It’s God vs government in Kullu Dussehra


By: Satyakam Bharti

While nation states across the glove have time and again resorted to house arrest ‘godly figures’ who grow in stature to proportions that appear threatening to the establishment, little has ever been heard about gods being kept under house arrest. Notwithstanding their ‘supernatural stature’, gods in the Kullu valley seem to have fallen victims to ‘state-sponsored persecution’. So, for the second consecutive year, a few of the prominent deities of the valley are once again under ‘house arrest’ as they have been barred from moving out of their ‘allotted’ place in Dhalpur ground during the ongoing Dussehra celebrations.
While last year, Shringa Rishi and Balu Nag were under house arrest, this time more devtas have been barred from free movement as the local administration has imposed Section 144 of CrPC. Police lathicharge on teaming crowds last year following the defiance shown by the followers of Shringa Rishi and Balu Nag was a black day in the history of centuries-old tradition of Kullu Dussehra, but nothing much seems to have happened after that to break the ice. And the problem is not as simplistic as a war of egos between two deities to establish their supremacy as the right hand of Lord Raghunath.

Once stated to be a grand gathering of around 365 local deities, now with every passing year devtas are falling apart, giving Dussehra a miss. Last year around 180 of them marked their presence in Kullu. Regular voices have been emerging from all quarters of the valley, be it for state support to maintain the finances of the devtas, honorarium for temple functionaries or even right over temple property. The recent jagti ceremony, convened after a gap of nearly three decades, to decide the fate of the Himalayan Ski Village project, too hints at undercurrents in the institution of devtas in the valley.

For centuries devtas have been at the centre of village economy in the valley. Villagers used to donate generously to the village god, who held courts, and was also responsible for the well being of all inhabitants. Every temple was headed by a pujari who was the custodian of the devta’s properties and had thus right to use it. Besides the pujaris, there were oracles called gur attached to the village through who the devtas communicated. Thus, the deity institution in Himachal has much to do with the material aspect of life in the state, a fact not being recognized by the state.

Over the years, with state-sponsored developmental activities picking up pace even in the remotest of places in the valley, the importance of devtas in the day-to-day life of villagers has been eroding, while people who were the direct beneficiaries of the institution have been making desperate efforts to maintain their interests. The state government itself has been undecided about saving the tradition.

The current conflict between Shringa Rishi and Balu Nag has its roots nearly three decades back when the issue of their seniority arose for the first time. As per tradition, the senior-most devta gets to walk on the right side of Lord Raghunath’s chariot during Dusshera festival. Before 1971 Shringa Rishi had enjoyed this privilege when a goof-up by government functionaries in not sending an invite to Shringa Rish resulted in the deity boycotting the Dussehra. He continued to boycott the ceremony for 11 years during which Balu Nag, who is considered incarnation of Lord Rama’s younger brother Lakshman, took his place. Later, differences grew between them and both of them stopped coming to the celebrations and their place was taken by Kullu’s local deity Jamdagni Rishi. But, three years back, both the deities again made a surprise appearance at the Dussehra, now both claiming the right hand place beside the Lord’s chariot.

While all efforts by the administration to resolve the issue seems to have failed, maybe because no serious attempt has been made. While most locals believe that a solution lies in the government restoring the earlier tradition, it seems surprising why the administration has failed to do so.

It should be recognised that the socio-ecological aspects of the institution of deities has an immense bearing on conflicts of interests amongst different groups in the area, and thus the government should understand that it is almost dangerous to make an attempt to alter the psychology of a culture. The consequences are already there to see.

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