The state of Himachal Pradesh is located in the midst of the snow-laden Himalayas. It is named thus because of its location: him is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘snow’, and achal means ‘land’ or ‘abode’. According to ancient Indian mythology, the Himalayas were born from the tresses of Lord Shiva. They were created to protect the Earth from Ganga Devi when the great river flowed down to Earth from Heaven. Many old settlements can be found there which seem lost in time. Both Vedic and Puranic gods are still worshipped here in accordance to ancient rituals and rites. Himachal has large glaciers which feed a number of perennial rivers: Ravi, Chenab, Beas, Sutlej, Yamuna and so on. These rivers sustain millions of people.
The state was formed on April 15, 1948 by the merging of 30 princely states. Its boundaries were drawn to form a topographic separation from the plains of Punjab. It ranges in elevation from 350 to 6,975 metres above sea level. Himachal stretches from the hilly Shivalik ranges of the outer and younger Himalayas, to the remote Zanskar and Pir Panjal ranges of the oldest Himalayas.
Himachal Pradesh is a treasure trove of rich local heritage, as manifested in its traditions, art and culture. An essential aspect of this heritage is the focus on native gods (devtas and devis), which was an integral part of the belief systems of the earliest tribal groups who lived in this region: the Koles, Kiratas, Kinnaras, Yakshas, and Nagas (Rai 1985). As mentioned in the the Rig Veda, this worship is present everywhere, and is known by the presence of the palanquin (or rath).
Some important deities and temples
Sirmaur district is a largely mountainous area where 90 per cent of the population lives in villages, and where worship of Shirgul Devta, a Shaivite deity, is very popular (Gautam 2016). The home of Shirgul Mahadev is in Churdhar, the highest peak in Sirmour. According to the book Wonderland Himachal Pradesh by Jag Mohan Bhalokhra (1995), the name ‘Shirgul’ may have been derived from ‘Sri Guru’. According to one account, this deity offers protection from colds and disease. The deity is connected to Bijat Mahadev, who is the main devta of Sarain village, in Shimla district, and whose main temple is there.
The devta’s powers are described in local folklore and stories, in which Shirgul and Bijat Mahadev are closely connected. According to legend, when the demon Asur Agyasur attacked Churdhar Peak and the temple of Shirgul, the shakti (power) of God fell upon them in the form of bijli (lightning bolts) As a result, an idol fell to earth at Sarain, and so a temple was built there which came to be known as the Bijat Temple of Sarain.
Bijat Maharaj Temple
The Bijat Maharaj Temple of Sarain was constructed in the 11th century. It is situated in Chambal Valley, 26 km from the town of Chaupal. The temple is set amidst fields, apple orchards, small villages, and a deodar forest. Surrounded by two-storey buildings, the temple complex has two tall towers, side by side, of about four storeys in height. These house the Bijat Maharaj Devta, the ‘god of lightning’, who is the main deity in the area and is also identified as the god of prosperity and good health. These twin temples of Bijat Maharaj at Sarain are one of the most remarkable monuments in the area. In the month of April, the Bishu Fair is organised here, which attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the state and from other parts of the country.
In the village of Gugga is a temple which consists of a single small room. The deity housed there, Guggaji, was brought there from Rajasthan 150 years ago by the village headman, or chharidhar. Guggaji is believed to cure snakebites, so those bitten by a snake are kept in the temple for three days. Folklore and songs mention this temple, and fairs and festivals are organised around it.
Bishu Mela is the main festival of the local deity Bijat Maharaj, and is celebrated in the month of Baishakh, i.e. around mid-April. Several people from nearby villages and from all over the state gather in the temple complex to celebrate this festival. Houses are cleaned and people relax on swings and enjoy jalebi (a deep-fried sweet soaked in sugar syrup). With the melting of the snow by this time of year, people gather to thank the devta and to celebrate spring. The fair takes place in Dawas over two days, and it then moves to the nearby village of Kapui for another two days.
One of the main attractions of this festival is thoda, a sport of sorts which is a blend of martial arts and dance, known to date back to the days of the Mahabharata. Players are divided into two teams, the saathi (Pandavas) and the pashi (Kauravas). Using bows and arrows, the players skillfully recreate the Kurukshetra war. Participants try to hit the legs of their opponents below the knee while at the same time avoiding being hit. They wear special boots and thick winter garments made of sheepskin, called suthan, as protection against the arrows.
Every year, on the night of the full moon in the month of Bhadon (the sixth month of the Hindu calendar, which coincides with August and September), the deity, Guggaji, is taken out for a week-long yatra (a pilgrimage or procession). On the seventh day he returns, and the eighth night is celebrated as jagratara, dedicated to Guggaji. It falls on Janmashtami, which is the celebration of the birth of Krishna. The jagratara begins with a holy fire. The devotees play the dhol and khajar (locally made musical instruments) in celebration, and perform local songs and dances in the form of natti, harul and khashu-geet. During the jagratara, devotees are said to go into a trance, to feel the presence of the devta and have sacred rice showered on them as a way of breaking the trance. Kheer Patuanda is a specially-prepared flavoured rice pudding that is eaten at Gugga Navami.
The yatra of Bijat Maharaj to Churdhar—the highest peak of the Shivalik range—is known as Devathan. This takes place after Karthik Amavasya, or Diwali, usually in November. On Ekadashi, the 11th day after Karthik Amavasya, the devta and his devotees make the journey to Churdhar, after which it is officially closed for winter. Girls draw floral designs on the walls of houses, and in return people give them money.
