PRIMAL ELEMENTS : THE ORAL TRADITION
Perception of Bhutas in Kedarkhand
M. M. Dhasmana
Kedarkhand is an old name of Garhwal1 region. The Shaiva scriptures describe nine regions2 out of which four are in Himalayas. The Kedarkhand which is a part of the Skanda Purana, divides Himalayas into five3 broad regions and glorifies the tract (Garhwal), rivers, mountains and places as Kedarkhand. The geographical outline described by the scripture as the area bound by white snow peaks4 and the Gangadwar,5 the river Tamasa6 and the Nandadevi,7 is exactly the boundary of the present-day Garhwal Commissionary.
The Regional version of the perception of pancabhutas and their mythological origin is given in Kedarkhand (A local edition of the Kedarkhand portion of the Skanda Purana glorifying the Garhwal region). The origin of Pancabhutas finds a mention in another regional text Dhol Sagar,8 as also in lores and in folk songs sung by the musicians,9 celebrating the occasion of child birth.
Genesis of Pancabhutas
In the first chapter of the Kedarkhand, Mahadev tells Parvati that in the beginning there was an inaccessible aqueous mass (amburasi) containing various universes (brahmand) in it. In the second chapter, Mahadev explains the flowing of Tripathga (Ganga) in heaven, hell and the earth from the watery mass. Narrating the origin of the animate and inanimate, He tells Parvati in the fourth chapter, that when Lord Vishnu desired to produce the world he created water and positioned himself in the aqueous mass in the form of a golden egg. The egg was divided into two portions making earth (prthvi) and heaven (urdhwalok) and the sky (akasa) was formed between the two. The earth surrounded by water (jala) was divided into ten directions (disa); of first of all time (kala) was formed, followed by mind (manas) and speech (vani). They were followed by desire (kama), anger (krodha) and love (rati); and in analogy to them the universe was created. Brahma, after producing his seven sons (manasputras),10 created Rudra from wrath (rosh). The manasputras (saptarsis) and Rudra created progeny (praja) and invented lightening (vidyut), clouds (megha) and the rainbow (indradhanus). Then the Vedic hymns (ricas) were created to perform yajna and by dividing mind and body (deha) the man and woman were formed. To Manifest his glory Lord Vishnu made earth and sky stable and created Swayambhu Manu.
The sixth chapter narrates the birth of fire (agni) and air (vayu). The Pracetas, descendants of Dhruva and grandsons of King Prthu, originate fire, air and moon (soma) from their mouth. Fire and air start engulfing the trees and the forests perish. Then soma (moon) tells fire and air to accept very beautiful daughters of trees and become peaceful after receiving the gift of girls. A beautiful girl (kanya) named Marisha, adopting preventive measures with fire and air conceives the foetus of Pracetas and gives birth to Daksa Prajapati who is glittering, fiery-like agni and the progenitor of the universe. This was the genesis of maithuni srsti (origin of progeny by the union of male and female, i.e., procreation by copulation).
Dhol Sagar is a manual containing the methodology of rhythms, tunes and melodies of the drum musical instruments in Garhwal. It gives detailed notes on drum instruments and musical connotations and also dialogues on various related subjects. The musician who plays the drum instrument is called auji (literally a tailor). The auji who stitches the cloths is also a professional drum-player, hereditary singer and musician, folklorist and, in some cases, a talented extempore poet composing folklores suitable to the occasion. The auji plays the drum in front of village households on all social, religious and auspicious occasions. In Dhol Sagar dialogue the origin of the srsti11 is given as follows:-
This narration appears to have been influenced by the Gosain (ascetic) sect which flourished in Garhwal after the Nath Sect of Guru Gorakhnath. The priority of female over male also appears to have been influenced by the Sakta14 cult.
