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Manifestations of Rain: Rituals and Communication with Non-human Entities in Kangra Valley

 

The air has become cold and the days have grown short. Winter has set in in the mountains and the farmers have sown their rabi crops. A thin layer of water flows in the Manoni stream that passes through Rakkar and Sidhbari, two neighbouring villages in the northern part of the Kangra valley. Kuhls (man-made irrigation channels) carry water from the stream to the fields through these built spaces. They not only provide water to irrigate the fields but also quench the thirst of local animals. Since these channels pass alongside houses, women use water from the kuhl to wash clothes and vessels. Dhaniram, a local Gaddi aged over 60 has been the Kohli of Rakkar for the last 25 years. The Kohli is the one who is responsible for the maintenance of the kuhl. Dhaniram fondly remembers the times when the villagers used to dig the kuhls themselves and line its small walls with stones and pebbles. He says, ‘Water that flowed in those kuhls was much cleaner and better than the water that flows in cement kuhls these days. People throw garbage in the kuhls, contaminating the flowing water. It is more difficult to clean and maintain them as the cement walls break easily during the harsh monsoon season and building another one is burdensome.’ Apart from this problem, the recent development of a hydro-electric power plant in a nearby village has resulted in a reduction of the water flowing into these kuhls, increasing their dependency on rain. 

 

Monsoon and winter rains fill the stream and thus the kuhls. During summer, water melts from northern glaciers and flows through these channels. Agriculture in this region is primarily dependent on rainfall. As a result, rain is an important element in people's tangible creations and intangible cultural concepts The imaginary representations which people have formed to either control or invoke rain, to share feelings and establish a bond with it, and to attribute to it human values and characteristics is a very common feature in folklore. Through rituals and songs, people in the valley have manifested their thought in a way that becomes a symbolic representation of their relationship with rain. Attributing human traits to non-human entities such as water, rain and clouds is common in this region.

 

Rain is an element that both gives and destroys life in the valley. The destruction caused is enormous, and people in the valley fear monsoon months the most. This has resulted in the worship of Naga devta who is believed to have the powers to control rain and mitigate destruction. Through this article, I aim to understand the role of rain as a key element in human creations in the Kangra valley. In the first part of the article, I write about the ritual that takes place at the Naga mandir to invoke rain, and in the second part, I would like to bring to light the medium of song as a communicative tool to interact with clouds.

 

Situated in Rakkar along the Manoni stream, Pakhalu Naga lives in a small temple and is considered the gram-devta or local deity. When the Gaddis moved from Chamba to Rakkar, they believe that Naga Devta also came along with them as he did not want to be alone there. Built 40 years ago in Rakkar, this temple is made of bricks and cement with a courtyard in the front looking onto the mountains. The courtyard is a place where many rituals take place. No event in the village takes place without the worship of the Naga (Thakur 1997), and the villagers regard him as the god of water and approach him either to provide rain or to prevent flooding. The Naga statue is a black stone image in the form of a human being. His eyes are open and when standing opposite him one might think he is looking deep into one's eyes. The Naga also wears a kullu topi on his head in keeping with local custom: men in the valley are known for wearing the woven Kullu hat. The sculpture represents only the bust, and is placed on a raised pedestal in the sanctum sanctorum. This deity has two hands, like human beings, and behind him, iron chains hang on the wall, believed to be the weapons of the Devta.

 

The Pandit of the temple mentioned that this statue was made many generations ago during the time of his great-grandfathers. Human characteristics have been attributed to the Naga ever since he was made and people offer him anything that they make for themselves. The villagers strongly associate snakes, water and rain. Traditionally it is believed that most of the old resources of water like baori (spring), naon, charna, sooda often have Naga shapes on the stones (Vyathit 2018). Another local Brahmin pointed out that ‘the baoris are considered very sacred and one is only allowed to fetch water from them, but not use them for other purposes. People are wary of polluting the baoris, as it is believed that snakes reside within the springs. Any harm or anger caused to snakes will affect agricultural fertility.’ The Naga Devta is also imagined to have human emotions, such as happiness and anger, and is believed to express them. The pandit even mentioned certain incidents that evoked anger in the Devta.

 

According to popular belief, in the area under the command of Indru Naga in Kangra, a good harvest depends on the kindness of this deity. If displeased, Indru Naga can cause hail and drought so that the crops wilt (Handa 2004). Before and after sowing seeds, it is a ritual for people to make a visit to the Naga mandir. The temple is also visited when there is no sign of rain, or if there is excessive rain.

