Nobody can deny the cult status that the Royal Enfield motorbike enjoys in India, but a shrine dedicated to the 350-cc Bullet? Bang on the NH-65 highway via Rohet to Jodhpur, stands the roadside temple of Bullet Bana or Motorcycle Baba. It is in memory of Om Singh Rathore of Chotila village, who died here in a motorcycle accident in 1988. The cops took his bike to the police station, but it was found mysteriouusly parked at the crash site. Each time the bike was impounded, it was found later at the accident site. Believing it to be divine will, locals built a temple in Om Bana’s memory with his Bullet enshrined alongside his garlanded photo. Travellers stop by to light incense sticks and pray for a safe passage.
In the hills, it’s not unusual for shrines to crop up at treacherous spots. This Naldehra shrine gets its name – “Atharah bata do” or 18/2 – from a tragic crash some years ago, when a bus went over the precipice, resulting in 18 fatalities and two survivors.
The Ganesha temple on Kasturba Road in Bengaluru is known by many local names: Vahana (Vehicle) Ganpati, Traffic Ganesha or Accident Ganesha. Though the temple is believed to be 600 years old, for the last 60 years, motorists have been bringing their new vehicles for the blessing of an accident-free life. After all, it has the royal stamp of approval! According to temple priest Subramaniam Deekshit, the Maharaja of Mysore Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar was travelling in his Rolls Royce from Mysore to Bengaluru, when his car broke down. Forced to abandon his vehicle, the king started off on foot until he saw the roadside temple. On performing a puja here, his Rolls Royce mysteriously sputtered to life. He wasn’t its only famous devotee. Even the Diwan of Mysore, T. Ananda Rao after whom Anand Rao Circle is named, regularly prayed at the shrine. When TVS opened its showroom in Bengaluru, it brought in its new chassis and vehicles for a puja. With the opening of the Benz and Nissan showrooms on Kasturba Road, the practice caught on. The belief that an accident can be averted if you perform a puja is so strong that people come in thousands for vahana puja during Ayudha Puja, when they also pray for a vehicle upgrade.
Though Tamil Nadu has many celebrated temples of the Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas, the roadside shrines of village deities called Ayyanars are quite fascinating. Often seated with a sacrificial sword in hand or shown riding horses or elephants with a retinue of lesser gods and attendants, the deities act as guardian of the adjoining village – as rainmaker, protector of the fields and night patroller of the village borders. As votive offerings, people donate terracotta horses lining the pathway leading to the shrine, usually located in the shadow of a sacred tree or grove. Perhaps the best example can be seen off NH-210 at Keeranur, 25km south of Trichy, on the road to Pudukottai in Chettinad.
Maha Vir Chakra Jaswant Singh Rawat of 4 Garhwal Rifles laid down his life during the 1962 war, fighting the Chinese Army for 72 hours along with two other soldiers. He was eventually caught and hanged at the same place where the Jaswantgarh Memorial now stands, 14km from Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh. Besides a garlanded bronze bust of “Baba” Jaswant Singh, the war hero’s belongings are also enshrined – his Army uniform, cap, watch and belt – with a constantly burning lamp in front of his portrait. For his six caretakers from 19 Garhwal Corps, Babaji’s spirit lives on. He is served bed tea at 4.30a.m., breakfast at 9a.m. and dinner at 7p.m. They make his bed, polish his shoes, deliver the mail sent by his admirers and even clear the mails the next morning after “he has gone through them”. They change his bedsheets every Tuesday. Besides serving Baba, the soldiers manning the unique shrine also help needy travelers along the hazardous mountain road.
Maharashtra has its share of strange shrines. There is a Shiva temple at Kunkeshwar built by shipwrecked Arabian sailors in thanksgiving. Pune’s Khunya (Bloody) Murlidhar temple is named for a bloody feud that took place even as the idol was being consecrated, between the Peshwa and local moneylender Dada Gadre.
