Sticks and stones on Rakhi day: violent tradition in Uttarakhand

Men belonging to the Chamyal clan carry their shields as they reach the venue at Devidhura village in Champawat district

Men belonging to the Chamyal clan carry their shields as they reach the venue at Devidhura village in Champawat district

It’s nine in the morning. There’s a lazy rain that doesn’t quite drench you. Nevertheless, umbrellas are out. Because today it will rain, I am told. From high ground, it seems as if scores of umbrellas are marching with a purpose: people are on their way to the Barahi temple in Devidhura in Champawat district of Uttarakhand.

A small, impromptu mela has materialised on either side of the narrow, two-kilometre walk to the temple. Everything, from pots to parrots, is being sold. But shopping can wait today. A loudspeaker blares out Sanskrit mantras. It also instructs the Uttarakhand police to control traffic to make way for the temple warriors.

In front of the temple, on the Kholikhand Dubachoura ground, people have congregated in large numbers: some attempt to lift a 50-kilo stone; some tie turbans on each other’s heads; children munch on chips; many take selfies. The temple steps are lined with people huddled under umbrellas. They are waiting for the battle to begin.

The Barahi temple is usually a quiet place. But on the day of Rakhi each year, it becomes a war zone, as an age-old myth is re-enacted on its grounds.

A violent custom

The myth goes that once upon a time, Devidhura was infested with demons. Four clans of Devidhura—the Waliks, Lamgariyas, Chamyals and Gaherwals, locally known as ‘khams’—prayed to goddess Barahi to save their lives.

A young man lifts a small rock ahead of the battle

A young man lifts a small rock ahead of the battle

The goddess agreed, but in turn demanded that a human sacrifice be made to her every year. So the clans would offer one of their members to the goddess in rotation.

One year, it so happened that a kham had to sacrifice its last young man to Barahi. His helpless grandmother prayed to the goddess for mercy. The goddess had a turn of heart and declared that as an alternative, members of the four tribes would hurl stones at one another till the blood spilt was equal to that from a human sacrifice. This would take place on the day of Rakhi. Thus began the violent tradition called Bagwal that continues to this day. The clans claim that the ritual brings them prosperity and saves them from ill health and natural calamities.

Earlier, when the ritual was played out without shields, thousands would be injured. Then a couple of centuries ago, the temple soldiers built themselves elaborate shields of bamboo and ringal grass. It’s hardly enough, of course, and hundreds of people are still injured each year.

In 2013, worried by the number of injuries, the High Court of Uttarakhand banned the use of stones and advised the district administration and temple committee to consider using rubber balls and fruits instead. The clans protested, refusing to obey the order. Eighty-six-year-old Trilok Singh, the chieftain of the Gaherwal clan, insists that using stones is a matter of choice, not compulsion. “No warrior is forced to participate in Bagwal. We do it voluntarily to appease our goddess. We can’t do away with our traditions on the order of the district administration. Offering our blood to the goddess is important for us. We consider our injuries to be blessings,” says Singh, who has played Bagwal for 70 years now.

For a while, the district administration managed to convince the villagers to fight with fruits and flowers, but soon they returned to pelting stones.

This year, the Barahi temple committee claimed that it had arranged for two quintals of flowers and five quintals of apples and pears to be used during Bagwal. A team of four doctors and pharmacists was also stationed at the temple to deal with injuries.

Two spectators watch spellbound.

Two spectators watch spellbound.

Dhan Singh Bisht, a Gaherwal, is in his 70s. He crouches with his shield near the temple wall. He has come from Almora, 80 km away, to play Bagwal. His brother, nephews and grandsons will join him. One shield is enough for everyone in his family, according to Bisht. “We bought this custom-made shield for ₹6,000. The man who made it is also old like me. He made it in a month,” Bisht says, frowning.

It has started raining heavily. Kirti Ballav Joshi, a priest at the temple, tells me that it’s important it rains during Bagwal. “No Bagwal was ever played under a clear sky. It’s only when it rains that Bagwal is played; and there’s never been a year when it hasn’t rained on Rakhi.” Joshi is in his 60s now and has been a priest of Barahi temple for as long as he remembers. As an idle morning turns into a wet afternoon, a sea of people gathers around the temple. Legs swing from the rooftops of the surrounding houses.

Do you believe?

On the Kholikhand Dubachoura grounds, colours are running riot. Warriors with turbans in every shade—orange, pink, white and yellow—clash against one another. Kamal Singh, a student of Class XI from Kanikot village in Champawat district, is busy tying a pink turban. “I play Bagwal because everyone else in the village does,” he says. And does he believe that shedding blood prevents misfortunes? “That’s what everyone believes. So it may be true,” he replies.

The Gaherwals wear orange turbans; Chamyals wear pink; Waliks, white; and Lamgariyas, yellow. They run around the ground carrying shields, and yell with gusto: the stone-pelting begins at 2.42 in the afternoon. The spectators scurry for cover, both from the rain and the stones.

The Gaherwals and Chamyals are on one side, the Lamgariyas and Waliks on the other side of the grounds. For one entire minute there is a a splendid shower of flowers and fruits. In the very second minute the stones come out. They hurl stones and then quickly take cover under their shields. Some warriors come into the spectator area, bleeding profusely from nose and mouth.

The blood bath goes on until the chief priest blows a conch shell at 2.49 pm, signalling that the blood measures up to what might have been spilt in a human sacrifice and concludes the ritual. The clan members embrace one another. The audience relaxes as the tension visibly eases. Some 334 people were injured in the event, says Madan Singh Bohra, the chief medical officer of Chamawat district.

As I prepare to leave, I look around one last time. The muddy ground is littered with stones. Feet in a hurry to return home crush the already mangled fruit lying around in dozens. It’s time to fold up our dripping umbrellas. The rain has stopped.

A journalist based in Uttarakhand, the writer explores the lives of those who walk mountains.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2022 9:51:30 pm |