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Anindita Ghosh, Ananthamurthy U R

Anindita Ghosh: U R Ananthamurthy

Sacrileges and Modernity in U R Ananthamurthy's Bharathipura

The novel Bharathipura by U R Ananthamurthy encompasses the effects of the project of modernity being artificially grafted on casteism to ambush untouchability that was prevalent in India during the early 20th century. The distinctive struggle between traditional societies structured around divine authority/ies and hierarchies and a secularised universe largely based on the subjectivity of self-conscious individuals, defines the blooming modernity in the then India. The modern colonial man starts with cognitive-societal modernisation. His "cognitive transformation include[s] or impl[ies] the growth of scientific consciousness, the development of a secular outlook, the doctrine of progress, the primacy of instrumental rationality, the fact- value split, individualistic understandings of the self, contractualist understandings of society…" and moves on to social transformations. (Gaonkar 1999: 4) His self- conscious endeavours to perceive and extrapolate from the everyday life and indulge in "the scientific superiority of the present over antiquity" releases him from the clutches of the antiquated world but places him on no solid ground. (Gaonkar 1999: 6) Away from history and past, he is caught in the loop of presentness, ruptures and incompletion. The vicious circle of modernity endows him with desperation and alienation from the immediate. If the fair side of modernity enriches him with material, political and epistemological advancements, its lesser favourable side corrodes his psyche. His existentialist traits deconstruct the everyday life turning his existence into a Sisyphean struggle. These attitudes push him towards an invisible asceticism and constant philosophical interrogation of the self and surroundings thereby, problematising his ties with the present. The spirit of critique welded to his non-western origins constitutes hybrid-modernity. However, the assumption that this modernity will, compulsorily channelise itself into concrete secular and scientific outlook or cultural and institutional changes in the non-western setting will be an over-statement. Though, it will bring culture-neutral changes in the spheres of science and technology and industrialisation.

Jagannatha, in Bharathipura, is a subject of this corpus of hybrid-modernity. Honest to creative adaptation of western modernity in the Indian context, Jagannatha isolates the problem of untouchability in the rotten traditions of Bharathipura, in an attempt to eradicate it. The town has been growing towards modernity via economic development but cultural evolution has been barricaded by casteism. The garbagudhi (womb) of the Manjunatha temple, literally and metaphorically the womb of the temple and the town, holds back the emancipation of the towns-folk. The Holeyaru (untouchables) are denied entry into the temple that has been a front for utter religious degeneration and corruption. Jagannatha, the enlightened modern member of the decadent town, desirous of breaking free from these webs, adopts varied means to desecrate the sacred symbols of his home and the town. His announcement of entering the temple with the Holeyaru initiates a series of fragments on the apparent calmness enveloping Bharathipura. As a modern colonial subject, the self-assumed burden of breaking the inegalitarian notion of caste hierarchy leads to his existential turmoil. He begins to introspect and condemn his self-invested actions of liberating the pariahs. He has come to believe that only through the act of letting the Holeyaru enter the temple will he "be a man again". (Ananthamurty 2010: 31) However the fascinating exposure of the contemporary world, where fanatics constantly mould the past to support the hierarchical system, fails him. The irony of his failure lies in his modern attitude. He wishes to demolish the whole system without any substitute. Instead of revamping it through education and gradual reversal of the mind-set, he resorts to instantaneous and temporal demolition of the sacred symbols. He begins by offering his high caste family relic, the Saligrama (the worship stone) to be touched by the Holeyaru, Jagannatha, a modern iconoclast, decides to let the Holeyaru begin by desecrating the deity in his home before entering the temple. This sudden decision to defile the Saligrama comes to him as he envisions himself in the garb of Raghav Puranik. The urgency of negating that possibility and his Brahmanism, predicates him to perform this sacrilegious act. Also, he cannot pre-pone the temple-entry, estimating the historic mark it would leave if performed on the new moon day/ chariot festival.

