There is something about the towering Himalayas that invites both respect and playful defiance. A great mountaineer when asked why he decided to climb Mount Everest simply replied, “because it is there”. Like him, for all of us who were raised amongst the great mountains, picking up stones and pelting them, either as an act of playful defiance, or self-defence, is a cool activity that comes with being on home turf.

There are numerous names for varying kinds of stones in Uttarakhand’s dialects. A small stone is dhung or paathar that, to quote JK Rowling, “with a swish and a flick” can create magic. Then there are large boulders that roll threateningly down the hills and play havoc with the roads. They are known as gallod. The most celebrated of course is khyontaar, a stone flying out of a catapult unerringly aimed at simians wrecking orchards, or simply at a ripe low-hanging fruit in the neighbour’s garden.

School texts strengthen and underscore the importance of stones in human lives. Millions of years ago in the Paleolithic age, had the Homo Erectus, our cave-dwelling and hairy ancestor, not begun using stones (lithos in Greek) as projectiles, we would simply not be here. So our stone-pelting ancestors were indulging in noble guerrilla warfare against the extinction of the species. They used stones to protect themselves, to hunt small game or to get even with a far bigger enemy. Stones may not always kill, but can help put out an eye and break teeth, as the scriptures too agreed. Catapults and slingshots were all invented to lend this activity a surer sharper edge, who are we to decry them?

“In the stone,” writes Dostoevsky, in Demons, “there is no pain, but in the fear of the stone is the pain. And…God is the pain of the fear of Death”. It was thus predestined that stones, unpolished but anointed liberally with miraculous myths, would become the first symbols of God. And as feminists will testify, at that point there was but one God, and it was a She, the Mother Goddess.

The stone goddesses

Uttarakhand is full of shrines to the stone as mother, the protector. There is Pashan Devi, the stone goddess, at Nainital; Kalshila, the death stone of Chamolil; Koorma Shila, the turtle stone, at Champavat. All along the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Tibetan border there are also other shrines to goddesses, worshipped as Kathbood or Pathoria (the stony ones) by frontline tribes forever threatened by intruding aliens. Thus in Champavat region reigns the old goddess, Budi Devi. The Chaudas Darma valley has Kathpudiya Devi and then there is the shrine to the goddess of stones at the peak (Dhuradevi) in Chamoli. At all these shrines, due to a perennial shortage of fruits, flowers or edibles, the devotees must carry stones and dry wood as holy offerings.

This tradition is actually a masterful ploy to help collect basic defence material for the tribes of cattle herders in the area forever threatened by alien intruders. A host of red and white flags mounted on reeds marks the site of the stones collected so when potential intruders are sighted push can come easily to shove.

At the annual Bagwal fair in Champavat, Uttarakhand, according to tradition, people pelt stones at each other. (Photo credit: HT).

Mother of stone pelters

Budi Devi, or the old goddess, is the mother of all stone pelters. She sits ensconced in shrines as a vast block of stone atop most hills that flank an important mountain pass.

According to legend Budi Devi is the most ancient among the stone goddesses. Centuries ago when the Shakalya Rishi arrived in the Himalayas to meditate, he is said to have paid homage to this mother of all stone goddesses. Shakalya Rishi was a champion stone-pelter who enjoyed the peace and quiet of his cave, and actively discouraged cattle thieves arriving disguised as bhakts or devotees. Even the great scholar sage Yagnyavalkya had to risk life and limb to touch his feet and acknowledged him as his Guru.

This great stone goddess is said also to eat stones and dry fuel wood for her meals. So all pilgrims to Budi Devi’s temple must carry bundles of both these commodities up to her shrine. After presenting her with this offering, they leave the stones and firewood in two eminently usable heaps outside the strategically located temple. These heaps have been used to full advantage through the centuries if local lore is to be believed.

The stone goddess and freedom fighters

Here is an interesting tale for those laying (mostly unsuccessful) claims of having supported the Quit India Movement retrospectively.

By the early 20th Century, Budi Devi’s existence had proved to be very useful in driving away all threats to poor cattle herders who had occupied the peaceful and difficult terrain in the Himalayas and protected the flora and fauna. So, a further string of temples to her under various names came up all over Uttarakhand. One of these is the Kathpudiya Devi shrine in Salem Tehsil in Almora district.

In the 1940s, this shrine gave shelter to Uttarakhand’s small but dedicated band of freedom fighters fleeing the British police during the Quit India Movement. It is reported that when the British sent a posse of police with strict instructions to capture these freedom fighters no matter how tough the climb, the villagers of Jainti village, where the temple stood, used the Devi’s offerings to pelt the Angrez bahadur ke sipahi (the police forces of the British) with stones. They simply rolled the stones down the hill as the policemen negotiated the pass. Several policemen were killed and the rest ran away. The villagers will tell you it was not their grandfathers but the goddess of stone pelters who saved the Swatantrata Senanis (soldiers of the Freedom Movement) from jail and perhaps death.

A bloody sport

The biggest event to mark the glory of stone pelting is the bloody game of Bagwal. It takes place after Diwali on the day the rest of India celebrates Bhai Dooj or Bhratri Dwitiya. At the Mother Varahi temple in the Champavat region, bands of young men from four khams (groups) and seven thokas (sub groups) arrive dressed traditionally, accompanied by brass bands and armed with shields made of reeds. First they offer their pooja to the stone goddess and then go round her temple. The match begins after that. Each side pelts stones at the other side to draw blood, and when both sides have drawn an equal amount of blood the match is called to a stop.

In 2013, the local court intervened and put a stop to what it thought was a dangerous and barbaric practice. The match is now played using local fruits as projectiles, but as the veterans say “ab khel mein maza nahin raha!” The game is no longer as exciting! After each major deluge there are also mutterings in the region that it is the angry goddess’s way of demanding her annual quota of blood. But the court must be obeyed. That Bagwal is basically a friendly match, designed as a coming-of-age ritual for the young, does not wash either. When the immediate reference points are freshly opened wounds, forgiveness for stones seems a rather unnatural human emotion.