In a cave in the village of Dhanegaon, Gondia district, Maharashtra, is situated a shrine of the deity Kali Kankali. The caves are a part of the Maikal hills and are known as 'Kachargarh', the Gondi word for ‘the hill rich in ore’. The district is situated at the borders of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. An emergence of cultural reformist ideas within the Gond community in the 1980s led to the initiation of an annual pilgrimage and fair to the Kachargarh caves in 1986. Since then, the shrine of Kali Kankali has gained an increased prominence for the Gond community. Every year 20,000–30,000 people from the states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh come here on the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage takes place during Magh Poornima and lasts four days.
Through such community celebrations, festivals, rituals and pilgrimages Gondi religion, also 'Gondi Punem' or 'Gondi Dharm' is being consolidated. There is a shift in beliefs and ritualistic practices. For the adivasi community, Gondi Punem is tied to the ideas of reclaiming heritage, language and culture. It simultaneously resists outside interventions in its traditional belief systems.
Myth of Kali Kankali
In the Gond worldview, there are multiple myths and legends about Mata Kali Kankali in Central India. According to one of these myths, Kali Kankali was born to the mythical king of Chandrapur, Raja Yadrahud, and his wife Sonadai, in a forest outside the Chanda Fort. The deity is named Kali (कली) at the time of her birth due to her close associations with the forest. One day, Kali eats a flower given to her by a sage who is worshipping Persapen. Due to this, Kali begins to gain weight. Soon, Kali realises that she has conceived and thinks of her being Kankali or someone who is disgraced (कलंकित). She goes away to live in the forest where she gives birth to 33 children who are raised in Raitad Jungo’s ashram. The children, along with their mother, begin to live in the forests of Central India.
One day, the deities Shambhu and Gaura encounter the children while they are playing in the forests. Gaura offers them food. Soon the children start playing mischief. Annoyed at the unruly behaviour of Kali Kankali’s children, Shambhu imprisons them in Kachargarh cave. The children stay inside the cave for 12 years. The cave has an opening in its roof through which a mythical bird serves them food. The pond situated inside the cave serves as a source of water.
Distressed at the confinement of her children, Kali Kankali appeals to Shambhu for help. Shambhu refuses to acquiesce to her plea. Finally, Raitad Jungo persuades Lingo to release the children. Hirasuka Patalir, a traditional bard in the Gond community, is approached by Lingo. Patalir plays music on his kingri. Hearing this music, the children are filled with strength and desire to see the world outside. Driven by the captivating force of the music, the children push away the boulder that was placed at the gate of the shrine. Patalir is crushed under the boulder.
The site then becomes a place where koyatur, i.e. the ‘one born of the womb’, gets initiated into the belief system of the community. From here, Lingo initiates the children into the Gondi way of life. The children are divided into different clans and assigned specific social roles. A specific kinship structure is established. The Gondi pilgrims often narrate that they have emerged out of this cave. In this sense, Kachargarh emerges as an utapatti sthaal, i.e., a place of origin, for the Gonds.
The 33 children Kali Kankali gave birth to are Gond deities known as Saga Deva (सगा देव). Gond cultural leaders like Dr Motiravan Kangale, Ushakiran Atram and Sunher Singh Taram claim that the Kali Kankali myth survives through folk songs and aradhana (worship) in the Gondi language. We also find reference to a Mata Kankali in the Myths of Middle India by Verrier Elwin, first published in the year 1949, in which he presents three oral stories in which she appears: ‘The Tamarind’, ‘Rajnegi Pradhan’ and ‘Dewar’. In ‘Dewar’ she is associated with a place called Garh Lohari. Mata Kali Kankali also finds mention in Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf’s documentation of the legends of Adilabad in The Raj Gonds of Adilabad (1948).
