Uttarakhand is perhaps one of the most beautifully sited states in India. It fits our idea of a Dev Bhoomi, a land fit for divine habitation. Gods are aplenty here, the majority of them local. Many of them are pre-Aryan and, after originating from various parts of India and Asia, became one with the locals. Today they are all protectors of those who reside among the rugged mountains and forests of fragrant pines and majestic oaks, the passes (durra), valleys (bugyals), natural springs (naulas) and life-giving rivers.

The local deities have simple shrines. Many have none. Simple mounds of stones and twigs, offered by worshippers, mark their favourite perch, their Than. No-one knows exactly when or how each Than came up. Nor do they know who may have crafted or found the holy symbol, often a stone slab, that stands within simple temples of stone and wood.

Some temples were built by local chieftains as thanksgiving and were maintained with the produce from the attached fields. A few of these have professionally carved lotuses, lions or other animals favoured by the goddess within. But mostly, temples are said to have been built by nameless local devotees or those visiting a place of pilgrimage in the area. Sometimes, a local farmer would dream of a god or goddess and, guided by them, dig a buried statue or some specially shaped stone and set about erecting a temple for it.

Influx of new traditions

The Nathpanthi yogis and yoginis who shunned Brahminical deities and dismissed caste and gender lines arrived in the region around the 12th century and acquired many followers. They have left behind unadorned stone and lime Thans with a stone courtyard where a small fire (dhooni) still burns and ashes are distributed and smeared upon bodies as Prasada. All Thans display strings of bells offered originally by the locals. The hills resonate with their tinkling music throughout the year.

On recent visits home, I noticed that as towns get gentrified with cement homes painted over with waterproof colours and topped with TV dishes, and as malls and restaurants start to offer pijja and noodils like old-style wayside eateries, those pre-Puranic Thans and temples are being gradually overshadowed by larger, garishly painted temples with tiled interiors.

These invariably belong to goddesses who have come into the fold from the mainstream Sanatan Dharma with the new money of builders, hoteliers, bootleggers and the SUV-driving, film music-loving tourists from the heat and dust of the plains below. Lakshmi and Durga in her various avatars, including the recent one as Bharat Mata, are the goddesses favoured by the new folks. The timeless temples of gods and goddesses of small things, those hundreds of gauna (peaceful) and ghater (terrible tempered) local goddesses may still be standing there, but the myths attached to them have long got drowned in the cacophony of Mata ki Bhentein set to filmy tunes blaring from loudspeakers.

The now popular Puranic gods – Vishnu, Lakshmi, Ganesh et al – arrived in our hills only around the 8th and 9th centuries with Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya. And now, as the state promotes Char Dham Yatras to the major temples of these big-ticket divines, bringing in tourists, our own peace-loving goddesses of small things who had long protected the fragile lives and ecology in the area are quietly receding.

As children we had seen the local goddesses as our personal protectors and pathfinders with whom one could bond minus priestly formalities. One was free to address them not with the honorofic aap, but simply as tu. The offerings were simple flowers and leaves and each visitor believed that if her dhat (call) was heard, the goddess would swiftly hand out justice, help pass an exam or locate lost domestic animals or farm implements, cure wailing babies of colic, prevent them from catching smallpox, tame cruel mothers-in-law or ward off The Evil Eye of jealous and nosy neighbours.

Categories of goddesses

Given the large-scale male migration from the rural areas in the hills, the burden for taking care of the family falls on young wives and mothers. They are overworked, underfed and starved for personal attention. The male migrants also have vulnerable lives as domestics, petty labourers or army jawans. Once the men come home on leave, families must visit the local devi’s Than carrying the simple offerings from their fields to placate her and seek her help.

Time is of the essence for migrants’ families since leaves expire quickly, hospitals for women and cattle are located far away, and visits to cities involve long treks and lots of money. So the goddesses and the Mediums in whose bodies the goddesses appear are sought out and everyone gathers in the temple courtyard. Together the priest and his assistants sing songs of praise to the goddess listing her brave acts and soliciting her compassion. Slowly the Medium goes into a trance and, once the drums and metal plates set up a roar, with a violent bout of shaking the goddess speaks through the Medium.

The hysterical women prone to sudden rage or fainting spells, or afflicted with unrelenting and debilitating diseases, are mostly diagnosed as victims of a kind of Chhal (black magic or possession by an evil spirit). On occasion the victim too goes into a trance and suddenly lets fly at an errant mother-in-law, calling her names and accusing her of many crimes before falling in a dead faint. At times another woman may go into a trance with another kindred spirit and point out some under-reported crime due to which crops are failing and milch cattle have dried up. Then the goddess hums and hums and pronounces remedies: a feast for five young girls, a black goat to be sacrificed to her and the meat shared by all, a halwa made of one and a quarter seer of atta and jaggery. To propitiate the goddess, the correct offering must be made. All this involves easily available ingredients and costs a fraction of the cost of hiring a van to the city hospital or police station.

