The Bahubali and Other Treasures of Aretippur

A writer revels in the art of a forgotten time at an active archaeological site in Karnataka.  
Aretippur
The typical layout of the basadis at Aretippur show a sanctum sanctorum in the centre of a rectangular mantapa. Photo by: Akhila Udayashankar

Last December, a friend working in heritage conservation asked me if I would like to see an active archaeological site. Having never visited an active site before, I readily agreed but when she said it is close to the town of Maddur, about 80 kilometres from Bengaluru, the cynic in me wondered what kind of archaeological site could exist so close to the city.

On a nippy winter morning, we took a cab to our destination, the active archaeological site of Aretippur, about 10 kilometres southeast of Maddur. While my friend was catching up on sleep, I imagined an Indiana Jones-like experience ahead of us.

Driving past lush paddy fields, a few kilometres off the highway, we realised our smartphone GPS was not working and had to interrupt a jolly good elderly man’s walk to enquire about the route. He pointed out that we were pronouncing the name of the place wrong and showed us the right direction. We’d been following the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) nomenclature, which says “Aratipura,” but locals know it as Aretippur.

Stacks of winter harvest crowded the roads and our driver seemed to enjoy driving over them; apparently the pressure helps in threshing the grains. After a few detours through smaller lanes, we arrived at a small hillock, where two men, appointed as caretakers by ASI, greeted us.

Aretippur 1

Many of the carvings indicate that the pond at Kanakagiri might have once been a sacred waterbody. Photo by: Akhila Udayashankar

We parked under the shade of a large tree across a pond full of lotus blooms at the foot of the hill overlooking the Aretippur village. The setting seemed to be straight out of Malgudi Days: sheep roamed the roads lined by tile-roofed homes, a bullock cart weighed down with harvest stood near the pond while the farmer took a break; there was an abundance of green.

A short climb up, the Aretippur Jain Site is unusual in its setting on a hillock, part of the Kanakagiri hills. Research conducted before 2015, when the scientific clearance project was initiated, indicated the presence of a Jain site from the Ganga and Hoysala periods between approximately ninth and twelfth centuries. The signage mentioned that at least 12 Jain basadis or shrines were discovered at Kanakagiri, which at one time was nothing more than mounds of mud. Now it is flanked by the village on one side and sprawling agricultural land on the other.

All the 12 temples unearthed at the site surround a tree, the deities facing it as if in reverence. Of these, the earlier Ganga period temples (about ninth to eleventh centuries) were built with bricks while the later Hoysala period (about 11th-14th centuries) used both brick and stone as building material. Although what once would have been intricately decorated roofs are now missing from these temples, the foundations formed with alternating layers of 1,000-year-old moulded brick and stone are clearly visible. Deep sockets in the mud floor indicate that wooden pillars originally supported the structure.

Outside of the discoveries, the site itself was an interesting study. Trenches isolated each find, which are a fascinating testimony to the patient, tedious nature of an archaeologist’s work. The work here at Aretippur has been going on for over two years now, steadily revealing an exquisite complex of Jain basadis from a mound of mud and debris. My friend mentioned that many of the sculptures, which are now documented and kept on-site were, in fact, found strewn about the hillside.

Of the many finds at Aretippur, one of the most important was a 13th-century inscription in an archaic form of Kannada, which documents the existence of Jain temples on the Kanakagiri hill and is the primary source of information for the archaeological site. It also states how the Hoysalas under king Veer Ballal Deva used stone to rebuild these temples that mainly housed the huge granite sculptures of the first tirthankara, Adinatha, and the 23rd, Parshwanatha.

From the very top of Kanakagiri, as we looked down at the pond gleaming in the sun, my friend pointed out to me the various reliefs of tirthankaras carved on a rock by the waterbody. She added that many sculptures were found around this pond and are now stored in a nearby shed.

The Bahubali and Other Treasures of Aretippur

The sculptures and artefacts unearthed at Aretippurdate between ninth and twelfth centuries and are exquisite in their detailed carvings of jewellery, body features and miniature tirthankaras. Photo by: Akhila Udayashankar

A cup of sugary tea in hand, we entered the shed and I almost dropped my paper cup in shock. Inside were intricately carved sculptures, many from the Hoysala period, chiselled from schist in a design similar to carvings of the famous Chennakeshava Temple in Belur, about 200 kilometres away. An assortment of art filled the space—a rare sculpture of the god of wealth, Kuber; Parshawanatha standing on a throne of lions sheltered by the hood of a snake, and flanked by a yaksha and yakshi (spiritual beings meant to look after a tirthankara); and stone pilasters with captivating and detailed carvings of all 24 tirthankaras.

It was past noon when we walked out of the shed and down the hill. I couldn’t help but admire the work of archaeologists that helps unearth and preserve such glorious antiquities of our past.

I was broken away from my thoughts when my friend suggested visiting the nearby Shravana hill to see the well-known statue of Bahubali. After a laborious climb of about a hundred steps, we were greeted with the sight of the 10-foot-tall stone statue. If inscriptions are to be believed, the austere statue predates its more famous counterpart, known commonly as Gomateshwara, in Shravanabelagola, about two hours away.

Descending the hill, we made our way to a nearby matha for lunch at the suggestion of the local caretaker we’d befriended. As he spoke about Aretippur now being promoted, I thought of the garbage pile at the bottom of Sharavana hill, hoping that the process of promotion was slow and plastic-free. The day ended with a simple but sumptuous meal of rice, sambar, sprouts and mango pickle.

  • Basav Biradar is a freelance writer and a documentary film maker obsessed with discovering civilizations and cultures through travel. He loves reimagining places through their history and telling their stories to people in his heritage tours and writings. He never travels without a book and is always up for a meal in a new place.

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