Something I often find remarkable when looking at images and textual accounts of religious elements across the Indo-European sphere is just how … familiar they are when we actually gaze into them closely. This does not mean that they are all identically the same, of course – far from it! But it does tend to facilitate us seeing the shared heritage, shared understandings, shared Gods which underpin such things. Even if they have ‘grown’ and expressed themselves differently following the millennia and the thousands of kilometers between them.
So it is with this fine depiction: a beautiful painting of the Goddess worship at Devi Kothi – the same site those amazing frescoes I had posted earlier are from. This painting, aptly enough entitled “Worship of the Devi at Kothi, near Chini” done by William Simpson in 1860.
He details his experience observing these rites in an article “Pujahs in the Sutlej Valley, Himalayas” in in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol.XVI, part 1, 1884 … which of course, I went off and tracked down to attempt to find more about what is depicted here.
It’s not a bad read, and there are some very nice moments in it – although we are hampered by the state of European knowledge at the time meaning that various things aren’t quite grasped. Which is unsurprising – and just makes me marvel all the more at how much we now know by comparison, especially when it comes to situating the rites in question within their comparative Indo-European context … where things most definitely become more familiar!
One point I would make is that Simpson seems genuinely intrigued by the people and the places and the customs he describes in his article. Where we often have this mental image of some pulp colonial British officer going around and referring to anybody not sufficiently ‘white’ as being “Savages!” with barbarous customs – I did not detect that with Simpson or his perspectives. He makes some comparisons which we would not indulge today, between what he saw and things he had read in the Old Testament for instance (which, given the Christianity prevalent in Europe at the time, we could potentially read almost as an ‘endorsement’ if he could find such faux-familiarity in our rites); but he also was only able to make the sketches which informed this later artwork precisely because he took the time to live there with them, and as he puts it – “as I did my best when any of the people applied with ailments, they became friendly, and seeing me sketching, and taking an interest in their doings, they announced their ceremonies, and invited me to come and see them.”
Now in terms of what is actually being depicted here – what we are seeing is the embodiment of the Devi having been brought out from the village’s shrine and carried forth upon the shoulders of several villagers. This is on the right of the image, and is the impressively plumed representation carried upon the litter bedecked with the red cloth.
Moving toward the center of the image, the eye is understandably drawn to two things – first, the physical structure made of wood, the Dharmsala; and second, the troupe of musicians, including several rather sizeable horns.
As applies the Dharmsala, this building serves two fundamentally linked purposes. First, it is a place where visiting travelers to the village may find shelter when they come here. And second, it is also where the Devi is placed in some of those ceremonies where She is brought forth from Her Home in the Mandir.
This is as we should expect – after all, Sacred Hospitality is a cornerstone of the Indo-European civilizational complex; and regarding the God as Guest, is a foundational fundament for how we have long performed the more involved acts of piety.
As applies the musicians – partially, of course, they are there to provide music and rhythm to the acts of the villagers (particularly the drums); as every ritual act is a performance and everything is interwoven into one glorious, joyous pageant of regularity, structure, ascendency, and place.
However, they are also there because, as Simpson notes, this is Royalty Who is visiting. And so, it is only appropriate that elements of the observance are considered, just as they had been congealed, in exactly that light.
A rhythmic dance is being performed by the majority of the rest of the village’s population, their arms interlinked, to the left of the image; in time with the beat of the drums aforementioned. Although ‘dance’ is perhaps not quite the adequate word to convey the motion in question – as it would appear that the assemblage of villagers may have been engaged in something more akin to what we would term ‘Parikrama’ .. the motion about the perimeter which is, again, important as part of our worshipful customs.
Simpson goes into some detail about various ritual piety expressions he witnessed during his time there – including a regular bathing rite for the representation of Devi performed every morning utilizing minted water; what he terms “a hawa khana, or a constitutional airing” at varying other times, accompanied again by an assemblage of sufficient coterie of the villagers “, in order that
a proper state of honour should be maintained”; and two more specific and ornate observances.
The first concerns a Visit of the Devi embodied at Devi Kothi to a neighbouring village – apparently occurrent at the instruction of the Devi Herself. As Simpson puts it:
“When the feast was over, the Devi was lighted up, and the march back to Coati was begun. Here a very remarkable feature connected with these Devis attracted our notice. The movement towards Coati suddenly stopped, and a considerable agitation took place; the red Yak-tails that surmounted the Devi shook and bobbed up and down, while the people crowded round, and seemed very excited. On asking about the meaning of this, the answer was, “Khuda bolta hai,” which means the God speaks. By what means the utterance was accomplished I could not make out, but in some manner the wishes of the Devi were understood, and its desire was not to go back to Coati; being out for a holiday, it, or perhaps those around it, seemed to desire a continuation of the day’s amusement, so its wish was to go to Chini, and pay the Devi there a visit. When this became known, the villagers from Chini gave a great shout of joy at the honour of the visit. The excitement was great, and the Yak-tails shook very much, the long trumpets sounded, the drums beat, and the dancing commenced again round the Devi as it moved away to the neighbouring village, the crowd all following. The dancing was much more lively than when the Devi was first carried out from Coati.
