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Moodbidri — woods of yore

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

A two-hour drive from Manipal, Moodbidri offers one a glimpse of Jain culture.GOWRI RAMNARAYAN


"I'M going to see the Jain basadis tomorrow," said the participant at a heritage seminar at Manipal. The light in his eyes came not from a conservationist's curiosity, but a pilgrim's devotion. It inspired you to undertake a similar, shorter trip to see the monuments of a creed that some scholars trace back to Harappa and Mohenjadaro.

With asceticism and ahimsa as its ideals (inspiring the Buddha?), Jainism is identified with metaphysical reflexivity and uncompromising ethics. Reduced to a minority through centuries of religious persecution, Jains are best known today for their business acumen and practice of charity. The national anthem names them, but this country knows little about Jain culture past and present.

The two-hour drive from Manipal (35 km from Mangalore) offers ample time to recall that Jainism sees God as Infinite Knowledge, Perception, Consciousness and Joy. The universe has no beginning, no end. As the yugas roll on, the 24 tirthankaras (Fjord Makers) teach humanity to reach moksha by burning up the karma of innumerable birth cycles, Parshvanatha (877-777 B.C.) and Mahavira (599-527 B.C.) being such archetypal guides in the present age. The five-fold mantra offers obeisance not to God, but to perfected beings (Arahanta), liberated souls (Siddha), masters (Acharya), teachers (Upadhyaya), virtue seekers (Sadhus). Individuals must find release through their own efforts, not through divine intervention.

Unrelenting austerity? But did it not spark awesome creativity in architecture, sculpture, painting and poetry? Ancient tongues Tamil and Prakrit are rich with literary contributions from the Jain monks. Shravanabelagola (Karnataka), Palitana (Gujarat), Bawangaja (Madhya Pradesh), Shikharjin Madhuban (Bihar) stun the eye with their magnificence.

Shrine cluster

Moodbidri, our destination, known as Kshemavenupura and Jain Kashi, has a cluster of 18 shrines. Enter the 1,000-pillared Tribhuvanatilaka chudamani (crest jewel of the three worlds) basadi, and you see the realisation of a vision as vast as it is intricate. Known also as Chandranath basadi honouring the eight-foot tall figure of Bhagwan Chandranath, and Hosa basadi to signify its ageless beauty, the temple's many mantapas are supported by pillars. No two are alike. Each has its own design, some achieving incredibly delicate results on granite.

Built in 1430 by local chieftain Devaraya Wodeyar, with additions made in 1962, this shrine has a 60 feet tall monolith manasthambha (erected by Queen Nagala Devi) that rivets your gaze. Circle the shrine and you see Chinese dragons and African giraffes jostling with local elephants and mythical yalis, testifying to prosperous trade and protean imagination. The sloping roof is propped by carved posts, and ruddy wooden bars bloodshot under the noon sun.

Playtime after prayers; a pilgrim party is engaged in word games, spraying some northern dialect redolent with desert airs.

Jaya Mahavir prabho

Kundalpur avatari, trishalananda

vibho

A Gujarati family stands in the sanctum, clapping beats to off key songs, the lamps throw shadows on the three huge idols — all cast in the same mould to ignorant eyes. A woman comes up to the threshold with camphor light. You spread your hands over the blaze and touch your eyes. She is the priest's wife. "Pilgrims come, but there is no money for worship, I have to get the oil from my home for the lamps here," she says in Kannada. Isn't there a temple management committee? "Yes," she replies, "but we have to make do with whatever is placed on this thali by visitors." She turns away to sweep the floor.

`No' for everything

We stop at the entrance again before the table manned by officials. Any written material on the temple? "No." Can anyone tell us something about it? One of them barks, "I'm tired. Can't talk." You retreat in a hurry. Stepping out of the wooden portals, your nostrils are assailed by the pungent smell of leaf-wrapped dosai.

Walk past them into a 650-year-old math, which boasts a library of precious texts in palm leaves. It caters to the religious needs of 160 families, descendants of a huge populace of long ago. A saffron monk stilled in meditation in the inner chamber ... women singing in the outer hall ... a chorus of fidgetty boys ... The walls are covered with paintings from an age innocent of calendar art,16th Century they say.

Any book in English about Moodbidri? The official's "No" is no surprise, flung between dinner arrangements before sundown for visitors in the yard. "Give me your address, and we will post it," he says finally, knowing as you do that he will not. Ask for oral information and he waves towards shrines known barely by names — Hire, Kere, Kallu, Padu, Shettara, Leppada...

Among them, the oldest Eighth Century Guru basadi moves you by the universality of the lion-and-lamb myth. Here they are a cow and a tiger drinking from the same pool, triggering a search in the bamboo thicket by a Digambara Jain renunciate. An idol of Parshvanatha, the 23rd tirthankara, is found; a temple raised. The romance of Moodbidri (eastern bamboo forest) hits you with renewed force — especially as there is neither bamboo nor forest to green the concrete-hot town of 18 Jain and 18 Hindu temples. But the woods of yore had offered shelter to the persecuted Jains who had wandered south. They too could drink from the pool and survive. Many of the Ganga, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Hoysala and Alupa rulers of the region supported the faith.

During Mughal assaults, the old Jain texts were shifted from Shravanabelagola to the safer Moodbidri. Rediscovered in the 1800s, these Moodbidri Manuscripts — Prakrit texts copied in old Hale-kannada script, with pinpricks on palm leaves — are revered as the oldest (scribed circa 1,060 A.D.) written materials of the tradition going back to Arihant.

The westering sun speeds us home, but not before we spot Jain monks meditating in eternal silence on the heat-cracked, scrub-bearded red earth beyond the town. The samadhis loom under brushwood shrouds. Their shadows hush you. Birds spin free, joyous melodies. A kite dances in the coppery sky. A pit yawns close by, strung with spidery twigs. An Archaeological Survey of India signpost announces with definitive clarity: "Ancient Pond. National Monument."

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