When gods set out to wander: the divine theatre in the indian himalayas

Each year between October and May one meets wandering deities in Chamoli Garhwal, a region in the Indian Himalayas on the border to Tibet. They leave their homes to visit their relatives, to bless their followers and make the land fertile. There are manyf wandering deities in this region, each of them with residing in their own village and temple. It is strictly determined how often they are obliged to travel. Some leave on a small pilgrimage every five years, while others leave their temples only every  93 years. Once the deities are on route, they will never stay longer than several days in a single village. For six to nine months they wander from village to village, accompanied by priests and deacons. Therefor from October to May people have numerous encounters with wandering deities in the central Himalayas.

If you are lucky enough you may encounter the entourage of the deities Jakh or Chandika, who also offer nightly spectacles. These two deities are in fact not only accompanied by priests and servants but also by bards and performers who hold a divine theater every night – to honor and entertain the deities as well as the host-villagers.

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When the sun goes down and the Divine Insignia are securely housed in a specially designed shrine, the trickster god Burhdeva or Narad appears. Led by the bard’s song, he reports to the villagers about the course of the pilgrimage. He does not mince his words. Meticulously, he counts on the minor and major weaknesses of the people who have taken him and his divinity in until now. If the food was not good or abundant, he will make a joke about the greed of this village. If people do not wash on a daily basis, he will report on the unsanitary conditions in the village. But also of special generosity, openness and hospitality, he reports. Every night he does this in another village, so his coverage is getting longer and so news move slowly through the whole region. But Narad does not only mock the villagers, even the priests,  and the companions are not spared. So there are songs about the sniffly Pujari, the sore feet of the companion and the greediness of some visitors.

Then,  Narad starts to tell his own life. When the god Narad became a man he had to endure everything an ordinary villager has to endure. And this is the story he reenacts for the villagers at night.  Plowing the fields he breaks the plow, the priest tires to cheat him when he wants to marry, the search for a bride proves so very difficult. So the villagers of Garhwal see many aspects of their own lives on the divine stage – and have lots of fun.

Between these episodes, more ancient and powerful gods appear. Old wooden masks are carried with the divine entourage so that they can now be worn, the performers embodying the divine force said to reside in them. The masks, so tell the villagers, are ritually charged with divine power. Once  taken out to accompany with Jakh or Chandika on pilgrimage, they must be danced every night. Even if there are no human spectators, they have to dance before the deity. If this rule is not obeyed, it is said that the masks will dance by themselves, uncontrolled and dangerous. Thus, are the old stories of gods,  mixed with everyday village life every night in another village  told, sung and danced. The villagers, old and young, men and women,  like to watch and listen again and again to the stories which tell them who they are and where they come from.

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