north and are located in prominent positions. As recently, as 1973,a 39-foot high image of Gommateshwara was installed on a hill at Dharmasthala in Karnatka and it had been sculpted at Karkala.

The practice of creating such gigantic images has been in vogue even earlier in other parts of the world. It is quite possible that the idea came from one of these sources. The statue of Ananda at Polonnarua and of Buddha at Awakana both in Sri Lanka spring to mind. The Buddha figure at Bamian in Afghanistan and that of Rameses 11 in Egypt are other examples. But what sets the Gommateshwara of sravanabelgola apart is that it has been carved out to a single, living rock.

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