In Tumakuru's Siddaganga Mutt, a throng of devotees brave the afternoon sun to make their way into the 'Hale Mata' (old mutt) to seek the blessings of Shivakumara Swamy.
In the courtyard of the mutt, a huddle of devotees wait to meet the 111-year-old Lingayat seer.
"People from all over the state and from other states come to seek the blessings of the Swamiji. He is a revered saint," explains M Renukaradhya, an official at the mutt.
The long list of people seeking to meet the seer grows even longer around the time of elections as politicians make a beeline to seek the blessings of the seer. This includes Congress President Rahul Gandhi and BJP President Amit Shah, who both met Shivakumara Swamy on their respective visits to Tumakuru in April.
The seer refuses to take sides in politics, choosing to maintain a studied silence over the topic of his political allegiance.
This time around, however, his resistance is being tested with the Congress government's decision to recommend a separate religion and minority status to Lingayats and Veerashaivas, who follow Basava Tatva.
"Nobody wished it to happen even in their dreams. It is a surprise to think of how the demand began. Veerashaiva is an ancient dharma. It has a long history. Lingayat dharma has come along with it. There are no differences between them," says Renukaradhya.
He is, however, quick to add that this is his personal opinion rather than the opinion of the mutt.
The Siddaganga Mutt is at least 600 years old and is an influential part of the religious lives of people in Tumakuru. Shivakumara Swamy, who was born on April 1 1907, became a Lingayat seer in 1930.
The Mutt now houses a Gurukul for students that accepts children of all castes and religions. It also runs various educational institutes in Tumakuru including a medical, engineering and arts college.
The mutt was established to spread the thoughts propagated by Lingayats and Veerashaivas.
Lingayats are followers of the 12th century philosopher-social reformer Basaveshwara, who rebelled against established Hindu traditions by defying the caste system and Vedic rituals. Veerashaivas also follow Basavanna. However, a section of Lingayats lead by IAS Officer SN Jamdaar and Water Resources Minister MB Patil, spearheaded a movement to dissociate Lingayats from Veerashaivas and the larger umbrella of Hinduism. They claim that Lingayats do not adhere to the Vedas or follow rituals and is a modern, spiritual school of thought.
But Congress’ gamble ahead of the Assembly Elections has divided opinion in Tumakuru, home to a significant population of Lingayats and Veerashaivas.
"As a citizen I don’t think such a move is necessary. Differences should not be there. All these years there was no faction like this. It’s created disturbance among Veeraishaiva and Lingayats. There is giving and take of marriages, rituals, both invite gurus for worship. There is not much difference. Even the principle of Basavanna-Ivanaarava,
Prof Meenakshi Khandimath, a professor of Political Science at Tumakuru University, called for a serious discussion within the community over the issue. "What do you mean by Hinduism? A section of Lingayats has claimed that wearing idols is not part of Lingayat culture but they continue to worship the Ishta Linga. It is a paradox within the religion," says Prof Meenakshi. The Ishta Linga is a stone that represents Lord Shiva.
The decision was also criticised by young voters in Tumakuru. "The decision will lead to communal problems. They should not have done it. They are also part of Hindu religion and there was no need to separate them. Already, there are communal problems, won't this increase it?" asked Bhanumathi, a student of Tumakuru University.
"We should not look at the polls solely on the basis of caste. Mainly, we need development. Here, so many are unemployed. We have to focus on employment. There is no development, this area is okay, but when compared to 2-3 kms away, there is no tar road, there is no drainage or water supply," said Roopesh, a student of Siddaganga Institute of Technology and BJP member
While representatives of both Lingayats and Veerashaivas earlier stood united in their demand for separate religion status, negotiations between Lingayat and Veerashaiva leaders over presenting a joint proposal for separate religion status collapsed. Eventually, both groups submitted separate proposals, and the state government decided to confer separate religion and minority tag to Lingayats, and Veerashaivas who follow Basava Tatva.
The decisions, which were announced just days before the Model Code of Conduct kicked in on March 27 is expected to have an impact on the upcoming elections. However, in Tumakuru, it appears there is still some way to go to convince voters that the decision was taken with the interests of the community at heart.