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In recognition of valour


Legend is replete with instances of conflict between the forces of evil and good. MOHAN KHOKAR recounts an example, with its setting at Jejuri.

IN mid-November 1991, Maharashtra was rocked by the news report that four antique icons of Khandoba and his consort, Mhalsa, were found missing from the temple at Jejuri, the domain for their worship. The idols, cast in solid silver and worth lakhs, had been stolen.

The fact that Jejuri falls in the home district of then Defence Minister Sharad Pawar compounded the crisis. Marathi papers unleashed a series of scathing editorials demanding action against the police force. A month later, thanks to frenetic efforts, the idols were found, buried at the edge of the railway track not far from Jejuri. The culprits too were arrested. With much fanfare, the idols were reinstalled and Maharashtra heaved a sigh of relief, especially Jejuri, where life had virtually come to a standstill. This is because its survival depends wholly on pilgrims who come to the place by the droves.

Where exactly is Jejuri? And who is Khandoba? It is not often that one finds the name mentioned in the pantheon of Hindu gods.

Khandoba has not only a tremendous following but also a peculiar cult woven around him. A high point here is the dedication of girls to him as devadasis, who are known as Murlis. Apart from dancing and singing for him, they are enjoined, as a moral obligation, to work as prostitutes.

The story goes that aeons ago, there lived two asuras, Mani and Malla, who, by virtue of their having undertaken severe penances, had received the gift of immortality from the gods. Haughty and vile, the two went about terrorising the universe. A delegation representing the tormented appealed for succour, first to Indira and then to Vishnu, but each expressed his helplessness.

Shiva, on the other hand, was a picture of fury and assumed his form as Martand Bhairava. He commanded his son, Skanda, to mobilise squads. Ensconsing himself at the head, mounted on a majestic white steed and brandishing a massive sword, Shiva and formation sought out Mani and Malla. The two were atop a hillock called Jayadri. A fierce fight ensued, and when this looked to be an unending episode, Shiva invoked a charged spell that nullified the boon. Mani and Malla were then hacked to death.

Sages and other holy men who were witness to the bloodbath pleaded with Shiva to visit Jayadri again to sanctify the hill with his presence and to help them initiate his worship there. During his sojourn, anxious that his ties with Jayadri should prove enduring, people who had settled in large numbers at the base of the hillock gave away a girl, Mhalsa, in marriage to Shiva. It made no difference to them that Shiva was already married to Banai. They gave Shiva a new name - significant only to themselves - Mallari, or Malhari, after Mani-Malla. He also came to be recognised by a string of epithets, among them Yelkot - "leader of a crore troops", and Khandoba, from khanda (sword) in praise of his weapon that had put an end to Mani and Malla.

In the end, it is Khandoba, as his name that prevailed, and as cult symbols that the two appellations, Jayadri and Khandoba, became inseparable. The designation Jayadri later was transformed to Jejuri and came to identify both the hill and the habitation that sprang up at its base.

Today, Jejuri is a sprawling settlement, 45 km from Pune. At its south-western fringe rises the unpretentious hillock. At the summit is the temple of Khandoba. A wall runs around the perimeter of the complex, like the ramparts of a fort, and this is the impression one gets from below. The temple is approached by a gentle incline relieved by steps of dressed stone. Flanking the ascent on both sides right to the top are over 300 deepmalas, or tall, tapering stone pillars with provisions for lamps, all having been installed as thanksgiving by worshippers.

The temple is at the centre of the plateau. Surprisingly, it is an ornate structure, bearing only a remote resemblance to parallel architectural examples in the region. Khandoba, was not visualised as having one set form or representation. There is a whole range of ways in which his presence is acknowledged and he is offered adoration. And each of these finds its place in the arrangements and in the rituals.

For instance, there is an unusually long and broad sword, that is taken to symbolise Khandoba. He is also seen as a warrior, seated astride a white horse. He symbolises turmeric too, for it is as a linga-shaped root of this that he is said to have first manifested himself to a group of shepherds grazing cattle on the slope of the hill. The linga connection lends credence to the surmise that he could be a representation of Shiva.

There is also the version that he could be Skanda, for the name sounds like Khandoba. There are other parallels too. Like Skanda, Khandoba is a child of the mountains; both have two wives; Khandoba's preferred weapon, the sword, is akin to the lance of Skanda; and both are known to have been standard-bearers in times of war. In the innermost shrine of the temple, Khandoba appears as a linga, but what is strange is that his counterpart, Mhalsa Devi, too appears as a linga. The two lingas are however covered with silver masks, purporting to symbolise the two divinities.

