Jejuri: Shower of Turmeric

Published on 8th January, 2017, in Mumbai Mirror

It stands on top of a hill and looks like a fort, until you notice the temple-like structures on top, the lamp-pillars on the arches on the steps. Located about 50 km from Pune, this is Jejuri, the main centre of worship of Khandoba, also known as Malhari Martanda, clan deity of many warrior, farming, herding and priest families of Maharashtra and the Deccan region.

For most the English-speaking world, Jejuri is known through the poetry of the same name by one of India’s foremost English poets, Arun Kolhatkar, that won the Commonwealth prize in 1977. He described his pilgrimage here:

What is God
and what is stone
the dividing line
if it exists
is very thin
at Jejuri and every other stone
is God or his cousin.

His lines capture the Hindu ability to transform an idea into a form, God into a stone, a river, or an icon, thus anchoring the abstract. As you watch the devotees walk up the stairs throwing turmeric (locally known as ‘bhandara’) in the air, you realise you step into the intersection of what is known as the classical (margi) and the local (desi) traditions (paramparas) of Hinduism. The former is abstract, not bound by geography; the latter is rooted in the land, its people, its culture.

Khandoba is the Maratha manifestation of Shiva, though he is also identified with Kartikeya (standing atop a hill with his consorts), and with Vishnu (Kalki-like with horse and sword) and with the sun (sun-yellow turmeric and the name Martanda). In Andhra regions, he is called Mallikarjuna and in Karnataka, he is Mallanna. Jains have identified him with Malli-nath. Muslims — who have a long history in the Deccanni region — identify him as Mallu Khan. All this reveals, his wide local base.

In art, he is visualised riding a white horse brandishing a sword (khadga), which gives him the name Khando-ba (ba, meaning father) or Khande-rao (rao, meaning leader or king). He wears a Maratha turban, has a magnificent moustache and beard. Sometimes, he has four hands to establish his divine stature, with the other two arms holding a trishul and a rattle-drum (damaru) thus linking him to Shiva, not the meditative Shiva but the more warrior-like forms, such as Virabhadra or Bhairava. He is seen fighting demons — Mani and Malla. Accompanying him on his horse is his chief wife, Mhalsa. A dog also accompanies him.

The image of a warrior on a horse accompanied by a dog is found in many parts of India. In Tamil Nadu, we find gigantic images of this guardian god, who is given terracotta horses as votive offerings. Horses are not native to India, and have to be constantly imported from the North West regions. Horse-riding warriors have been identified as Greeks, as Huns, Gujars, and Pathans. One must keep in mind that Hindu supremacists get very upset at the very suggestion that Hinduism has any foreign influences, but for historians, the influence of warriors who came from the Northwest is obvious. A dog is seen as unclean in Vedic lore, and associated with pollution, but it is always associated with Shiva in his Bhairava form, and plays a key role in Tantrik art, suggesting the earthy nature of Khandoba worship.

Khandoba has many wives from many local communities. The most important being Mhalsa who often rides into battle with Khandoba on his horse. The other being Banai. The wives are daughters of weavers, tailors, horse grooms, soldiers. Some say that these are local grama-devis or village goddesses who got linked to this powerful guardian god and perhaps indicates a ceremonial web mapping a local royal dynasty, which broadened its kingdom and united various villages and communities not by war but through marriage. Others believe this may have something to do with the practice of dedicated daughters and sons to the deity who ended up as dancers (murali) and bards (vaghya) who sang praises of Khandoba and were identified as his junior wives and his dogs respectively. In the Brahmanical scriptures, Mhalsa is seen as Parvati and Banai as Ganga, the two wives of Shiva, who often quarrel with each other, a common theme in household stories of Hindu gods.

In the temple, we find the two enemies of Khandoba, Mani and Malla, treated differently. Mani stands upright because, when given a boon after he was overpowered, he asked for goat meat and happiness of humanity. Malla stands on the floor, stepped on by devotees, because when given a boon after he was overpowered, he asked for human meat and unhappiness of humanity.

The temple’s origins have been traced to about a thousand years ago, but its popularity peaked as the Marathi language evolved in past seven hundred years. Though Jejuri’s lord does not find mention in the Maha-Puranas, he has elaborate Sthala-Puranas, such as Malhara Mahatmya, and Martanda Vijaya, composed about 500 years ago by local priests in Sanskrit and Marathi. These local texts reveal the process of Sanskritisation — how a folk deity cult is gradually assimilated into a grand Brahmanical Hindu superset. They speak of pisachi bhakti (devotion of ghosts) that involves possession by the God, and rakshasi bhakti (devotion of demons) that involves blood sacrifice and self-torture such as hook-swinging and fire-walking and self-flagellation, and finally there is sattvic bhakti (devotion of the pure) involving betel leaves and nuts, and of course, turmeric.