The sign at the entrance is clear: ‘Serving alcohol to the beggars around the temple is strictly prohibited.’ This is the temple of Kilkari Bhairava, established by the Pandavas at the entrance of Indraprastha that now clings to the outer walls of Purana Qila in Delhi.
Here, the deity is offered bottles of alcohol, half of which is evaporated by being poured on a red hot wok and the rest given to the devotee as offering. The temple is frequented by newly married couples and families, all of whom have no discomfort with the offering. For those uncomfortable with offering alcohol to the deity, there is the Dudhiya Bhairava down the road, who accepts raw unprocessed milk and fruits.
Kilkari means squealing, the joyful cry of a child. In art, Bhairava is shown in two forms. As a ferocious alpha, with blood shot eyes, and erect penis, with a garland of skulls, drinking blood or alcohol from a bowl, riding a rabid dog. Or he is visualised as a child, also riding a dog, while holding a human head in his hand. The former is called Kal Bhairava, or sometimes Kala Bhairava. This Bhairava is associated with time, hence death and destruction, and with darkness. The latter cherubic Bhairava is called Batuk Bhairava or Gora Bhairava, the childlike Bhairava or the fair Bhairava. The dark form drinks alcohol and loves narcotics like bhang (cannabis) and dhatura. The light form drinks milk. Both Bhairavas squeal and shout and dance to the beat of the drum at nights just before the new moon, known as Shivaratri, which is sacred to Shiva. Devotees join them, breaking free from the orderly conduct of piety typically expected in temples at daytime.
Unlike the conventional temple of Shiva, there are no images of bulls here. Only dogs which is the ride of Bhairava. The temple complex is consequently full of dogs, who love the attention showered on them by devotees. And Shiva is represented not the aniconic linga, but by a head. The stories of Bhairava are few in Sanskrit Puranic literature but are found in vast numbers in regional literature, in folk and village traditions, often on the fringes of what we can call mainstream Hinduism. For these stories cannot be easily sanitised. The stories are raw and elemental, dealing with primal human instincts for sex and violence. If the 19th century European visitor found such shrines and practices ‘primitive and barbaric’, today the 21st century New Age tourist finds this ‘authentic and real’. It reveals our shift in attitude towards religious practices that are non-Abrahamic, referring to contemptuously by Indologists as ‘pagan’.
The story goes that the Goddess entered her cave and left a monkey to guard the gate. The monkey is called Langur-devata and is increasingly being identified with Hanuman. The monkey served the goddess and had taken the vow of brahmacharya, or celibacy, and so looked upon the Goddess as his mother. However, Bhairava, desired to have sex with the Goddess. Some stories say Bhairava was a demon. Some stories say Bhairava was a Tantrik for whom sexual rites were part of his occult practice, or sadhana. Some stories say Bhairava was consumed by passion after he drank the blood of Brahma after wrenching off Brahma’s lustful and arrogant fifth head. Be that as it may, the Goddess was so annoyed that she took the form of Chandi and beheaded Bhairava. The head apologised to the Goddess and sang songs to her glory. So the Goddess declared that the head of Bhairava will be worshipped. He will be her caretaker and no worship offered to her would be complete without the worship of Bhairava.
For devotees, Bhairava is a form of Bholenath, or the guileless Shiva. He is innocent and so does not know the ways of the world, and so he does not understand her lack of consent. So while he is stopped the Goddess for his intransigence, his innocence is acknowledged by his transformation into her devotee, and a deity in his own right, one who has been stripped of his own vile lustful body.
In Tantrik physiology, men are mortal because their semen flows out of their body. Tantrik practices enable the semen to move up the spine and transform into nectar in the head, thus bestowing the practitioner great powers and wisdom. The head of Bhairava is full of that nectar and so becomes worthy of worship. Denied his body, the only pleasure for him comes from alcohol and he squeals in pleasure on receiving it and gives his devotees whatever they desire in exchange.
It is said that Bhima brought the image of Bhairava to the Purana Qila shrine from the hills. Bhairava’s condition was that once picked up he should not be placed on the ground. Wherever he is placed, he will reside there. Bhima wanted to take him inside Indraprastha, but at the gates he experienced great hunger and stopped to eat and so the shrine came to be located at the gate. Bhima has a close association with Bhairava, for like Bhairava who is known to attack those who look upon the Goddess with lustful eyes, Bhima drinks the blood and broke the bones of the Kauravas who disrobed his wife. In folk versions of the Mahabharatas, Draupadi who washes her hair with the blood of her abusers is a form of the Goddess.
Historians have identified a village called Indrapat that existed until 1913 in the space within the fort walls as well as excavations that have wielded 3000-year-old pottery, indicating this was indeed an ancient settlement since Vedic times. The fort that we see now was built by Humayun and Sher Shah Suri, and despite Mughal rule, and the proximity of Qila Kuhna Masjid, the shrine still survived and thrived. One can imagine the fondness of local soldiers, Rajput or Turk or Afghan, for a local deity whose head was separated from his body, whose lust the Goddess curtailed, and who likes alcohol. Maybe they frequented his shrine to cope with their own encounters with violence.
As some contemporary Hindu leaders strive hard to turn Hinduism into some kind of a homogenous puritanical faith, shrines such as these remind us of the inclusive nature of this faith, and its non-judgmental nature where the deity does not impose his ways on his devotees and his devotees do not impose their ways of the deity.