Origin of Bhutas in Legendary Ballads
The god almighty (Nirankar) is invoked in Garhwal in the form of singing of jagar15 and a ritual dance. Legendary ballads sung on this worship of Nirankar describe the origin of universe and bhutas in two different versions:
In another oral tradition the hereditary folk singers and musical instrument players (auji vadak) sing this folk song on the occasion of child birth.
As residents of the valley of gods the local people of Kedarkhand worship many local gods and deities in open air temples or in oromorphic forms and where liturgical performances are conducted by sastric sacred specialists or local ritual masters. Interacting with snow, avalanches, hailstorms, excessive rainfalls, floods, landslides, forests, wild animals and other natural phenomena the highlanders have a complete inventory of gods, protecting spirits, harmful supernatural forces, benevolent and malevolent spirits controlling the entire natural phenomena which may be described as Kedarkhand cosmogony. The belief in regional cosmogony, i.e., faith in local gods, invocation, propitiation, exorcism of supernatural powers, is of indigenous origin as the worship pattern and the sermons and rites of folk rituals have an oral tradition.
In the oral tradition expressed in the folk ritual, folk religion, customs and the ksetriya parampara, there is no systematic conception of the bhutas except as indigenous invocations and rituals performed to appease local gods and deities controlling natural elements for the benefit of local masses. The role of agni (fire), vayu (air) akasa (sky) in various rituals clearly indicates that these elements (tattvas) have certain cognition, special status, recognition and expression in the indigenous cosmogony.
Symbolism of Earth and Fire
In a widely prevalent folk song there is a dialogue between the invoker and agni. Since the appellent is requesting agni to come to her matlok (mother earth), the supplicant appears to be a young girl. Agni expresses her concern and apprehensions about the matlok as earth is full of impurity and sin. The song hints at the divine origin of fire and its sacrosanct and purificatory virtues on earth.
Man has always tried to harness and utilize natural forces to his advantage. In another instance fire is invited to come to the matlok to bestow food to the hungry masses. The statement that without agni Brahma (creator of the universe) remained hungry implicates that without fire mankind is deprived. The importance of agni as benefactor, as satisfier of appetite, desire and bestower of victuals is expressed.
Fire descends on earth as a purifier and paphanta (destroyer of sins). The ignition of fire in the indigenous rites and rituals is because fire is considered as a saviour, a protective force against all wicked spirits, evil forces and malignant and obnoxious forces. In the purifying process it absolves the guilty and salvages the sinner and in addition to paphanta, performs the role of pardoner of sins (papkshama).
Expecting a self-resolution of faith and fidelity and maintaining a state of self-purification, piety and devotion in the invoker, fire latently initiates a character of ethics and good behaviour and bears testimony to purity of conduct, noble deeds and virtuous life. In this role agni is aptly described as paprakshak (saviour from sinful acts/behaviour).
The apprehensions of fire about the profane earth can be attributed to the fact that agni is an embodiment of purity and by descending to the matlok (earth) she may become impure by interaction with the masses. Agni wishes to caution the involver and through her, the people, about her inclination to refrain from evil, sinful and profanatory deeds. This appears to be a latent hint to treat fire with sanctity, reverence and holiness and deter men to desist from the path of sin as fire will not tolerate this. Thus holding fire in supreme reverence and as a symbol of purification is a pointer to the faith and awareness of the local people in purity of agni as one of the bhutas and its usage in their socio-cultural life.
Invocation of fire in the form of a ritual dance performed during the annual worship of an indigenous god Jakh18 presents glimpses of the evocation pattern of the people of Mandakini19 valley who live in the lap of mountains and snow peaks and are ensconced in the geomorphic wonders of nature. The local population is subjected to natural phenomena like snowfall, avalanche, sleet, cloud-burst, landslide, earthquake, etc., of natural furies. The local cosmogony and the autochthonous ritual invocations are manifestation of the awareness of the people of the supremacy of the bhutas (elements), of cosmic forces, and their constant endeavour to harness them gainfully for their agro-pastoral pursuits. This is expressed in the appeasement of gods and ritual symbolism.
