The sanctity of space


Randhir Khare gives a poignant account of the sacred spaces which were once such an intrinsic part of tribal culture and mythology. While some of these sacred spaces have managed to survive, most are inexorably vanishing in the march of modernisation and encroaching external culture.

People from traditional communities in India, like their near and distant neighbours, have always considered the physical spaces that they inhabit or frequent as meaningful. These physical spaces are intrinsically connected to their way of life, their worship, folklore, mythology and culture. In some cases, they are closely related to social customs, songs and story traditions, as well as dialects. Whether the communities are nomadic like the Narikuravar gypsies who still roam the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, the semi nomadic herding community of the Dhangars, the camel herding Rababris of Kutch, the settled forest dwelling Santhals or Gonds, the Bhils, the numerous tribal communities of the Nilgiris of Tamil Nadu or the Dangs of South Gujarat, physical spaces are significant.

Unfortunately, as non-tribal communities begin to alter their use of land, traditional routes of nomads or semi nomads are blocked, sacred spaces are either taken over, denied access to or wiped out, leaving no trace of their presence. To many of us, this may be an inevitable process of change and development, but to people from tribal and other traditional communities, it is an affront to the very touch-stones of their identity – as important as food, physical security, shelter and livelihood.

A case in point – the Dangs of South Gujarat

Consider the region of the Dangs of South Gujarat, for example. It is alive with numerous sacred spaces that are a living part of the lives and customs (even dialects) of the traditional and tribal communities of the forests. Beside the road which bends its way through the scattered settlement of Pimpari in the Dangs, is a derelict grove of trees smelling of egret droppings. In its shade, carpeted with dead leaves and twigs, fallen trunks uprooted by unseasonal storms and refuse from nearby homes, are memorial pillars. A number of them lie on their sides whilst others protrude from the fecund earth – sentinels standing eerily in the dark, splashed with light. Their surfaces, pitted, gnawed and ground by the elements, still reveal carved images of armed horse-riders in battle, groups of warriors, festive dancers and women and children. Some of these stones are elaborately carved signifying the status of those that they commemorate whilst others bear only an image or two on their surface, reflecting the rank of the departed.

This is the sacred memorial ground of the Bhil chieftains of old. Among them are greats such as Rusinek, Kaagnek, Baagnek, Jaranek and Lahawgora. They were heroes in their time when they fought to protect their forest home against outsiders and led their people to inflict sudden death on unsuspecting intruders unused to guerrilla combat. Each of them once carried a story of heroism, romance, intrigue and victory. Until a few decades ago, Bhil elders remembered these stories, recalling them when necessary. In fact some of the stories even seeped into the narratives of thali playing bards of the Dangs. One particular narrative actually recounted the life and death of Jaranek, describing how he was lured down to the banks of the swollen Khapri, decapitated and his head thrown into the river – and turning up downstream the following summer among the rocks, still intact.

In time, of course, the content and trajectory of the stories began to alter, meandering as they did through a haze of memory. Their exploits were superimposed on the exploits of other Bhil heroes and gradually sucked into a separate reality – the reality of Bhil folklore which had space enough for mutations in theme and style. One that remained until not long ago, appearing and disappearing from places like Pimpari, Gadvi and Linga is as follows:

I am the son of the son of the son of the son of the son
Of the great grandson of the son of Rusinek
The one with wrists as thick as your neck
With thighs as wide as your chest;
I can spear as he speared a racing boar,
I can shoot as he shot the Brahmin’s son
Through the eye as he slept in his stolen bed;
I can have as he had a hundred wives
A dozen children with each,
Hoi, I am the son of the son of the son of the son
Of the great grandson of the son of Rusinek.

The Pimpari sacred space of the Bhils has almost receded into oblivion and has little connection with Bhil life and identity today, but other traditional and tribal communities in the region still hold on to their sacred spaces which are marked in various ways. The most obvious and visible are Vaghdev totems in wood and stone. Some of them are considerably old and have begun to decompose whilst others have developed cracks that are clearly visible. However, the images on their surface are clearly visible. The topmost point on the face of each totem is the image of the sun and moon, below is a standing peacock, then a tiger (vagh) and at the bottom is a snake. Some of the totems even include one or more standing human forms.

Totems of this sort are composite entities that were originally created to harness the power of various natural elements and beings by both appeasing and honouring them. By doing this, believers ensured both their protection as well as their energies – thus vitally connecting human life with the natural environment. The image of the sun primarily signifies light, growth and vitality and is considered by most communities in the Dangs as essentially male.

