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.

Records of past celebrations

Nowadays, the interval of 12 years between two 'great head-anointing' ceremonies has become more or less regular. However, this was not always the case as there are written records praising monks or kings who take part in the lustration of the Shravana Belgola Bāhubali, from the end of the 14th century onwards (Sangave 1981: 97–99 and Jain 2005: 15–16 provide a full list of years). Monks perform the ritual, while kings sponsor and eventually perform it.

Such records are irregular up to the 19th century, but since then regular descriptions of ceremonies have made them a valuable source. For instance, an inscription from Shravana Belgola records that a 'head of the body-guard police, who was a descendant of Cāmuṇḍarāya, died on the day of the head-anointing festival of Gommaṭeśvarasvāmī' in 1827. As a result, his son gave an endowment for the annual conduct of worship and other services for Gommaṭeśvara by the Maṭha there (Epigraphia Carnatica Number 324/223: 459). A 'great head-anointing' ceremony took place in 1871 while press reports indicate that Lakṣmīsena Bhaṭṭāraka of the Kolhapur Maṭha in Maharashtra performed the ritual on 14 March 1887. This particular event attracted 200,000 pilgrims from all parts of India.

Celebrations in the 20th century

Throughout the 20th century the Great Head-Anointing ceremony at Shravana Belgola tended to follow more regular intervals. Each celebration was the occasion for some novelty or special event to promote Jainism.

Prominent examples include the rituals that took place in 1910, 1925, 1940, 1953 and 1967.

The ceremony on 30 March 1910 saw a special session of the All-India Digambara Jaina Mahāsabhā, which agreed to work towards the promotion of education of Jain children.

A committee set up to publicise the festival beyond Karnataka invited people from all over to undertake a pilgrimage to Shravana Belgola for the ceremony of 1925. The ritualtook place on 15 March. The Maharajah of Mysore participated in the festival and delivered a speech highlighting the contribution of the Jains to the culture of Karnataka. The Jains regard this speech as memorable (Sangave 2001: 101–102).

The 26 February 1940 ceremony inaugurated a change, still valid today, in the management of the festival. The All-India Digambara Jain Tirthakshetra Committee handed over organisation to the Mysore city government. Today the State Government of Karnataka is responsible for organising the festival.

On that occasion the 1008 pots were divided into four categories:

  • gold kalaśas – 51
  • silver kalaśas – 300
  • German silver kalaśas – 300
  • brass kalaśas – 357.

An auction system was established, in which the person who bids the most earns the right to pour liquids from a given pot. The money raised is used for the protection and upkeep of the Bāhubali image. This system is still used today.

The ceremony on 5 March 1953 was jointly organised by a religious committee and a general committee. That time half of the 1008 pots were made of gold while silver was used for the rest. About 300,000 pilgrims participated in the festival, which was an occasion for many Jain associations to hold special meetings.

The ceremony on 30 March 1967 saw the presence of a large number of Jain monks and nuns. The chief minister of Mysore replaced the maharajah. An innovation that many considered spectacular was the Indian Air Force helicopter that showered multi-coloured flowers on Bāhubali from the sky, greatly exciting the spectators and participants. For the first time, the government of India filmed the entire celebration, as some foreign television channels also did. Parallel to the rituals, Jain meetings and sessions were held, in which resolutions were passed to encourage the academic study of Jainism in universities.

Recent celebrations

Pilgrims attending the ‘great head-anointing ceremony’ – mahāmastakābhiṣeka – of the Bāhubali statue at Shravana Belgola in 2006 are seen clearly from the platform above the image. The 1008 pots of different consecrated substances can also be viewed.

View from above Bāhubali statue
Image by Mehool Sanghrajka © Mehool Sanghrajka

Over the course of the 20th century, the celebrations surrounding the Great Head-Anointing became increasingly spectacular. The 1981 and 2006 occasions have demonstrated even greater sensory stimulation and passionate emotions. Media coverage has grown in tandem with the size and grandeur of each new celebration. Media interest peaked in 2006, with international news organisations covering the biggest festival so far.

The current bhaṭṭāraka of the Jain maṭh, the most prominent temple in the town of Shravana Belgola, is Karmayogi Swasti Shri Charukirti Bhattarakaji. His leadership has been one of the chief forces behind the development of Shravana Belgola as one of the principal Jain pilgrimage sites and general tourist attractions in the last 40 years. He personally supervised the organisation of three rituals, those in 1981, 1993 and 2006.

The date of 22 February 1981 marked the millennial anniversary of the installation of the colossal statue on the hill of Vindhya-giri and thus was especially prestigious. Preparations for the festival were made on an unprecedentedly grand scale. The government of Karnataka provided 50 million rupees to fund the celebrations. Improvements in the infrastructure and development of Shravana Belgola were made. The Digambara monk Muni Vidānanda Mahārāj supervised the ceremony. For the first time the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, attended the celebrations, together with other ministers of the central government and the chief ministers of the Indian states. The 1008 pots were divided into eight groups set at different auction rates, thus bringing in unmatched amounts of money. The novelty was the scheme known as Jana-Mangala Mahā-Kalaśa Pravartana. This involved placing an eight-foot-high holy urn made of copper on a decorated chariot to accompany Jain pilgrims. Officially setting off from Delhi, the urn went with the pilgrims on their five-month journey through 110 towns, “spreading the message of humanity, love and peace of Lord Bāhubali, who was the symbol of Indian culture which believed in tolerance, non-violence and national integration'.

The last celebration of the 20th century took place on 19 December 1993.

The latest Great Head-Anointing ritual took place on 9 February 2006 and was given special prestige as being the first of the 21st century. The ten-hour ceremony of 2006 showed some innovations in the substances poured over the statue, as some descriptions show:

Coconut milk, sugar cane juice and milk were poured over the figure. At first resembling smoke, rice flour was released from above and drifted in large white clouds over statue and onlookers alike. This was followed by yellow turmeric paste and other herbal liquids, interspersed by the contents of large silver kalaśas, filled with sanctified water. Visually particularly striking were a variety of sandal wood mixtures in shades ranging from light brown, via purple to deep red, which coloured the grey stone of the sculpture. Towards the finish of the anointing ritual, at the end of the afternoon, a shower of strongly scented flower buds and petals of diverse colours were released from baskets, and a garland was ceremoniously raised to decorate the monumental image. A mixture of holy substances, known as indra, concluded the anointing ceremony, followed by the performance of āratī, the rotating of a flame in front of the image

Hegewald, 2007, page 17

Images

  • Bāhubali statue at Shravana Belgola 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 taken the kāyotsarga meditation posture for so long that plants have grown up his body.. Image by Takeo Kamiya © Takeo Kamiya
  • Bahubali anointed The huge statue of Bāhubali at Shravana Belgola is anointed in 2006 with a succession of holy substances in the ‘great head-anointing ceremony’ – mahā-mastakābhiṣeka. The centrepiece of a month-long festival, the spectacular Digambara ritual involves pouring the contents of more than a thousand pots over the statue's head.. Image by unknown © Institute of Jainology
  • View from above Bāhubali statue Pilgrims attending the ‘great head-anointing ceremony’ – mahāmastakābhiṣeka – of the Bāhubali statue at Shravana Belgola in 2006 are seen clearly from the platform above the image. The 1008 pots of different consecrated substances can also be viewed in front of the statue's feet. The ceremony involves pouring the pots' contents over the statue's head, creating spectacular waves of colour.. Image by Mehool Sanghrajka © Mehool Sanghrajka

Further Reading

‘Une célébration jaïne spectaculaire: la Grande Onction de 2006’
Gérard Clot
Religions & Histoire
volume 21
Editions Faton; Dijon, France; 2008

Full details

Homage to Shravana Belgola
edited by Saryu Doshi
Marg Publications; Bombay, Maharashtra, India

Full details

Inscriptions at Sravana Belgola
Benjamin Lewis Rice
Epigraphia Carnatica series; volume 2
Institute of Kannada Studies, University of Mysore; Mysore, Karnataka, India; 1973

Full details

‘The Gommaṭeśvara’s Grand Mahāmastakābhiṣeka Ritual: 'Aisthetics of Religion' as a New Method of Research of Jaina Ritual’
Eva Maria Glasbrenner
Svasti – essays in honour of Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah for his 75th Birthday
edited by Nalini Balbir
Muddushree Granthamala series; volume 75
K. S. Muddappa Smaraka Trust; Bangalore, Karnataka, India; 2010

