The legend of Lal Baba

An old perception in the community history of Delhi is that the city has the protection of five Bhairavas, 22 Sufis, and two Goddesses — Yog Maya and Kalka Devi.

Located on a hill in south Delhi, the Kalka Devi temple and its surrounding landscape curiously offer a template of syncretic culture for contemporary, cosmopolitan Delhi. There is the revered 13-14th century Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehlavi, the 20th century architectural wonder of the Lotus Temple of the Bahai faith, the ISKCON temple, and even an Ashokan edict of the 3rd century BC.

Window into heritage

Bashiruddin Ahmad’s Waqyaat Darul Hukumat Dehli records the intangible heritage of two fairs in Kalkaji Temple, located in Bahapur village, in the Hindu months of Chaitra (March-April) and Ashvin (September- October) when different communities actively participated and enjoyed performances of street artists and Kathakars.

The temple of Kalka Devi has a blurred written history linking myths, epic tales, rituals, practices, power of holy men, ritual priests, and religious economics, providing a fascinating window on Delhi’s heritage.

According to gaathas (circle of mythic stories), Kalka Devi is an incarnation of Goddess Durga, fighting demons and assuming the form of a wish-fulfilling mother Goddess. The eyes of the deity stand out in the anthropomorphic or human form, compelling and pulling the devotee to have her darshan (audience). Postcards, talismans, keychains, and even dreams invite the faithful to visit her.

The research on the sacred geography of the Kalkaji Temple involved interviewing people linked with the holy site in different capacities: the illegal occupants of the erstwhile, dilapidated but beautiful dharmshalas, ritual priests, shopkeepers selling offerings, and sacred men. One such journey was an encounter with Lal Baba, a merchant named Baijal from Kolkata, who became an ascetic after a “miracle”.

In the 1980s, Baijal severely injured the calf of his right leg, which turned septic, and doctors said it will have to be amputated.

A priest gave Baijal’s family a list of nine sacred locations to visit and seek blessings. However, even after completing the rigorous pilgrimage schedule, Baijal’s suffering continued. On reaching the temple of Baba Baidyanath in Deogarh, Jharkhand, Baijal dreamt that he should go to the temple of Kalka Devi in Delhi within nine days.

The family organised support of fellow passengers in the train and Baijal arrived at the door of the Goddess. The temple priests provided Baijal a place to stay and the community took care of his basic food and amenities. Five months later, his leg was “miraculously” cured. This prompted Baijal to take sanyas (asceticism) and become Lal Baba, wearing red robes in honour of Kalka Devi and playing the dumroo. All day long, Lal Baba chanted the glory of Lord Shiva and his consort, the Great Goddess, to the rhythm of the dumroo.

Bathing ritual

Among the significant rituals of the shrine is the early morning bathing of the deity with milk, ornamentation, and aarti (prayers). The priests of the shrine allowed Lal Baba to contribute Ganga water as part of the bathing ritual. It made Lal Baba begin a unique spiritual journey. He went intermittently to locations where the Ganga flowed and carried back a barrel of its water. An entire room was designated where Ganga water collected by him and his followers was stored. Gradually, Lal Baba gained stature and respect and the number of his followers increased. The temple authorities permitted him to sit in the Yagna Kund, facing the sanctum of the Goddess.

Lal Baba passed away almost a decade ago. His home is now administered by his followers. The unique ritual of offering Ganga water continues, with hundreds of barrels of water being stored in the original room. Lal Baba’s seat has now been designated as ‘sacred’, attracting huge donations from the faithful.

The reimagination of sacred heritage spaces in Delhi is about community histories. These narratives add to heritage experiences, allowing the visitor to step back and observe much more than the religious euphoria. There is a tale of Tiger Baba as well who was commissioned by the Tiger Temple in Thailand to use his powers bestowed by the Devi to control the feline. That’s for another day.

(The writer is an expert on cultural heritage)

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 1:34:41 AM |

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