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Inspiration from Modi, bid to fit in — why Karnataka CM Bommai is pitching for ‘Tunga Arathi’

Bommai’s announcement to develop banks of Tungabhadra on lines of the Varanasi ghat comes after similar pitches promising temple autonomy & development of Hanuman birthplace.

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Bengaluru: At a time when Karnataka assembly elections are barely a year away, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is looking to emulate a string of projects that have helped his party, the BJP, gain traction in northern states like Uttar Pradesh, and in the process win over followers within his Lingayat community.

Last December, Bommai said the Anjanadri hills in Koppal believed to be the birthplace of Hindu deity Lord Hanuman will be developed along the lines of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Now, the state government wants a ‘Tunga arathi’ on the banks of the Tungabhadra river in Karnataka, on the lines of the ritual performed at the Ganga in Varanasi .

“Our beloved Prime Minister Narendra Modi has completely renovated the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Earlier, one had to search for the temple amid congested shops. Now all the ghats have been cleaned,” Bommai told reporters a fortnight ago at Harihar town in Davangere.

“The temple has got a grand facelift and Ganga arathi is being performed with great fervour. On the same lines, we want Tungabhadra arathi to be performed in South India.”

During his visit, he also laid the foundation stone for the construction of 108 ‘Yoga Mantapas’ in Harihar on the banks of the Tungabhadra.

On Friday, the chief minister, while announcing his maiden budget, allotted Rs 100 crore for the development of the Anjanadri hills.

While the ‘Tunga arathi’ project was first announced in 2021, soon after Bommai took charge as chief minister, it was reiterated last month. It joins a long list of announcements and actions by Bommai that appear to be aimed at appeasing the BJP’s ideological head, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and counter criticism of him being an “outsider”.

Also Read: BJP backs Bommai on Karnataka hijab ban, but leaders worry PM Modi’s global image could be hit

Temple autonomy, Anjanadri hills & now Tunga arathi

Last December, Bommai announced that his government would develop the Anjanadri hills. The region deemed to be referred to as ‘Kishkindha’ by Bommai’s government, a name picked from the Hindu epic Ramayana is also where the Tungabhadra flows to, from Harihar in Davangere.

The Tungabhadra is a confluence of two rivers Tunga and Bhadra, that originate in Chikkamagaluru district. After flowing 147 km and 171 km, respectively, the two rivers merge to form the Tungabhadra at Koodli village of Shivamogga.

Tunga Paana, Ganga Snana’ is a popular Kannada idiom which roughly translates to ‘Drink the water of Tunga and bathe in the waters of Ganga’ drawing parallels between the significance of the two rivers in two parts of the country. 

Much like the banks of the Ganga, numerous temples dot the banks of the Tunga, Bhadra and Tungabhadra in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The ‘Tunga arathi’ is among the announcements Bommai has made in line with his push for Hindutva. During a BJP executive meeting in December 2021, he had also assured the party of bringing in a law to give temples autonomy from the Hindu religious institutions and charitable endowments (Muzrai) department. On Friday, while presenting the state budget, Bommai made it official that a law will be brought in to give temples autonomy.

Freeing temples from government control has been a long-standing demand of the Sangh and BJP leaders in Karnataka.

Professor Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and national coordinator of the Lokniti Network a nationwide network of scholars based in universities and other research institutions looks at this as a build-up to the elections. 

“It is consistent with what is happening in other BJP-ruled states. Given the fact that Bommai was the choice of the central leadership to be chief minister, he needs to do what the priorities of the leadership at the national level at the current moment are,” he told ThePrint.

The 108 ‘Yoga Mantaps’, for which Bommai laid the foundation in February will act as the venue for the ‘Tungabhadra arathi’.

“This is a Rs 30 crore project that includes infrastructure and tourism development at Harihar. Cleaning up of the banks and the Tungabhadra will be implemented by the irrigation department,” an official from the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) told ThePrint.

“The Tunga arathi, as a religious practice, will be organised by the local district administration,” the official added.

The official added that the intent was religious tourism development akin to the state government’s plans to develop the Anjanadri hills. 