The moon on the other hand is considered to be female, symbolising mysterious magical powers, protective energies and is associated with the life of the spirit. When the sun is positioned at the topmost point of the totem and the moon is curved upwards beneath it, the prevailing belief is that the sun’s energies and vitality is held by the moon and temperately filtered down to sanctify the physical space and the area around it. Whereas, if the moon is curved downwards from the topmost position on the totem and the orb of the sun is placed below it, the belief is that the moon is assisting in focusing the sun’s energies on the space and the area around to ensure a more intense giving of life and support for growth. In some cases, both the sun and the moon are depicted side by side as in the case of one or two totems on this particular site. At this point, it is important to note that sometimes the sun and moon are replaced by a human form. This is usually done when believers choose to honour an ancestor.

The peacock, appearing below the topmost image, represents all avian life and symbolizes beauty, grace and dignity. By honouring the bird, believers show their respect for all winged creatures in the hope of appeasing them so that they do not steal their harvest grain or damage their fruits and vegetables. Though the posture of the bird is always the same, the direction it faces does alter according to the believer’s needs. The tiger is perhaps the most dominant image (not in size or proportion but in significance) because it represents the sheer power and vitality of the forest. Honouring and appeasing the animal implies human respect for it. The tiger is addressed as the protector and his defensive energies are called upon through the totem. The snake at the bottom represents the strength, fecundity and creative power of the underworld. When the creature is depicted erect with an open hood, it reflects the believers’ need for the aggressive defence of their lives and property and when it is depicted curled in a spiral, it is said to be in its most energetic, nurturing, mysterious and miraculous form. When images of human beings are depicted in the middle or lower part of a totem, they represent the living family or community’s need for physical protection from all the elements and creatures represented on the totem.

During Vagh Baras, which is two days before the Hindus celebrate Diwali, Vaghdev totems are venerated. They are smeared with a paste the colour of turmeric. A lamp is lit and placed at the base of the totem to honour the celestial forms, grains of rice are scattered for the peacock, a fowl is sacrificed for the tiger and an egg is offered to the snake.

These totems are usually found standing guard over fields and orchards, villages, hamlets, homes, sometimes on the banks of significant rivers and streams, and beside forest land that is particularly valuable because of the trees and vegetation growing there. They are always in the open, free of any barriers, fences, enclosures and the suffocating presence of organized worship. This form of totemism is attributed to the Gamit community who were joined later by the Warlis and others. Today they significantly reflect a composite pan-Dangi identity. Exploring another aspect of sacred spaces and their connectedness with oral narratives in the Dangs, it would be worth considering Ma Vali Para and the grove it occupies.

Ma Vali Para or the Place of the Mother

Not far from Dhulda village and the narrow body of the river Gira, west of Ahwa, is a sacred grove which stands on the edge of a dense forest patch. An amazing variety of trees, shrubs and creepers make up this space. There are trees such as Sadada, Sal, Kalam, Amla, Kori, Asan, Tanas, Arav, Haldu, Bondara, Kiramda, Kakor, Alee and Mowra. Ground cover includes medicinal foliage such as Sonaro, Aati, Hoomb, Neelisote, Paevota, Kora, Timeroo and Lotee. Here, in the midst of this grove is the home of Agn Mata the reigning forest deity. Her primary space lies at the roots of an old spray of bamboo near an enormous Kakor tree which rises out of the dense green, skywards. Being a powerful Mother Goddess, she is represented not merely by one stone but a cluster of them, all smeared red. Red and white flags planted by devotees flutter from the bamboo spray. To her right, a long line of sacred stones spread all the way along the path and circle the base of nearby trees. These, as the stories say, are her relatives and friends. So important are they that devotees never fail to make offerings to them too.

According to Baijubhai, the Kunbi Bhagat of Dhulda village, Agn Mata once lived in a distant forest, away from the Dangs. Holy men from the Warli community sanctified the site and prepared the place as her new abode. Many other holy men from other communities too prepared homes for her in other forests. So one day she set out to visit them. Moving from place to place she tried out one home after another until she chose the grove which came to be called ‘Ma Vali Para’ or the ‘Place of The Mother’. There are a number of mystic accounts of this journey that she made. Baijubhai has one version which he chants to the resonance of his thali in true bardic style. Placing the thali on his lap, he balances the polished stem of a cannabis plant on it. Holding it down on a lump of bee’s wax stuck to the thali, he runs his fingers along the length of the stem producing a humming sound as he narrates his tale.