Across the Konkan region, it is not unusual to find village shrines of gram-rakshaks (village defence), like the Shri Dev Upralkar near Sawantwadi. Echoing the tale of Wayanad’s Chain Tree, the shrine is dedicated to adhangar (shepherd) who revealed the passage through the Amboli pass to the British, and therefore was killed. He became the custodian of the passes, and it is said that once when the British attacked the region, his spirit protected the people.
The small Betaal Temple by the road near Mithbav beach is much revered. The wandering spirit is invisible to the human eye. but it is said that every evening, his palki (palanquin) carried by his ganas (supernatural followers) roams the area for an hour. People avoid going near his shrine around 7p.m. in fear of being possessed.
Punjab’s Doaba region, the fertile land between the two rivers Beas and Sutlej, has over six million natives settled abroad, with at least one member from each family staying overseas. Many of them owe their overseas stint to Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara at Talhan village near Jalandhar, better known as Hawai Jahaz or Aeroplane Gurudwara. Just off NH-1, a gate capped by a British Airways aircraft model, leads to a road lined with shops selling toy replicas of Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Canada and other international carriers. These are not souvenirs, but offerings to the gurudwara in the hope of going abroad! The inner sanctum of the century-old gurudwara has several plane models in neat rows. Because of the lack of space, the gurudwara committee has started distributing the toys to underprivileged children.
In the narrow by-lanes of Desai-ni-pol at Khadia in Ahmedabad, a Hanuman shrine guarantees 100 per cent visa approval for any foreign country. Himanshu Mehta, priest and caretaker of the 250-year-old temple, said that eight visa applications were approved following a visit one Diwali eve. The temple is packed on Saturdays, with nearly a thousand devotees filing appeals for divine consideration. A temple near Hyderabad serves the same purpose: Chilkur Balaji Temple, popularly known as Visa Balaji. Located on the banks of Osman Sagar Lake, 17km from Mehdipatnam, this temple does not accept money offerings.
In Kerala’s hilly district of Wayanad, beyond the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri and just off the NH-212, stands an unusual tree in chains. It is a reminder of the tragic tale of Karinthandan, a young tribal who guided a British engineer safely through the treacherous Thamarassery Ghat, only to be killed as treacherously. When stories spread of how his troubled spirit was haunting travellers and causing accidents, a puja was performed to pacify his soul, which was then chained to a tree. The iron shackles still drape the branches of the famous Chain Tree.
Speaking of tree shrines, the nature temple of Chinganachira, 10km from Kollengode in Palakkad district, deserves mention. With a canopy spread over two acres, the cluster of banyan trees looks eerie with wooden houses and offerings dangling from it, and flat stone blocks with grinders, mortars and pestles encircling it. Devotees drop by on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays to perform pujas, sacrifice fowl, and prepare thanksgiving meals to the deity. It is a popular spot for shooting films, videos, and the odd wedding album!
Situated 15km from Trichy, the Grand Anicut or Kallanai (kal means stone,anai is dam), built by Tamil king Karikala Cholan 2,000 years ago from unhewn stone, is believed to be one of the world’s oldest manmade dams. At its base lies an unobtrusive Hanuman temple that has been there for 200 years. A stone tablet in one corner has an engraving of Lord Hanuman on one side, and an 1804 inscription by British captain J.L. Calddell. Despite several attempts, engineers of the East India Company could not complete building the nineteenth vent of the dam. It is said that Lord Hanuman appeared in a British officer’s dream and instructed him to build a temple for him at the spot. Brushing off the bizarre dream, the officer didn’t act upon it but was soon accosted by a troop of monkeys. Strangely, the local mason reported receiving a similar vision. Fearing further disruption of the dam work, the officer conceded and a temple was eventually built at the nineteenth vent. Work magically resumed thereafter and the jinx was broken. Today, despite the force of River Cauvery’s waters lashing through the temple and perilous water levels in the rains, the tiny shrine still stands in defiance.
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