Every Somvati Amavasya, when the new moon comes out on a Monday, the temple town of Jejuri in Maharashtra erupts in celebrations. Located at a distance of 50 kilometres from Pune, Jejuri is famous for its Bhandara festival, which draws close to six lakh devotees.
Amidst riotous showers of bhandara, the colloquial term for haldi or turmeric, the deity Khandoba’s devotees make their way up a steep hill to meet their lord at the top. The entire stretch of the winding path becomes yellow-tinted during the journey. A stranger’s hand will dart out of the crowd and daub your forehead with haldi. By the time the hundredth step to the temple comes into view, Khandoba’s pilgrims have showered turmeric on every passing person and idol. The temple dog welcomes devotees by shaking out clouds of turmeric.
The bhandara festival takes place almost three times each year. Known locally as ‘sonyachi Jejuri’ or golden Jejuri, the festival begins with the ‘yatra’ of the idol and culminates in its immersion in the nearby Karha river. Devotees are served a feast at the ensuing ‘bhandar’ (food gathering).
Scratch a rock
What Jejuri is celebrating is Khandoba’s victory over the demons Mani and Malla. The poet Arun Kolatkar captured Jejuri’s spirit perfectly with a refrain in his Jejuri poems: scratch a rock/ and a legend springs . The legend can be read in the devotees’ chant, “Yelkot Yelkot Jai Malhaar, Sadanandacha Yelkot!” This refers to the ancient name of Khandoba, ‘Elkoti Mahadev’, which roughly translates as ‘the leader of six crore people’.
Though widely accepted as an incarnation of Shiva in his Bhairava form, Khandoba is known by more than half-a-dozen names. These names perform different functions. For the musicians on the hill, he is Khanderai or King Khandoba. For the temple trust, he is Shree Martand Malhaar, the god who slew the demons Mani-Malla. For some Muslim devotees, he is Mallu or Ajmat Khan, the Pathan-like deity who married a Muslim woman.
Khandoba is the ‘kuldaivat’ or clan god for a lot of Maharashtrian communities across castes. He is also perceived as an ‘ichchapoorni devta’ or a god who grants wishes.
“ Ichcha poori hoti hai toh aana padta hain (When wishes come true, we have to come back here),” says Savitri Ramchandra Pawar, a devotee from Wai taluka, who has been coming to Jejuri for the last 40 years.
Khandoba’s reputation of granting boons and fulfilling wishes leads many to promise him a ‘navas’ or an offering. Vijay Ganekar, from Worli Koliwada, Mumbai, tells us of a promise his mother had made to the god when he had fallen ill. “Mein bahut bimaar tha, toh maa ne bola tha ki yeh har wakt somvati ko aa jayega” (I was sick, so my mother had pledged a pilgrimage here every Somvati if I am cured).
Tales of Khandoba’s largesse are legion. He is a deity who inspires devotion, love, obsession, fear, even sacrifice. Devotees whip themselves with a chaabuk (a long whip) to imbibe Khandoba’s power.
The uniqueness of Khandoba and the festival dedicated to him lies in the deity’s ability to subvert hierarchies. The priests recite prayers and conduct ceremonies in Marathi, not Sanskrit. They are from both Brahmin and Gurav castes — the latter is listed as an Other Backward Caste in Maharashtra.
Members of the Vir Khandoba and Garshi communities are in charge of non-priestly duties within the temple. The accessible nature of the god allows devotees to claim him as their own. Says Ganekar, “People from every caste come here. God never created caste discrimination, man did.”
Ganekar is not alone is underlining the inclusivity of Khandoba. According to social theorist Rosalind O’Hanlon, anti-caste activist Jyotiba Phule specifically chose Khandoba to re-interpret the religious traditions of Maharashtra. Perhaps Phule was attracted to the cultural openness of the deity.
He appears in the form of a lingam and also as an anthropomorphic figure on horseback. His main wives Mhalsa and Banai are seen as incarnations of Parvati and Ganga, but are seen as representatives of their respective caste groups, Vanya (Lingayat in Karnataka) and Dhangar (a shepherding community classified as a nomadic tribe).
Outside the temple lies the idol of Yeshwant Rao, one of Khandoba’s devotees, who played a key role in protecting Jejuri from the onslaught of Aurangzeb. The Vaghya-Murali caste, whose members have long been acknowledged as the bards of Khandoba, perform Jaagran and Gondhal in the homes of the temple priests. Murali women (seen as courtesans) can no longer be married off to Khandoba, but they continue to dance and sing.
In the women who pray near Yeshwant Rao’s idol and in the cries of ‘Sadanandacha Yelkot’, Jejuri presents an alternative that can be instructive for much of India.
During Bhandara, as devotees, god, earth, sky, turn a uniform ochre with the haldi shower, Kolatkar’s lines on Jejuri ring truer than ever: What is god/ and what is stone/ the dividing line/ if it exists/ is very thin/ at Jejuri .
The Mumbai-based writer is sworn to convert half of India’s population to feminism by 2050.