In the South Indian state of Karnataka is a town known as Shravanabelagola (in the district of Hassan), at a distance of 144 km from the capital city of Bengaluru (known across the world as a hub of Information Technology services). In Shravanabelagola are two hills – Vindhyagiri and Chandragiri, and a pond – Belagola. The hills are actually massive granite outcrops, baked hard by the sun and smoothed over by the elements. On one of them (the hill of Vindhyagiri), stands a colossal statue of the Jain saint Bahubali. Every 12 years, devout Jains from all across the world descend on this little town to perform what must be one of the most visually arresting spectacles that can be seen in the subcontinent.

I am talking about the Mahamastakabhisheka (that translates as the Great Consecration or Anointment). It was scheduled to take place in 2018, in the month of February. Jainism is a minority religion of South Asia. Once upon a time, it was far more widespread, with many more adherents and the support of several powerful kings, nobles and lords. However, it has declined in strength and now accounts for less than one percent (0.37% to be precise) of the total Indian population. However, even with such meagre numbers, the Jains form one of the most wealthy and influential communities in South Asia. They are known for their strict adherence to the principles of non-violence and vegetarianism.

The Mahamastakabhisheka or Great Consecration is a ceremony observed once every 12 years in honour of the Jain saint Bahubali (a name that translates as ‘The Strong Armed One’). He was the son of the first Jain Tirthankara (a title given to 24 leaders of the Jain community, forming a chain of spiritual guides, appearing one after the other) – Rishabhanatha. Bahubali had an elder brother – Bharata. Like Rishbhanatha, Bharata is considered to be the first Chakravartin (Universal Monarch) of his era. It is said that the two brothers came into conflict with one another after Bharata expressed his desire to conquer the world. Unlike the rest of his 98 brothers who had submitted, Bahubali refused to yield.

Bharata ruled from the city of Vinita (identified as Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh) in North India while Bahubali reigned over Poundanapur (identified as Bodhan, in Telangana) in South India. Bharata could not anoint himself ‘Universal Monarch’ until he had gained the submission of all kings, including his defiant sibling. It is said that Bahubali challenged him to one-on-one combat. The contest ended with victory for the younger brother in a wrestling bout. This enraged the elder brother who tried killing him with a sharp-edged discus (a weapon mentioned frequently in South Asian legends and myths). But that too came to naught. Despite being victorious, Bahubali was overcome with repulsion at what had unfolded, and abandoned his kingdom.

He renounced the world, became an ascetic and began meditating in a motionless, standing (Kayotsarga) position to attain Kevala Gnana (Absolute Knowledge). Jains believe that he was so engrossed in meditation that his legs were covered by anthills and wild creepers. The Gommateswara Statue on Vindhyagiri reflects this phase of the saint’s life. It is this monolithic sculpture that is anointed by devotees during the Mahamastakabhisheka. They pour holy water, milk, sugarcane juice, sandalwood paste, turmeric powder, vermilion, saffron, flower petals, gold and silver coins, and precious stones out of specially consecrated vessels (known as Kalashas). The legend of the Great Consecration Ceremony has been described in ‘2018 Mahamastakabhisheka: Bahubali – 1,000 year Legend Towers On’, an article carried by the Deccan Chronicle newspaper (dated February 25, 2018):

Vindhyagiri was a lofty rock more than a 1,000 years ago until the majestic statue of Bahubali was chiselled out of the hill. The carving and consecration of the Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola is attributed to Ganga dynasty commander-in-chief, Chavundaraya, in the 10th century. Chavundaraya’s mother Kalala Devi was excited to hear the tale of Bahubali who renounced the world and stood in penance. Her wish was to have darshan of the golden statue of Bahubali at Poundanapura, a principality ruled by Bahubali. The golden statue of Bahubali is said to have been installed at Poundanapura by Bahubali’s elder brother Bharatha.

To realise his mother’s wish, Chavundaraya along with mother Kalala Devi and Acharya Ajitsen set out to reach Poundanapura. The team reached Shravanabelagola and stayed there overnight. That night Chavundaraya had a dream with a voice telling him, “You will not be able to reach Poudanapura where the golden statue has become invisible. But, here on a larger hill, is a true image of Bahubali which is covered up with stones.” The voice in the dream asked Chavundaraya to climb the smaller hill (Chandragiri), and shoot a golden arrow after which the image of Bahubali would appear before his eyes.

The next morning, Chavundaraya woke up and shot his golden arrow from Chandragiri to Vindhyagiri and to his astonishment, the voice in his dream came true and an image of Bahubali could be readily seen. Once the image on the rocky hill was visible, Chavundaraya entrusted the task of chiselling the statue to the most adept sculptors under the guidance of Arishtanemi by agreeing to pay wages in the form of gold of the same weight as the stone dust that fell from the statue.

But recent excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Arthipura in Mandya throw light on a different story. Here, an image of Bahubali exists on Shravanappa Betta which dates back to the Ganga period and is a much older monument than the one at Shravanabelagola. The features of Arthipura and Shravanabelagola are similar with both places having hillocks facing each other. The ASI believes that Arthipura had a statue of Bahubali similar to that of Vindyagiri. Probably, the Ganga rulers modelled the Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola on the lines of the ancient statue at Arthipura. The basadis at Arthipura are now mere relics.

Having got the gigantic statue chiseled, Chavundaraya, held the first consecration ceremony on March 13th, 981 AD on Sunday from 3:12 am to 5:06 pm, according to the Indian calendar. The rituals were conducted according to rules prescribed in the Jain texts. The event was a grand spectacle. Legend has it that Chavundaraya attempted to perform the Panchamrita Abhisheka, bathing the statue with five liquids – milk, tender coconut water, sugar, nectar and water collected in hundreds of pots. To his annoyance, when these liquids were poured from a great scaffolding over the head of the statue they did not flow below the navel. Chavundaraya tried again and again but was frustrated. The celestial nymph Kushmandini appeared as an old woman holding milk in the shell of half a Gullikayi fruit and declared that she would accomplish what Chavundaraya could not.

At first Chavundaraya turned down the old woman’s request but after Acharya Nemichandra’s advice, he permitted her to make an attempt. When the old woman poured the liquid using her small pots, they flowed down at once and completely bathed the statue. Chavundaraya repented for having succumbed to the emotions of pride and arrogance after getting such a magnificent statue sculpted. Later, he performed the Panchamritha Abhisheka and the statue was covered from head to toe in the liquids. To commemorate the completion of the ritual, Chavundaraya installed an image of Gullikayajji opposite the entrance of the Bahubali statue enclosure. As a rule, the Abhisheka is a daily event for any statue but the colossal size of Bahubali makes it impossible. Thus only the feet of Bahubali are bathed daily in what is known as ‘Pada Puja’.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows the Gommateswara Statue of Bahubali on Shravabelagola’s Vindhyagiri Hill. It is this which is anointed during the Mahamastakabhisheka. This photograph of the Gommateswara Statue was uploaded by Jonathan Freundlich.