On this cloudy, rainless July morning in the northwestern Indian city of Jodhpur, the monsoon which had been deluging the rest of the country seemed to have forgotten us; like every year, we of the Thar Desert of Rajasthan morosely scanned the skies and resigned ourselves to the absence of rain, though this year’s drought threatened to be far worse than usual.
My family and I were driving down to the Motorcycle (or Bullet Baba) temple, colloquially known as Om Banna Sthan. My mother’s roots are in Jodhpur, so when I take annual visits to the city with my family, we often perform pilgrimages to a variety of temples and shrines as a matter of course. We had heard that Om Banna—only fifty kilometers from the city—was experiencing an uptick in popularity, so we decided to pay it a visit. When I first made inquiries about the shrine in Jodhpur, practically everyone seemed to know about it, from my relatives to temple priests to autorickshaw drivers.
Our taxi driver, Sher Singh, happened to be a distant relative of Om Singh Rathore himself, the young man whose 350 cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle had crashed just after sunset on December 2, 1988, and whose accident site subsequently became a shrine. Initially reticent, Sher Singh became more loquacious when he learned about our Jodhpur connection. We conversed in Marwari, the language spoken in Rajasthan, and he helped me buy the area’s famous dhurries (rugs) from a roadside workshop. He even insisted on us tasting the famous kachories of Rohetgarh, a village en route to Om Banna: “You will not find anything in Rajasthan like the hospitality and food in Jodhpur,” he declared.
Only when I told him of my interest in the shrine did he bring up his familial connection to it. “His father, Jog Singh, was the thakur of the area,” he told us—the feudal landlord or chief—and he was blessed with psychic gifts; politicians would come to him to ask for predictions. “He knew that his son had passed away the exact moment it happened.” In life, there had been other portents as well: Om Rathore had been told since childhood that the shape of his chin and forehead indicated that he would earn name and honor for him and his family.
According to a small locally produced pamphlet—sold at shops around the shrine—the story of Om Rathore’s death goes like this: After he perished on the spot, the motorcycle was taken to the nearby police station, only to return to the site of the accident the next morning. This occurred several more times; even after measures were taken—locking the vehicle up, emptying its fuel tank, and eventually even selling it to a customer in Gujarat, hundreds of kilometers away—it once again returned to the crash site, like a loyal dog retracing a journey back home. Members of the local community supposedly witnessed the motorcycle hurtling down the highway without a driver. When this last reappearance of the motorcycle convinced the local community that they were witnessing a miracle, the police subsequently returned the motorcycle to the deceased’s family.
In the years since, many have testified to seeing him in person, though he is also a common visitor in dreams, riding this very Bullet. Om Rathore first appeared in a dream to his paternal grandmother, not long after his demise, telling her that in order for his soul to find peace, a shrine should be built at the accident spot and the motorcycle be forever worshiped there. And so it was done. He has subsequently been addressed as Om Banna, Banna being a general Marwari term of respect for “brother.”
In Rajasthan, open-air shrines in fields or under trees are called than and thans which come to be associated with supernatural events or miracles are elevated to the status of dham. But beyond this, shrines are protean; in contrast with the formal structure of a temple, they assume a variety of shapes and forms to accommodate a more intimate space of worship. Many temple complexes originally began as shrines, but the difference is still very significant: shrines represent an alternative to “official” places of worship. Om Banna is popularly known as the Bullet Baba temple, but it is more accurately a wayside shrine, a site that houses a worshipped object immediately adjacent to a public path, visible and accessible to many.
Om Banna regularly features in listicles and travel pieces as one of India’s most bizarre and unusual temples, with the motorcycle itself often rendered as an eccentric object of worship. An Indian Express piece compares it to the haunted car featured in the Bollywood film Tarzan (2004), for example, and archly comments on the irony of offering alcohol, the leading cause of roadside accidents, to the deity. (This Livemint article also mentions devotees offering whisky, “Rathore’s favorite tipple.”) Atlas Obscura calls the shrine “colorful”—one of India’s “curious” places of worship—while another piece observes that worshipping a Royal Enfield is one of “the many incredible things that only happen in India”. But the caretakers are determined to dispel the misconception that the motorcycle is the object of worship: “We believe that the spirit of Om Banna resides in the motorcycle,” they emphasized to me, “but the motorcycle is merely the medium through which we can access and worship him.”
It’s not surprising that these publications refer to the “Bullet Baba” or “Motorcycle Temple,” but locals refer to it as Om Banna Sthan (or Om Bannasa Sthan, adding an extra Marwari suffix of respect); there is a wide difference between the curious tourist and the reverential devotee, between seeing the motorcycle as an exotic oddity and as the home of a protective guardian spirit.
