Rice is the staple food that keeps us going, at least in Southern Asia. Annabishegam, (Annam = cooked-rice + Abishegam = ablution) ablution with cooked rice for the Hindu God Shiva, is an act of saying thanks to the cosmic energy for having provided us with this magical grain. Besides thanks-giving, it is believed that this annual ritual in Shiva temples during the month of Sep/Oct will ensure food for all living beings on earth in the coming year. Though Annabishegam is performed in many Shiva temples, nowhere is it done in grandeur as in Gangaikondacholapuram, a small sleepy village in the vicinity of Tanjavur. It takes such a proportion largely due to the massive stone temple, built in 1020 CE by the great Chola king Rajendran, and equally large Shiva deity in place. As a volunteer, I had the opportunity to be part of the event.
The day before Annabishegam is Mahabishegam, when the priest attend to the ‘smaller’ gods in the temple corridor first, washing the deities with water, draping them with new cloths and applying sacred paste/powder, all accompanied by constant chanting of the hymns. As for Shiva, the main deity at the sanctum, the ablution is performed with sandal paste, turmeric water, milk, orange juice, honey, coconut-water and sacred ash, all mixed and stored in separate huge-containers. About 15 vidyarthis, students of Vedas, stand atop scaffolding to reach the top of the massive Shiva-lingam, pour different mix over the head, continually chanting Rudram/Vedas. At the end of the abishegam, the lord is decorated with bulky flower-garlands that carry a price tag of Rs. 10,000 ($200). On the day after, volunteers are given yellow scarf to stand apart from hoards of people pouring in from nearby towns and villages. Police, barricades, medical-emergency pavilion, Thirumurai songs on Lord Shiva on the PA system are all in place from the break of dawn. About 50 bags (each weighing 75-100 kilograms) of top quality rice are cooked in 4 large vessels, powered by a massive stove using firewood. With the help of shovels, the cooked rice is spread out on the floor to cool off, before getting transferred into bamboo baskets. Some 50-60 volunteers are at work, line up from the place of cooking, up the steep stairway, and all the way to the sanctum. Chanting the praise of Shiva, “Om Namah Shivaya, hara hara Shankara” as the backdrop, the baskets of rice get passed on hand-to-hand in a swift and constant motion, while the empty ones return for refilling at the same pace. Again, the Vedic students perform the Annabishegam by chanting Rudram/Vedas and the all day (9am-5pm) event slowly grinds to a halt. A steel mesh set up around the deity holds the grain pretty much intact with minimal spill, giving the dark, black granite shape a pure, white coloration, and thus playing a yin and yang symbolism. An assortment of vegetable are used to decorate atop the rice surface and Deepa-aradhanai, offering of light is performed with the fervour running high among the gathered devotees.
As the Sun fast descend at the horizon, the tall temple tower glow in illumination, a sea of humanity wait in line to take home the prasadam, the blessed-food. All HIS creations, people including poor villagers, plants and animals down to critters are fed with this prasadam, not letting a grain of cooked rice go waste. In addition to the belief that plays in this mega-event, the saint Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram ordained some 26 years ago a festival of such magnitude, more for thanking the nearby villagers whose ancestors and the local chieftain played an important role in protecting the deities during the Islamic destructions. The cost involved for this two day ritual is roughly Rs. 6,00,000 ($12,000) which is raised through donations. Apart from cash, people offer rice and rice-bags too.
On historical note, after five successive rulers of Chola dynasty, their capitol Gangaikonadacholapuram was destroyed by the neighbouring rival Pandiya king in mid-13th century, of course, leaving the temple untouched. But the subsequent raids were not as fortunate in reference to the temple with the Islamic raider Malik Kafur began the loot, destruction and demolition, as was the “tradition” with invading Islamic rulers in rest of the country, followed by French army occupation, another Islamic attack by Arcot Nawab and finally the English dismantled the structure to take away stones, some with inscriptions, to be used in dam constructions. So experts believe, what is left of the temple today is only about half of its original design.
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