However, the Kankali who appears in Elwin’s account is devoid of the sacred significance ascribed to her in the contemporary context though she appears as a mother figure in them. The contemporary variant of the myth claims the Mahakali shrine of Chandrapur to be the birthplace of the Kali Kankali and Mahakali as her appropriation. Interestingly, in Gond writings the deity of the Chandrapur shrine is conceptualised and perceived as Kali Kankali. There are a few instances when the shrine is mentioned in Mahakali’s name, but the deity is referred to as Kali Kankali only.
An abundance of narratives on associations and significance of Kankali in Gond belief system exists. The name Mahakali, however, appears in narratives of other communities too. The identities and cultural associations acquired by Mahakali and Kali Kankali in their respective folk narratives are mutually exclusive. However, the Mahakali of Chandrapur also has strong Hindu and Dalit associations. While the shrine of Chandrapur is a shakti-peeth (the seat of power), Kachargarh is popularly known as utapatti sthaal.
During the Kachargarh pilgrimage, children dressed as Lingo are often seen to be guiding the pilgrims towards the shrine of Kali Kankali. Some religious groups commemorate Kankali’s journey from Chandrapur to Kachargarh by travelling through these two places. Lingo finds place as the leader of the community. Through this pilgrimage, the community also marks its closeness to the forest. Many Gondi pilgrims state that the pilgrimage reminds them of their beginnings.
According to Gond mythology, the name ‘Kali Kankali’ is ascribed to the deity after she gives birth to her children. At the time of her birth, she is named ‘Kaliya Kumari’. As the Gondi Dharamguru, or religious leader, Dr Motiravan Kangale notes, ‘कोडवारी कल्लिओं की सेज पर जन्म लेने वाली कन्या के ऊपर से उसका नाम काली रखा गया, जिसे बाद में कालिया कुआरी कहा जाने लगा’ (Kangale 2011b). She holds a privileged position in the folk narratives since she is the one who gave birth to 33 children, who laid the foundation of the Gondi culture and civilisation.
Though the pilgrimage in its present form is a reconstruction and a very recent phenomenon, the fact that its invented history could be used to mobilise the community testifies to the crucial position it occupies in the worldview of Gond people. Apart from facilitating a cultural gathering on an immense scale, it serves as a place to celebrate tradition, disseminate cultural ideas, engage with political discourses shaping the lived realities of the community, and thereby subtly asserts pronunciations against administrative and developmental policies of the State. In fact, vociferous speeches that continue until midnight articulate opinions regarding rights related to the forest, education and language.
Textual source for the revival of Kachargarh pilgrimage
As stated earlier, the revival of the veneration of Kali Kankali is also linked to an appearance of revivalist outlook in the 1980s that led to a deeper study of Gond folklore by its cultural leaders. This was accompanied by a revival of certain adivasi beliefs and practices and an increase in the cultural production among the Gonds living in the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border region.
A text, The Story of Gondwana, written by Eyre Chatterton in 1916 serves as textual evidence for the revival of the Kachargarh pilgrimage. Dr Motiravan Kangale, Sheetal Markam, K. B. Marskole, Sunher Singh Taram and Ushakiran Atram all claim to have been inspired to visit Kachargarh after reading Chatterton’s text. In this part-ethnographic and part-fantastical text, Kachargarh is called Kachi Kupar Lohagad.
In the contemporary context, some of the popular poster images in print are derived from the illustrations by Alice Bolingbroke Woodward presented in Chatterton’s text. These images are imbued with local markers of identity. The content of popular literature in print is highly dynamic and fluid as it moves across genres. While these colonial visuals get imbued with the markers of Gondi identity, the folklore of the region enriches them further.
Most importantly, the religious leaders of the revivalist movement among the Gonds claim to have found the pieces of their lost history in Chatterton’s text. In his interview for this module, the editor of the little magazine Gondwana Darshan, Sunher Singh Taram, says that Chatterton’s text was instrumental in the revival of the annual tribal fair.
It was Sheetal Markam who first encountered The Story of Gondwana in 1980. Markam along with a social activist from Nagpur, Motiram Kangale, and a journalist from Raipur, Sunher Singh Taram, found a place called Kachargarh that resembled the Kachi Kupar Lohgad (which also translates to ‘hill of ore’) mentioned by Chatterton. This group eventually revived the pilgrimage in the year 1984.
Today, the legends and myths propagated by the cultural leaders permeate the cultural realm and merge with the local forms of knowledge. Thus, orality, memory and colonial ethnography collectively seem to be contributing to the revival of Kachargarh. It is important to note that several adivasi families used to visit the Kachargarh shrine before the revival of the fair as well.
In adivasi worldview, Kachargarh emerges as a site for retrieving adivasi myths and legends. Though Dhanegaon village is majorly populated by the Gond people, many of its residents followed Hindu customs and traditions when the cultural leaders from the community visited it in the year 1980. However, the beliefs and practices of the people have changed over time. Adivasi leaders like Rani Durgavati, Birsa Munda and Dr Motiravan Kangale have been commemorated by installing their busts in the village. In fact, very recently a bust of K. B. Marskole was also installed in the village.
A place for cultural production and cultural gathering
Cultural programmes are a significant element of the Kachargarh pilgrimage. Different adivasi groups perform their traditional dances and folk songs here. The pilgrimage is also used by the local culture industry as a site of creation and dissemination of their cultural products. The fair also serves as a place for political mobilisation. Several non-governmental organisations working on ‘Adivasi’ and ‘Indigenous’ rights use Kachargarh as a site for mobilisation.
Similarly, a flourishing literary culture is sustained by the Gond community. Multiple community-based literary magazines, monographs and books are routinely published and circulated. Most of the contemporary literary writings in the Gond community are in Hindi, Marathi, Telugu or English. Multilingual language primers aimed towards the dissemination of Gondi language skills also circulate in the region. The flourishing production and circulation of these writings makes them significant to the study of Gond literary culture, especially as many of these writings borrow heavily from folklore.
One of the most prominent of these is Motiravan Kangale’s Paari Kupaar Lingo: Gondi Punem Darshan (1986), a collection and analysis of Gond folklore from erstwhile Gondwana. Though such writings have existed in the past, none were of the expanse charted in Kangale’s writings. Emphatic and formidable expressions and assertions characterise these narratives. These epistemologies foreground alternate ways of being and approaching historical events. The claims provide alternate registers of historical events, albeit with an appendage of experiences of the same events.
Language emerges as another tool for cultural mobilisation. Through the modes of popular literature and visual art, ‘Gondi Punem’ mobilises a geological map-making of a deep past toward a revivalist narrative of origin in which Gondwana is imagined as the birthplace of the Gondi people, their ancestral homeland, which later broke into five continents: Africa, Americas, Asia, and Australia. Koyamuri/Singar Dwip, which are places of origin in most of the creation myths, are invoked in the folk songs of the community.
Thus, the Kali Kankali shrine and the Kachargarh pilgrimage have, over the years, become a focal point for the Gonds. The cultural claims associated with them instil feelings of pride and belonging to Gond places and history, both ancient and contemporary, thereby conversing with collective consciousness and memory. These cultural productions constitute ways of relating to histories, memories and contemporary lived realities. Embedded within them are future projections that seek to establish cultural and social sovereignty.
Barkhade, S.R. ‘Mahapralay Kaldup Gatha’. In Gondiyan Gaurav Gatha. 7-13. Jabalpur: New Chanda Offset Printers, 2014.
Chatterton, Eyre. The Story of Gondwana. London. Sir I. Pitman & Sons, 1916.
Kangale, Motiravan. Pari Kupar Lingo Gondi Punem Darshan. Nagpur: Tirumaay Chandralekha Kangali Publication, 2011.
———. Chandagarh Ki Mahakali Kali Kankali. Nagpur: Tirumaay Chandralekha Kangali Publication, 2011.
Sallame, Prakash. 2006. Jangon Ven Agin Dhur Raitad Unde Kankali Jeevangna Munsaar Penthana Kota Parunduli. Nagpur: Akhil Gondwana Gondi Sahitya Parishad.