A long time ago in Kashmir, there lived a king who loved a good war. He took great pride in his military and lost no chance to talk about the courage and prowess of his fighting men. He also lavished his kingdom’s treasures on his army, looking after his men well and buying them the best weapons his gold could get.
One day, keen to see how his army was shaping up, the king asked all his forces to congregate at a maidan on the outskirts of his capital city. His wazirs were also asked to be present and on the appointed day a large crowd gathered to attend the grand show.
As the king sat there, in the midst of his people, decked out in regal finery, his eyes fell upon a strange creature. A seven legged haiwan (strange animal) who upped on all sevens and fled as soon as he spied the king spying him. The king chased after him and after a short distance, the animal stopped in the middle of the path and shook himself all over, turned into a djinn and slew the king and ate him.
Upon his death, his son was anointed to the throne. He too ruled well with a firm but kind hand. Until one day, he was seized by this great desire to know what had happened to his father. When the whole story was revealed to him, he announced that he wanted to arrange just such a grand display of the kingdom’s armed forces. And so it was organised. The whole town gathered and just as it had happened in the case of the father, the young prince too spotted the same seven legged beast. He too ran after him and the beast did exactly what it had done before: shook himself all over and turned into a djinn. But the prince invoked the great god and asked him for help. And god sent an angel to the rescue who warned the prince that the beast that stood before him was among the most dangerous beasts ever to have walked the earth. If even a drop of his blood fell to the ground, it would lead to many more beasts springing up from the earth. He gave the prince a double edged arrow and asked him to pierce the beast’s eyes and bring him down. The prince did as told and the beast fell to his death.
The prince cut off his head, stuck it on the arrow and took it back with him to his palace where there were 12,000 rooms. He locked up the head in one of the rooms and handed the key to his mother. But the mistake he made was that he did not tell his mother what he had brought back with him; he merely told her that she could go to all the rooms in the palace except the locked one. Naturally, curiosity got the better of the queen and one day, she opened the door to the room with head of the beast. As she stepped into the cold dark space behind the door, she heard a hollow laugh.
Your son is a djinn, the voice said. He killed me, your husband and now wants to kill you.
The queen was shocked, confused and extremely frightened. What should she do she asked the voice.
Pretend to be unwell and ask him to get the milk of a tigress and if he can, then you will surely know he is not human.
The queen obliged and one early morning, well before dawn, the prince set out for the forest. He sat waiting on top of a tree when his eyes soon spotted a tigress with her cubs sprawled upon the grass. He aimed his arrow and luck was on his side, quite clearly that day, because his arrow tore upon an abscess that had given the tigress much pain and upon whose release, she was greatly relieved. She looked at him with gratitude and beckoned that he should ask anything he desired. The prince told her the entire story and the tigress willingly gave him some milk. The tigress also gave the prince a tuft of her hair; show it to the sun when you are in trouble and I will come to your aid, she said.
The prince duly carried it back to the queen, who was horrified at the thought that her son had achieved what no human could have done. Back to the room with the head, she went and this time the djinn said, she would have to pretend to still be unwell.
Send the prince off to a castle far away from the kingdom. In that castle, guarded by fierce men and animals, lives a princess. Ask him to bring her to you as her touch is the only cure for your sickness. The prince will not survive the journey.
The queen sent the prince off. After a while he remembered the tuft of hair and as promised, the tigress and her cubs appeared when he held it up to the sun. The tigress warned him about the mission. There were three doors to the castle she said. Behind one was a block of iron which the prince would have to cleave, if he wanted to go further. The next door had an imitation cow behind it which the prince would have to milk, or else the djinns would have him for a meal. And finally behind the third door was a princess, who would accept him only if she was pleased with him. If not, she would ensure his death.
The frightened prince asked for guidance. The tigress said that she would help him. She would sit inside the block of iron and force it to break into two. And, said one of the young cubs, he would help him milk the cow without letting the djinns interfere. And, said the other young cub, he would sprinkle a charm over the princess so that when she saw him, she would have eyes for none other.
The prince managed to get to the princess who was so smitten that she accompanied him back to the palace. When he reached home, he told his mother everything. Even his adventures with the seven legged beast and that is when his mother the queen realised her folly. She sought his forgiveness and the prince readily gave it. He married the princess and ruled over his kingdom well. And the room; that was left locked for ever.
STORY COLLECTED BY: Arundhuti Dasgupta
TEXT SOURCE: Folk tales of Kashmir, J.Hinton Knowles
Shirnathji is the presiding deity of Nathdwara and is popular with the Vaishnav community in Gujarat and Rajasthan. It is commonly believed that the Vaishnav and Mother Goddess cults do not see eye to eye. However we were surprised to spot the painting at the temple of Bahucharaji –
On enquiring, we were told the following myth:
Legend has it that the famous devotee of Bahucharaji, Bhakt Vallabh Bhatt once visited Nathdwara to worship Nathdhish (as Srinathji was known then). When the doors of the temple opened, Bhatt hailed the god by saying – “Jai Bahuchara ma”! On hearing this, the temple folk and the assembled Vaishnavs were agitated, and severely beat him up and kept him in solitary confinement.
In the middle of the night, Bahucharaji came with a plate of food to Bhatt to feed him. Bhatt declined to have the food and said that he would not have his food till he sees her image in the idol of Nathdhish. Bahucharaji promised him that he would see this the next morning.
Early the next day, Bhatt went to the temple and waited along with the rest of the crowd that had gathered for the morning darshan. As the temple doors opened everybody was shocked to see, that Nathdhish was wearing a nose-ring, ‘payal’ or anklets in his legs and had a ‘chunadi’, a veiled cloth worn by women, over his head. His hands were in a position to clap as in the traditional garba.
Realisation dawned on the assembled devotees who apologised to Bhatt. From that day onwards, Nathdhish is referred as Srinathji, ‘Sri’ standing for the goddess Srishakti.
Story collected by: Utkarsh Patel
Source: Temple priest
Location: Nathdwara, Gujarat
Tanot is a small town about 120 Kms from Jaisalmer. It lies very close to the Indo-Pak Border. We visited a temple there which takes its name after the village or, perhaps, it is the other way around – it is called the Mata Tanot Rai temple.
There are many myths surrounding the temple but one of the oldest is the one associated with the self-immolation of Sati. As the popular tale goes, Sati was aggrieved that her father Daksa had not invited her husband Shiva for the grand yagna. She went even though she had not been called and against Shiva’s wishes and when her father refused to change his mind about Shiva, threw herself into the fire that had been kindled for the Yagna.
Shiva was grief stricken and furious with the ganas (Charans) who had been sent along with Sati. He cursed them for not being able to protect his wife and banished them from heaven. They ceased to be immortal and were sentenced to life on earth. The Charans pleaded but Shiva refused to yield. The Charans then fell at the feet of Sati’s lifeless body and started lamenting. A voice emanated from the dead Sati that said that Shiva’s curse would have to be borne. However, since she was responsible for their condition; every time she was born as a human, it would be in the Charan community. It is said that due to the blessings of Sati, there were numerous births of Sati in the Charan community and there are many minor myths and miracles credited to the goddess. Ever since, the Charans have come to be referred to as ‘devi-putra’ or sons of the goddess.
Shiva’s anger and grief however knew no bounds. He danced a terrible tandava with Sati’s body. Finally Vishnu was forced to use his sudarshan-chakra, the discus, to sever the body into different pieces. And every spot where a piece of Sati’s body is believed to have fallen has sprung a temple. In this region fell Sati’s head, and the place is known as Hinglaj.
The village, after Partition, was given to the Balochistan province of Pakistan and over time, the Charan community converted to Islam. The present temple is considered to be an extension of the main Shakti-peeth at Hinglaj. While there are many stories and miracles associated with Tanot Mata one of the most recent is set during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. The Pakistani troops were very close to the temple premises. They had set off more than 3000 bombs and nearly 450 of them were targeted at the temple. But none exploded! The villagers see this as nothing short of a miracle–some of the shells have been kept in the temple premises as souvenirs. After the war, the temple was handed over to the Border Security Force (BSF) which manages the temple and has erected a memorial within its premises. The temple has also found fame outside Rajasthan after being featured in the Hindi movie “Border”.
LOCATION: Tanot, RAJASTHAN
STORY COLLECTED BY: UTKARSH
Tags: Tanot Rai temple, Devi, Charan community, Sati, Shiva, Hinglaj, Shakti Peeth
During a recent visit to Faridabad, Haryana I saw a temple which was called “Maharaja Agrasen ka Mandir” — the temple of Maharaja Agrasen. It wasn’t a typical temple structure and there weren’t too many people around it at the time. Besides the temple was closed at that time and although the name had piqued my curiosity, I had to be content with looking at it from the outside. I enquired from the people who were standing around about Maharaja Agrasen and then intrigued by the story they told me, spoke to some people from the village nearby. From the bits and pieces and a few fragments here and there, this is what I got.
Maharaja Agrasen was a Suryavanshi King (of the solar lineage), who ruled during the Dwapar Yuga, which according to the current times would be approximately more than 5000 years ago. He was the first born of King Ballabha of Pratapnagar and was supposed to have been married to Princess Madhavi who was a Nagvanshi (the Naaga clan). The marriage had brought two very powerful clans of the time together. Madhavi had selected Agrasen in a swayamvar.
It is said that in the swayamvar, Lord Indra too was present and was infatuated by Madhavi’s beauty. But Madhavi angered Indra by choosing Agrasen. So jealous was the king of all gods that he decided to withhold rain from the kingdom of Pratapnagar which led to a famine like situation.
King Agrasen decided to wage war and since he was on the right side of Dharma, Indra and his mighty forces were soon vanquished. Indra then sought the help of Narada to settle the matter amicably. And it was decided that normalcy would be restored if Indra declared Agrasen to be a righteous and a religious ruler who would wage a war against even gods for the welfare of his subjects.
After this, Agrasen decided to propitiate Shiva who was soon pleased by his penance. Shiva then advised him to propitiate Mahalakshmi, who too was pleased with the penance. She appeared and blessed Agrasen and suggested that he give up the role of a King and change his caste to Vaishya, the business community and found a new kingdom and she would bless all his people. King Agrasen, then gave up his Kshatriya-hood and became a Vaishya.
Agrasen was a very compassionate person and the happiness of his subjects was his prime concern. He conducted many yagna’s for the well-being of his people and once during the well-known 18 maha-yagna’s, during an Ashwamedha Yagna, he saw a horse being forcibly pulled to the sacrificial altar. The pathetic plight of the animal saddened him and it was decreed from then on that there would be no more animal sacrifices in Agrasen’s kingdom. He became a champion of Ahimsa and was of the opinion that prosperity could not be brought at the cost of death of animals.
He later divided his kingdom amongst his 18 children, and named the 18 gotra’s after the gurus of each of his sons. Some of these are Mittal, Bansal, Goyal, Jindal, Tayal, Bindal, amongst others. Finally the most important aspect of this legendary king is that the present day Agarwal community traces their origins from Agrasen. In Delhi, one can see Agrasen ki Baoli, which is supposed to have been built during the Mahabharat epic times and later rebuilt by the Agrawal community in memory of their ancestor, Maharaja Agrasen.
Story collected by: Utkarsh Patel
Location: Faridabad, Haryana
Tags: Agrasan, Agarwal, Agrasen ki Baoli, Shiva, Indra, Suryavanshi, Queen Madhavi
The story below is a composite; I first heard it from a colleague who heard it from his father. It was added to by a young boy from Ayodhya who had just turned 21. He is employed by a cab company in New Delhi and said that he had heard it from his grandfather. The story belongs to a time when India was yet to be carved up into different states and thus belongs to many regions – if we had to place it within a framework, the story would be from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. But the devi temple where this lore is still sung is in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh.
There once lived two brothers — two warriors to be more precise — who none could defeat. They are immortals and live among us even today and some say that they have become one in death but others say that they are still two people. Whatever be the real story, the truth is that they are the most favoured devotees of Maihar Devi who does not accept the offerings from anyone – not from the priests, not from the big people of the village or country, not anyone at all – before Alha and Udal have offered their prayers, lit the diya and done the aarti. Such is the power of their bhakti.
When Alha and Udal lived there was no one in whole world who dared challenge them in a sword fight. The saying was that ‘talwar bhi unse haar man gayi’ (even the sword accepted defeat at their prowess and courage). They fought against kings and were the most renowned fighters in their region. Even Prithviraj Chouhan was no match for them. They were generals in the army of Raja Parimal of Chandel (Rajasthan) and one day Prithviraj Chauhan decided that he had to establish his supremacy over all the kings of the region and went to battle against Chandel. The brothers fought like lions and in the process, Udal was wounded which angered Alha so much that he ravaged the entire army and managed to bring Prithviraj Chauhan to his knees. As he was about to cut off his head, the Devi appeared and told him that he should spare the life of the man in front of him because he would change the lives of many people from his tribe. Alha who had drawn his sword out by then bowed to the devi’s wishes and cut off his own head instead. For this sacrifice – the biggest sacrifice of all according to our tradition – Alha and his brother were made immortal. And today it is said that in the temple of the devi which is at Maihar, when the doors open at 4 in the morning, a lamp is lit, there are fresh flowers at her feet and the water has been filled in the bowl beside her. The brothers have offered their prayers because without their offering, the devi will not accept anything from the anybody else.
Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta
Text Source: (For stories of Alha,Udal) Rethinking India’s Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims, and Dalits
Every time I visited my grandparents’ house in Salcette Goa, I would accompany Thomas, who worked in our house, to the shrine outside the village. In reality there was no temple or a shrine or even an idol at the spot, but a huge Banyan tree with a hollow base which looked like it was the entrance into a tiny cave. Unlike other temples where there is an idol which is decorated with flowers and perfumes and the place is buzzing with devotees, this shrine was stark, empty and devoid of any decorations. However, there were signs that oil lamps were being lit regularly as dark soot had blackened the roots of the Banyan tree.
Every Wednesday, we would walk up to the village boundary where the tree was located with a bottle of country liquor and a roti or bread made of husk with a preparation of meat placed on top. We would also carry a small bottle of oil to light the lamp. I had also seen people leaving leather shoes and rough woolen shawls (kambal) under this tree. Thomas would light the lamp and then ask me to place the food and liquor at the base of the tree. Our offerings were always made after the sunset. Before leaving we would fold our hands in reverence, circumambulate the tree once and quietly walk away without talking. Thomas would warn me not to look behind.
Curious about the entire proceedings I once asked my granny: “For whom do we carry this food?” She said, “He is our Rakhno.” Rakhno in the language of the region (Konkani) means protector. A guardian spirit. For us Rakhno was a village spirit who protected all of us. We worshipped him and at the same time feared him.
No one knew how he looked but there were many opinions — some said that he was a tall man who was dressed like a shepherd. He wore a woolen shawl on his shoulders and carried a wooden staff. Some believed that he carried a sword rode a horse and always moved with a band of followers. What everyone agreed on was that he had a fearsome gaze and that if you looked into his eyes you would either end up dead or crazy.
My mother had her own story of Rakhno which I have tried to tell in her words, as I remember it:
“Once I and my friend went to the riverside to play. The river was little distance away from the centre of the town. We were there a long time and got so busy gathering pebbles that we did not realize that the sun had set and night was approaching. We were alone and the darkness made us afraid so we began to cry. Suddenly we heard a male voice calling out to us. “What are you two girls doing so late in the evening?” His voice was rough and commanding.
Frozen with fear, we could not speak. We could not see him but the voice was clearly emanating from a few feet away. He rebuked us for being out so late and said he would drop us home. “I will walk behind you” he said. “Now get moving”, he ordered.