The people of Mandakini valley are generally staunch devotees of Siva20 and Shakti21 sects, but in upper reaches of the valley the local god is Jakh. The name Jakh appears to have originated from the word yaksa, who, along with Kinnar22 and Gandharvas, frequented the Gangetic Himalayas, which is their most favourite resort. Jakh is a very powerful god and is controller, distributor, regulator and dispenser of water in the shape of favourable and excessive rainfall, hailstorm, sleet, storms and clouds-bursts. Besides bestowing good crops in the agro-pastoral economy of this hill region, he also brings prosperity and removes obstacles of the devotees.
The worship of Jakh mainly consists of invocation of agni by the nar23 (spirit medium) of the god and the glorification of fire as a sanctifying and purifying element. The ritual dance is a composite worship schedule covering invocation of air, sky and fire, and indicating an awareness of their creative and generative powers.
The main Jakh is called Harmuny24 Jakh, whose temple is located at Jakhdhar25 under the grove of banj26 (Quercus incana) trees. The dhar (ridge) is situated on an open slope overlooking the snow peaks of Kedarnath27 and Chowkhamba.28 The temple structure has a four feet high wall on three sides and is open in the front. There is no cover or ceiling on the top. Inside only one icon of the deity, made of granite without decorations, is placed near the back wall of the temple. The temple is very old and thronged by numerous devotees, but the deity continues to remain under the open sky. Numerous attempts have been made by the beneficiary devotees to construct a structure above it, but the nara has repeatedly resisted to come under any shelter.
Harmuny Jakh is the tutelary god of eleven villages29 and is also worshipped by another twenty-seven villages. He has several Jakhs associated with him. Influenced by the powers of the Harmuny Jakh, the villages situated in the sub-valleys of the tributary rivulets have made token temples of the Jakh in their areas and invoked the deity there. Howerver, they consider Harmuny Jakh as the main god and treat their temples as affiliatory to him. In case of a major crisis the villagers owing allegiance to affiliated Jakhs come to pray at the main temple at Jakhdhar. Some of the affiliated temples of Jakh are at Jal, Jougi, Ransi, Nyalsu and Trijugi villages.
The devotees of Harmuny Jakh offer masks of Jakh to the lithic icon at the Jakhdhar. The masks are in the form of moulds of faces of silver and copper made by the local smith craftsmen. The villagers also offer banners, flags, standards and canopical covers made of cloth for displaying on the ritual days. All masks and decorative material are stored in Deoshal30 and taken out only on the occasion of annual fire dance. The thurible, bell, and the basket containing the invocatory equipment is kept in Kothera31 the native village of the Bhat32 priests, so that it can be taken to the temple as and when required.
The nar, also called paswa, is a resident of Nala.33 The present nar is about sixty years old, belongs to Rajput caste and is a married man engaged in agro-pastoral pursuits. The possession by Jakh has been confined to the family members only. The nar is possessed by the deity during worship and invocation. The villagers approach the god in the temple, the nar in his village, take the nar to the temple site or sometimes invite the nar to the worship in their villages or houses for various uchyanas34 (dedication made to god for fulfilment of desires and vows) and their thanksgiving ceremonies. The nar is also held in respect and reverence by the local population for his supernatural role in communicating with god, specially to bring favourable rainfall, check excessive rainfall, stop hailstorm and obtain other boons.
The Jakh is invoked on various occasions. The temple ritual schedule consists of thirty-six evocations on days like amavasya,35 Sankranti,36 Harelka37 and Dantera.38 The main worship takes place on the Baisakh,39 Sankranti40 and the next day in which the nar (human Jakh) of Harmuny Jakh comes to the open-air temple and invokes fire in the form of an ordeal. This annual fire invocation consists of the performance of a ritual dance inside the specially-erected fire altar by the nar. By dancing in the fire the human Jakh (nar) gets sanctified, purified and attains divination. In the deified state he makes oracles. In this ritual dance, fire is the medium between nar and the god Jakh — it is a communicative force between the human and the superhuman, an animating and motivating force symbolizing continuity of life through yearly tests and life-invigorating displays. A detailed description of this annual invocation is given in the succeeding lines.