So, the earliest holy men who made offerings at the sacred space were the Warlis and after them the Dodiyas, followed by the Mahadev Kolis, the Gamits and last of all the Kunbis. Somewhere along the line, he says, the Bhils arrived too and later devotees from other communities. Today, most of the devotees at Agn Mata’s shrine are from the Bhil, Warli, Gamit and Kunbi communities. He claims that they continue to worship there because they truly believe that the Mother Spirit of the Dangs dwells there. Each community, according to him, have their own stories and songs about her. Even their forms of worship vary.

Beside the main cluster of sacred stones is a pile of terracotta figurines of semi human and animal forms. Each one has a distinct identity and a story to go with it. For example there is Yetri Mata and her bodyguard, Pangriya Ghora, Hirva and countless others. Then there’s the Betki stone used to ‘root’ a vow, a Surya Chakra and many unidentifiable entities, alien to a visitor but of significance to a devotee. Offerings here range from two cock birds (the ones that apparently crow at 3 am), harvested produce, coconuts and cooked food. The last mentioned is usually offered by those who do not own farmland but work on other people’s farms or as construction labour.

Predominantly in Dangi Bhasha, Baijubhai’s narratives unravel the stories of the many Matas who followed Agn Mata to the forests of the Dangs and settled down into their sacred spaces. Devotees are expected to first pay their respects to the Mother Goddess Agn and then visit the others. There is Deher Mata of Deher, Andha Mata of Kadmal, Dhoonda Mata of Kosbia, Jaari Mata in the jungle of Barade, Saargi Mata of Chimbar and others such as Maargi Mata, Kooghli Mata and Khoori Mata. Of these, the most dramatic abodes are those of Deher Mata in a sacred grove high up on the banks of the Purna river, Andha Mata hidden inside a sacred grove located in the middle of farmland, Dhoonda Mata whose home is in a secluded cavern covered by shrubs on the banks of a river and Jaari Mata standing alone in a wooded area.

When one visits the homes of these Matas and listens to the stories of their magical powers, one cannot ignore the truth – pockets of the Dangs are still alive with an ancient presence as revealed in the oral narratives that abound. Alter the sacred spaces and the sources of inspiration will dry up – because oral narrative traditions of the Dangs are to a substantial degree kept alive by the reverential power of Mata worship. As this is being written, there are already signs of mainstream religious worship making its presence felt in Ma Vali Para. According to Baijubhai, dramatically large boulders placed at the base of a Mowra tree to the extreme left of the main sacred cluster are now being worshipped as forms of a mainstream deity. How long will it be before ritual is formalized and walls appear? How long before the isolation of a rooted tradition begins?

The Bhilala tribe and its two shamans

Across the border from Gujarat is Madhya Pradesh and the district of Alirajpur, home of the Bhilala tribal community. Here too, there are numerous sacred spaces which are still alive and others which have virtually vanished.

The road out from the township of Alirajpur, is an uneven one. A tarred surface gives way to pits and ditches and as it veers out of Sorwa it is forced to slow down and snake through an eerily broken landscape dotted with shrubs of Tendu and wide stretching Mowra trees struggling to survive in a gutted earth. This is the road to the village of Jhinjhini, once home to two powerful Bhilala Baduas (shamans from the Bhilala community) – Bhoona Baba and his son Nathu Baba. The former wasn’t just a shamanic healer but a story-teller and singer. Those who have had the opportunity to have been in his presence and shared his mysteriously enlightening powers realized almost instantly that he was indeed a being with unusual gifts. At the height of his powers in the mid 1980s, he was known to slip into quiet spirit-travel and revisit ancient story-scapes, returning unobtrusively to share his experiences with those he trusted. He believed that each story is like a world in itself which has existed from the beginning when human consciousness was born and sacred memory was the vehicle one had to use to travel to these worlds.

When asked how he chose the story-scape he had to travel to, he’d reply, “We are not in a position to do such a thing. In fact, we don’t have the power to choose stories. They choose us when there’s a need, when everything inside and outside the storyteller says it’s time. Just as when the stars fall into a perfect position with one another. Just as when the setting sun makes magic out of this broken land. It happens suddenly. Memory says it’s time to remember because the story calls. And the storyteller goes off.”