 

Owing to a crisis in the fields, where rabi seeds did not show any signs of sprouting, a small group of 15 farmers from different communities gathered in the courtyard of the temple on a cold Sunday morning in January 2018. Pritham Sharma, a local Gaddi, reiterated that ‘there were times when at least 200 people would be present from both the villages. The belief in this ritual has now diminished. People look at their phones for weather updates, which are not always accurate.’ Once the Pandit (the one who performs pujas) arrived, people gathered near the centre of the courtyard facing the Naga. Only men happened to be around for this ritual, although there is no belief that women should not be a part of it. This ritual is always associated with invoking the Naga spirit into a chela (messenger between Naga Devta and the villagers). As the chela stood in front of the Naga devta and people stood behind him in a semi-circular formation, one person led the chant loudly, Jai Pakahlu nag teri sadhahi’, and the rest of the villagers in chorus replied, Jai’. The loud chanting was repeated many times. People trust that the chant intensifies the energy of the spirit to enter the human chela. It is also interesting to note that people strongly believe that the spirit resides within the stone statue and when the right moment arrives, it transfers to the chela and hence they can talk to the god directly.

 

As the air became tense, the sound of the chanting escalates further. After a series of chants, the pandit brought out a lit incense roll and handed it over to the chela. This particular act is a symbolic representation of handing over something from the deity to the chela to invoke the spirit in him. The incense roll is the medium through which the spirit connects with the chela. He held it with his right hand and used his left hand for support. As the chanting continued, people also called out the names of other Nagas around this village. With each chant, the volume and energy increased. One person started the chant, and people began to repeat after him. After a while, the chela started to shiver.

 

Now the chant was louder. He took the incense roll close to his mouth and inhaled the smoke. This act is considered to ‘catch the spirit in him’. And suddenly he shouted on top of his voice, ‘heyyy’ as if something heavy had hit him. He was in a state of trance and there was a sudden silence. Once the spirit was invoked within the chela, he was considered sacred. People bowed to this man and intense energy was felt in the air. Everyone was eagerly waiting for the chela to respond. The air became calmer, but he continued shivering with the spirit inside him. One person from the crowd took the incense roll away and handed him a cup of water. The chela first sprinkled it on his head and then poured it over his body as if he had just emerged from a hot fire. He removed his shirt and was half naked. Slowly, someone from the crowd approached him to state their problems and ask for rain. The chela replied immediately, saying that it wouldn’t rain. Hearing this, people repeated the chant, only increasing their decibels and energy each time. The priest brought out a group of chains whose one end was a sharp four-sided diamond-like structure called the sangal. The other end was tied to an iron ring that held everything together (the weapon generally hung on the wall behind the deity). After handing it over to the chela, he started hitting himself hard on his bare back. As he kept hitting, people kept chanting. They asked him why it wouldn’t rain and that he should forgive the people if they had made any mistakes. Shaking his head, he hit himself again and explained that if people sacrificed something to him, then there would be rain within two days. Hearing this, people agreed to sacrifice something and became relieved to know of the rain to come. As he continued to hit himself, one person tried to remove the chain from him. The chela practically hugged him and lightly struck the chain on his back, marking the departure of the spirit from his body and thus the end of the ritual.

 

The pandit of the temple mentioned, ‘Till a few years ago, a black goat was sacrificed to the Naga Devta. It was made to roam inside the temple for a few minutes before the sacrifice. Once the priest applied turmeric, tikka and sprinkled water on the goat’s head, people waited outside for the goat to react. If the Devta accepted our offering, the goat would shake his head. If not, people would have to bring another goat to offer. A man from the village would take the goat and sacrifice it. The head along with the leg was to be kept under the feet of the deity. After this, the goat’s skin was removed and the meat was shared among the villagers. This marked the end of the sacrifice, and in accordance with the chela’s words, it would surely rain on the given day.'

 

The villagers imagined the Naga to be a part of themselves, to whom they sacrificed what they would eat, and whose way of life was similar as well. This is also very evident in the story of about the kinship of the Nagas. People in the village believe that all the Nagas in and around this village are siblings. Like human beings, they are also believed to have blood, social and political relationships. Pakhalu Naga is considered to have five brothers and two sisters, among whom Indru Naga is the eldest and lives closest. Apart from them, there is Kutasini Devi, Chennai Devi, Samrika Naga, Bhoodu Naga, Bhagsu Naga (also the name of a famous tourist place near McLeod Ganj). Most of these Nagas shrines are located near a spring. This reaffirms society’s tendency to extend its own qualities to non-human entities. From giving a human form to the local deity to communicating with a cloud as though it has a human voice, thus deriving a symbolic connection, imaginative expression seems to have taken the lead to remind humans to be aware and respectful of their surroundings. Apart from performing rituals to bring rain, people also express their needs through songs and stories.