The act of touching the Saligrama is central to the world of Bharathipura and Jagannatha. For the moment, to Jagannatha, it seems like a solution to all his problems. The Holerayu, whom he has tried to educate and civilise have failed him. They stand in the backyard, wearing the white uniforms given to them by Jagannatha, yet scared of him. He forces them to break the spell of the Saligrama and embrace modernity. Yet, it is his this modernity that scares the Holeyaru. Here the religious fear of Bhootharaya has been over-shadowed by the fear of tyrannical modern ambitions of Jagannatha. Mechanically, they touch as they are asked to by their Odeya (master):

His voice sounded like that of an animal provoked. He was startled to hear his own voice coming out like that. Except for cruelty, all other feelings had left him. He looked more frightening than the Bhootharaya.
Touch it! Touch it! Touch it! Stunned by the pressing piercing yell, the Holeyaru stepped forward mechanically, made a ritual of touching whatever Jagannatha was holding out to them, and stepped back quickly.

(Ananthamurty 2010: 160)

The pariahs are visualised as spineless creatures begging for clemency from the monstrous Jagannatha. He has dehumanised them for his own satisfaction, but cloaks it under his grand cause to empower them. In his project of liberation, he has lost humanity for a second. Even Chikki and the priest, standing in the yard behind him, have more humanity to offer the pariah despite their untouchability. The inability of the modern self to revisit its non-modern world disallows him to understand the gravity of the act to the Holeyaru. Forcing the Holeyaru to touch the Saligrama is a violence that he commits due his frenzy. Jagannatha's actions claim his iconoclasm. But here the icon he wishes to desecrate is largely a projection of his own desires and apprehensions. Jagannatha convinces himself and tries to convey the message to the pariah that the Saligrama is "merely a ball of stone". (Ananthamurty 2010: 156) He fails in doing so as "somehow the festishes [Saligrama] becomes important in the hands of anti-fetish [Jagannatha, the iconoclast]". It becomes difficult to differentiate between the "hammer of the sculptor and hammer of the iconoclast". (Latour 1998: 3) The cynical iconoclast, confident about his modern groundings, believes that he needs to liberate the believers from their fetishism. Without estimating the projection of his own faith in the fetish during the process, he assumes an easy escape from the illusory world. In fact, it is this critical modern thinker who re-invents the fetish and attributes new meanings to it:

…only because I offer this to you as a mere stone. It has become the saligrama. If you touch what I offer you, it will become a mere stone to all of them. My anguish is becoming the saligrama; because I offer it to you and because you touch it, let the stone become the saligrama and let the saligrama become a stone…

(Ananthamurty 2010: 159)

To others, it has been just another stone with divine values. It can be replaced and purified, if polluted. No one else, apart from Jagannatha juggles with the dual nature of the Saligrama as a stone or a relic. He renders it a life and worships it. The projection of belief of disbelief makes the stone/ Saligrama worth breaking. In a way, Jagannatha is the only one inhabiting the illusory world of the stone/ Saligrama. With this, the rejuvenation of the Saligrama increases exponentially, with every human touch. Also, his humanity depends on it. When the Holeyaru touch the stone/ Saligrama, Jagannatha pacifies:

The most important question is this, why has God possessed me this way? Why has the ball in my hand that I want to establish as a mere stone become the saligrama? Why do I hear bells ringing inside me? I am walking like a priest performing a strange ritual; I am making this stone the saligrama with every step. I am taking, while asserting all the while that it is just a stone and not the saligrama.

(Ananthamurty 2010: 158)

Once the Holeyaru have touched the stone, the human connection between the two parties has emerged. The importance of preserving humanity through the Saligrama becomes apparent to Jagannatha. His naïve belief that the believers should touch the Saligrama to break its spell is broken. The modern iconoclast is not modern any more. He is trapped in the pre-modern world where casteism, violence and ignorance go hand in hand. Strangely, the believers (here, the Holeyaru, aunt and the priest) consider this modern fetishless (godless) man as their protector. And, they submit to his persuasions. Whereas, all they require is to be able to share the space with others, in the presence of the Saligrama as a relic.

We see, gradually, Jagannatha has created his own cult out of his own modern beliefs. He is in a constant need for religious fetishes to break. Once, the Saligrama is touched, he throws it aside. He owns the stone by disowning it. Now, is he a free thinker or has bartered one cult for another, is to be judged. A single impulsive act of irrationality evaporates all his modernity. He is reduced to be one of the Brahmins who inflict violence on the Holeyaru to satisfy their own ends. This predicates the fluctuating status of modern man. Modernity is a thin line between obsession and tradition. The modern man needs to tread cautiously. A similar story is narrated by U R Ananthamurthy about a painter who meets a peasant worshipping a stone as God. The painter asks the peasant to bring his stone-deity out in light for a better view. The painter questions the peasant, if this displacement has led to a sacrilege or not. The peasant calmly, claims that he will replace it with a new stone and worship it. The painter is disturbed by this easy replacement of the stone, as he sees the object of worship and worship as one. Like this painter, Jagannatha too believes in the continuity of faith and object. Despite, their disbelief in the stone, they invest more continuity of faith in them then the believers. Jagannatha as an assumed proponent of western thoughts, is unable to divorce the signifier from the signified. The signifier (stone/Saligrama/linga) is the material evidence of the ideal signified (faith/worship). It is difficult for non - believers to see them separately.

A similar mishap occurs when Ganesha Bhatta, fuelled by anger against his father for not allowing him to enjoy the tokens of modernity, decides to unearth the linga in the Manjunatha temple. He pulls it out of the pedestal and throws it in the adjacent river. In his effort to free the Holeyaru, Jagannatha and himself from the realm of Lord Manjunatha, Ganesha Bhatt commits the sacrilege. He expects the sacrilege to lead to a loss of the heightened religious indulgence in Bharathipura, centred around Lord Manjunatha:

What if Jagannatha loses? What if the Holeyaru refuse to enter the temple? Then, Appa will win. After he dies, Manjunatha will crush me as if He were an oil press. That will be my state until I die…The same chickpeas, the same vegetables, the same kumkuma, the same worship. Ganesha felt sick.

(Ananthamurty 2010: 242)

Unable to assess the dispensability of the connection between the object of worship and worship, Ganesha believes that the disposal of the linga (also a stone) will emancipate everyone. Latter, we find that the truth about the sacrilege committed by Ganesha has been twisted before serving the towns folk. They claim that Ganesha, possessed by Bhootharaya has destroyed the linga to protect it from desecration when the Holeyaru enter the temple of Lord Manjunatha:

Ganesha Bhatta, the saviour of god's sanctity.

(Ananthamurty 2010: 246)

Here again, with the touch of the iconoclast, the power of the stone increases exponentially. The power of the stone-linga lies in gaining significance, both from the beliefs of the believers and disbeliefs of the atheist-iconoclast. And the faith of the people is reliant on the signified and not the signifier. The townfolks will easily replace the lost stone-linga with another. The last line of the text is about this replacement of the stone-linga and preservation of the earlier hierarchical order in Bharathipura:

Adiga was explaining to Chikki the arrangements being made to re-install Manjunatha.

(Ananthamurty 2010: 253)

The worshippers of Lord Manjunatha have found an alternate way to establish him. People like Prabhu and Seetharamaiah will never let the cult die. Even at the cost of distorting the truth, they will preserve it, as their livelihood and riches depend on it. Only, the modern critical thinker questions and distorts his sceptical self and the surroundings. The modern self is a reservoir or knowledge challenged by uncertainty. Despite all his attempts, Jagannatha and Ganesha remain a failure. Their transitoriness never allows modernity to dwell in Bharathipura through them.

Borrowing from the two sacrileges, one can conclude that the emerging modern man of the pre-independence era has his own set notions of emancipation from the caste system and upliftment of the untouchables attributing to the project of nation building. Reformists like Mahatma Gandhi, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Dayanand Saraswati in their efforts to remove sectarianism from Hinduism have condemned idolatry. As enlightened modern men, their deepest allegiances rest on nationhood. Swami Dayanand believes that the internal dissection of Hinduism has led to the loss of national unity and subjugation by the colonisers.

Idol worship is constantly posed as a problem. With time it begins to denigrate religion and serves as a front for corruption and immorality. According to Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Dayanand, idols are divisive. These idols are the markers of allegiances to differing sectarianism within a religion. To this Gandhi assures, that the temples can regain their piety if all humans can enter them. Though Gandhi believes in the inner world of asceticism, he promotes temple -entries of the untouchables. He realises the importance of understanding idol-worship only to consider iconoclasm through temple-entry. Once the idols are demolished, he offers them spirituality. Perhaps, these could be listed as the sociological insights that Jagannatha's social reform lacks. He is pre-occupied by the act of temple entry. Yet, that is the only sacrilegious incident that has not been described. It is barely reported using a newspaper article. The ultimate act of sacrilege in the world of the text has been denied to the readers as it is incomplete and misdirected. By entering the temple with the Holeyaru, Jagannatha is prepared to demolish the world of Lord Manjunatha without offering an alternate world to inhabit. The Holeyaru support his temple-entry project (succumbing to his pressures) and their houses are burnt down by the followers of Lord Manjunatha. They become homeless and seek shelter in his yard. Despite all these interactions, he can barely remember the names or faces of the Holeyaru:

I don't yet see the Holeyaru as human beings: I see them as the lengthening shadows of the evening, as dark bodies that listen to me from afar and then go back to their homes… Who is Pilla? Who is Kariya? Who is Madha…?

