Every morning Sarojben Desani, a cook who works in Gujarat’s Jeypur village, wakes up to Balu kaka’s chakda – a big square container attached to what looks like a big bike – rattling over an uneven road. The silver-haired man is responsible for transporting the milk produce of the village’s 700 households to the nearest district, Talada. Before she leaves for work at the local mother and child care centre or Aanganwadi, Sarojben heats a small copper vessel to make tea for her seven-year-old son and businessman husband.
But not on September 6. On that day, Sarojben, Balu kaka and every other resident of the agrarian village of Jeypur, even if they lived on the periphery of the Gir forest, carried all the milk their cows and buffaloes produced, along with supplies of rice and sugar, to a small shrine for the local goddess Avad Ma.
On every purnima or full moon day on the Hindu calendar Bhadarva, the village of Jeypur turns into a huge kheer-making kitchen, which makes offerings to the goddess in the form of sweetened milk and rice. Once blessed, this kheer is served to thousands of Avad Ma’s devotees from neighbouring villages and cities like Junagadh and Veraval. “We have been following this tradition for the last 105 years, ever since one of our shepherds dreamt of the goddess,” said Govind Jessa, the 60-year-old chief of a shepherding community.
Legend has it that Avad Ma is the protector of cattle and can cure ailing cows and buffaloes. Since rural Saurashtra depends upon milk, ghee and curd to sustain its economy, Avad Ma is a highly revered deity here.
So strong is the villagers’ belief in the goddess and the auspiciousness of the full moon ritual, that no shepherd in the village accompanies their cattle to the jungle to graze between 7 am to 6 pm on that day. The cattle herders said they were not worried about Gujarat’s famous Asiatic lions paying their cattle a visit either: “We are confident that none of our cows or buffaloes will be attacked by any carnivore today,” said Jessa. “Even if a cow is just a few metres away from the lion, the carnivore won’t attack it. Instead, it will turn around.”
As the cattle return home unscathed year after year, the number of devotees of Avad Ma have grown steadily. This year, hundreds of devotees from the neighbouring villages of Ranhej, Khirtal, Chitraval and Ramnesh brought offerings to Jeypur.
In Jeypur, it is considered a bad omen to measure the quantity of milk and kheer collected, or to count the number of people served. On an estimate by the shepherding community, about 700 litres of milk, 500 kilograms of sugar and 250 kilograms of rice are mixed together to make enough kheer to feed over 5,000 people.
“When we talk about feeding kheer we do not mean serving it in small bowls,” said Petha bhai Veta, a 55-year-old shepherd. “We serve kheer in huge steel plates and people are free to eat to their heart’s content. Thanks to the generosity of the goddess, we have not once run out of kheer.”
Donors start pouring in from 7 am, some carrying small bottles of milk and others huge cans. Thirty-one-year-old dairy owner Haresh Ram from Dhanej arrived early on the morning of September 6. “We believe in the goddess and her powers,” he said. “She takes care of the animals who supply us with milk, which is my family business. For the last 30 years we have been dedicating ten litres of the milk to Avad Ma.”
The milk that devotees bring is collected in massive pans that belong to the community kitchen, and boiled with rice and sugar. The mixture is stirred for a long time by several men of the village (women are not allowed to cook on this day). Shifts to cook the kheer begin at 7.30 am and go on until 3.30 pm. By 11 am, guests begin to crowd the temple. After a ceremonial pooja, the piping hot kheer is cooled in huge trays, placed outside the kitchen, and once again, transferred to serving pans.
There is so much kheer that all of it could make for a mini swimming pool. Men and women sit in rows, eating kheer with their hands.
“This is our lunch,” said Sarojben. “No woman cooks at home today. Everybody comes here to eat.”
“My son takes a day off from his office at Veraval every year to enjoy the festival,” said 60-year-old Ramiben Baku from Jeypur.
This year, Ramiben had planned a special ceremony for her seven-year-old grandson, Molesh. According to the ritual, Molesh was placed on one side of a weighing scale, with tins of jaggery that equal his weight, on the other side. The jaggery was then donated to the divine kheer kitchen, with a prayer for the child’s health, education and success.
These rituals are popular among families with young children. It is a special occasion, children get to dress up in new clothes and buy goodies from several vendors that line the streets of the village, with toys, buckets, pans, artificial flowers, cutlery, clothes, stickers, sweets and savoury snacks.
At night, the village usually hosts a dance drama and a satire-poetry slam. This year, since one of the villagers had been diagnosed with liver cancer a day before the festival, the community decided to keep celebrations low-key.
Nonetheless, women stood up to sing and perform the Ubho Raas or Standing Raas. Unlike the usual Gujarati raas, the women do not move in a circle in Ubho Raas, but stand in one spot singing songs about Radha and Krishna, clapping rhythmically.
“Out of respect for elders in the village, we don’t really dance,” said Sarojben. “But this is important. How can we not offer the gift of music and dance to our beloved goddess on her special day?”
The feast continues until 4.30 pm when the village priest announces it is time for vendors and people to vacate the streets and make way for cows and buffaloes to return home. This year too, not a single animal had gone missing.