Annual invocatory rituals are conducted with much religious gaiety, ostentation and reverence. For these occassions a huge crowd assembles at the main open-air temple. The rites, restrictions and preparations begin two days before the Visuvat Sankranti with the imposition of gothi41 (taboo) in the villages of Bhet and Kothera. During the gothi, the villagers abstain from anger, desire, quarrel and lead a life of celibacy, purity and noble virtues. No outsider is permitted to enter these villages in this period. Following a strict code of conduct for three days and maintaining a state of purity, the villagers of Bhet and Kothera go to the forest to collect firewood. They cut trees and big logs and leave them for the next year. The logs chopped during the previous year are brought and kept in the terrace facing the open-air temple at Jakhdhar. The fire collection takes place two days before and on the morning of the Visuvat Sankranti.42 After the collection of logs an altar is erected from the collected logs. This altar, called moondi,43 consists of seven, nine or eleven hars.44 The altar is made in the terrace facing the temple of Jakh and the wooden logs used are mainly of banj (Quercus incana) and burans45 (Rhododendrom arboreum). A large branch of the green panyya46 (Prunus Cerasoides) tree with green leaves is also inserted inside the hars. It acts as a charm. By midday, when the moondi (wooden altar) is ready, the villagers return home and the gothi is lifted. During the gothi villagers of Bhet, being of Rajput caste, are mainly engaged in cutting and collection of wooden logs, while the villagers of Kothera, being Brahmins, are engaged in worship of Jakh, collection of melagh47 and preparation of food for the priests and firewood cutters. The das48 and auji49 villagers are allowed only on the morning of Sankranti. They bring firewood from the jungle but keep it in a terrace one step lower than the fire altar. The removal of gothi is announced by the beating of drums so that the neighbouring villages can also hear them and join in the procession.
On the afternoon of Visuvat Sankranti, a procession starts from village Bhet. The auji vadak (drum musicians) leading the way proceed to Kothera, the home of Bhat priests of Jakh deity, collect the puja kandi,50 and set course for Deoshal. The masks of the Jakh deity are taken out from the store and worship ceremony is conducted in the small temple of Deoshal. The procession takes an organized and formal shape from here. In the front are the drum musicians followed by flag and standard bearers of the deity. The masks contained in a basket are carried by the Bhat priest wearing the ceremonial attire. This priest stays at Jakhdhar for the entire duration of the invocation, conducts rituals and returns with the masks after the completion of the fire ritual dance. The procession, consisting manily of male members from the villages of Bhet, Kothera and Deoshal, reaches Jakhdhar by evening, or sometimes, by dusk. The ladies of Deoshal assemble outside their temple and sing mangal,51 bidding farewell to the masks of the Jakh deity.
After the procession, carrying standards and masks of the Jakh, reach the Jakh-dhar temple, some of the people go back to their villages and return the next day. The priest and many other people, including the drum-players, stay for the night at the tem-ple site. In the early hours of the Sankranti night, fire is ignited in the moondi (fire altar) by the priests and the moondi is worshipped in all the four prahars52 of night. On the morning following Sankranti night all masks are washed by the Bhat priest and deco-ratively displayed, along with the granite statue of the Jakh. By noon, the display deco-rations are complete and thousands of devotees from near and far off villages assem-ble. The moondi is also burnt by this time and the fire altar becomes a spread bed, a couch of smouldering embers and red hot burning coal pieces. The intensity of heat of this fire altar is so severe that it is not possible to stand near the burning embers.
