On Thursday evening, I was on the late shift at the newsdesk, editing a report about Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s grand ‘Ayutha Chandi Maha Yaagam’ that is being conducted in Erravalli in Telangana. The report, filed by Firstpost’s contributor from the region, claimed that KCR, as he’s known, had ploughed Rs 7 crore into the five-day ceremony to seek the blessings of Goddess Bhadrakali (Chandi), for himself, the state he leads, India, the world, and all of humanity.
A few days before the rites began, KCR’s government submitted a request seeking the centre’s assistance, of Rs 2,541 crore, to battle drought in Telangana. On 7 December, following an inspection of the situation in the newly formed state, the government declared that 231 out of 443 mandals in Telangana were affected by drought. Of these, 46 are situated in Medak, from where the chief minister is appealing to the gods. They account for all the mandals in the district.
I took the first flight out of Mumbai to Hyderabad on Friday morning to record the scale of this Rs 7 crore ceremony, the excess of which seem all that more stark when contrasted with these grim numbers: over 50 per cent of administrative units in Telangana are stricken by drought, as a consequence of which 1,840 farmers have killed themselves since the state was formed in June last year.
On the Siddhipet highway, my car ride was sometimes bumpy, but mostly smooth. As we turned left, I could not help but notice the freshly laid shiny black new road. The presence of the Hyderabad traffic police, 80 kilometers away from the city signalled to us that we were nearing the venue.
KCR’s face, gleamed on bright pink Telangana Rashtra Samiti-coloured flexi banners that were hoisted on almost every electricity pole on the way; even more so on the 14-kilometre long smooth stretch of a newly laid road — which according to my car driver was only wide enough to accommodate one car until the impending ceremony was announced.
At regular intervals, on either side of the road, there were elaborately designed cardboard cut-outs that invited people to the yaagam. While the chief minister has made consistent claims that all money being spent on the five-day ritual comes from his coffers, the presence, in large numbers, of the police force, state buses, this black swathe of road, suggests that while it may be hard to contest KCR’s claim about the funds, there is little doubt he’s deployed state machinery to serve the ceremony.
The newly laid road led to an older road, along which were serried rows of parked cars. As I peered out of my car’s window, I saw people straggling their way towards what looked like shamiyanas at a distance. Soon enough, I realised that their numbers were legion.
A senior official in the police department charged with overseeing security arrangements later told me that close to 1.8 lakh people had visited the site, stretching his resources.
I got off my car and began to walk towards the venue along with thousands of others. It was hot and bright, I heard a consistent cacophony — most were complaining of the long walk, a few others were wondering if there would be any food available at the Bhojanalayam — where KCR is offering free meals to devotees every day; on the menu today was curry and rice.
As we made our way towards what seemed like a venue that lay a many kilometres away, I saw KCR colonies on either side of the path. These colonies held massive pictures of KCR and his wife Shobha Rao welcoming devotees to the yaagam. A few helicopters flew by.
The swarming crowd and I moved along. I walked past ‘special parking’, ‘VIP parking’ and ‘VVIP parking’ and reached an enclosure under a shed with chairs. People rushed to sit down. This was because the line to get in and trudge past the ceremonial fire inside was so long that the chairs offered a chance to rest before the long march.
I walked for over two hours but the line seemed not to move. I walked up to a police officer and asked if I could sneak in. He let me in. I pushed past people to view what I thought would be an elaborate ceremony of Puranic expanse. I was disappointed. I had merely advanced from the back of the line to its middle section. I had two more kilometres to walk. Men groped me. I slapped a few and yelled at the rest. And everywhere around me, those shuffling towards the yaagam made desultory jokes. One man said that perhaps the lines would have been shorter if there was a tonsure line, another burst out into an impromptu chanting of ‘Govinda Govinda’, which you hear very often in Tirupati. This aided my progress.
Up above us a stentorian voice issued from speakers. “Please close your eyes, fold your hands in obeisance, only then will Telangana gain salvation, prosperity and the gods will provide relief with regular rains”. This played on loop. It held the tenor of agitprop, not a call to prayer. Down below, along the line that didn’t move, men handed out flyers, each describing the gravity of what was taking place inside.
And what was taking place inside? The yaagam site is spread over 40 acres and the yagnas take place under thatched roofs and pillars made of plantain trunks. The ritual grounds contain 108 homa gundams (sacred fireplaces) with about 2,000 purohits reciting ‘sapthashati paarayanam’ (Recitation of the Chandi ‘navakshari japam’ 10,000 times) for five days. But today I am not allowed near this hallowed ground. No one is. We are told to clump along like livestock, with barely enough time to parse the sights or the droned incantations.
I will return on Saturday. But before I do, I will pay a visit to some of those 46 mandals debilitated by drought so I can understand the nature of this excess.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2015 09:10:35 IST