The Power of Prayer

A news photographer in India captures a devotional moment that goes back a thousand years

In 1993, Doug Curran was covering the Indian subcontinent as a photographer for Agence France-Presse. Among many Asia hands, the assignment is considered a dream job, because of India’s visual feast—its teeming universe of saints and villains, discos and temples, deserts and mountains. "In India you meet people you love and people you don't love, there is so much to do, there's always more to see, you never stop working," Curran says.

He was living in New Delhi that year, a time of hope and crisis. He documented events ranging from violent separatist movements in Kashmir to a new dynamism in India's cities to a series of cyclones, floods and famines. As the country's economy was liberated from Soviet-style planning, dot-com fortunes were being amassed.

That December, Curran made a trip that encapsulated India's vast and contradictory nature. On a swing down to Bangalore, the country's burgeoning Silicon Valley, he visited an air show to photograph jet planes, then traveled two hours further south to a religious rite in the town of Shravana Belgola, where he alighted from a taxi into a mass of people, noise and heat. Jostled from all sides, he started snapping pictures. After he made his way to an elevated platform, his eye zeroed in on a woman kneeling at the foot of a giant granite statue.

She was there "for an instant," Curran recalls. "I took the picture, then she was gone."

What Curran captured is a point on a continuum that goes back to A.D. 981, when adherents to the Jainist faith consecrated the statue. Carved from a single slab of local stone, the 57-foot-high idol represents one of the religion's most important saints, Bahubali. About every 12 years, Jains gather by the hundreds of thousands for an epic reanointing of the saint; they did so again this past February. The ritual is an outburst of color, scent and libation in a notably austere faith.

Jainism, whose origins lie in Indian prehistory, teaches that all souls are bound by karma, which is accumulated by deeds good or bad. Freeing one's soul from the cycle of reincarnation is the supreme goal, and it can be achieved only through strict discipline, renunciation of the material world and understanding how to purify karma.

Every time a life—any life—is taken, karma accrues. When I was growing up in New Delhi in the 1970s as the daughter of the American ambassador there, a Jain temple in the city housed a bird hospital where patrons could sponsor birds or release them to freedom, thereby acquiring merit. Jain monks walk the streets with fly whisks to shoo the insects away without hurting them. Some Jains wear a mask over their mouths so they won't inhale microorganisms, and they eat fruits and nuts that have been dried for more than a year to ensure they contain no living cells. And some Jain clergy undertake a fast unto death, which Jains believe is the purest way to enter nirvana.

And yet Jainism is also a religion of celebration, and its festivals, like most Indian rites, are elaborate and sensuous. The anointing of Bahubali is emphatically in that tradition.

In Jainist doctrine, Bahubali was a king's son who defeated his brother Bharata in a fight over land. Bahubali claimed the kingdom—but then, repulsed by the fight, vowed to strive for spiritual peace. He renounced the world and stood so long in repentant silence that vines grew over his limbs. Ultimately, he attained enlightenment, whereupon the vanquished Bharata honored his brother with a statue made of gold.

That statue disappeared, according to Jain mythology, but a pilgrim had a dream in which a goddess said the true image of Bahubali lay within the stone at Shravana Belgola. And thus the idol there was hewn.

Anointing an idol is a common feature of Jain rituals. But for the anointing of Bahubali, preparations begin weeks in advance, and pilgrims arrive by the thousands for preliminary events. The ceremony itself takes ten hours: celebrants play cymbals, trumpets and conch shells and sing prayers and hymns; priests arrange sacred vessels at the foot of the statue. Devotees heft the vessels to the top of a scaffold enfolding the statue, from which they pour vast quantities of blessed mixtures of milk, sugar, saffron, sandalwood, coconut and turmeric onto Bahubali's head. At the saint's feet, they strew precious stones, gold, silver and flowers.

For a grand finale, a rain of flowers is released from a helicopter hovering above. (In India, ancient rituals are continually reborn and modernized.)

In 1993, Doug Curran was already 8 years into a 12-year tour of India (today he's an Agence France-Presse photo editor in Washington). He had an inkling of the spectacle that would unfold when Bahubali was anointed once again, but he had his eyes open before the fact too. And so he spotted the lone worshiper at Bahubali's feet.

If a photograph is often a timely accident, the photographer's art is perhaps an extension of the tantric ideal of "divine perception"—that is, never to see actions and objects as mundane, but always as spiritual vehicles. Curran's photograph captures a gesture of veneration that is graceful, instinctive and stunning—a moment's reverence symbolizing centuries of belief.

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