Hurried opening, temporary closure: Curious case of Parashurama Theme Park that has kicked up a political storm

It hurts me deeply when someone, especially those in power, levels baseless allegations on my statue's authenticity, says sculptor.

ByBellie Thomas

Published Oct 28, 2023 | 12:00 PMUpdatedOct 28, 2023 | 1:26 PM

The 33-feet tall Parashurama statue at the Parashurama Theme Park in Karkala

A 33-foot statue of sage Parashurama — the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu — in the Udupi district of Karnataka is the latest political flashpoint in the state’s coastal region.

The statue was inaugurated in January this year by the then chief minister and BJP leader Basavaraj Bommai. The “hurried” inauguration was just four months before the Assembly elections, which the Congress won.

Since September, the statue has been at the centre of a volley of charges being exchanged by the BJP and the Congress, and the apparent strengthening work of its base has even led to wild rumours.

And all this, because the authorities are trying to ensure that the statue stays steady despite the vagaries of nature, and that lightning does not strike it.

The controversy has now turned into ammunition for the Congress in Karkala — especially for Uday Shetty Muniyal, who lost by a slight margin of 4,602 votes to the BJP’s V Sunil Kumar.

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The statue

The sage’s statue is at the Parashurama Theme Park, a tourist destination built on the 450-foot-tall Umikal hill in Bailur village in Karkala taluk of the Udupi district.

The statue is 33 feet tall, and was made of bronze. However, Congress allegations said other materials were involved. The base foundation underneath the statue is 57 feet tall.

The statue depicts the sage holding an axe in the right hand and a bow in the left hand, with the left leg raised.

The project was started at an estimated cost of ₹14.5 core in collaboration with the Department of Tourism, the Ministry of Kannada and Culture, and other related departments.

At present, the theme park has a Bhajana Mandir, a modern audio-visual art museum, a 1,000-seater amphitheatre, a viewpoint on the hill, a hallway with mural paintings of Parashurama, and a restaurant.

It took 70 workers — headed by the chief sculptor Krishna Naik from Honnavar in Tulu Nadu — seven months to build the statue in parts.

It was built at a cost of ₹2 crore and it used around 15 tonnes of copper-mixed bronze.

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The initial controversy

It all started in the second week of September, when the local tehsildar issued an order prohibiting public entry to the theme park for two months, stating that some renovation work had to be taken up to strengthen the statue.

Visitors and locals began suspecting some ulterior motive behind the tehsildar’s order, as it had been only seven months since the theme park was thrown open to the public by Bommai.

Local vernacular news outlets — many of them YouTube channels — started airing the views of tourists and the district administration, and later the political fallout between both the defeated Congress party workers and BJP MLA Sunil Kumar, who had won from the Karkala constituency by a thin margin.

Some social media posts claimed that the Parashurama statue was a duplicate one, and that the sculptor who made the statue was not an artiste but a contractor who took projects from the earlier BJP government.

There were also versions stating that the statue was made by Plaster of Paris (PoP), and not copper-mixed bronze.

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Laxmi Hebbalkar’s visit

The 33-feet tall Parashurama statue at the Parashurama Theme Park in Karkala

The 33-feet tall Parashurama statue at the Parashurama Theme Park in Karkala

On 23 September, District In-Charge Minister Laxmi Hebbalkar, who is also the state’s minister for women and child development, visited the Parashurama Theme Park and apparently found discrepancies with the work of the statue.

She told reporters that no one should play politics with the sentiments of the people.

She also said that the work of the theme park was taken up in a hasty manner as the Assembly elections were fast approaching, and people’s feelings were played with.

It takes a lot of time to complete the work of a theme park as huge as this, she said.

Hebbalkar also said that she had come to the theme park to ensure the safety of locals and tourists, rather than playing politics, as the area was prone to heavy winds and downpours.

The minister also assured the people that she would do everything in her capacity within the framework of the law to set things right at the theme park.

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Head dismantled

According to the sources in the Udupi district administration office, the head of the Parashurama statue was dismantled on 9 October.

This was because the base — the leg and foot portion — was found to be weak and unable to bear the weight of the heavy bronze metal parts on top, the sources told South First.

This led to wild rumours in and around Karkala that the head of the statue had been stolen overnight. However, it was actually the District Nirmithi Kendra that dismantled the top portion of the statue.

Nevertheless, a series of protests erupted. Such was their intensity that the repair work was halted.

Congress workers started coming in groups and fulminating against the BJP for allegedly misleading and cheating people by building a substandard statue of Parashurama — believed to be the creator of Tulu Nadu — in haste just to win the election.

On 21 October, workers of both the BJP and the Congress and their supporters protested at the theme park.