“Just like the chief minister has assured to develop Kishkindha, the Tunga arathi will also be introduced. The point is also to highlight the worship of our natural resources as per our faith,” he said.

Bommai had in February also announced that the development of the Tungabhadra at Harihar will include the development of a pathway from the Harihareshwara temple, cleaning the polluted river waters, and prevention of river pollution in urban areas. Harihareshwara temple in Harihar is a unique Hindu temple that houses the rare fusion of Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Shiva) as a single deity.  

In Karnataka, the tradition of ‘Bagina (ritualistic thanksgiving)’ is followed to offer prayers to rivers. The chief minister offers thanksgiving when river waters reach the brim and dams reach their maximum capacity in monsoon.

The concept of ‘arathi’ for rivers borrowed from Varanasi was first executed in Sringeri of Karnataka in 2018 as part of ‘Teppotsava’ by the Shree Sharada Peetham (one of the four cardinal peeths set up by Advaitha philosopher and spiritual guru Adi Shankaracharya) on the banks of the river Tunga. 

The same was emulated by an organisation called the Yuva Brigade, in association with the Mandya district administration in 2021 as ‘Cauvery arathi. Now, the state government wants to make it an official affair on the banks of Tungabhadra.

Political analyst A. Narayana sees this as an attempt by the BJP to play up the Hindu card ahead of elections. 

“The BJP seems to have run out of all other ideas to win elections except play up the Hindu card. They feel the need to maintain the image of being champions of Hinduism since nothing else in their kitty caste balancing, development is working,” Narayana, a faculty member at the School of Public Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University, told ThePrint.

‘Bid to woo numerically strong Lingayat group’

While those in Bommai’s office suggested that the project was in line with promoting Hindutva, sources in the BJP believe otherwise. 

“Ganga arathi is done in Kashi because there is a Vishwanath temple right on the banks. But this Tunga arathi at Harihar seems more like a personal agenda of Bommai to woo one of the Panchamasali mutts and its seer,” a source in the state BJP told ThePrint.

The Panchamasali Jagadguru Peetha, one of two popular mutts of the Panchamasali subsect of Lingayats, is situated in Harihar. Bommai belongs to a smaller Lingayat subsect called Sadaru.

The view that the move is an attempt by Bommai to woo the numerically and politically strong Panchamasali Lingayats apart from the his own party and the Sangh comes after he announced that the ‘Tunga arathi’ will be implemented under the guidance of Sri Vachanananda Swamiji of the Panchamasali Jagadguru Peetha in Harihar.

“The proposal to begin a Tunga arathi was made by Sri Vachanananda to the government. Bommai has accepted the proposal because it seems profitable to woo the community ahead of elections,” a source close to former chief minister and Lingayat strongman B.S. Yediyurappa told ThePrint.

Vachanananda Swami, alongside Kudalasangama Panchamasali Peetha seer Jayamruthyunjaya Swami, had led the quota agitation against the Yediyurappa government in February 2021.

“Bommai is doing this to placate the community in case he is unable to implement the reservation demand we have made. As a tradition, we already perform ‘Gange Pooje’. This Tunga arathi is an alien concept. The community won’t be diverted with this,” Jayamruthyunjaya Swami told ThePrint.

Panchamasali Lingayats reportedly account for 60 per cent of the 1.1 crore Veerashaiva-Lingayats in the state and are spread throughout central and northern Karnataka. The community itself, however, is at crossroads, with leaders like state Industries Minister Murugesh Nirani, said to be helping set up a third peetha (religious power centre) for the community at Bagalkot district. 

This came after BJP leaders from the community, Nirani and C.C. Patil, accused Jayamruthyunjaya Swami of joining hands with the Congress last year.

Prof. Shastri said working with religious seers had become natural for those in power given the influence they wield within the community. 

“At a time when religious leaders have involved themselves in issues concerning society and present expectations on these issues to the government, it is natural that you go back to them. Because they are an important part of interest groups, pressure groups or support groups that are present at the ground level,” he added.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: After Reddy brothers, it’s Jarkiholis. But many Karnataka BJP leaders are upset by their rise


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