It was 5 in the morning. I was sitting in a Sumo, fully dressed and ready. One minor detail was the fact that my eyes were refusing to open beyond the slits needed to navigate my way, making me look like Voldemart. However, I was proud that we had made the deadline we had set for ourselves to leave the city. ‘We’ here in question were Z and Z’s friends, DA, his wife PA and their friends SP and SB. Z had asked me if I had wanted to join her friends on a trip to Kudremukh from Bangalore, with a detour to Shravanabelagola, Belur and Halebid thrown in. With my travel bug firmly entrenched under my skin, it was hard to say no. DA and PA also turned out to be super energetic people and after having played perfect hosts the previous night, they had woken up before anybody else to pack and be ready to go.
The good thing about getting an early start is you beat Bangalore’s traffic. Even better, when you finally manage to stir out of the last bits of drowsiness, you can see the beautiful countryside instead of horribly crowded city areas. We made it to our breakfast place around 7. The motel was modest and we had to wrest the thin, disintegrating paper napkins horded on the cashier’s desk. By 7.30, we were already climbing the long stairway up S’Belagola’s hill where the statue of Lord Gomateswara a.k.a. Bahubali is located.
As a kid, I had read about Bahubali in Amar Chitra Katha. Like every Indian kid most of my knowledge of mythology comes from Amar Chitra Katha. The stories are not just interesting; they come with colourful illustrations showing dashing princes and curvy princesses and provide a good base for your childhood fantasies. Bahubali’s story was something that I remembered quite well. Largely because the last page of the comic book concluded with Lord Bahubali turning into a larger-than-life stone statue as he stood meditating. I was stunned by the effects of meditation and have always carefully avoided it since. I was now eager to see the statue that had clearly had a profound effect on my childhood self. Climbing up the stairs to the temple top was however not an easy job. There were 600 plus stairs. Like everyone else who had a camera, I merely pretended that nature’s stunning vista was stalling my progress. The truth was I was out of breath in just 100 stairs and wanted to kick Bahubali for not having chosen a spot closer to sea level to meditate. Eventually, we all made it to the last leg. There were interesting inscriptions on the stones marking the trips made by illustrious people in the 17th and 18th century. Of course any inscriptions marking 20th century people was considered graffiti and quietly ignored.
The final few steps went into a temple and when we emerged outside, there it was, surrounded on three sides by rock faces. The statue of Bahubali had been erected sometime in the 10th century. At 60 feet and with some really fine features such as the full lips, graceful hands and feet, the statue was an impressive sight. Apparently the statue was also constructed such that it had no shadow. All of us wandered around the statue at our own paces, digesting the splendour of the monolith in front of us. As an important destination of Jains, the place was already beginning to fill with devotees. I personally prefer visiting historical places, which are alive and active. Somehow the fact that a place still forms an important element of the lives of each passing generation seems testimony to its immortality.
After watching the pujas and seeing the statues of the Jain Thirthankaras located in the complex, we started walking down the stone steps. The day was windy and I was glad we had chosen to make the trip in December and not on a scorching April day. Not to mention, the early start had ensured we had avoided being swamped by the 3000 school kids who had arrived there for their annual school excursion. Chattering and running about, they reminded me of my childhood. As kids we were energetic to begin with, but come a school picnic and we would get hyperactive. The boys in my class especially had a clear aim for the trip – dirty your clothes as best as you can by the end of the day. Our teachers would usually try sounding authoritative, but slowly that gave way to exhaustion. The fact that we carried big hampers with enough food to last us at least a week and the Chennai sun was usually at its summer best never dampened our enthusiasm to run around. The kids we saw on the hill behaved in the exact same way as I did when I was a kid and I thanked god I had never been tempted to take up a teaching career.
Back at the foot of the hill, we got into our Sumo and made our way to the next stop – Halebid.