Ascetic grandeur

Jangveer Singh on preparations for the Mahamastakabhisheka ceremony, held once every 12 years, at Shravanabelgola

The monolith statue of Bahubali with the scaffolding at its rear
The monolith statue of Bahubali with the scaffolding at its rear

The Mahamastakabhisheka celebration of Lord Bahubali is the ritual head anointment of the huge monolith statue of Bahubali carved in rock atop Chandragiri hill at Shravanabelgola, 150 km from Bangalore. The hamlet of Shravanabelgola had been a Jain centre since 320 BC. The eighth successor of Mahaveera, Bhadrabahu made the decision to move out from Patliputra to Ujjain and when the latter city faced drought-like conditions, he set off to Shravanbelgola. Though Bhadrabahu never reached Shravanbelgola, around 1,200 monks did. Since then, for more than 2,000 years, this region has been a major (if not the only centre) of Digamber Jain learning and scholarship in India.

The monolith of Lord Bahubali that has put the hamlet on the world map came up in the 10th century. Kalala Devi, the mother of Chavundaraya, the Prime Minister of the Talakad-Ganga dynasty wanted to have a darshan of a golden statue of Bahubali believed to be established by the former’s brother Bharatha in Poudanapura.

According to legend, Bahubali renounced his kingdom of Poudanapura in favour of his brother Bharatha, the ruler of Ayodhya despite besting his brother in a duel. He realized the futility of material wealth, which had set brother against brother.

According to legend, when Chavundaraya and his mother stopped at Shravanabelgola en route Poudanapura, the Prime Minister had a dream in which he was directed to erect a statue. The next day, Chavundaraya flung his golden arrow with the first shaft of the rising sun from the top of Vindhyagiri hill to the top of the bigger hill opposite. Immediately, the prophecy is said to have come true with the image of Bahubali being discerned.

Tyagakhambha, the memorial of Chavundaraya, who was responsible for the carving of Bahubali's statue
Tyagakhambha, the memorial of Chavundaraya, who was responsible for the carving of Bahubali's statue

Chavundaraya made the task of chiselling the statue out of the granite rock the task of his lifetime and met his end after giving away all his worldly possessions just below the last flight of steps leading to the statue. A small memorial in his name stands at the spot even today. The celebration of Mahamastakabhisheka began when in his later years a head-anointing ceremony conducted by Chavundaraya (who had become full of ego) would not descend below the navel of the statue. An old woman, Gullikayajji, presented herself with a little milk in a shell and when she was invited to anoint the head of the statue, the milk ran down the statue. A chastened Chavundaraya then made it mandatory that Mahamastakabhiseka be performed every 12 years on a mass scale.

Lord Bahubali, whose figure can be seen 14 km from Shravanabelgola, dwarfs it even today. The long flight of 618 steps is daunting but with rest the feeling of climbing into a different world takes hold of most visitors. Shravanabelgola remains a hamlet with houses situated only in the valley formed by the Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri hills. Besides, the view of the hamlet and the tank in the valley surrounded by coconut groves and lakes, one can also see a medieval temple built on the top of Vindhyagiri hill. Besides Chavundaraya’s memorial known as Tyagakhambha, another medieval temple with statues of various tirthankaras is also situated atop the Indragiri hill.

The statue of Bahubali occupies the top of the hill. The statue may look a little squat when looked at from the bottom but if seen from the elevation of the single-storey compound, it is perfectly synchronised.

Cleaned by the ASI after almost a decade, the granite has a pristine hue in the sunlight. Lord Bahubali stands even today with a benign smile symbolising the bliss he attained while meditating in the Kayotsarga (standing) posture for one year. Creepers, which are shown as having grown up to entwine his legs and arms upto his shoulders, depict the mastery of Jain sculptors.

At the entrance of the shrine you can shop around for a souvenir, which could include 200 to 300-years-old thalis and garvis.

9-day ceremony

A priest at Bahubali's feet.
A priest at Bahubali's feet. — Photos by the writer

The Mahamastakabhishek ceremony will be held from February 8 to 19 with the Mutt and the government expecting 25 to 30 lakh devotees. President A.P.J Abdul Kalam will inaugurate the celebrations starting January 22. This is the first time that the head-anointing ceremony will be held for a period of nine days instead of the traditional one-day ceremony earlier. As many as 1,080 pots of holy water, milk, sandalwood paste and flowers will be used this time, according to Swami Charukeerthi Bhattaraka of the Shravanbelgola Jain Mutt who will lead the proceedings. The Swami disclosed that arrangements had been made for 6,000 people to witness the head-anointing ceremony seated adjoining the statue. Six lakh people would witness the ceremony from the opposite Chandangiri hill.

The Karnataka government has set aside Rs 75 crore and Rs 25 crore respectively for infrastructure development and creating facilities for pilgrims and tourists. Information Department Commissioner K.V. R Tagore disclosed that a campaign was being carried out in Discovery and BBC channels for the purpose. Besides highlighting Shravanbelgola, the campaign is also urging Jain pilgrims and tourists to undertake a circuit of Jain centres in the state.

The government is also constructing five satellite towns around Shravanbelgola besides creating residential facilities for 25,000 people in the Jain holy town itself.