The social-religious landscape of India is rich with many gods and goddesses who do not necessarily belong to the dominant Brahmanical/Puranic Hindu canon. A number of smaller ancestral deities and gods connected with the landscape are found in many parts of India. In the Himalayas, particularly, the worship of such deities, and the practices related to it, have not been absorbed into the mainstream Hindu pantheon as yet. The local people believe in these gods who seem to exercise control over different territories. One of these prominent deities who has become significant over the last few years is Goludevta or Goriya Raja of Uttarakhand. Though originally a local deity who was worshipped in Almora Champawat and Nainital, the popularity of the deity is spreading across the country. Golu’s significance can be discerned from the fact that a Pooja pandal in Kolkata had been modelled on the Golu Chitai shrine in a recent Durga pooja festival.
Originally worshipped in the Chapawat region, Goludev is an ancestral Deity; perhaps a member of a royal family, an ancestral king who has been deified. In the case of Golu—whose hagiography suggests an almost miraculous childhood—the narrative of his afterlife is reinforced by the fact that he took renunciation in his later life and was enlightened at Chitai.
There are three main temples of Golu. Two of these are in Nainital and Chitai, where I conducted my study and observations. The Chapawat shrine is said to be the original older shrine, but Ghoditaal/ghodataal, near Nainital, and Chitai, near Almora, are more famous. Devotees at each of these shrines claimed that their temple was the most significant one. But between the two temples I visited, the Chitai shrine was exclusively built for Golu and had a greater number of visitors in a day. Legend has it that there was a Pant Brahmin who had a dream in which Golu asked him to build a temple for him in Chitai, Almora, because the capital of the then Chand Dynasty kings had shifted from Champawat to Almora.
Golu’s iconography is recent and is usually a marble bass relief of a king on a horse. Some images seem to be modelled on a generic aniconic warrior on a horse. The older icons of worship were the dhuni (sacred fire pit) surrounded by weapons cast in iron, including spears and tridents. Apparently, the temple was a later construction but Goludev, as a mendicant, would sit by the fire with his trident in the manner of the Nath tradition and advise his people of the right way to live.
The Significance of Prayers for Justice and Goludev
Golu devta evinces more interest for us than other deities of the region because of his role and function as a juridical god. His shrines are regarded as courts where justice is meted out to the wrongdoers and victims of injustice are awarded retribution. People use terms such as ‘petition’, ‘court’, ‘judge’, ‘District Court’, ‘Supreme Court’, ‘FIR’, ‘hajri’ (summons) and other juridical terms in both Hindi and English in talking about this temple and its deity. In fact, the word prathana (prayer) was not used as much by devotees who used, instead, the word arji (appeal) to refer to their prayers. Prayers to gods can be of many types such as petitionary, meditative, introspective and/or devotional. While most forms of prayer in the mainstream Hindu religion are ritualised or self-transformative in their purpose, in the case of Goludev, the prayers are mostly petitionary. The prayer is, essentially, a form of communication to a higher power for help or intervention. People do appeal to a higher divinity to ask for help or intervention but here the appeal, more often than not, is treated like the submission of a legal court petition—an official document rather than a supplicatory prayer. In an unusual practice, devotees write these petitions on stamp paper or on plain paper and hang it in the temple premises as petitions for justice. Many tourists are drawn to this unusual sight of hanging prayers. They hang in between hundreds of bells that are offerings to the deity for favours/ justice received.
Though petitionary papers were written on stamp paper so far, recently due to the replacement the sale of legal stamp paper by e-stamping, it’s become common for the devotees to use plain paper to write their prayers. In my brief examination of the hanging papers in the shrine, I found that some of them included land documents, a photocopy of a house deed, marriage invitation cards, sales record sheet, note pad letter paper asking for help with a medical issue, and a number of student prayers requesting Goludev to help them pass an examination. Agarwal has done an exhaustive listing of the types of prayers and their general categories in his book, Golu Devta: the God of Justice of Kumaun Himalayas. He lists around 23 unique categories and one miscellaneous group of petitions including issues related to clearing examinations and job appointments. Common appeals to resolve land disputes and seek revenge were also documented by him.
In their prayers, believers ask Goludev to intercede on their behalf and to also right a wrong. In return for favours and the dispensing of justice, they often promise to present a brass bell, of a certain weight, to Goludev. This payment is to be made not in advance but only after Goludev has set right all the wrongdoings. According to the head priest at Chitai, the temple was like the Supreme Court and Goludev was its main judge. He also claimed that the shrine of Ghorakhal was a high court and all local shrines were panchayats. Some senior visitors to the temple claimed that, in their childhood, the temple had a weekly day off, like the courts, and that the practice had only been discontinued because of Goludev’s popularity. When asked about the people’s preference to appeal to Goludev to resolve disputes rather than the actual courts or police, the priest even claimed that human authorities could be fooled by liars. However, with Goludev, even if one did lie, he was omniscient and could have access to the actual truth.
Goludev’s Story and Oral Narratives
Goludev’s position as a juridical god is supported by the legends and myths of his origin and deeds. There is even a “Goriya Puran” written in Hindi that canonizes him within the Hindu pantheon. Agarwal quotes Atkinson’s version of the story of the deity in his book,  but I prefer to recount the local story as a form of oral narrative that was told to me by the local visitors and priests. There were versions and variants of the story but the summary of events is clear about the injustice meted out to Goludev and his mother, a queen, by denying them their rightful place in the kingdom.
The great king Jhalrai of Champawat had seven queens but no sons. An astrologer from Varanasi predicted that the eighth queen would bear him a famous son but the king, who was old, felt ashamed of asking for the hand of any young maid from the city. When out on a hunt he saw two buffaloes fighting, their horns locked and limbs dangerously kicking around. While he and his soldiers were afraid to approach and separate the fighting pair, a young maid walked up and separated the two buffaloes and sent them running in opposite directions. The Raja resolved to marry her and after offering service to her Uncle, who was sick in bed for many days, as a bride price, he brought home the young queen who was called Kalinka. The seven elder queens were jealous of her. They ganged up against her and tortured her in subtle ways and carried tales against her to the king. When she birthed a son, they took away the child and substituted a bloodied slab-mortar and pestle (Sil-Batta) in its stead. The innocent young queen unaware of the realities of the world believed she had birthed the stones and began to treat them as her children giving them the names Harua and Kalua. King Jhalrai believed his elder queens’ tales about the birth of stones instead of a child and, without enquiry, confined Kalinka to solitude as a madwoman. Meanwhile, the elder queens tried different ways of killing the newborn child by throwing him into a cattle shed, putting him into a salt pile and so on. The divine child, however, miraculously survived. Finally, in desperation, they locked him in a set of seven trunks each inside the other and tossed him into the river Gori, which flowed close by. The river bore the trunk upwards to a settlement called Gorighat where a poor fisherman Bhana pulled it out hoping to find treasure. Instead, he found a beautiful baby boy. The childless fisherman and his wife adopted the child and brought him up with love calling him “Goriya” after the river that he was found in. This child displayed signs of divinity and soon was able to speak and tell his father Bhana that he was the grandson of Halrai, a king. But he was unable to say where he was from, not knowing the words to describe other places. Instead, he asked his father for a horse. His father being not so affluent, could not buy him a real horse so he brought Goriya a wooden horse. The child sat on the wooden horse and the horse began to move. He galloped around the settlement, astonishing everyone. They knew he was born for a divine mission, and when he asked to leave, even though he was a child, they sorrowfully let him go. He blessed his foster parents and left the village to claim his rightful place as a prince. With his wooden horse, he reached the place where the seven queens of King Jalrai would come to fill water in their pots. He asked them to move aside so that his horse may drink water but they blocked his way with their pots asking him how a wooden horse could drink water. He broke those pots and thus raised a dispute that was brought to the king’s notice. When the King asked him how a wooden horse could drink water, he replied, “Just as a woman can birth a slab-mortar and pestle, so also my wooden horse can drink water.” The king suspected there was something the matter if the child was saying this and so he questioned Goriya about the conspiracy. The King asked him to prove his claim that he was the real son. Goriya asked for his mother Kalinka to be brought into court. The legend is that milk flowed out in spring from the pious lady’s breast straight to her child’s lips and his identity was established. With his father’s support, the queens were punished, his mother’s respect restored and justice was executed. The Slab-mortar and pestle became human children and Goriya soon became king of the land. As he knew what injustice was, he swore to establish justice in the land and travelled across his territory with his now human brothers, Harua and Kalua, holding courts in all the local villages of his kingdom. All the places that he held these public hearings in became shrines after his mortal body passed on. Many other stories of his battles and solving cases are recounted by his devotees. In the final years of his life, Goriya became a mendicant and attained enlightenment at Chitai that made him more eminent than just an ancestral deity.
I found that some of the current narratives of Goludev to be similar to Vikram-Betal stories or Akbar-Birbal stories, but some seemed local to the region. There are also stories of his Nath-guru and Goriya and recounting of various tests that Goriya passed to show he was divine. It seemed these stories were an attempt at Sanskritisation and were certainly borrowed from stories of Shirdi Sai Baba or other saints’ lives. The name Goriya was transformed to Golu by the locals who call him Golujyu or Goludev.
There are other legends about Goludev being wrongly beheaded and his head and the lower body falling in different places. However, such stories are closer to the story of Aeri devta (pastoral deity) whose body was ripped apart in an accident and the other deity Pokku, who is a juridical deity in Purola district of Uttarakhand, who was beheaded by the Pandavas. The Dana Golu temple is close to Chitai, and the legends are that that was Golu’s Uncle, who was murdered. Such instances of kings and chieftains becoming deities after death and caring for their own people are not uncommon in these parts. According to the local classification of deities, the royal personages who are ancestors are called Rajanaya devta, as opposed to those killed in violent death called Preth devta.
We can be clear that Golu is a benevolent royal deity because unlike a preth devtas who are offered tobacco smokes (Beedi) along with raw rice and mung daal (ingredients to make khichidi), Golu is given poori-halva and flowers for worship.
The Process of Justice in Goludev’s Jurisdiction
Goludev’s devotees consider him an alternative to the legal system. Yet they also consider his justice transcendental and different from the courts of human jurisprudence. The devotees recounted to me the failure of the language of the petitions that they wrote for Golu. Such letters could not capture all the facts of the dispute or the agony. Still, the written paper is symbolically “filed” by small worship at the sanctum where it’s anointed with vermilion and a red sacred thread is provided for tying the petition to the bars around the temple corridor. Bells and papers hang together in bunches. Scholars claim that the prayers are removed after the fulfilment of the petition but the temple priest likens them to leaves of trees that just disintegrate and blow away. I found an old card from 1993 so it is likely that the papers are just left there as undisturbed as possible. Fallen letters are sometimes burnt in the sacred fire and not thrown away, a temple trustee assured me.
Unlike human lawyers and judges who make their judgment based on what the priest referred to as “web of lies and words” (jhoot aur Shabdh ki Mayajaal), Goludev is able to get to the core of the issue. Once the petition is hung up for Goludev’s attention, the belief is that the deity will make a judgment that is not just based on the letter petition and the circumstances of the dispute but on the moral standing and accountability of the petitioner. The contention is that notwithstanding the contents of the prayer, which may not be properly articulated, Goludev’s justice is fair in an alternate sense and not like that of a human court judge. What is evident here is that the petitioner submits herself and her opponent to the moral scrutiny of a deity as regards her deeds and moral obligations (Karam aur Dharam). In case of a dispute, the petitioner delivers a maat which is like a warning to the opponent. Since the opponent is going to also be scrutinised in the case, the maat serves like a legal notice or warning. The opponent may choose to ignore the maat or if needed she submits a counter prayer petition to Golu with a confession or an apology. In case of a petition against a larger circumstance, the petitioner apologises to Golu for any moral transgressions and asks for forgiveness. This kind of petition is common even when the cause of a difficult situation is not a person but a general crisis of health, business, examination, or even some application that is in the process of selection such as that for a job, a college or a contract. These petitions are more like confessions. The larger oppressive circumstance or loss is viewed as a result of some lapse or misdeed committed by the petitioner. In these cases, if the petitioner is fearful of the justice of Goludev, he/she would immediately offer a goat sacrifice as a form of ritual appeasement and go on to rectify the disputed claims through some mutual negotiations or the intervention of the panchayat.
In case of a lapse, a ceremony of direct communication with the deity is possible through a ritual called Jaagar (a séance for the deity). These séances are held for most deities of the region with people entering a religious trance, that represents the visitation of the deity to one’s body. The swaying, prancing and active movements of a person during this visitation is called “Jhoolna” or swaying. People say, “The deity swayed in answer to our prayers.”
Unlike mainstream practices the temple priest does not play a major mediatory role in the process of Jaagar. There is a bard, called the Jaagariya, who awakens the deity in the medium, sings and plays the drums or instruments called Dangaria. This nomenclature is common for all devtas or local gods in the Himalayan region who are supposed to possess the human medium to directly communicate with their devotees. The various grunts and speeches of the deity are often incomprehensible and the Jagariya makes dialogue possible through the act of interpretation. The ceremony begins with the Jagariya singing the story of the valorous tales of the deity and as the climax of the rhythmic drums and the song is reached the Dangariya starts to sway or shake and jump about. Many times it’s possible that bystanders are also visited by the deity and they begin to sway and dance too. The Jaagariya then begins to control the deity’s movements through the music and chanting and calms him down by waving the lit camphor or lamp in worship. The Deity within the human is also fed with ritual offerings. In that sense, the Jaagairya becomes significant during a Jaagar or séance event as an officiator. Formally Goludev has not been known to possess a female medium but it is said that sometimes Goludev’s mother Kalinka may accompany Goludev by suddenly manifesting in a watching female member of the audience. In case of some other fierce deities, (such as Aeri, a pastoral deity) women are forbidden from entering the ritual space because these deities are “preth” devta or departed souls that may harm the women. In practice, however, these rules are not enforced except if the rituals occur late at night or if a woman is menstruating or pregnant. The performance of this ritual ranges from a private one-room ritual organised by a family to a large public event organised by many villages, with feasting and goat sacrifices. In fact, after Goludev has communicated his displeasure, a goat sacrifice is performed as retribution or as a “fine”. Black goats are especially valued as offerings. Even if it is not possible to hold a Jaagar ceremony, a soothsayer is consulted who can find out if a calamity is caused by a deity’s displeasure or by a returning bad Karma. Only if the deity’s intervention has caused a punishment, then the sacrifice or the Jaagar takes place. In these cases, the retribution takes place without the process of the petition but through the mediation of the soothsayer-astrologer.
The Process of Justice and Moral Standing
The process of justice is seen through the incidents that take place in a petitioner’s life after the written prayer is hung in the temple. Any untoward incident is seen as a part of Goludev’s justice for lying or being morally culpable. The negative outcome is seen as a moral transgression or the result of a fault that has occurred “unknowingly.” For instance, a family member could fall sick, cattle may die or some calamity may befall the petitioner or her opponent. Any favourable outcome is seen as Goludev’s justice for being morally correct. Health could improve, contracts could be awarded, and cases in Indian courts could be decided in favour of the petitioner. The respondents in my study said that Goludev’s justice is swift, the oft-repeated period for the response of the deity being three months, three weeks and three days after the request has been given. The petitioner’s moral duty is to await the outcome of Golu’s justice for which he uses his assistant Bhairav, a Preth devta (departed soul /ghost). A relationship of trust with the deity is established where transgressors fear the justice of Golu and the morally right welcome it bravely.
Another interesting observation about the juridical process of Goludev is the belief of the devotees that Goludev can actually intervene in the process of legislative justice of the government. The stamp paper, which in the mainstream legal system is evidence that can be admitted in a court of law, instead, becomes an object of moral scrutiny for Goludev. It becomes a piece of testimonial evidence or a symbol of a cry for justice. Golu does not read the stamp paper. The words are not important, the paper is judged. He instead validates its claim as true or false. An interesting incident recollected by one of the respondents was that one of the shops around Chitai decided to economically profit from the demand for stamp paper by using duplicate stamp paper. Apparently, a devotee who had full faith in his moral standing did not receive a favourable outcome. On a revisit to re-petition Goludev, he discovered the illegal stamp papers used for the petitions. He filed a case against the shop in the local police station. Though the shop keepers received punishment under the law for forging legal stamp paper, not granting an honest man’s petition was seen as Golu’s divine way of bringing the breach of law to the attention of the police. “Golu chose the educated gentleman to spot the cheaters, he knew that that petitioner would get to the root of the issue. Golu executes his justice even through his devotees.” The request of the devotee was truthful but the paper itself was an object of jhoot (falsehood). The claim that even shop keepers around the temple or the priest cannot be dishonest or cheat Goludev is also a part of the local narrative of Goludev’s vigilance of justice.
When the prayer petition is fulfilled, the grateful devotee ties a promised bell to one of the various bars around the temple. The bells hang in profusion, a testimony to the many prayers said to have been fulfilled by Goludev. At Chitai, a Public Works Department contractor who had promised a percentage of his contract to Golu had to specially get massive bells made out of Golu’s share and these bells, weighing a few tons, hang around the temple. No one steals the bells, the fear of retribution is strong. Apparently an officer from the plains thought he could melt all the bells to create a giant bell for Goludev to make a world record but Goludev messed with his Jeep engine and would not let him leave the area till he apologised. If angered, Goludev also makes frequent appearances in dreams to warn his devotees and also to advise them. In case Goludev’s judgment is unfavourable, a Jaagar ceremony is held as an act of repentance or as a remedial method to find out about the cause for untoward happenings. Conceptually one could say that the justice of Goludev does not only right a wrong but also establishes a sense of moral integrity in the devotees’ minds. The devotees feel as if they have passed a test of truth, and this, thereby, reinforces their own sense of righteousness.
 Agarwal, C.M.,Golu Devta: the God of Justice of Kumaun Himalayas, 2012.