When visiting the story-scape, he would never fall into a dramatic trance or do anything outside his character. He’d sit still, almost pensively, and begin speaking, words flowing rhythmically. The story-scapes that he visited were mostly elemental ones. As a Bhilala Badua, Bhoona Baba was acutely aware of the natural and human environment that he lived in and was constantly nurtured by it. His diminutive physical stature enabled him to easily merge into a crowd in a haat, get lost among shrubbery in a sacred grove or blend subtly into a herd of grazing cattle. It suited him well to be unobtrusive. Of his three sons, one became a school teacher, the second a marginal farmer and gatherer of wood and the third – a Badua, whose name was Nathu Baba. The last mentioned, was similar in stature and appearance to Bhoona. Except of course, he had additional physical deformities. As it was impossible for the two Baduas to share the same village, Nathu withdrew to a sacred grove beyond Jhinjhini. There, he claimed later, he lived beside a sacred spring, communing with wild creatures and a host of otherworldly beings, including the presiding deity of the sacred space. He said that he had learnt his stories from them so well that their words became his.

“This spring is where my stories were born. Here, I looked after them, cared for them, kept them alive. And when my father left his body it was time for me to carry my stories back to Jhinjhini because now there was space for me there. But when I got back to my home I discovered that everything had changed. With my father’s death, the family, especially my brother the teacher, either burnt or buried my father’s belongings. It was as if they did not want to have anything more to do with what he represented. Firstly, they didn’t think he was of any real use to them anymore. Secondly, they were ashamed of the way he looked – so small and strange, with beads and feathers around his neck and wrists, wearing nothing but a langote. And thirdly, they didn’t want to have much to do with his beliefs. My brother who was a teacher followed a new faith and he had begun to influence the family and neighbours. So my arrival home was not welcomed by anyone. This difficult situation made it hard for me to be myself”, he recounted. He continued, “At the start I did my best to fit into life at home but when I found that no one was accepting me, I decided to start being myself. I roamed around with a half dhoti and lived the life of a Bhilala Badua because that was my life.”

It took Nathu Baba quite some time to adjust to the changes that had begun to happen in his family and in the village. Though a Bhilala way of life was still followed by all, it was becoming increasingly like a habit and not a necessity. Mainstream faiths had begun to make inroads over the years, affecting traditional forms of worship and ritual. In the process the Bhilali that was used for prayers altered to regional forms of Hindi and strong strains of Malwi and Gujarati. Though Nathu Baba almost heroically held on to his narratives, it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to share them anymore as those who were interested or who could understand him had vanished into thin air. He was becoming irrelevant and dispensable.

Finally, his grove was appropriated and a place of mainstream worship sprung up at the site of his sacred spring. New deities, new forms of worship, new prayers, new languages and a retinue of newly imported sacred stories occupied the newly developed space. But Nathu continued to return, offering HIS prayers at the site where the spring originally sprung from (ironically, which is situated just outside the wall of the new place of worship). “I lament not just the way in which this holy place has been changed but as much because they have cut down sacred trees that once\ grew here. See this Kheriya. It is a stump now. Once it was tall and beautiful. I remember this place when I spent time here being with wild and sacred creatures. I prayed with them and to them.” Nathu Baba left his body not very long ago and Jhinijhini’s inner and outer environs are changing faster than anyone would ever have imagined.

Other places in Alirajpur also struggle to keep their physical and folkloric identities. For example, beyond Amtala, on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border Dungari Mata (the reigning deity of the mountain) still holds fast to her position, rising high up above the forested land around. Devotees visit her regularly, climbing the numerous steps to the summit where images of the Mata are enclosed inside the folds of giant rocks. To get to see them one has to literally crawl through a narrow space. Outside on an open rocky space, goats and fowls are sacrificed to appease her. Stories of her exploits still reverberate in the memories of those who believe in her, forming as it were, a living presence in their midst. And so the story goes on. Visit any tribal region in India and you will witness the same scenario; diversity of land use nurtures the diversity of cultures. Diversity of cultures ensures the survival of traditional and tribal identities.


Randhir Khare

The writer is an award winning poet, writer and folklorist, who has published more than 30 volumes of fiction, poetry, folklore and non-fiction. He is also an acclaimed story-teller on whose work a documentary ‘The world in a story’ is soon to be released.
The photographs in the article are by Susan Bullough Khare.