 

Oral traditions in the form of songs and stories form an important part of Kangra folklore. These songs demonstrate the imaginative use of metaphor and simile that not only allow the singers to express emotions, but also help them create a bond with non-human entities by stringing words together set to a tune. The sound and characteristics of these surrounding elements are reflected in the songs because of humans' deep understanding of the area around them. Certain songs show how human characteristics are assigned to clouds, rain etc. which are thus brought into a dialogue with human beings. This allows the singer to communicate with a non-human entity more easily and freely as he would with a fellow being. It is believed that human beings know how to represent only what he has seen and experienced. We cannot express something that we have not experienced (Vyathit 2018). Sanjiv and Mohinder Sharma, local Gaddi men who sang the following song for me, mentioned that this song, like other songs in the valley has to be sung at a specific time. When there is no rain, people sing this song imagining themselves to be communicating with the clouds and requesting them to rain. Based in Chamba, this is one of the oldest Gaddi songs on rain in the form of a set of conversations between the old man and the cloud. 

 

Old man: ‘Gudke chammake bhawwa megha oh!

Oh, bare chammayali re desa oh’

‘Oh clouds! Make a lot of sound and light

Go to the land of Chamba and rain!’

 

Clouds: ‘Kiyaan gudkoo oh kiyaan chammakoon?

Ambaru barusa ghaane taare oh!’

‘How do I make sound? How do I make light?

Situation doesn’t suit rain as the stars are seen’

 

Old man: ‘Khuthu eh the aayi kaali baadli oh

Khuthu eh da barsiya megha oh!’

‘Become black clouds on your own

Oh clouds! Make rain on your own’

 

‘Chaathi ri aayi meri baadli oh!

Dho nena da barsiya megha oh!’

‘Like the heart that becomes heavy and dark

And tears flow out of eyes like heavy rains’

 

‘Rakkuthu diye oh bhaiya bhakhthu diye

Laagu diye sab koi ho’

‘I had blood and I had strength

Everyone used to listen to me’

 

‘Rakkuthu mukhhye oh bhawwa bhakhthu mukhhye

Baath na poochda koi ho’

‘My blood is over and so is my strength

Who now listens to what I say?’

 

‘Budde buye ke dandu hilna lage

Oh! Naaku churne lage chalde na sotire baale’

‘Old age is making my teeth shake

And my speech is also not clear. Oh! I hold my stick for support’

 

‘Chaar voh dihade aiya haaye bho yorna phiri

Aaya chhar dehaade oh!’

‘Just come back for four days

Those good old days!’

 

The song suggests meanings at multiple levels. But mainly, music is used as a medium to communicate feelings to the clouds to convince it to rain. The initial lines denotes the kind of relationship that the old man imagines himself to have with the clouds. One with friendship and respect. When the cloud asks him how it can rain as the sky is clear and the stars are seen and there are no conditions for it to rain, the old man expresses his own emotions, the depression he might have experienced during times of despair. Since he has already established his bond with the clouds, he also expects it to understand the emotional values that he refers to. In the last few lines, the subject shifts from telling the clouds to rain to evoke a sense of self-pity so that the clouds will listen to him. This is also a way to convince someone to do something by creating sympathy. The line ‘Chaar voh dihade aiya’ is a Pahari saying that means just for four days. The song shows the loss that haunts the old man, the young days that he misses. He wants them to return for four days, so when he appeals to the clouds, he assumes that it will listen. On a subtle level, the song also implies the love that he has for his land of Chamba.

 

In a study of the ecology of rain in Gujarati folk songs, Benita Stambler observes that the songs express the primal connection of humans to rain (Stambler 2008). It is not only folk songs: the expression also lies deep within the practice of ritual. Attributing human characteristics to non-human entities might help people establish a sense of connection and bonding with them. The construction of this relationship underlies different forms of imaginative expression. The ritual pertaining to the Naga brings people together, creating a stronger social bond within the village. The insecurities and fears faced by people are addressed collectively, with one person supporting the other. As we study the song, which is another form of expression for the same purpose, we inevitably sense the nostalgia that the old man tries to evoke. The liveliness of the songs also triggers a sense of the beauty of their deep meaning. To understand the connection that humans have with their surroundings through various threads, one can decipher the symbols and the symbolized through these songs and rituals that evoke multiple meanings.

 

References

 

Frazer, J.G. 1957. The Golden Bough, vols. 1 and 2. London: St. Martin’s Press.

 

Handa, O.C. 2004. Naga Cults and Traditions in the Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.

 

Kalyastha, S.L. 1964. The Himalayan Beas Basin: A Study in Habitat Economy and Society. Varanasi: Banaras Hindu University.

 

Narayan, Kirin. 2012. Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

 

———. 2016. Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

 

Ramanujan, A.K. 1991. Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-Two Languages. New York: Pantheon Books.

 

Saikia, Arupjyothi. 2008. ‘Folklore and Environment.’ Indian Folklife 28:3–4.

 

Saikia, Shantana and Amarjyothi Debnath. 2015. ‘Defining Divine Boundaries: Folk Narratives and Ecological Conservation.’ Drishti: The Sight 4.1:37–40.

 

Stambler, Benita. 2008. ‘Primal vs. Primitive: Observations on the Ecology of Rain in Gujarati Folksongs. Indian Folklife 28:8–10.

 

Thakur, M.R. 1997. Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Himachal Pradesh. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.