When the masks of the Jakh deity proceed to witness the annual fire ritual dance, the ladies assemble on the occasion remind Jakh of his relationship with air in their farewell song. The ladies sing mangal, enumerating the geneology of the deity and emphasizing his connections with vayu. In these ominous songs on the auspicious occasion of annual invocation of the deity the village ladies hail Jakh as the son of air. Some of the lines recounting the genealogical origin of the Jakh are given here.
Jakh is invoked for creating favourable wind situations. The association of this indigenous deity with cosmic force air is a clear indication that the local people are aware of the fact that air is an important element constituting the cosmos, a supernatural power relating to fertility, generation and creation.
Thus Jakh is an acknowledged controller of air and worshipped for bringing favourable winds suitable for harvests. The awareness of the importance of the cosmic force of vayu is manipulated in the form of relationship between vayu and their most favourite God Jakh. In the local cosmogony Jakh deity has been acknowledged as son of vayu (air).
The nar (human Jakh) of Harmuny Jakh is a resident of village Nala, which is about three kilometres from Jakhdhar. On the annual invocation day during the gothi, construction of moondi and the worship on days prior to or following the Sankranti day no communication or message is sent by the people of Bhet, priests of Kothera, Deoshal, the assembled crowd and people associated with sacred performances at Jakhdhar to the nar. He is entirely directed by powers of clairvoyance, intuition and telepathy. On Sankranti day, when the moondi is being prepared, he goes to river Mandakini for a holy dip. On the day following Sankranti, at about midday, the nar starts for the Jakhdhar in a procession. In the front are the drum-players of Nala village. The nar, accompanied by men and women of Nala village, proceeds to Deoshal and goes to the village temple to worship the Jakh deity. Immediately after the invocation the nar is possessed by the god (Jakh) and goes into a trance. With hands lifted up he starts dancing and with praying postures and approaches the Jakhdhar temple. The procession from Deoshal grows bigger as it is joined by drum- players of Deoshal and other villages. From Deoshal to Jakhdhar is a distance of about one and a half kilometres and a steep climb. During the journey the nar remains is a possessed state, dancing and making salutary positions towards the Jakhdhar. He is accompanied by the people of Nala, Deoshal and other villages.
On reaching Jakhdhar the nar performs three circumambulations around the decorated temple. Then he sits on a flat stone seat located under a small tree in front of the temple. The terraces housing the stone seat and the moondi are adjacent to each other, but the ground of the stone seat is lower to the stretch housing the moondi. The nar sits facing the moondi. At this moment the drum-players of eleven villages encircling him play their drum instruments. After the musical invocation, the nar runs towards the open air temple, bows to the Jakh, removes his donkhu53 (woollen coat) and upper garments and jumps inside the fire altar. After making few movements inside the fire altar he comes out and goes to the Jakh icon, where water is poured on him. This water is collected by the priests from a water spring located near the temple. After the bath, the nar again enters the fire altar and makes few dancing movements and runs towards the Jakh icon. After bowing in front of it, the nar tries to go towards the fire altar but is stopped by the priests and other people. The assembled people consult the nar and he answers their queries through divination. In this state, he sometimes makes oracles of his own. Then the priest gives him a deepak (fire wick), which he swallows. The moment the lamp (fire wick) is extinguished by swallowing, the god leaves possession, the deity leaves the nar (gharik gayi)54 and he is transformed back to his normal self, the human form. Then he throws aksata (rice grains) as blessings towards the gathering, wears his garments and returns to his village in a procession. The assembled crowd scramble towards the fire altar and try to collect ember and coal ash to carry it home as an auspicious omen of benediction. The priests and people of Deoshal, Kothera and Bhet wind up the decorations, collect the masks in the basket and start the return procession. After keeping the masks in Deoshal and the worship articles in Kothera, the villagers of Bhet return to their village by dusk.