A number of the Chini Wallahs went off at once to their village, and it turned out that their object was to bring out the Devi there to receive the other. When the Coati Devi arrived, the Chini Devi was at the outskirts of the village with all its attendants, with trumpets and drums. The reception of the one Devi by the other was like two rajahs meeting ; there was a great amount of shaking and bobbing, which ended by the Chini Devi getting behind, and allowing the visitor the honour of going first at the head of the procession. When the temple was reached, there was more shaking, and the Coati Devi was carried once or twice round the dharmsalah, and then into the temple. This was repeated with the other Devi, and the proceedings of that day, so far as I saw, terminated. Next morning the visitor returned to Coati, and was accompanied by the Chini Devi to the outside of the village, where, with the usual shaking, they parted, and the Chini Devi was carried back to the
In terms of the “feast” which Simpson mentioned at the outset of this above quoted excerpt – that would be in the manner of our MahaPrasad. Although with the addition of cooked goat, the young goats in question having been beheaded and their blood utilized in an earlier phase of the Puja.
Effectively, food is offered to the Gods – in this case, the Goddess – and then after She has consumed essence of it, it is distributed more widely and the meritorious blessing of its provision is similarly taken up by those humans who eat of it as part of the communal rite. It may also be viewed in terms of the Guest conceptry earlier mentioned – it being just plain good manners to offer an arriving guest sustenance following Their journey to be with you. Simpson notes with interest that upon this occasion, amongst the humans, the women of the village were served before the men.
One further point of interest concerns another phase of the rite between the offering being made and then its subsequently being partaken of. A “battle” of sorts, conducted with walnuts and pinecones.
As Simpson puts it:
” This part of the pujah seemed to be completed, and being in the autumn might have passed as a kind of harvest festival, and that which followed, as walnuts and pine cones were employed, might also have some relation to the ripening of the fruits of the earth, only it is difficult to understand how a fierce battle could be associated with such a ceremony Unfortunately I was unable to get any explanation, all I learned being that it was ” dustoor ” or custom. This being the case, I can only describe what I saw. The temple had a rough balcony, which went round on the level of an upper story; Dilloo, with his red dress on, appeared in this balcony with some of the villagers, which became the signal for action, and a spirited warfare began, the missiles being the walnuts which gave the pujah its name, but pine cones were also used, and being larger, they were the more dangerous.
Dilloo and his party first made the circuit of the balcony, when those below began throwing the walnuts and cones at them ; the defenders soon returned the fire, covering them selves as well as they could by means of the balcony, and some of them using one or two small windows as embrasures.
This lasted for about half an hour, when those in the temple returned and mixed with the others below, seemingly none the worse from the encounter ; this, I understood, was not always the case, for accidents had taken place.”
Now, of course, upon reading this my mind instantly connected the occurrences to the frescoes of the Goddess Temple which is the major site of discussion. They depict Devi in various forms embroiled in combat against demonic armies. And yes, it is worth noting that it is indeed the case that as applies, say, Devi as Shakambhari fighting against Durgamasur – the ‘life-cycle’ and nourishment of growing things is most strongly connected to Her involvement and Her martial conquest. The Divine War Effort in defence of the Cosmic Order, without which there is only desolation and desiccation in direct diremost consequence.
In Indonesia, amongst the Hindus of Bali, there is a custom called the Kecak – often referred to as the ‘Monkey Dance’, although this is something of a misnomer.
What this Kecak ceremony actually entails is an assemblage of a village’s menfolk re-enacting in symbolic fashion key elements from the Ramayana – in particular the climactic confrontation of the army of Rama, Laxman, Hanuman, etc. (including many Vanaras – hence the ‘Monkey’ association for the dance), against the forces of the demon emperor Ravana.
I have not engaged in any in-depth exploration of either the ceremonial combat at Kothi, nor of the Ramayana re-enactment just aforementioned. However, given that we know for a fact that ritual re-enactment – Eliadian ‘Eternal Return’, in fact – is a cornerstone of Indo-European religious activity … it would therefore seem plausible that some degree of resonancy should also be presumed as applies this ritual occasion occurrent at Kothi.
In any case, there is much more which can and should be said upon all of the matters (and the Maters) but briefly examined above. But for now, that should be almost sufficient.
I say ‘almost’ sufficient – because there is one more point to make, and it is an interesting one. Simpson is not, perhaps, an expert upon Hindu religious development – however I do think that some of his observations are quite significant in the manner in which they align with those of us who are.
At various points, he opines that what he is witnessing up here in the Mountains are customs which are either unknown or have become somewhat ‘diluted’ down upon the Plains. He does not attribute nor ascribe these differences to specialized (d)evolution occurrent amidst the mountain-folk – but rather suggests that they are remnants of previously more dominant modes of custom and mechanisms of worship which have fallen from favour elsewhere.
In this, I would suggest that he is quite likely correct. Although one does not have to take my word for it – some months ago we ran an excerpt from the work of Professor Michael Witzel, perhaps the foremost (Western) living academic authority upon Hinduism. He had observed just such a phenomenon of incredibly conservative preservation up in the Mountain-country of elements from the Vedic past (and, correspondingly, co-occurrences of elements known elsewhere from the Indo-European mytho-religious sphere).
Now this should not be misread as suggesting that the Hinduism of the lowlands be regarded as all just ‘watered down’ and ‘inauthentic’. Often it is more that particular things have become more emphasized down there, and other archaic customs have fallen from favour. So while there are some groups which do less than ideal things here and there (and a fair swathe of the ‘Hindu Reform’ efforts of the 1800s and subsequent, were indeed built around actually changing things for a variety of reasonings), we should not be saying that the Hinduisms of more populous and easily accessible locales are “inauthentic”. Just “different”. In some particulars, at any rate. Generally speaking – the ‘sames’, the core elements of resonancy … the essence of such things … is most definitely both present and resonant, radiant, within the practices of each sphere.
One just has to know how to look.
Jai Mata Di !