Khandoba, more than anything else, is acknowledged to be the god who answers prayers, who fulfils every wish. The worshipper, in turn, is counted upon to take a vow before the god that if the wish were granted, he or she would demonstrate his or her gratitude through an offering, penance or sacrifice. This ranges from simple gestures like sponsoring a special puja for the god, circumambulating the temple a number of times every day for days at a stretch or donating money to erect another deepmala, to even acts like walking barefoot across a bed of burning embers or, in the case of men, flailing one's bare body with a thick iron chain or being suspended from a horizontal pole at a height through a stout iron hook piercing one's back.

Another practice, bizarre to say the least, and formerly quite common but now rarely encountered, is for the male supplicant, in gratitude to a favour received, to take the form of a dog.

There is a background to this. It is said that after the macabre spectacle on Jayadri was over, a pack of dogs, which were nearby, headed for where the bodies of Mani and Malla lay and in evident glee, romped and yelped around them. This explains why, invariably, the figure of a dog is seen among the idols installed for Khandoba's worship even in modest household shrines. Apparently to commemorate the significance of this, the practice came to be introduced by a male worshipper who chose to masquerade as a dog in the procession taken out on the occasion of many of the several annual festivals of Khandoba at Jejuri. Of course there could be more than one person doing this. There was no disguise nor comic element and the exercise was taken seriously by both the "dog-man" as he came to be known.

The person would proceed on all fours and bark, growl or gnash his teeth. There have been occasions when religious fervour pushed the poor soul to such a state of frenzy that he had to be on a leash for fear of biting someone.

The most common inducement for making a vow has been for childless couples to offer their first-born to the temple. Girls thus donated are known as Murlis, and boys as Vaghyas. Such girls constitute a distinct social unit and community. Murlis belong to the tribe of devadasis, of which the prime requisite is to have their marriage solemnised with the Lord to whom they are dedicated. Vaghyas are required to assist in the various rituals of the temple, gather together to sing praises of the Lord and, like the murlis, to go about begging for alms. They are taught to play instruments like the drum and pipe, for which they can be hired. They provide accompaniment to the Murlis while dancing and sometimes join in this.

Apart from dancing for Khandoba on festive days, the Murlis are free to perform outside professionally. But no matter what the occasion or location, the place is first sanctified by performing a puja and a thick cotton carpet is laid out for the performance. A modest bamboo framework is set up and decorated with flowers like marigold, and below this are placed the articles for the puja. Curiously, there is no icon, not even of Khandoba, and the focus of attention is a tray with uncooked rice, kumkum or vermilion powder, and turmeric.

The Murli custom having partly died out and curbed by law, survives more in name than in practice. Till the middle of the last century the tradition was alive and all its obligatory rituals and ceremonies were observed.

To become a Murli, a procedure had to be followed. In accordance with this, a girl, not yet an adolescent, was brought to the temple by her parents, escorted by relatives and friends of the family, a priest of the Jejuri temple and a set of Vaghya musicians. A puja was organised with offerings that comprised flowers, garlands, dry coconut kernel, milk, yoghurt, butter, sugar, honey and turmeric powder. A turban was wrapped around the head of the image of Khandoba and a sash placed on the top. The god was smeared with the turmeric, and after giving the girl a ritual bath, her body was gently rubbed with turmeric by the women. She was dressed in a new loose flowing garment and bodice, her wrists adorned with green glass bangles, the customary wedding ornament tied over the brow, and the hair decked with flowers. Then she was made to stand next to the idol and to the chanting of mantras, the priest tied a string with nine cowrie shells around her neck. The girl was thus a bride of the Lord. The two were then showered with turmeric, a ritual punctuated by shouts of "Yelkot, ghe Yelkot, ghe! - ("Take her, Yelkot! Accept her, Yelkot!") The priest was paid Rs. 1.25 as the price of the necklace and Rs. 5 as his fee. Each guest was presented a one pice copper coin, And with that, the party headed for the girl's place, for feasting to be followed by dancing.

After she had attained puberty, the parents were free to seek a patron for the girl, who could be purchased for Rs. 50 or Rs. 100. However, this is no way interfered with her role as a member of society or as a professional beggar. Though she belonged to the dregs of society, it was customary for those of a still lower caste to prostrate before her they saw her wherever. There was no forgetting the fact that she was Khandoba's consort.

The dance of the Murlis holds little fascination. Its meagre substance makes the rendering far too repetitive, and tiresome to watch. At best, it can be accepted as a ritual exercise, a tame one at that. It has always been reckoned to be an inconsequential component of a larger canvas, such as a temple festival, religious procession or social celebration. Its technique affords little by way of action, which, in any case, is largely confined to the hands and wrists. There is no such thing as abhinaya, or expressional work. The body is not decorated or adorned in any manner, but it is customary for Murlis to wear a vibrant red whenever they perform.

There are very few Murlis today. While those left have joined tamasha parties or other troupes, the rest spend their days in retirement, with only their memories to sustain them.

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