While the Congress workers, trying to check if the statue was genuine, climbed on it, the BJP supporters protested against them and started videographing them. They subsequently filed a police complaint against the Congress workers.

Based on the complaint, filed by BJP worker and Yerlapady Gram Panchayat president Sunil Hegde, the Karkala Town police registered an FIR and booked 13 Congress workers, including a woman social worker named Divya Nayak, who was backing them in the controversy.

The 13 accused have been booked under IPC Sections 295 (injuring or defiling a place of worship with the intent to insult the religion of any class) and 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of ₹50).

In order to confront the Congress workers, the BJP workers also climbed over the statue to prove it was made of bronze and not any other material.

Divya Naik filed a counter-complaint against seven BJP workers and others, based on which the Karkala Town police registered an FIR against them under the same above-mentioned sections and summoned the accused for questioning and recording their statements.

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Administration stand

Meanwhile, Udupi Deputy Commissioner K Vidya Kumari said that the strengthening work of the statue had been halted.

“We have written to the director of the Tourism Department, seeking permission to restart the work. As soon as we get the directions, we will start the work. We had stopped the work due to protests by some people,” she said.

“We have written to the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka (NITK) in Suratkal to send an expert team to inspect the materials used in the making of the statue and also to check its stability. They (NITK) have assured that they will conduct an inspection and submit a report by 15 November as they are busy with some examinations at present,” Vidya Kumari told South First.

Asked if the materials used to make the statue were PoP or fibre, the DC said she was not an expert on the subject, and hence could not comment on it.

“As per the Nirmithi Kendra plan, all these works would be carried out in about two months. The Umikal hill in Karkala is prone to heavy downpours, with lightning and thunderstorms. The statue’s head was closer to the hand that is holding an axe, and there is also an arch that has to be technically corrected to avoid lightning strikes on the statue,” Vidya Kumari said.

‘Congress creating drama’

The 33-feet tall Parashurama statue at the Parashurama Theme Park in Karkala

The 33-feet tall Parashurama statue at the Parashurama Theme Park in Karkala

Karkala MLA Sunil Kumar told South First: “I had said on the day of the inauguration that this needed further work.”

He noted: “It is a 450-foot tall rocky hill, and on top of it there is a 57-foot foundation platform. Above it is the 33-foot Parashurama statue. If it was made of PoP or fibre, would it have stood these 10 months, including  a rough rainy season? It is common sense.”

He added: “I had said at the inauguration that the angle of the statue needed to be changed. Some alignment and strengthening works are needed, for which we would require two months.”

He continued: “The tehsildar issued an order on 9 September to close the park to the public for the strengthening work, but now Congress workers have started their drama.”

The BJP leader also said that the theme park’s total project cost was ₹14.5 crore, of which ₹6.5 crore was released by the previous BJP government in the state. The remaining ₹8 crore for the project is still pending, he said.

Kumar then posed three questions for the ruling Congress:

  1. When would the Congress release the rest of the funds?
  2. Why was an inquiry by an independent agency not initiated when there were allegations of use of substandard materials for the statue and large-scale corruption?
  3. Why did the government stop the strengthening work?

“Our party built this theme park to boost tourism in the coastal Karnataka region, and it looks like the Congress is not happy with that,” he alleged.

Sculptor weighs in

A clearly pained chief sculptor Krishna Naik said about the controversy: “I am a sculpting artist out of passion, and I have studied for it. It hurts me deeply when someone — especially from the corridors of power — levels blatant and baseless allegations, like that the statue of Parashurama is made of PoP or fibre.”

He asserted: “The statue has been made of only bronze and nothing else. If they want, they can do their probing and even hold me accountable if it is not bronze. Sections of the media have even labelled me a contractor and not an artist, which is painful.”

Naik told South First: “I took it upon myself to become a renowned artiste from the South — as an individual from Tulu Nadu to sculpt statues of whoever built Tulu Nadu — as all the huge and gigantic statues in this country are being made by people from the North.”

He added that the BJP government had released ₹1 crore for making the statue, out of which he paid ₹26 lakh as GST. “The rest of it I invested in procuring the metal, melting it, making the statue part by part, and paying my workers,” he explained.

“I am at present stuck, unsure when the remaining ₹1 crore will be released by the government. I am an artiste by profession, who has to earn a livelihood, and I need both the Congress and the BJP — whoever is ruling the state. It is very disappointing to see one bringing in religion on a piece of artwork and playing politics with it,” he said.

Naik said he seconded Karkala MLA V Sunil Kumar, who said during the inauguration of the statue in January that it needed to be strengthened.

“I had also said during the inauguration that it would take two more months for the statue to be worked on. The work got a bit delayed due to the rains last year, and we had to hurry up as the inauguration date was fixed,” Naik said.