The erection of wooden altar, the ignition of fire and invocation of agni by the nar in the form of ritual dance in the fire altar without sustaining any physical impairment or burn injuries, in the presence of thousands of people, is indicative of the purificatory virtues attributed to the ignition and invocation of fire. The annual fire dance or the invocation of agni by the nar in the presence of supernatural Jakh (Jakh icon? masks of temple?) witnessed by thousands of local villagers symbolizes the following:
It may be observed that the nar of Jakh is purified and immortalized by fire ritual for a span of one year, till he re-enacts the ritual and remains in possession of divination powers and oracles so that people can approach him for initiating communication with Jakh or request the deity to heed to their requests at any time during the year.
The moment the nar swallows the fire wick and the lamp is extinguished the deity leaves the spirit medium in his human form. This transformation from divine to human is carried out by fire by blowing off the fire wick.
Immediately after the fire ritual dance the nar leaves the fire altar, and the people make a scramble for the ash of the fire invocation as it it considered pure, auspicious, creator of prosperity, wealth, good luck and an omen of benediction. This ash is preserved in the house till the next invocation.
Jakh and the Five Elements
The conception of Kedarkhand cosmology is based on the rubrics of the natural settings. Indigenous traditions are manifestations of the human attempt and endeavour to invoke, appease and influence the colossal forces and challenges arising from the natural phenomena of the greater Himalayan ranges. The concept of nar and the belief in this anthropolatory worship pattern is a grand design of human dynamism to control the universe, a symbolic human effort to be at the centre of cosmos. The annual invocation ceremony of the Jakh deity is an ideal paradigmatic illustration of the awareness of the perception of bhutas, and the logical sequence of their evolution expressed in the oral traditions of Kedarkhand. Let us recapitulate the chronology of the adoration of the elements which is perfectly analogous to their evolutionary sequence.
The main temple of Jakh, Harmuny Jakh, is an open air temple at Jakhdhar. The deity remains below the open sky. The site of the temple at Jakhdhar is a mountain ridge located higher than the local villages and thus closer to the sky. The invocation of the Harmuny Jakh two days before Sankranti is the beginning of the worship schedule. The adoration of sky before any other elements indicates its importance in the ritual ceremony.
The evocation of air is done in the form of a mangal sung at the time of farewell given to the masks of Jakh on the occasion of the departure of annual procession. The village ladies singing the auspicious songs recall the genealogy of the Jakh Deity and call him the son of air (vayu). In this invocation the favour of air is solicited for generation and creation. The mangal are sung on Sankranti day, two days after the first worship of the Harmuny Jakh. So the air invocation takes the second place in the order of worship.
In the indigenous cosmogony the lements are linked by the relationship of cause and effect. The sky (sun rays) and the wind from the atmospheric region, mixed with water, in the form of rain, combine to create fertility, prosperity and richness on earth. The ultimate result of the cause and effect is on the agro-pastoral economy. Though the water or the rain god is invoked several times in the year, during the annual worship schedule the evocation of water comes in the fourth place. After the fire ritual dance, the nar takes bath with spring water contained in a vessel, in front of the deity. The whole ceremony is aimed at proliferation of richness and productivity.
The centre of attraction of the entire worship is the invocation of fire by its nar. The prodigy evocating fire in the moondi represents myth and reality, celestial and mundane, sacrosanct and secular, spiritual and material and divine and human. By linking the atmospheric (dyolok) and terrestrial (bhulok) phenomena and by uniting the sky and air with water and ground for fertility, prolification, creativity and generation on earth (srsti), the nar as wondrous prince of fire present agni as a super-sanctifier and purifier medium in the cosmos.
The worship schedule symbolically depicts Harmuny Jakh as an embodiment of sky, the masks (of Jkah) as son of air, the nar as prodigy of fire, and the fire ritual as purifier of deifeir mediums, the nar as controller of rain and thus bestower of fertility and prosperity.
The Jakh worship is an ideal example of nature worship and ritual symbolism of the indigenous cosmogony manifesting the awareness of the evolution of elements in the cosmos and the importance of fire among the elements.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi