“You must stop here.” Our guide pulled over for a dusty detour not marked on any tourist map that we had seen and pointed to the base of a set of stairs winding up the side of a steep mountain of rock. On our way to the architectural marvels of Belur and Halebid in Karnataka, India, my husband and I now found ourselves unexpectedly braving the midday sun and jostling crowds to peer up an apparently endless set of steps. Polished as smooth-as-glass by the bare feet of the throngs of pilgrims who had been traveling to the Jain site of Shravanabelagola, the “White Pond of the Shravana,” since as early as 298 B.C., the stairs beckoned us up, although we had no idea what we were going to find once at the top.
About halfway up the six-hundred and sixty steps, a massive visage appeared above the horizon. Towering over the temple perched at the summit, the fifty-eight foot high, eighty-ton statue of Lord Gommateshwara, otherwise known as Bahubali, is considered to be the tallest monolithic stone statue in the world. Although constructed in 981 A.D., the statue appears almost timeless. Creeping vines twine their way up the massive legs and enwrap the arms of Bahubali, who stands with an expression of utter tranquility in the meditative posture known as kayotsarga.
King Bahubali, deeply troubled over a bloody battle with his brother, decided to give up his kingdom to become an ascetic and to live a life of contemplation. But he was held back from reaching the ultimate stages of meditation because his ego would not allow him to bow down to his ninety-eight younger brothers, who had already taken vows. He continued his practice of meditation, heedless of the vines climbing his limbs and the ants biting him, but just could not reach that pinnacle stage. Finally, he was graced by a visit from his sisters, who advised him to “get down from the elephant.” Realizing that the elephant was his own ego and his strong attachment to it, he allowed himself to let go and was instantly enlightened and blessed with the knowledge of the Truth.
He represents victory over the earthly desires that hold us back from spiritual ascent. The anthill behind him signifies his eternal penance and the lotus blooming beneath his feet stands for the way we should live in the world, floating above the “muddy waters” of attachments and desires.
At his feet, a saffron-robed monk performed blessings, anointing our foreheads with red kumkuma powder. Clusters of school-children on holiday crowded in on us, all wanting to shake our hands and ask us what country we were from. The heady fragrance of incense hovered in the waves of heat dancing around us. We investigated the square Odegal Basti temple behind the monolith, carved with “graffiti” of the ages written in Kannada, Sanskrit, Tamil, and other languages.
Descending the hill allowed us a view of the great pool at the center of the town. And perhaps the best part of the day was the fresh coconut water, opened on the spot with a machete.
India is a land of detours and unexpected delights blossoming over the “muddy waters.” But, just as so often happens when traveling through our own lives, we need to remember to be unattached to what we think our destinations should be to fully experience where we truly are.