(Ananthamurty 2010: 124)

Jagannatha struggles to understand them. And his failure has been his inability to de- centre himself from the kernel of his project. As a modern man, his obsession with constant self-introspection takes a toll on his social obligations. He confesses that he is "still an idealist playing the same game; looking at myself [himself] in a mirror…" (Bharathipura, 142) But, he wishes to touch the Holeyaru and tear down the boundaries between the Self and the Other. Once, he touches one of them, they become humans for him. Only Pilla, the apparent perpetrator of Kaveri, the Shetty woman and Chouda, the dead Holeya boy seem real to him. He has touched them and that attributes them the humanness he recognises.

To derive, in the modern age, sacrileges committed in the world of Lord Manjunatha can lead to a significant revelation. As understood in a conversation between N Manu Chakravarthy and Ananthamurthy, touch is the agent connecting sacrileges and revelation. When Jagannatha holds the stone - Saligrama it becomes the Saligrama; when Jaganntha offers the same Saligrama to the Holeyaru to touch, the Saligrama becomes a "mere stone? and they lose their humanity for a moment; when Ganesh touches the linga in the Manjunatha temple, he is glorified instead of being condemned; and only when Jagannatha touches Pilla, they could shatter the spell cast on the un(touch)ables:

N Manu Chakravarthy : …When you come to Bharathipura, touch figures in a radically different way. Here the untouchables have to touch the saligrama, the sacred object, and emerge from their state of pollution. But it also means that if they touch the saligrama, they are polluting it.

(Ananthamurty 2010: 259)

U R Ananthamurthy : …The theme of touch is related to the caste system. It is sociological among other things. So you find it all through my writings, mainly because of my own notion of pollution and purity that I shared in my house and my grandfather who had his own complex notion of it.

(Ananthamurty 2010: 257)

The act of "touch" in the writings of Ananthamurthy, has both sacred and profane values. It can reverse roles. As a ready agent of modernity, untouchability and sacrilege, touch works like a magical spell to modernise things. It is evoked out of desire and evokes desire. Whatever is touched, transforms to gain an active life in this modern world.


  1. Ananthamurthy, U R. 2003, "Being a writer in India." Tender Ironies - a tribute to Lothar Lutze. (ed. Günther-Dietz Sontheimer, Heidrun Brückner, Anne Feldhaus & Rainer Kimmig Dilip Chitre. Tübingen & Würzburg)
  2. Ananthamurthy, U R. 2010. Bharathipura. (ed. Mini Krishnan) New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  3. "In conversation: UR. Ananthamurthy and N. Manu Chakraborty." Ananthamurthy, U R Bharathipura. (ed. Mini Krishna) Trans. Susheela Punitha. Oxford University Press, n.d. pp 254-272.
  4. Ananthamurthy, U R.1979, "Search for an identity: a viewpoint of a Kannada Writer." In Identity and Adulthood (ed. Sudhir Kakar) Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  5. Bayly, Susan. 2008. The New Cambridge History of India- Caste Society and Politics in India from 18th century to the Modern Age. Ed. C. A. Bayly Gordon Johnson. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, 4 vols.
  6. Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar. 1999. "On alternative modernities." in Public Cultures. (ed. Dilip Gaonkar) Duke University Press, pp 1-18.
  7. Latour, Bruno. 1998 "A few steps towards the anthropology of iconic gestures." In Science in Context, pp 63-83.
  8. Rao, Kailash C. Baral. D. Venkat Rao. Sura P., ed. 2005, U R Ananthamurthy's Samskara-a Critical Reader. first. New Delhi: Pencraft International.
  9. Salmond, Noel. 2002 "Both iconoclast and idolater: Gandhi on the worship of images." In Studies in Religion, pp 373-390.



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