The goddesses broadly belong to three categories. The first is Devangi (a deemed avatar of some mainstream goddess with a specialised local knowledge), such as the Devi at Punyagiri peak in Champhavat, Bhramari De(vi) of Almora, Pashan De(vi) of Nainital, and Shitala De(vi) of Sitalakhet.

The next category is Rajangi, goddesses that were once members of some noble or royal clan. These noble ladies are vegetarian and especially kind to orphaned, abandoned or widowed women and ill-treated daughters (Dhyan) in the surrounding villages. Their intercession is greatly in demand. The sidekicks of these goddesses are supposed to accompany married daughters to their father-in-law’s house to keep her protected till she delivers her first child. These bodyguard devis are feared and the in-laws make sure to offer a special pooja to the Maike Ki Devi (goddess from the natal home) before they go back. There are stories galore of how a goddess such as the Maithana Devi helped young runaway wives reach their natal homes safely through dangerous forests. The goddesses also go on official tours (jaat) in a palanquin when they listen to the villagers and help them sort out professional or domestic problems. Older women may even reprimand her for having taken too long to come meet her folk or having looked the other way when their crops failed.

Religion as entertainment

The last category of Bhootangi Goddesses is the most colourful. It includes many wild (ugra) goddesses and 64 yoginis, 22 fairies, 1,600 mischievous sub-goddesses with names like Aanchhari, Maanchhari, Nathwali, Ghoonghatwali, Anyari-Ujiyali, etc. This category also includes goddesses from other faiths who came to the area astride a pilgrim’s bundle and liked the area and the people so much that they decided to set up home here. Among them are the Assur goddess Kotvi De, Hingala De of a Tantrik Peeth in Afghanistan, Nugat and Gori Devi (from Tibet).

The oldest woman in a band of cattle-herding tribals in Johar Darma area still offers Gori Devi who lives in the river a sweet roti as the families and their sheep cross the waters separating Tibet from Uttarakhand. The tribes have some special goddesses as well. Bal Sundari Devi, for instance, is the favourite (ishta) devi of the Boksa and Tharu tribes living near Kashipur. Her temple, they say, was erected by two brothers during Aurangzeb’s reign. It is said the Badshah initially refused them permission to build a temple. But soon after, when his favourite daughter Jahan Ara suddenly fell sick, he dreamt that the goddess was displeased with him. So he gave his permission and sent royal masons to complete the temple. The temple (in Udham Singh Nagar district) does show an Indo-Islamic architectural pattern. Jahan Ara, the myth says, recovered as suddenly as she had fallen ill.

Then there are the feisty women of Mahabharat epic who are honoured with temples as goddesses of justice and revenge. Draupadi and Bheem’s wife Hidimba and her son Ghatotkach all have their own shrines in Uttarakhand. Hidimba’s son Ghatotkach had laid down his life to save his father, so childless women come to pray at her temple. In the month of Kartik, the women stand in the temple courtyard all through the night, holding a lit lamp and hoping to give birth to a son like Hidimba’s.

Stone goddesses have a category all their own here. After stone forts were built by local chieftains on hilltops for defence against outsiders, mounds of sacred stones were made available nearby so that they could be catapulted to thwart intruders’ progress towards the vulnerable mountain passes and forts. So arose the cult of Budi Devi or Dhura (peak) Devi or Kathpudiya Devi. During the 1947 freedom movement, the sacred stones offered by the devotees to these goddesses in the villages on the mountain peak at Salam Patti were effectively hurled by villagers to chase away the Gora Paltan sent by the British to catch and imprison the guerrilla freedom fighters.

One of the most delightful things about the local goddesses is that landslides and floods do not destroy them. They are just deemed to have relocated themselves. The mainstream Hindus will not worship a broken statue, but this does not apply to our goddesses. A recent example of this was the relocation during the Kedar valley floods of an already relocated Dhari Devi (literally the goddess who stands in the flowing river), also known as Uari Dyaw (the goddess from up there). Dhari Devi lacks arms and the lower half of her body, the result perhaps of previous damage by floodwaters. But this has been explained in local lore as a result of the devi’s fight against an evil band of brothers. How can they – the protectresses of all who live in the hills and valleys and cross the dark forests for fuel and fodder and plumb the depths of temperamental rivers – go away and leave their people in the lurch like a politician, women ask.

“We will invite you formally, and send you off with offerings of all kinds,” villagers sing to the goddesses as they manifest themselves in the body of a local Medium (bharad or guni). They say:
“We will put salt on your tongue for welcome, offer you sweet bread on each Sunday in winter month of Pausha, each Monday in the monsoon month of Shravana, bring you sheafs of newly mown paddy in the month of Ashwin, pounded rice (cheuda) in Kartik and fruits and fresh vegetables in Bhadrapad.”

If religion is to be more than just persuasive entertainment or self-promotion, if it is to have some genuinely illuminating and perhaps a deeper moral purpose, then not only men and women in remote and harsh regions but also in smart cities need deities they can talk to, fight and argue with. They need deities who will hold their hands when they leave the protection of their natal homes and hearth to face an increasingly violent world.