Aretippur is a model village enveloped in an atmosphere of serenity and divinity. The houses with their tiled roofs are very colourful and neatly laid out. Twin ponds separated by a natural mud bridge are the lifelines of the villagers. The village folk are very friendly and greet you with a smile. All around there is a strange silence which is occasionally broken by the chirping of birds, the mooing of cows, the movement of bullock carts or the giggles of children.
The centre of attraction here are two hills – Savanappana Betta and Kanakagiri. Savanappana Betta is the higher of the two and more famous because atop the hill is one of the oldest statues of Bahubali also known as Gomateshwara. Believed to have been sculpted in the 900s not much is otherwise known of the statue. Some archaelogists are also of the view that this 10-feet high statue could possibly have been carved before the more famous Bahubali statue of Shravanabelagola. The sculpture bears a strong similarity with Bahubali of Shravanabelagola. There are vines entwined around the body like the Shravanabelagola statue and on either side are the sculptures of Bahubali’s two sisters Brahmi and Sundari pleading with him to end his penance. The statue is still worshipped by Jains the year round. Surprisingly, the existence of the Bahubali of Aretippur is otherwise not well-known. Wonder why? Thanks to a heritage trip organised by Bangalore-based company Carnelian Consultants I got to have a darshan of the revered Jain ascetic at his Aretippur abode.
The climb up the rocky Savanapenna Betta proved to be an arduous one. And it was never-ending. Even as all of us clad in sports shoes laboured our way to the top, our local guide Putteramu very easily raced up the hill in Hawaii chappals. For him, the climb uphill seemed to be a cakewalk. This was the first time I ever scaled a mountain and I must say I was on cloud nine. The best part of the climb was just before we reached the summit, when we had to crawl through a cave. As we reached the summit, a gentle breeze caressed against our faces. The hilltop was truly divine. Meera Iyer and Pankaj Modi of Carnelian Consultants had us all engrossed with a lot of Jain lore. Around 1000 years back, Aretippur was a melting point of Jain and Shri Vaishnavite culture and a beehive of religious activities, a far cry from what it is now. Surprisingly unlike then, there is not even a single Jain residing in Aretippur. Jainism was the dominant religion in South India from the 500s to late 1000s. The first inscriptional evidence of the existence of Jainism in Karnataka dates back to 500 AD.
Another element of surprise is that the Bahubali statue is not protected by the ASI. Instead it is fully cared for by the village folk and someone from Mandya. A major threat to the statue came in the form of stone quarrying adjacent to the hill some years back. Fortunately, the quarrying activities were banned.
After having spent close to half an hour atop the hill it was time to move down. The descent proved to be less dramatic than the ascent. Again, the best part of the descent was the journey through the cave. This time we all had to slide down through it. At a distant I could hear the sound of a bird which sounded like laughter. I spotted the bird but couldn’t really distinguish its features. How I wish I had my binoculars. If it were Australia I would have presumed it was the Laughing Jack Ass aka the kookaburra. Putteramu pointed out to a cluster of beehives under the rocks and mentioned that the honey tasted ‘super’.
Our next destination was Kanakagiri but not before savouring the views of the village and the twin ponds. There were a lot of women washing clothes and laying them out to dry on the hills. Children were having a field day running around even as their mothers were busy with their wash load. The air smelt very sweet. There was absolutely no pollution.
Right on top of Kanakagiri is a pond which on that day was being de-silted. On one side of the pond, the rocks had engravings of 15 Jain Thirthankaras. The first four engravings were in quite good condition but the others looked quite worn out. They reminded me so much of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Lots of sculptures dating back to the days of the Ganga and Hoysala dynasty lay around most of them broken. Interestingly, the relics on Kanakagiri hill are ASI protected. Some of the rocks also had engravings in ancient Kannada. The pièce de résistance was a large tablet below a tree with sculptures on the top and a lot of Kannada script. This was easily the best preserved among all the relics.
Watch this slide-show of Jain relics at the Kanakagiri hill:
Rounded bricks that lay scattered on the hill were indications of an excavation having been carried out at the site.
After a tender coconut water break at Putteramu’s house we were on the bus back home. A 15-minute stop at Kokrebellur, a mini sanctuary for painted storks and spot billed pelicans. was like a dessert at the end of the visual feast that Aretippur offered. The sight of so many painted storks roosting on two trees was priceless.