It was 5.30 on a hot, sticky evening. We stood at the beginning of a narrow, winding little strip of road. The main street of a little town called Karkala, normally just wide enough to accommodate 2 Tata Sumos, that too cheek-to-2inches-away-cheek. But today, it had somehow miraculously stretched to ferry what by the end of that day would be at least 30,000 – 40,000 people, not to mention several hundred cars, tempos, jeeps and buses up to the foot of and then to the top of a hill of black granite. Kari Kallu. (From which Karkala got its name.) Where the Lord Bahubali stood a majestic 42 feet high, carved out of the same black granite as the hill. In the same patient, impassive serenity in which he had stood for the past 470 years, towering over the lush, emerald, coastal countryside that lay around his feet like some auspicious green offering…..
It was the 8th day of the Maha Mastakabhiseka of Lord Bahubali in Karkala and we, like countless others, had come to pay our respects…
Pilgrimages are supposed joyous journey, where you hurtle towards your destination, infused with divine fervor and prayer, unmindful of hardship. But as I stood contemplating the prospect of fighting my way through that dusty, raucous, cheerful press of humanity, the only feeling I had – apart from a raging thirst and a sensation of having freshly bathed in warm coconut oil - was a strong desire to turn tail and run….
Strangely enough, I didn’t.
Miracle number one. The first of the many miracles that evening. Nothing spectacular, mind you, the bigger miracles already having happened like the elastic main street but miracles all the same and they were going to dot the evening about as often as the number of times I would mutter “Impossible!” and as many as the number of times I wanted to turn back. And almost as many as the number of people who by now jammed Rubber Road.
It was now 6 pm. We had made it to main office complex of the Mastakabhiseka Organizing Committee. Normally a 5-minute walk, but the combination of my mother’s arthritic knees and the crowd-jam made that into 25. We stopped. We had to. To recuperate and for me and my sister-in-law to figure out how to wangle the all important, magenta-coloured car pass that would allow our car up the hill. But that was one miracle that didn’t happen. We spotted several known faces in the crowd. Actually my mother did. Childhood playmates, Father-in-laws of nieces. Nephews four times removed (From what. I don’t know.) Brothers of aunts-in-law. Sons of cousin sisters-in-laws. All now importantly grizzled and/or distinguishedly pot-bellied members of the organizing committee. Naturally most of them didn’t recognize us. Naturally. We had that glittery-eyed, “can-you-get-us-a-car-pass?” desperate expression on our faces.
But for every acquaintance/relative/friend/relative-of-a-relative who didn’t recognize us, a face would suddenly pop out of the crowd, stick itself into my mother’s and say wondrously, “Sunanda, is it not?” (Sunanda is also the name of Lord Bahubali’s mother. My mother was so christened because she was born on the first day of the Rathotsava that happens every year in Lord Bahubali’s honour in Karkala.). They rallied around us, chatting, smiling and promising to somehow get us up the hill. Miracle number four, five, six, seven…. I was beginning to lose count. By now it was 7.30 pm. We – me, my mum and my sister-in-law - were each two Pepsis, one ice cream, two idlis and several bottles of mineral water down. And we had one green vehicle pass, useless as it only allowed us to go everywhere but to the top of the hill….
The crowd, now dust-choked, laced with the deafening, scratchy sounds from the pa system and picked out by blinding floodlights, was so dense that one more ant and we should’ve all either been suffocated and/or asphyxiated to death. But we didn’t, the miracles now thickening the air almost as much as the dust. Not only did we all survive, but suddenly there was place in that steaming, teeming crush for an entire procession of floats filled with gaudy, tinsel-tawdry Hanumans, Garudas, Yakskhagana dancers in giant masks, Asuras and Rakshasas and finally a rather shaky, yellow, papier-mache replica of Lord-Bahubali-on-top-of-the-hill. Sweaty-to-sweaty-smiling-body, we stood patiently watching, the gaudy glitter somehow easing our collective exhaustion…
Finally it was time. For the last lap. To the top of the hill. The car pass crusade having failed, the only way up was either to walk – my mother’s knees vetoed that - or then go in one of the official vehicles organized to ferry people up and down hill. There were a grand total of 3 tempos at each of which there were only about 30-40 people throwing themselves frenziedly, trying to get in. I stared in horror, thinking the quota of miracles must’ve dried up. There was no way we were going to get into that and live. But I forgot that it was going to be another 12 years to the next Mastakabhisheka and my Lord Bahubali must have decided to pull out all stops. Incredibly, before I could say “Gomateshwara”, we were inside a tempo. Barely breathing, more sardines than any can had ever seen and me almost crushed by the behemoth, bosomy body of a particularly large, sweaty, co-bhaktin but we were in. And moving….
The last miracle of the evening. We were finally sitting at the feet of Lord Bahubali. Towering into the perfect night sky, his distant stone face so exquisitely serene, his smile so beautifully peaceful that all the frenzy, all the madness, all the heat and the dust, all the manic heaving and clawing was a distant thing that must have happened ….let me see know…., 11 years ago? A soft, soothing night breeze gently ruffled our souls and then….
The Maha Mastakabhisheka started….
First the transparent waters cascaded down the Lord’s body – plain water, then tender coconut and finally sugarcane juice, wetting the granite to a beautiful, glistening gray-black. Kari Kallu. As the chants of the mantras rose up into the cool night air like sweet incense, somewhere a voice rose, singing in praise of the Lord. “Bahubali Swami, Jagatina Swami….” Lord of the World. Bathed in the sweet waters of peace. The crowd swayed gently. The sea of ecstasy had begun churn.
