It had been a harrowing 18-hour cab ride from Delhi to Parvati Valley. Half twisted and drained, the Manikaran hot springs welcomed me. I wanted a ritual purification. After all, I was about to visit a God.
A little dizzy and relaxed, I stepped out. The greyish-white Parvati river was roaring. I looked to the heavens and raindrops fell on my face. Maybe it was a blessing from heaven? The rain didn’t stop until late at night, and my plans suddenly faced obstacles, as hiking in the rain is cold and tough. Maybe the devata wanted to test my resolve.
The morning was better. Blue skies greeted me for breakfast. With a loaded backpack, I headed to Rashol, a village about a 2.5- 3 hour hike from Kasol. Both these villages are notoriously known for cannabis production and trade. But my mission was different. I wanted to explore the shamanic aspects of their culture. Perhaps see how God speaks through men.
A pilgrimage is supposed to be strenuous, I guess. Here I was staring at the steep climb to Rashol. My legs were already wobbly in the first 30 minutes, but I decided to push on. Soon, I was walking among red rhododendron blooms, drinking water from waterfalls but loathing plastic packets – Red Bull to chips – as thousands were littered along the way, with major waste dumps around the waterfalls.
Finally, I caught up with some porters who were resting. I asked them about the devata, and spoke with reverence. They also added a caveat – outside people can’t go into the temple.
Two dark wooden structures stood facing creamy white mountain tops. Hundreds of horns adorned the two-storeyed wood-stone-mud structure. It looked like an ancient animal shrine. Village men sat around the temple, gambling and smoking. Behind the temple, a lady was selling delicacies like pakodas and jalebi. The village children, high on sugar, were bouncing around.
Rashol is primarily a Thakur village, with 800-1,000 odd people. Renuka Mata, Rashol’s chief deity, is also the wife of Malana’s chief deity. The Virshu mela which happens around Baisakhi is one of the six times the devata can channel Himself through the selected ‘Goor’ (medium or vessel). Only men from some families can become Goors. The celebration offers public catharsis, and helps settle local disputes.
Apart from the closed-door rituals, the drums and trumpets began calling the village to the temple around 4 pm. While the drummers evoked the sacred with their beats, five chosen women, in special whitish attire, handed out fresh Barley shoots as a blessing and welcomed all to the temple. Outsiders like myself weren’t even allowed to cast our shadows onto the temple space, so I sat on the cemented spaces.
Then the spiral dance, Chakri, began. It’s considered the dance of the Gods. Beats changed, and the five women started the spiral dance while facing the temple. Others joined in. The oldest woman led the dance and they were dancing, creating the spiral/circle of life visually and then suddenly with another beat it was all over. Then, the men danced.
The dance continued late into the evening. Young girls and men were all decked up. Passing smiles, stealing looks, newlyweds had infants in their arms. But it stopped for another game. This one was to ward off a ‘daiyan’ (evil spirit). Traditional mountain footwear had to be shot with a bow and arrow. Three community heads get three chances each to strike, and if they miss it’s free for all.
Day one was over, and God didn’t appear. I caught up with 32-year-old Sussur Cando (named changed). His family has been in service of the devata for generations. I asked him why hasn’t the devata come?
“Our devata doesn’t come anymore, because people don’t listen. They say yes in public but do the opposite. That’s why the rains have stopped in our village. People have encroached upon devata’s lands. They have cut the forest and now are growing marijuana in it. Rashol is hanging between the old and the new world. Everything is changing,” said Cando, very candidly.
I hit the bed, trying to absorb Rashol’s dilemma.
I woke up to a bright sun and, cymbals and drums around 7 am. The festivities had begun. It was the last day for the rituals to call the devata. Apart from the rituals, throughout the day ‘natti’ – play of the gods – was performed. Dancers had come from Kullu to perform this special short-step dance.
I hung out all day at the temple periphery, watching every step, listening to every tune, hoping to witness the devata. Here, I met random people from Bangalore to Mumbai, some chasing supernaturals, others some peace. By 2 pm, it started to rain. Once it stopped, the drums called us again.
A new circle was formed now. Everyone joined in. This natti was led by an old man, dancing with the energy of a 16-year-old. They danced whilst creating a circle. It connected life and death, hate and love, old and young, music and the dancer. But it was not a complete circle as it had little gaps for people to walk through or enter and join the dancers – a bit poetic, like life itself, I thought.
The dance went on until the full moon rose over the hill. Its pellucid pale light, signalling all of us to head home. I kept looking at the temple and the people, caught between two Gods – their own and a new one – money. Drug money has changed the village and, with it, the old ways are in danger.
The devata didn’t come. But the next morning it was time to leave. I walked past the temple and saw fresh snow on the mountains. Men with Himachali caps were still sniggering and laughing. The gamble was on. A waft of beedi touched my nose, and I understood life goes on here just the same. Every day is the same in a remote village, where Gods still visit sometimes.
Featured image is provided by the author.