Article: Anointing of Bāhubali

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The rite of anointing the statue of Bāhubali or the Mahā-mastakābhiṣeka – 'Great head-anointing ceremony' – is one of the most spectacular Jain festivals today. It is associated with a specific image, the colossal statue of Gommaṭeśa Bāhubali, and has become identified with one particular holy place, Shravana Belgola in Karnataka. The statue there is also known as Gommaṭeśvara or 'Lord of Gommaṭa'. The ceremony to ritually anoint the huge idol takes place every 12 years. The rite has developed into a month-long festival, in which the ten-hour rite takes place halfway through the celebrations. The next ceremony is due to take place in 2018.

Such anointing rituals are performed on other monumental images of Bāhubali, which have been erected elsewhere in South India. These primarily involve the Digambara Jains but attract sometimes immense crowds, comprising Jains of all sects and non-Jain tourists. These events are supported by the state government and even the central Indian government. Media interest has grown as the festival at Shravana Belgola has developed in size and spectacle.

Origins

Soaring over 17 metres, the Bāhubali image at Shravana Belgola is the tallest freestanding statue in the world. Also known as Gommaṭa or Gommaṭeśvara, the statue shows a man who has meditated so long that plants have grown up his body.

Bāhubali statue at Shravana Belgola
Image by Takeo Kamiya © Takeo Kamiya

A 'head-anointing ceremony' – mastakābhiṣeka – is a rite performed for any Jain image. Sanctified fluids are poured over the head of the statue, accompanied by a mantra or hymn. The sacred bath – ābhiṣeka – is at the centre of all Jain image rituals and can be performed daily in the morning ceremony or during festivals and pilgrimages. It is another name for the pañcāmṛtābhiṣeka – 'bathing of the image with five liquids'. These five fluids are:

  • milk
  • curds
  • ghee or clarified butter
  • saffron
  • water.

Using these products implies that it is a costly ceremony performed more on special occasions than on a daily basis.

When this ritual bathing is performed with special grandeur and solemnity it becomes a 'great head-anointing ceremony' – mahā-mastakābhiṣeka. It then takes place only under certain infrequent astrological conditions, which usually occur around 10 to 15 years apart.

This ritual bathing of the idol was part of the consecration of the huge Bāhubali image erected on the hill of Vindhya-giri at Shravana Belgola in Karnataka in 981 CE. The statue was carved at the instructions of Cāmuṇḍarāya, general to King Rājamalla IV.

According to legend, mendicants poured the five holy liquids from many hundreds of pots while perched on scaffolding set up above the head of Bāhubali. But because the liquids were poured from above, they could not flow below the waist of the statue and the full bath from head to toe could not be completed. Then the local guardian goddess Kuṣmāṇḍinī appeared in the guise of an old poor woman, carrying the five fluids in a tiny pot. She claimed that she could succeed in doing what Cāmuṇḍarāya had failed to accomplish. This she did and thus the first full ritual lustration of the statue was performed. Legends identify this woman with Gullikayiji, a female devotee, whose reward for the miracle was to have her image erected opposite the colossal statue, outside the door of the enclosure.

Other Bāhubali anointing ceremonies

In practice this grand festival has become associated principally with the Bāhubali image in Shravana Belgola. However, the ‘great head-anointing’ rite is also performed on other colossal Bāhubalis that have been erected in Karnataka and elsewhere.

Colossal statues of Bāhubali

Site

Date of consecration

Height of statue

Details

Karkala, Karnataka

1432

12.5 metres

Venur, Karnataka

1604

10.6 metres

Bāhubali hill, Kolhapur District in Maharashtra

8 October 1963

8.5 metres

This idol is made of white marble instead of the granite used for similar statues.

Dharmasthala, Karnataka

3 February 1982

11.8 metres

This statue weighs 213 metric tons.

Gommaṭagiri, 25 kilometres to the north-west of Mysore, Karnataka

14th century

5.5 metres

The third ritual was performed on 7 September 1952 and nowadays takes place every October.

Bastihalli, near Kannambāḍi, Karnataka

After a gap of 20 years, a great head-anointing ceremony was celebrated in October 2004.

Stages of the ritual

The huge statue of Bāhubali at Shravana Belgola is anointed with a succession of holy substances in the 2006 'great head-anointing ceremony’ – mahā-mastakābhiṣeka.

Bahubali anointed
Image by unknown © Institute of Jainology

Reports of the 1887 ceremony (Sangave 1981: 98) at Shravana Belgola outline the main features of the celebration. The climax of the festival is the Great Head-Anointing but this rite falls in the middle of a month of celebrations. Thus a vibrant atmosphere of continuous worship and joy pervades the place for at least one month, with crowds of pilgrims flowing incessantly to the site.

On the day itself, people begin to climb the steep Vindhya-giri hill as early as possible so they can secure good places to watch the spectacle. Large numbers of brightly dressed women and girls carry pots for the rituals.

At the top of the hill, opposite the idol, an area of 40 square feet is filled with bright yellow paddy, an auspicious and holy substance symbolising fertility. On this area 1,008 tiny pots – kalaśas – of holy water are placed, covered with coconuts and adorned with mango leaves. The pots are arranged in the form of a diagram found in the manuscript of a ritual manual from 1881 (Doshi 1981: 59).

Above and behind the image is a scaffold on which stand the priests or lay people who have the right to perform the ritual bathing of the statue. They carry pots filled with milk, ghee and the other ceremonial liquids.

When the master of the ceremony gives the signal, they all pour the contents of their vessels simultaneously on the head of the image. The holy liquids are poured over the statue one after another, so that bright colours flood down over the stone in spectacular waves.

The ritual bath is repeated later in the day. Again, the celebrants pour the fluids in the thousand pots on the image at the same time.

In the final anointing of 1887, 15 different substances were used:

  • water
  • coconut milk
  • plantain
  • jaggery or unrefined cane sugar
  • ghee or clarified butter
  • sugar
  • almonds
  • dates
  • poppy seeds
  • milk
  • curds
  • sandalwood powder
  • gold flowers
  • silver flowers
  • silver coins.

Devotees vie with each other to stand at the feet of the statue, where they are drenched in the holy liquids. At the close of the ritual, pilgrims gather up the petals, seeds and other ceremonial substances that have reached the ground, as these have gained spiritual significance after being used in the anointing.

All the ceremonial events are accompanied by loud instrumental music, hymn-singing, reciting of prayers and readings of scriptures, punctuated by shouts of joy and victory honouring Bāhubali. This Jain festival is marked by exuberant collective celebration in an atmosphere of highly charged emotions and a wealth of colour, smells and sounds.

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