Monday, July 14, 2008
Here’s an article I wrote about a little village called Aretippur, near Kokkrebellur. We went there earlier this year. This piece appeared in Deccan Herald a couple of months ago. I thought I’d start with this because I really loved Aretippur. It is beautiful - haunting, sad - but beautiful.
A lone statue stands atop a little hill, aloof from the rest of the world, wearing an expression of such serenity, such calm detachment, it almost causes envy. Nearby, on another hillock, beheaded statues, legless idols and broken pillars lay scattered among the rocks and thorns on the banks of a little lake. These are the remains of one of the most important Jain pilgrimage centres of a millennium ago, a site unique in all of Karnataka for its carvings and sculptures, but one where, for want of care, history is rapidly being lost.
Karnataka has had a strong Jain tradition ever since Chandragupta famously came to Shravanabelagola with his preceptor 2300 years ago. For several centuries after this, Jainism enjoyed the patronage of the courts. Several royals built Jain temples or basadis, which were places of worship but also living quarters for monks.
Three kilometers from the world-famous Kokrebellur Bird Sanctuary, the village of Aretippur has the remains of several such basadis, dating back to the Gangas. The hamlet of about 150 houses does not figure in any modern map but finds mention in several inscriptions including some that are 1,500 years old. In the early 10th Century, during the reign of Nitimarga II, a certain Manaleyara built a basadi at Kanakagari hill in Tippeyuru as it was then known. The basadi flourished and was patronized by the Gangas and later, the Hoysalas and the Vijayanagar empire.
The collapse of Vijayanagar spelt the doom of Aretippur. Only merest traces of the once-thriving Jaina tirtha have survived the centuries of neglect. Perched precariously on a pile of rocks atop the partly-quarried Kanakagiri hill is a beautifully proportioned Parsvanath idol that looks out onto Aretippur. It is one of the few idols here that is almost intact. Not far from the blue board proclaiming the monument’s protected status, a beheaded statue of a tirthankara lies among thorny bushes. A legless torso of a tirthankara, the torso-less legs of a seated person, the head and torso of a chauri-bearer, all lie strewn about the hill. Interestingly, none of the figures are of females, which experts believe could indicate the site belonged to an early orthodox Jain tradition that avoided female representations. A long stone inscription from Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana’s times also stands on top of the hill. Remarkably unbroken, the Kannada inscription records the grant of the village to a Jaina teacher.
Despite the easy availability of stone and the Gangas’ mastery over stone-building techniques as evidenced elsewhere, Nitamarga II chose to continue with a brick building tradition here. According to the renowned scholar of Jainism, Dr Hampa Nagarajaiah, Aretippur once had four brick basadis. These were oriented north-south, with a spacious garba-griha, open pillared mantapas and brick walls that were neatly plastered with stucco finish. There may also have been some square-roomed monasteries. But while these details could be gleaned from the site even 20 years ago, today, the extensive constructions of yore have been reduced to broken bricks scattered over the hillside.
At the bottom of Kanakagiri hill is a little pond which historians believe served the ritual needs of the Jain monks. Thimmegowda, a resident of Aretippur, corroborated this when he told us that although there were no Jains in Aretippur anymore, swimming in the pond or otherwise defiling it was still prohibited as it was used only for puja purposes. On the western rocky face of this pond are fourteen bas-relief sculptures of tirthankaras, some seated, some standing, some left unfinished. Although we did not know of it when we visited Aretippur, I later learned that there are also some shallow caves cut into the rocks, some with carvings of Adinatha and other Jain deities. According to historians, these rock-cut carvings as also the statues on the hillside are in a style of Ganga art datable to the late eighth or early ninth century, suggesting than when Nitimarga II built a basadi here, he was adding to what was already a sacred site. Significantly, this specimen of Ganga period rock-cut architecture is the only one of its kind in Karnataka.
About half a kilometre from Aretippur is a bigger hillock which also houses a historical treasure. Neither path nor steps lead to the summit. A short climb of about 30 minutes ending in a scramble up a steep rock face took us to the top. And there stood a relief sculpture of Bahubali, about 10 feet high, with an aureole etched around his head, and an arresting expression of calmness on his face. With neither a roof over his head, nor walls on his sides, the solitary statue nevertheless imparted a sense of sanctity to the place. The sculpture beautifully depicted the countenance of one so immersed in contemplation, he did not notice the creepers twining up his legs. Where Shravanabelagola’s Bahubali is grand and imposing, Aretippur’s is humble and approachable, yet beautiful. According to Dr NS Rangaraju, Professor of Ancient History at Mysore University, there could be some truth to the common belief that this relief carving was a prototype for the statue at Shravanabelagola. “Although there is no inscriptional evidence to support this, the style appears to be of an earlier period than the matured style seen at Shravanabelagola,” he explains.
Although it felt like we were the first to set eyes on Bahubali, unpleasant inscriptional evidence proved otherwise. Devraj, Muniswamy, Sommanna and a few other blighted souls had recorded their names and dates of arrival for posterity on the rock, right in front of the divine image. Bahubali also receives occasional visits from worshippers as shown by the stray packets of milk and broken coconut shells they had thoughtfully left behind. Conspicuous by its absence was a board proclaiming the monument’s protected status, by either the ASI, or the State Archaeology Department – the statue appears to be entirely unprotected. The base of the hill is currently abuzz with quarrying activity. I wondered how long it would be before the entire hill was quarried away and recalled the impassioned plea of Dr Hampa Nagarajaiah, “All ancient sites belonging to all religions need to be preserved.” Amen.