Full details

‘Mahāmastakābhiṣeka: An Oasis of Harmony at Śravaṇabeḷgoḷa’
Lynn Foulston
Jaina Studies: Newsletter of the Centre of Jaina Studies
edited by Peter Flügel
volume 2
Centre of Jaina Studies, SOAS; London, UK; 2007

Full details

‘The Great Mahāmastakābhiṣeka’
Julia A. B. Hegewald
Jaina Studies: Newsletter of the Centre of Jaina Studies
edited by Peter Flügel
volume 2
Centre of Jaina Studies, SOAS; London, UK; 2007

Full details

Bahubali of Jainbadri (Shravanabelagola) and Other Jain Shrines of Deccan
Surendranath Shripalji Jain
and Sarojini Surendranath Jain
S.D.J.M.I. Managing Committee; Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India; 2005

Full details

The Sacred Shravanabelagola: A Socio-Religious Study
Vilas A. Sangave
Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭh Publication; New Delhi, India; 1981

Full details

Glossary

Abhiṣeka

Anointing ceremony for a king, a Jina, a Jina image or any other holy image, with water or milk. Part of daily or special worship.

Ahiṃsā

The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.

Auspicious

Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 

Bāhubali

One of the hundred sons of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, Bāhubali is one of the most revered Jain saints. After fighting with his half-brother Bharata, he renounced the world and finally conquered his pride to reach enlightenment. He is always shown in the kāyotsarga pose in art and immense freestanding statues of him are a feature of southern India.

Bhaṭṭāraka

Sankrit term meaning 'pontiff'. This title is given to a type of Digambara clergy who are not mendicants. Instead of practising the 'wandering life' – vihāra – of Jain monks and nuns, a bhaṭṭāraka stays in one place, living in a kind of monastery called a maṭha. There are several bhaṭṭārakas in south India, who lead the local Jain community.

Clergy

Formally recognised leaders within a religion. The clergy often perform rituals, lead worship and instruct believers in religious principles. Lay men and women usually complete formal study before being initiated into the clergy. Clerics are active among lay believers, often living in society. They may have specific roles or ranks and may progress through a hierarchy to become top leaders of the religious organisation.

Common Era

The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.

Devotee

An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.

Donor

A donor gives freely. He or she may give alms to a mendicant or money to an institution. This donation may be for specific items or purposes, such as the creation of art. A donor, sponsor or patron may be named or pictured in the artwork.

Festival

A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history. 

Idol

An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Karnataka

State in south-west India.

Laity

Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.

Mantra

A sacred sound, syllable, word or phrase that is believed to produce spiritual change if recited correctly. A mantra can be recited aloud or silently, and is often repeated. Mantras are closely associated with religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism. The chief Jain mantra is the Namaskāra-mantra, which is recited daily, while another mantra very popular in Indian culture generally is Auṃ.

Maṭha

Taken from the Sanskrit term for the dwelling of an ascetic, the term maṭha is nowadays often rendered as mutt in English. Associated with Digambara Jains, maṭhas are complexes of buildings centred on a temple and are similar to a Christian monastery. They usually comprise a manuscript library, mendicant dwelling-hall and pilgrim facilities, such as a refectory and dormitory. A maṭha is the seat of a bhaṭṭāraka, a clerical leader. Most maṭhas are in southern India.

Miracle

An extraordinary event that cannot be explained by natural causes or human effort and therefore is believed to be caused by divine or supernatural powers.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Pilgrimage

A journey to a place of religious significance. Some religions encourage pilgrimage as ways to advance spiritual progress and deepen the faith of those who make the trip – pilgrims.

Pūjā

Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Rite

A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.

Rupee

The official currency of India. One rupee is divided into 100 paise. First used in the 1540s, the name probably comes from the Sanskrit term rūpyakam, which means 'wrought silver' or a coin of silver.

Sandalwood

A fragrant wood from trees in the Santalum genus, which is often made into oil, paste, powder or incense. Widely used in religious ceremonies across Asia, sandalwood paste and powder are used to mark or decorate religious equipment, statues or images, priests and worshippers. Also used for carvings, sandalwood produces a highly prized oil used in cosmetics and perfumes.

Sāsan-devi

The guardian goddess who protects Jains. She is usually unnamed, though sometimes seemingly random Jain goddess names are attached to her.  She plays an active role in some Jain religious stories, such as the tale of Subhadrā.

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