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South and Central Asia

Jainism attained to a peak of prosperity in the fifth century and remained a potent force in Indian religious life till the Moslem invasions seven centuries later. Its irreversible decline and final disappearance has been forecast by Jaina seers for over a thousand years; the name of the last Jaina monk should be Dupasahasuri. During the medieval period there was a considerable following in South India, where in 983 at Sravana Belgola the 56½-foot-high statue of Gommatesvara was erected.

Bahubali, known as Gommatesvara, was the son of Rishabha, the first Jaina saviour, and the brother of Bharaba. Legend tells of a struggle for empire between the brothers, which resulted in Bahubali's disillusion-ment at the moment of victory, his handing over of the earthly kingdom to Bharata, and his retirement to the forest in order to do penance. This was supposed to have occurred at a place called Paudanapura in North India. There Bahubali stood unflinchingly for a year in samadhi. Vines crept up his legs and arms, anthills arose about his feet, and snakes kept the company of his solitary vigil. To commemorate this amazing feat, which was an imitation of their father's renunciation, Bharata is said to have raised an enormous statue, over 500 bow-lengths in height. So famous was its renown that even Ravana, the demon king of Sri Lanka, made a pilgrimage to the site.

The colossal sculptured figure at Sravana Belgola may have been set up by Chamundaraya, a senior minister of King Rajamalla of the Ganga dynasty. Chamundaraya was staying at the monastic temples on the granite hillock of Chandragiri when his attention was drawn to the twin eminence of Vindhyagiri, on the opposite side of the town of Sravan Belgola. On climbing the 500 feet to its crest the minister was greeted by a female earth-divinity, Kusmandi, who revealed the sacred spot where the statue of Gommatesvara was hidden. The soil was cleared away and craftsmen were brought to restore the image. This story of miraculous discovery in 983 may have been intended to link the statue with Bharata's monument, or it may have been simply a poetical expression of the stupendous task of carving this free-standing sculpture, larger than any of the statues of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses. According to another legend, Chamundaraya wanted to worship and anoint the newly carved statue, but found that no matter how many pots of milk and honey he had emptied from the scaffold about Gommatesvara's head not a single trickle reached to the feet. Thereupon Kusmandi appeared in the form of an old woman and with great devotion poured just a cup of milk over the head of the statue. This single act bathed the whole body of Gommatesvara. Today the surface of the statue still looks fresh and clean because it receives an anointment every twenty-five years, the last occasion being 30 March 1967.

Subjects: Religion.

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