This populous city in North Karnataka is often referred to as the state’s Hindutva heartland. Many see it as the fiefdom of Sri Rama Sene chief Pramod Muthalik who is contesting as an Independent after being dumped by the BJP within hours of his induction.
That image received a boost when, smarting from the snub, Muthalik declared at a press conference: "Hindus will avenge this insult. I don't want any Muslim votes."
Barely 15 km from where Muthalk addressed the media stands a village where few Hindus even recognise the Hindutva poster boy. The residents of Yamanur village on Hubli’s outskirts are too busy hosting their biggest annual event -- the festival at the shrine of Changdev Maharaj, a demigod who is believed to have lived in these parts 3,000 years ago.
In the local Kannada dialect, Changdev literally translates to 'the good god'. And why not? This loincloth-clad mystic, who rode a tiger, didn't care too much for the binary of Hindu and Muslim. Appropriately enough, his shrine has both a Hindu and a Muslim priest.
“What is this Hindu-Muslim? Changdev Maharaj was neither,” says the Hindu priest of the shrine, Sampath Rao Barve, 66. His Muslim counterpart, Karim Shah Mahandar, 65, nods in agreement. The two have known each other since childhood and have been leading prayers here for decades.
Sure enough, the shrine's annual festival is a sight for sore eyes. Thousands of Hindus and Muslims, dressed in their traditional clothes, throng the festival even as Muthalik's Sene and other communal groups go around the constituency seeking votes in the name of religion.
“Muthalik who?” asks Karim Shah. “That man with the red tilak who comes on TV and always looks angry,” Sampath Rao tells his friend. “Who cares,” says Shah in a local Urdu dialect as he swooshes a peacock-feather broom over the head of a Hindu devotee in a gesture of blessing.
Outside the shrine, traders have set up a roaring fair, selling everything from Persian prayer caps and vermillion powder to green and saffron scarves which have Om and 786 printed on them.
Asked if Changdev was Hindu or Muslim, Koyal, a transgender shopkeeper, says, “Changdev was one of us -- not Hindu, not Muslim. Not male not female.”
“Before all this communal trouble, North Karnataka was known for its Sufi and Basava culture. There are villages here where Muslims have photos of Lakshmi in their homes. Thousands of Hindus throng Sufi shrines," says poet K Neela of Gulbarga.