For In­dia’s Digam­bara Jains, the ul­ti­mate quest is the re­jec­tion of all de­sires

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence The Laundromat Is A Foreign La - WIL­LIAM DAL­RYM­PLE

TWO hills of blackly gleam­ing gran­ite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded land­scape of banana plan­ta­tions and jagged palmyra palms. It is dawn. Be­low lies the an­cient pil­grim­age town of Sra­van­abelagola, where the crum­bling walls of monas­ter­ies and tem­ples clus­ter around a grid of dusty, red-earth roads.

The roads con­verge on a great rec­tan­gu­lar tank. The tank is dot­ted with the spread­ing leaves and still-closed buds of float­ing lo­tus flow­ers. Al­ready, de­spite the early hour, the first pil­grims are gath­er­ing.

For more than 2000 years, this Kar­natakan town has been sa­cred to the Jains. It was here, in the third cen­tury BC, that the first em­peror of In­dia, Chan­dragupta Mau­rya, em­braced the Jain re­li­gion and died through a self-im­posed fast to the death, the em­peror’s cho­sen atone­ment for the killings he had been re­spon­si­ble for in his life of con­quest.

Twelve hun­dred years later, in AD981, a Jain gen­eral com­mis­sioned the largest mono­lithic statue in In­dia, 18m high, on the top of the larger of the two hills, Vind­hya­giri. This was an im­age of an­other royal Jain hero, Prince Bahubali.

The prince had fought a duel with his brother for con­trol of their fa­ther’s king­dom. But in the very hour of his vic­tory, Bahubali re­alised the tran­sience of worldly glory. He re­nounced his king­dom and em­braced in­stead the path of the as­cetic. Re­treat­ing to the jun­gle, he stood in med­i­ta­tion for a year, so that the vines of the for­est curled around his legs and tied him to the spot. In this state he con­quered what he be­lieved to be the real en­e­mies — his am­bi­tions, pride and de­sires — and so be­came, ac­cord­ing to the Jains, the first hu­man be­ing to achieve spir­i­tual lib­er­a­tion.

The sun has only j ust risen above the palm trees yet al­ready the line of pil­grims — from a dis­tance, tiny, ant-like crea­tures against the dawn-glis­ten­ing fused mer­cury of the rock­face — are climb­ing the long line of steps that lead up to the stone prince.

For the past 1000 years this statue, en­closed in its lat­tice of stone vines, has been the fo­cus of pil­grim­age for the Digam­bara, or Sky Clad Jains. Digam­bara monks are prob­a­bly the most se­vere of all In­dia’s as­cetics. They show their to­tal re­nun­ci­a­tion of the world by trav­el­ling through it com­pletely naked, as light as the air, as they con­ceive it, and as clear as the In­dian sky. Sure enough, among the many or­di­nary laypeo­ple slowly mount­ing the rock-cut steps are sev­eral com­pletely naked men — Digam­bara monks on their way to do homage.

There are also a num­ber of white-clad Digam­bara nuns, and it


Jain devo­tees pray at the feet of the largest mono­lithic statue in In­dia, an 18m rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Prince Bahubali in the an­cient pil­grim­age town of Sra­van­abelagola


Bahubali bathed in turmeric

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