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Monday, Dec 01, 2003

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Touch of wonder to pilgrimage

Anitha K. Moosath

Dakshin Kannada is famous for its religious trail. But don't miss Moodbidri, an hour's drive from Mangalore and set amidst a countryside of hills, woods and fertile fields, which enshrines Jainism in breathing stone.

The Thirubhuvana Tilaka Chudamani Temple at Moodbidri

We were on an annual pilgrimage of sorts - planning to visit a few temples in Dakshin Kannada this time around. At Mangalore, we took up a friend's suggestion to start off with a "must see" in the region - Moodbidri. And true to his words, it turned out to be more an architectural treat, lending a whole new dimension to our otherwise religious trail.

An hour's drive from Mangalore lies Moodbidri, set amidst a countryside of hills, woods and fertile fields. The village is steeped in antiquity with its 18 Jain `basadis' (abodes of God) - all granite wonders, veritable treasure troves of ancient inscriptions and carvings. Truly, the `Jain Kashi' of the South!

We first set out for the Thribhuvana Tilaka Chudamani Temple (`Crest jewel of the three worlds') or the `thousand pillar temple', as brochures put it. A narrow lane takes you to the basadi, which is marked by a huge wooden door, a stupendous 60-ft manasthamba and seven mandapas. No two granite pillars here are alike, but together they weave a kind of poetic symmetry.

Built in 1430 A.D. at the instance of Devaraya Wodeyar of Nagamangala of the Mangalore kingdom, the basadi enshrines a panchaloha idol of Lord Chandraprabha, the eighth Thirthankara.

With no tourist guide to pester us, we walked, at leisure, around the sprawling three-storeyed temple campus, marvelling at the dexterity of artisans of yore. While clicking away many a postcard picture, around the base of the Bhairavi Mandapa in the forefront, we stumbled upon something quite strange — carvings of a giraffe and a Chinese dragon. The priest told us that this bears proof to the trade ties the Jain merchants had with foreign lands.

The roof too has carvings and it slopes out in copper and granite with snake-heads in the corners, much as in temples of Kerala.

The priest directed us to the Jain Mutt nearby, where a few 16th-century murals adorn the walls. A library attached to it has a collection of rare manuscripts on Jain puranas, and on subjects as varied as dharma, nyaya, jyotisha, and ayurveda.

The Swamiji told us how the place derived its name from `moodu' meaning east, and `bidiru' meaning bamboo in Kannada. People on the western side must have started calling the bamboo thicket `Moodbidri'.

From the mutt, we moved on to the oldest of all basadis here — the Guru basadi. Legend has it that in the eighth century A.D., a Digambara Jain who passed by saw a tiger and a cow drinking water from the same trough. He sensed something divine and on clearing the bamboo cover, came upon an idol of Lord Parshwanatha, the 23rd Thirthankara; it was later installed at the same place and a temple was built around it. The basadi preserves navratna idols of the Thirthankaras and the `Dhavalas', ancient palm-leaf scriptures of the Jains.

Moodbidri has remained a major Jain centre for centuries together. It bears an indelible imprint of Jainism, believed to have spread to these parts even before Chandragupta Maurya accepted Jainism and settled down at Shravanabelagola around the third century B.C. The dynasties which held sway in the region — the Gangas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Hoysalas — and many ministers of the Vijayanagar Empire were staunch patrons of the faith. No wonder, Karnataka is strewn with innumerable basadis, Gomateswara statues and historic Jain monuments.

Over the years, Moodbidri's Jain population has slimmed down to 150-odd families. But they seem to strictly adhere to tradition. We saw many of them lost in prayers at the basadis. They are quite friendly — many, in their interesting mix of Kannada, Tulu and Hindi, offered to take us around. Some of them still live in old tile-roofed houses, which strike a chord with the basadi structures.

After taking a look at a few more basadis, we went to the 900-year-old palace built by the Chowter line of kings, who ruled over Tulunadu for over 70 decades. It has none of the trappings of a royal house from outside, but there are certain exquisite carvings on the wooden pillars inside. The `navanari kunjara' (an elephant comprising the bodies of nine women) and the `panchanari turaga' (in which five women form the body of a horse) are simply amazing to say the least.

There are tombs not very far from the palace, which an ASI official told us, are of either Jain merchants or monks. These multi-layered formations in laterite seem to immortalise a whole people and their culture.

Next, we took off to Karkala, hardly half-an-hour from Moodbidri. From miles away, we could see the Gomateswara statue, towering high on a rock, as if to guard the entire township of Karkala. Too tired to take the stairway, we drove up the sloping road.

The `navanari kunjara' carving on a wooden pillar inside the Chowter palace.

You can't miss the tall manasthamba at the entrance, with the image of a seated yaksha within a niche. And inside, overlooking the highly cloistered yard, stands the stately 42-ft monolith, raised in 1432 A.D. by Virapandya of the Kalasa-Karkala kingdom. This is an ASI site and excavations have unearthed a few sculptures of the Thirthankaras.

Look down and you behold the Ramasamudra Lake, skirted by swathes of greenery, and the Chathurmukhabasadi, perched on a smaller hillock.

A long flight of steps leads you to this 16th-century temple built by King Bhairavendra II of the Kalasa-Karkala dynasty. It has four identical entrances leading to the garbhagriha. There is a square mandapa with a lofty doorway and pillared portico on all sides.

The old priest opened all the four doors for us, which we later learned he does only for eager visitors. The glowing idols of the Thirthankaras — Arahanatha, Mallinatha and Munisuvrathanatha — are enshrined on all sides.

The roof here is flat and made of massive granite slabs, making the temple a real wonder in stone.

All of a sudden, it started pouring and we sat in one of the porticos, with the priest taking us centuries back with his story of the temple's past. A mystic calm engulfed us as we gazed into the vast expanse around. We could see right in front the Gomateswara statue, at least a kilometre away, acquiring a majestic brilliance in the torrential rain.

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