We clutched each other and began walking. We could hear the sound of leather shoes marking the road behind us. It was a peculiar sound, that which you hear when someone walks in a new pair of shoes. He was probably carrying a wooden staff which he banged on the ground with every step he took. His footsteps were very heavy so we presumed he must be a tall man. We reached my friend’s home and the sound of the staff stopped. In a gruff tone he asked my friend to run into her house. “Don’t look back”, he warned. I realized I was all alone. I could see the lights of my house in the distance. I began to run but my feet were getting heavy. I was sweating and panting profusely and as soon I stepped onto the doorway I collapsed. I don’t remember anything after that…”
My Granny believed it was Rakhno who had safely brought her daughter home. Since then she had set up this practice of sending food to this village deity every Wednesday.
Location: Salcette . Goa
Tags: Village spirit God, Rakhno, Village guardian, belief, meat, food offerings,
We had to be appropriately dressed for a visit to the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum. I had to be clad in a saree and my husband in a dhoti – both legs covered – that was the requirement. No, salwars and trousers would not do – we were sternly told.
The temple is a spectacular sight and to those who may balk at the sartorial requirements, let me tell you it is well worth the effort. It looks like a city — with huge pillars, neatly laid pathways and exquisite sculptures – of mythic proportions.
The idol of Vishnu inside the temple is massive – 18 feet long, we were told. He is resting on the serpent Ananta Naga and has a lotus rising from his navel on which sits Brahma. The idol is breathtaking but this story that I heard at the temple was just as fascinating…
Somewhere in Mangalore there lived a rishi called Divakar. He was a Vishnu bhakt. One day as he finished his daily prayers and was walking back home, he saw a small boy playing under a tree. Divakar was drawn towards him for some strange reason. He walked up to him and after a brief moment of hesitation, he asked the boy to come home with him. The boy agreed easily but he had one condition: none could question his ways. He said that if Divakar raised his voice or asked him to explain his actions, he would leave. Divakar agreed but the condition had him worried. Soon after the boy came home he would worry about where the boy had lived before coming to his house and who his parents were and such other things. Also Divakar was on tenterhooks all the time, afraid that the boy would vanish just as suddenly as he had appeared.
One day as Divakar was busy with his prayers, the boy came and sat beside him and began playing with the shaligram (a black stone believed to be a symbol of Vishnu). He then looked at Divakar and bit the stone. Divakar flew into a rage. He shouted at the boy who reminded him that he had broken his word. The boy would have to leave but before he disappeared, he told Divakar that the sage would find him at Ananthan Kadu (the spot at which the temple stands today in Trivandrum), a dense forest where the snakes lived.
Divakar rushed to the spot and saw the boy getting into the trunk of a large tree. Before he could reach out and grab the child, the tree crashed to the ground in the form of the sleeping Vishnu. He lay on the Anantha Naga and from his navel emerged a lotus on which sat Brahma the creator. This is the idol that is worshipped even today in the Padmanabhaswamy temple.
Alauddin Khilji was on his way to India and busy demolishing all the temples en route. He reached Siddhpur, close to the village of Becharaji. The Brahmans of Siddhpur were disturbed and annoyed with the sultan’s destructive ways and decided to fast to please lord NilkanthMahadev. The sultan asked them to prove their God and failing which, they would have to adopt Islam as their religion. Bahucharaji appeared in the dream of a Brahmin named Budar. “You need not be afraid, bring the king to Chuwala and I will show them a ‘chamatkar’, a miracle, which the Sultan would have never seen”. The Brahmins got together and got him to Chuwala, but night had fallen by then, so they decided to set up camp and wait for daybreak.
Meanwhile the sultan’s soldiers were tired and hungry. They came across a number of roosters and Khilji ordered that the soldiers make a meal out of the birds . The rooster is considered to be a holy bird, but Khilji would not listen. All the roosters were killed and eaten, except one who hid behind a rock.
The next morning, the rooster did not crow. When Bahucharaji asked the rooster as to why it did not crow, the rooster said that all his friends were killed, so who will crow back in his support. Bahucharaji told him to do his work and see. So the rooster crowed. As soon as he did, all the dead roosters came out of the soldiers stomachs and joined the chorus, killing all the soldiers who had eaten roosters the previous night.
Needless to say that Khilji did not demolish the Bahucharaji temple.
As a mark of respect it is said that till date, in all the 44 villages in and around Becharaji, the Muslims do not kill/eat the Rooster. This is considered something unique in India and also the only place in India where the Muslims do not kill/eat the rooster.
Some of the soldiers who had not eaten the roosters and were thus saved, decided to stay back and did not join the army. These soldiers who stayed back became firm believers of Bahucharaji and were thereafter referred to as ‘Kamariya’ and are said to be serving the goddess even today. This community of kamariya’s are not found anywhere in the country, proving that they did not leave Becharaji and are still serving the goddess. We did come across a person who told us that he was a kamariya and begged for alms.
Some say that as a sign of respect to the goddess, the Muslim soldiers decided to dress up as women and men simultaneously. They used to be clean shaven on one side and had a moustache on the other, wore a bangle in one hand and kept a trishul in the other and wore both the ghagra and a dhoti. We could not have anybody vouch for this as it is said that this tradition continued till two decades ago, but now stopped and not many recollect having seen any of them like this, but their belief system makes them believe in this practice.
Story collected by: Utkarsh Patel
Location: Mehsana, Gujarat
Image: The above is a painting in the premises of Bahucharaji Temple, at Bahucharaji or Becharaji as it is popularly known. The temple is in a taluka of the same name in Mehsana district in North Gujaratand is one of the Shaktipeeths in Gujarat.
Deep in the rolling hills outlying the Great Rann of Kutch, some 65 odd kilometres from Bhuj, is a centuries old Hindu monastery steeped in medieval traditions and customs, its actual age disputable. There is not another soul for miles; the only sound heard being that of the peacocks singing in the surrounding forests. Within the monastery’s thick limestone whitewashed walls a sole yogi, with a handful of companions, keeps an exclusive tantric monastic order alive—the Kanphata (slit ears) sect founded by the sage Dhoramnath.
The traditional founder of the Indian sect of slit eared yogis is Gorakhnath but in Western India, Dhoramnath, his fellow disciple introduced the Kanphata doctrines into Kutch at the end of the 14th Century. Legend claims that Dhoramnath stood on his head for 12 years on top of Dinodhar Hill, an inactive volcano behind the monastery, in self-imposed penance for a curse he inadvertently made. Upon being urged by the gods to cease his penance he agreed on condition that whatever his eyes first saw would turn barren. And thus the Rann of Kutch was created. A temple dedicated to him stands on the hill.
Shrines and vermillion smeared stones dedicated to yogis having taken samadhi dot the monastery grounds. While the monastery exteriors are plain, clad in limestone with vermillion marks, its interiors in contrast are a riot of colour. Walking through corridors, arches and rooms, I enter the inner sanctum of the main temple around which I circumambulate in pitch darkness. My exploration ends on the roof overlooking a sea of domes topping the shrines, listening to the birds sing to each other in a beautiful, almost eerie, surreal world. 🙂
The monastery, however, is unfortunately also derelict and falling apart. Which is sad, taking into consideration the colossal amount of heritage it holds in its midst, including an eclectic collection of colourful 18th Century Kamangari wall paintings and intricate jaali work on its walls.
Kanphata yogis worship the Hindu god Shiva and are distinguished by the large earrings they wear cutting through the hollow of their ears, hence the name “slit ears”. Seated cross-legged chatting with the resident yogi, he and his companions explain the sect’s emphasis on acquiring supernatural powers instead of following orthodox practices of prayers and meditation. Referred to as Maharaj, the yogi, I am told, is renowned in the region and community for his uninterrupted meditation during the full nine days of navratri. Apart from slitting their ears, the ideology of the Kanphata Yogis incorporates elements of mysticism, magic, and alchemy absorbed from both Shaivite (devotees of Shiva) and Buddhist esoteric systems, as well as from Hatha Yoga.
Dusk is starting to fall. As I stand amid the old, desolate, Prussian blue hills and flame smeared sky with silence for company, the magic of Kutch, today replete with tantric traditions and ancient fossils, the stark beauty of the place envelops me within its fold. Did I just say it was beautiful? Let me repeat it nevertheless, for words and images are not always sufficient in capturing or chronicling such moments. These are instead etched in our memories to turn our eyes dewy when we remember certain days gone by.