Last year, during the months of October-November, I travelled across Rajasthan by road with different cabs for each leg of my 35-day journey. I soon started to notice one constant element across the taxis’ dashboards. They had a framed photo of a young turbaned gentleman, either perched on it or hanging from the rear-view mirror. My first thought was: he must be a relative of the driver. But when the photograph kept cropping up in almost every cab, I was confused. All the drivers could not exactly be related to the same man.
So, I asked, though I really did not want to sound nosy or offend anyone.
What emerged was a story which, I mused, could only happen in India! But before I share the story, I was also told there was a special site associated with the turbaned gentleman and it was on the highway connecting Jodhpur with Udaipur. When I asked rather hesitantly if one could stop at it, my then driver laughed. “Whether you like it or not, your driver will stop there.”
Fifty-three kilometres from Jodhpur, on my way to Udaipur, my driver and I did indeed stop by a row of makeshift shops selling offerings. There were sweetmeats, flowers, incense sticks, and alcohol on sale. Scores of cars were parked by the roadside. Those who could not stop, brought their cars to a standstill, prayed, and then drove on.
In the distance I could hear the rhythmic beating of drums. We walked towards the sound, and after taking off our shoes, were soon enveloped in a jostling crowd and heavy incense smoke. Up a short flight of steps, I found myself facing a priest seated by a burning flame with life size photographs of the same turbaned gentleman around him. Devotees were offering bottles of booze and marigold garlands to the photograph.
I guess one could not stand indefinitely in such a sacred spot for I was soon pushed down the stairs and to a glass room inside which a 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet with registration number RNJ 7773 stood draped in bright red, orange, and yellow marigold garlands. Entry was not allowed into this hallowed chamber. I could only stand outside with the other locals and look at it, them in deep awe and me in deep bewilderment.
Welcome to Om Banna Temple and Bullet Baba’s shrine, the ultimate deity for Rajasthan’s bikers and those who plough the roads on their motorised vehicles. Om Banna promises his devotees safe journeys.
Om Banna was a Rajput youth, known as Om Singh Rathore before his deification. One summer day, on 5 May, 1988, he met with an accident and died on this very spot. Next morning, the local police came and took the motorbike to the police station. But lo behold, the motorbike found its way back to the site. They tried every trick from emptying its fuel tank to locking it up. Yet it always managed to tear itself free and go back to where its owner had died.
The villagers in the area were quick to recognize a miracle when they saw one. The Royal Enfield Bullet became Bullet Baba, a shrine was made for it, and along with its master Om Banna, started to be worshipped.
Local beliefs claim that those who worship Om Banna and Bullet Baba are assured of safe travels. But should you pass by the temple and not say a prayer, doom was inevitable. Be prepared to meet a horrific accident on the highway. Oh, and Om Banna was pretty fond of his whiskey. Hence the offering of bottles of booze so he could still drink and be merry in the afterlife.
PS. Om Banna wishes you all safe travels. 🙂