Normally sleepy and laidback, the town wakes up once in 12 years.
WHAT in tarnation was I doing in a dusty little town on an unbearably hot afternoon? Me and thousands of others? There I was, surrounded by orange-robed Jain munis and devotees trudging barefoot with the hot granite steps singeing our soles. All to look at a nude statue that was vaguely disproportionate. To witness the first Mahamastakabhisheka of the millennium of Lord Bahubali at Shravanabelagola near Hassan in Karnataka. A place steeped in history where Chandragupta Maurya spent his last days before ritually fasting himself to death. On an impulse I had taken my cameras and driven from Bangalore to Shravanabelagola. It was the penultimate day of the Mahamastakabhisheka and I assumed things would have quietened down a bit. No such luck.
The little sleepy town was packed with devotees and media. I bounded my way up those hundreds of steps leading to the huge monolith. The media centre was packed. I bluffed my way along the black-top highway on an unbearably hot afternoon.The statue of Bahubali, a 57-foot monolith atop the Vindhyagiri hill, is the focal point of the normally sleepy town of Shravanabelagola. During the Mahamastakabhisheka, which happens once in 12 years, the town grows in proportion with the statue. Tin sheds to accommodate pilgrims occupied hundreds of acres of agricultural land, a barometer to judge the scale of the event.The first thing one noticed was the security. The khakis of policemen and the whites of traffic constables were a contrast to the sea of orange robes. Even as I was mentally howling with the hot rock burning my feet, I saw that the cops were clomping around in their regulation boots. With so many people gathered, security was bound to be tight but it often bordered on the over-zealous. One of the rules in particular seemed to be quite daft. While pilgrims had to leave their footwear at the bottom of the hill, policemen at the top showed off their shiny boots. The Digambar munis, famous for disowning all material possessions including clothes, and the white-robed matas provided a heady contrast. Both sported peacock-feather brooms to brush away insects. Some had travelled all the way from north India on foot. Witnessing or performing the Mahamastakabhisheka is definitely not something regular Joes can enjoy. To get up to the top during the ceremony requires a special pass and performing the Abhisheka with your family is said to cost a cool six figures. But the faithful came from just about everywhere: Rajasthan to Manchester, Birmingham and the U.S. The viewing gallery built around the statue could seat up to 5,600 devotees at a time but that number did not include the number of media persons who had turned up. They too came from everywhere. The French, Germans, Brits and the Swiss were all well represented. With no specific designated area, the spot right in front of the statue was the best when it came to camera angles. Thus you had altercations between pilgrims and photographers, and quite a few between the lensmen themselves. There was heavy competition for vantage spots to place the tripods and those few precious square inches of space was jealously guarded. In fact, yours truly got into a minor squabble with a nondescript-looking shutterbug. (The heat was enervating, I'd forgotten my water bottle and was sure I was going to die.) To ease things a bit, I proffered my hand and introduced myself. He didn't give his name. Finally out it came, reluctantly: "Raghu Rai." My skin peeled away instantly and I could have joined the Digambaras.It was interesting to note the number of foreign radio journalists who had come to cover the event. Armed with recorders that resembled small computers, they went about their commentary and interviews, hollering above the loudspeakers blaring out the ubiquitous "Kesariya". The three-hour abhisheka began with the statue being bathed in holy water. Then the show of colours began. Hundreds of gallons of milk followed by turmeric, sandalwood, vermilion, and finally flowers, brilliantly highlighting the workmanship that went into sculpting the monolith, commissioned in 981 C.E. And then it was all over.When I finally got back to the town, barely able to speak thanks to my sandpapery throat, I walked into a store to buy a bottle of water. Used to being ripped off at tourist places, I misheard the shopkeeper's "Rs. 20" as "25" and handed him the money. Shocked, the man handed me the extra note and with a glance to the top of the hill said: "We don't charge extra here, sir."