Himachalis are known for their devotion to Lord Shiva, which extends to worship of Bijat Maharaj. Shivaratri (literally, 'night of Shiva’) falls in the month of Phalguna, corresponding to February/March. The jagratara is performed at night and the jatar, or toli, sets out for Churdhar as the weather starts to improve. This marks the reopening of the pilgrimage route to Churdar for the summer season. At Shivratri, a badda, which is a bouquet made of paja (wild cherry tree) leaves and meat, is hung from a corner of the roof. It is left hanging there, and it deteriorates slowly over the next few months; if there are any remains by the Shivaratri of the following year, it is used for worship.
People feast on poode and atta ka khadu (wheat-based sweets), roti (bread) fried in oil, bhang pakore (vegetable snacks made with cannabis seeds), and rott, which is a steamed cooked roti made with a variety of flours including maize, wheat, barley, oats, jabri and rice).
The Devi and Devta system and daily life
- Devis and devtas are believed to be the manifestation of Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Most of the devtas are Shaivites; worship of Shiva is more common in mountainous areas.
- The local deity is believed to be the supreme leader and the highest authority in the region. King-like, he rules over all village matters, including clashes between villagers that are brought to the deity for resolution.
- Every devta or devi lays down rules that determine the daily lives of villagers, and which the people of that locality abide by. This forms the basic structure of the region’s social organisation. The devta assigns work to different people according to their caste.
- The devta or devi plays a central role in the community. The temple complex is the most important building, usually located at the top, or in the centre, of the village. Over time, the community grows either radially with the temple complex as the centre, or extends out below it, depending on the topography of the area.
- The deity’s permission is required if something is to be added or changed in the village with regard to construction, land use, services, etc.
- Isht-devta or kul-devi are the chief gods of a family or clan, with different villages having different ruling deities. In the case of Sarain district, Bijat Maharaj is the chief deity, with most people considering him their kul-devta (family god) but some have other isht-devtas (clan gods) as well.
- Most village festivals revolve around worship of the deity, with the festivities usually consisting of carrying the palanquin of the devta or devi through the village, or collaborating with neighbouring villages in holding small fairs. These fairs are considered to be an opportunity for the gods of the respective villages, as well as the village residents, to get together.
- Local functions and marriages are performed and celebrated only with the permission of—or under explicit orders from— the isht-devta or kul-devi.
- It is not only out of fear but also out of reverence and deep faith that the commands of the deity are followed. It is believed that, in exchange, the devta or devi will protect them from harm and misfortune.
- The devis and devtas also protect the forests in their region of rule. Cutting even a single tree requires their permission. The palanquins of the gods are also made of wood from these forests.
- In local temples, the idols are made of gold, silver or electrum (a natural alloy of silver, gold and other trace elements). The deities are placed on wooden palanquins and are dressed in traditional costumes and ornaments—each unique with respect to the others.
- Local deities are very personal to the communities that worship them. They are present in the daily lives of their devotees, guiding, commanding and counselling people, and anticipating problems and helping confront them.
- When a devta or devi travels, a whole caravan travels along with them, including the chharidhar, the bhandari (storekeeper), the pujari (priest), bajantris (musicians), and others who are assigned specific duties.
- People pray to their own deity for good health, good crops, and rain, as it is believed that these things are under the deity’s control.
- Each devta or devi have their own customs, and they have indicated how they prefer to be worshipped. As a result, local rituals and forms of worship and prayer vary from area to area.
- Deities decide on the implementation of governmental and non-governmental policies in the area as well—their approval is mandatory.
- Most of the festivals celebrate the changing seasons and the end of harvest. Deities are asked to bless the people and protect them from misfortune.
- It is believed that the gods visit Heaven, or Indrapuri, during winter, and that they sleep between July (Shravan) and October (Kartik), so it is during these months that temples and palanquins are repaired and improved, and when non-religious folk festivals are held.
- The people of Sarain are god-fearing. To expiate guilt, for example, silver ‘hands’ are donated to deities, symbolising the sinner sacrificing the part of themselves that committed the sin.
The people of Himachal have a unique way of celebrating fairs and performing traditional rituals to mark births, deaths, harvests, or good rainfall. Dev temples, or kothis are the focal point of religion and faith for the villagers. In many places, the kothis of landlords (thakurs) have been converted into temples. Ancient folklore often deals with stories of gods or chivalrous heroes or chieftains. The people of Himachal love festivals and participate enthusiastically in local festivals and fairs. No religious function is considered complete without the presence of the devta. During religious occasions, people bring out the chhari (the stick belonging to the devta, and symbolic of his power) and it is carried by the chharidhar. When the devta is taken on jagran, or procession, or to some other religious function, the golden chhari is always carried along. When collecting money, the silver chhari is carried by the chharidhar.
The religious processions and ceremonies must be performed with the utmost discipline. Every household must personally participate and, if they are not present, they are required to pay a fine as penalty. Festivals start with Vikram Era (Nama Samvat) and each month there are fairs scheduled, including Chatrail, Bishu, Minjar, Fag, Rakshabandhan, Guganaumi, Losar, Sarai, Diwali, Sajo, Dussehra, Faguli, Basant Panchmi, Shivratri, and Holi.
Devotion to devtas and devis is a way of life for villagers, and it is ubiquitous throughout the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh, with only minor regional variations. Folk dances are a spontaneous expression of the joy of life and, together with folklore and devotional music, they play a vital role in the celebration and social performance of religion.
Balokhra, J.M. 1995. Wonderland Himachal Pradesh. New Delhi: HG Publications.
Gautam, S. 2016. Hinduism in Himachal Pradesh. Oxford, England: University of Oxford.
Rai, B.K. 1985. The Tribal Culture of India. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.