February 8 2006 was a big day for Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. It marked the millennium's first Mahamastakabisheka, the head anointing ceremony of revered Jain icon Lord Bahubali, or Gomateshwara.
As with all things holy, the day-long ceremony began with prayer. Jain monks carried the holy water from the Digambar Jain mutt to the venue. To the chant of hymns, the pontiff Charukeerthi Bhattarka filled a giant pot with rice and sealed it with silver coconut, signalling the inauguration of the spectacular event.
At an auspicious moment, two monks hoisted the first pot on the shoulders of a devotee from Rajasthan called Ashok Kumar Patni. The latter had the privilege of pouring the first stream of holy water on the head of the world's tallest free-standing statue.
The ceremony, which comes once in 12 years and lasts over six hours, began at 10.41 am when the 1,024-year-old monolith was anointed. Priests climbed the special scaffolding and assisted pot-holders in anointing the statue with water, coconut, sugarcane juice, rice flour, herbs, milk, sandal paste, turmeric, precious stones, and 52 varieties of flowers from around the world.
Dressed in saffron and white, thousands of devotees gathered at the Chandragiri and Vindyagiri Hills for the grand event. As trumpets marked the beginning of the rare, auspicious ceremony, thousands looked up to witness the anointing.
For six hours, 108 jal kalashas (pots) were poured on Bahubali by devotees from around the world. 1,000 litres of milk, 3,000 litres of water, 250 kilograms of turmeric and sandal were poured on the gigantic statue, which kept changing colour, much to the awe of the world media that had gathered to document proceedings.
The last Mahamastakabhisheka venerating Gomateshwara Bahubali took place on December 19, 1993. Little about the ceremony has changed, except for the finale in recent years that has included an enormous shower of flowers from a helicopter.
The stone sculpture symbolises renunciation, self-control and subjugation of the ego as the first steps towards salvation. The nude form -- also referred to as Digambara -- of Lord Bahubali, represents complete victory over earthly desire that hampers one's spiritual ascent towards the divine.
The rite of the sacred bath occupies an important place in Hindu practice as well as Buddhist and Jain.