Interestingly enough, there’s another motorcycle shrine in the nearby region of Mewar: according to a leading oral historian of Rajasthan, Komal Kothari, a milkman used to bring milk to Udaipur every day from a neighboring village on his motorcycle. When he perished in an accident on the road itself, he too appeared in a dream to his mother and told her to build a shrine on the accident site, with the object to be worshipped that very motorcycle. (The mother subsequently became a medium to be possessed by her son’s spirit; in this state, she answered questions posed by the community.) Despite these similarities, I couldn’t find anything published about the Milkman’s Motorcycle shrine; some shrines assume a much greater degree of deification, while others remain obscure and known to only the local community.
Om Banna’s popularity can be seen in the many shops in the area selling religious accoutrements, in the restaurants, and in the hotel near the tree against which Om Rathore’s motorcycle so fatally collided. The tree—known as the jhal in Marwari—is now fenced off by wire, the fence enveloped in a skin of overlapping bright vermillion thread, tinsel-fringed crimson cloth, and iridescent bangles. Five years ago, Om Rathore’s family reluctantly agreed to transplant the shrine a few meters from the original spot of the accident; the tree itself is now a wish tree, like many trees in India that have become the object of ritual practice: brightly festooned with cloth strips and bangles, they reflect the yearnings and desires of those who tie them there.
In my time at the shrine, I watched devotees approaching and congregating there. I saw young newlyweds going to take their blessings from the jyot, a flame that specifically burns in front of a deity; after making offerings such as bells and flowers, they placed their hands over the flame and touched them to their foreheads and eyes. Alongside a painted bust of Om Banna, on a concrete platform known as a chabutra, the Om Banna jyot burns 24 hours a day, continually fed by dry coconut husks and whole coconuts. Jodhpur is a major military center, so it’s not surprising that I also saw many army personnel, like a man dressed in military fatigues who, accompanied by his wife, had brought his newborn baby to be blessed.
I asked the caretakers what makes people come from near and far, what inspires such reverence. “He has become the villagers’ very own god-guardian,” they told me. “If they want something, they will come here, if those wishes are fulfilled, they will come to thank him. They feel safe knowing that he is around to listen and take care of them.” Both the caretakers and the pamphlet relate numerous examples of those who have invoked Om Banna’s name and found succor: a childless woman getting pregnant after years of trying to conceive or a truck driver escaping near death after the tires of his vehicle burst.
The motorcycle itself is encased in a glass box, garlanded and anointed, intact and unscathed, like an exotic, embalmed creature in a museum display. It has supposedly not been altered at all since the crash—and certainly seems undamaged—and still starts up by itself on Om Rathore’s death anniversary. “You wouldn’t be able to walk on that day, so many people flock to the shrine,” Sher Singh told me. A sign clearly forbade the consumption of alcohol and narcotics at the premises but I spotted two youths opening bottles of whisky and placing them by the motorcycle. When I asked about this offering, one youth explained that Om Banna was a Rajput who, true to the community’s reputation, enjoyed alcohol.
With the famed Marwari hospitality, one of the caretakers brought us a tray of milky tea in tiny ceramic cups. “You must take it. It is prepared from milk from Om Banna’s own home,” he said, gesturing towards the village at the foot of a hill beyond open fields. Om Rathore had been driving back home when the fatality had occurred; his wife had been five months pregnant with his unborn son. Though his father passed away last year, his wife and son remain in the village.
Photography is officially not permitted at the shrine, but most visitors take selfies with the motorcycle before taking the ritual perambulation around the shrine. I found an Australian couple examining the motorcycle with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. They had been en route to another popular Rajasthan destination, Udaipur, when their driver suggested they stop. If passing drivers do not stop to offer prayers at the shrine, many believe that their cars will stall within a kilometer of the place; if they cannot halt, believers still acknowledge the shrine’s presence as they pass by it. Of course, many do not stop. But the caretakers claim that the number of accidents has been much reduced on the highway, which they ascribe—along with a lack of casualties—to Om Banna’s beneficent presence.
I also saw a Jain monk clad in white standing in the verandah of a low-roofed house adjacent to the shrine; having walked all the way from Jodhpur, she and her six fellow monks were now resting before travelling to the nearby town of Pali in a couple of days. “In Jainism, we believe that if a being passes away at an auspicious time, their spirit becomes that of a god,” she stated in a mixture of Hindi and English. “If we ignore them, they come to warn us that we are ignorant; if we look after them, they look after us.” The shrine is open to all castes, communities, and regions; its very nature as a wayside shrine makes it a communal space, reflecting the complex syncretic paths of faith and belief that India takes.
As we prepared to leave, rain began to drizzle on our heads. “Om Banna was listening,” one of the caretakers remarked, his face turned upwards to receive his liquid blessings. Perhaps he was. But as we approached Jodhpur, the sky cleared up. When we arrived, there was not a single drop of rain to be seen.