Next, the abhisheka of milk, covering the Lord’s body in thin veils of what seemed like long, floaty, white chiffon, draping those mighty shoulders and arms that gave him his name. Bahubali. The crowd collectively sighed. The white flood thickened and whitened; lovingly, adoringly caressing the Lord’s face whose smile seemed to have deepened just a little. Was he pleased, I thought? Was he who we called “Kewal Gyani” just a little distracted because even if for a few hours, even if just atop a little hill, there was peace? Ahimsa was indeed Parmodharam that soft, moonlit night….
Then it was the turn of what looked like heavenly mists, wrapping themselves around the Lord’s body. First rice flour and then a concoction of spices hit black granite and bounced off in huge, white misty cloud-puffs that first hesitated in the air for a few seconds, then gently wafted over the crowds like blessings. It seemed as if black granite had become white marble. And the whiteness filled everything as if to say, “peace, peace, peace be with you…”
The tempo picked up. Rhythms merged - tabla, bodies, heartbeats, breaths. We knew what was to come; yet the excitement was palpable. And then, suddenly, in a thick, golden rush, as if it couldn’t wait anymore, the haldi flood. The crowd gasped. “Bahubali Bhagwan ki jai!” it shouted in joy as it swayed faster and clapped. As the rivers of gold poured 4 storeys down, drenching everything, a group of gold-dusted dancers sprung out of the crowd and danced in a dizzy frenzy of yellow joy. Faster and faster, round and round, flailing, flinging, almost falling….. And as if the rivers of gold needed help, the gold mists arrived. Dense clouds of turmeric powder flew off the Lord’s body and there was gold everywhere – in our eyes, our hair, our hearts, even the moon it seemed couldn't resist the goldenness and turned a pale silvery-gold…
We caught our breaths while water washed away the white and the gold. And once again, cool, serene black granite stood before us. We knew this was the last lap, moving quickly towards the glorious climax. This time the flood was red; brick-red; thick fragrant red as the scent of sandalwood filled the air. Srigandha, they call it. Blessed fragrance. People rushed to the base of the statue to fill bottles, cups, glasses, even dipping pieces of cloth and soaking it in the red flood. Little smears of the sacred flood passed from hand to hand, blessing thousands of foreheads. Then the red changed. This time a startling, stunning, breathtakingly scarlet confluence of 8 fragrances - sandal, camphor, saffron, clove, cardamom, vermilion -coming together to adore the once proud and beautiful Prince of Paudanapura, now the Eternal Prince of Peace. The night flushed proudly….
“Rang ma rang ma rang gayo re
Sara hi jag ma tera rang gayo….”
The crowd was now in an ecstatic frenzy. Hands and faces and bodies all a blur; singing, clapping, laughing. Now, the final word. And it had to be the flowers’. Millions of marigolds, jasmine and rose petals cascaded down, embedding themselves into the glistening scarlet-vermilion which now looked as if it was encrusted all over with a filigree of gold and white. As a giant garland of flowers slowly went up, a rash of emerald and ruby fireworks fought with the moon and stars to light up the sky. We didn't know where to look. It was almost too much. And then, magically, remote-controlled it seemed by some divine hand, a giant plate of diyas rose from the feet of Bahubali and swayed upwards. Left to right, then up and up, in time to the crowd’s ecstasy. Up to the heavens, the golden light licking the flower-encrusted Lord. Glory, glory, glory. The final mangalaarti. It was as if there was no moment before this, no moment after, that this was Eternity, this was where even Time stood still to savour such a sight…..
(Interesting facts about Bahubali, the Mastakabhisheka and Karkala.)
Out of the four images of Lord Bahubali in Karnataka, the image at Karkala is the second tallest - nearly 42 ft tall and the second in antiquity, having been commissioned in 1432 AD by the King Veera Pandya II, which earned him the title of Abhinava Chamundaraya. The tallest (57feet) and the oldest ((981 A.D.) is at Shravanabelagola, the other two being at Vennur (1604 A.D. and 35 ft) and Dharmastala in South Karnataka.
It’s not for nothing that it was called the Mahamastakabhisheka.
Everyday, 150 litres of cane juice, 150 tender coconuts, 600 litres of milk, 75 kgs of rice flour, 130 kgs of turmeric, 75 kgs of sandalwood, 75 kgs of ashtagandha which is a combination of 8 ingredients including camphor, kumkum, saffron, cardamom, clove and sandalwood and several hundred kilos of flowers were poured from a height of about 45 feet over the Lord Bahubali’s head. Not to mention thousands of litres of water.
Apart from the image of Bahubali, Karkala is steeped in other antiquities of Jainism. There are 18 Jain basadi or temples, dating back at least 400 years, of which the most famous in the Chaturmukha Basadi, so named because each of its 4 doors open to face each direction on the compass. It is on the same hill as the Bahubali statue. The Kere Basadi is similar in design but its uniqueness is in the fact that it is built in the centre of a huge lake called the Aanekere, thus named because as the legend goes, in ancient times, the king’s elephants used to be bathed in the lake! (“Aane” is elephant and “Kere” is lake in Kannada.)
"Upon the outskirts of the town.... the enchanted castles of fairy tales came back to mind, for on the top is seen a castle like wall pierced with a wide-arched entrance, and a dark gigantic form towering over it waist high...the image 45 feet in height. Nude, cut from a single mass of granite, darkened by the monsoons of centuries, the vast statue stands upright with hands hanging straight, in a posture of somewhat stiff but simple dignity. The hair grows in close crisp curls; the broad fleshy cheeks might make the face seem heavy were it not for the marked and dignified expression conferred by calm, forward-gazing eyes and aquiline nose, somewhat pointed at tip...The arms which touch the body only at the hips; are remarkably long, the large well-formed hands, and fingers reaching to knees." Excerpts from Frazer’s Magazine, an influential Victorian magazine in England.