4th November 2007:
It is a pleasant, sunny mid-afternoon as we (friend and host/guide for the day Vitthal, his family and self) turn our car off the Satara highway at Pargaon and head westwards. The intent: to see the 'jatra' at the temple of 'Kal Bhairavnath', the tutelary deity of the Sonawane clan, to which Vitthal belongs.
The road runs across rolling Deccan country - arid, sparse cultivation, a few scattered villages,... - towards a wall-like range of hills to the west. Approaching the village of Karnawadi, we leave the main road and follow a stony pathway down a hillside, which eventually flattens out into an open ground. About a dozen vehicles are parked there. A good number of colorfully dressed people are sitting around, among whom many are Vitthal's relatives. They seem to be having a merry meal out there; we join in and set to work on bhakris (rough, flaky and earthily tasty rotis of jowar and bajra), potato bhaji and laddoos...
At the far end of the ground, a thin stream, its path marked by a strip of dense greenery, flows thru a shallow valley. On the bank is an open-air shrine with several stump-like stones. "These are supposed to be our ancestors" said Vitthal. Indeed, these stones are venerated and food has been laid out in front of them. As we explore the place further Vitthal narrates the 'sthalapuranam':"A pious Sonawane lady once had the darshan of Bhairavnath at the village of Ahire. The lady beseeched the Lord to come and be at her village of Karnawadi. Bhairavnath agreed. "You and your folk proceed to your village. I shall follow; but do not look back until you are there."
"On the banks of this stream, the lady decided to turn back and see the lord again. She was warned of dire consequences but she did not heed them and told her people: "let us all turn back and behold His form. Even if our lives end with that vision, we will die with the Lord in our eyes."
"And they all looked back and they all were turned to stones, the ones which we worship out there. And a temple was built in Karnawadi for Bhairavnath, where the entire clan gathers for the jatra every year (Vitthal himself has come down from far away Chennai). As you just saw, we first halt at this stream, have a meal and then proceed to the temple."
The Bhairavnath temple is pretty much like one of the few dozen houses that form Karnawadi. There are many more people about - "these are more rural folk, hardcore Sonawanes, unlike us, who have migrated to cities", says Vitthal. We enter the temple. The interior is very crowded and choking with the smell of camphor and incense. The idol of Bhairavnath is of a highly polished metal - he appears as a mustachioed and turbaned warrior. To the lord's left stands the idol of his consort (her name is lost to my memory now), who looks, interestingly, taller than him.
Behind the temple, people are assembling gas stoves and fireplaces to cook the feast. About a dozen goats are tethered, seemingly unaware of their fate. Several children are gathered around the goats, some touching them playfully, some stroking them affectionately... "Every family in the clan brings a goat. They also arrange 'kasai's to do the slaughtering. These kasais are all Muslims and for generations, they have played this key role in this celebration. They do not charge a fee but are gifted the goats' skins."
We watch the first sacrifice(*). The kasai, who was until then indistinguishable from the worshippers in attire and speak (he even sported a prominent 'tilak'), steps up to a goat, knife in hand; he sweeps the animal off its feet with an expert hold and slits the throat; death is mercifully quick and takes only a few seconds. The process of flaying the victim and cutting up the meat into neat little pieces takes about 10 minutes - and then he steps towards another goat which had been a mute witness to the proceedings. We withdraw...
At about 5 pm, a 'palki', borne by two men, ceremonially leaves the temple and proceeds to the entrance of the village. Another palki, (it has been brought all the way from the village of Ahire) arrives presently and the two palkis move in a procession back towards the temple. Drums and cymbals whip up a vigorous rhythm and some devotees (mostly athletic, rural-looking men) break into a dance, possessed by the spirit of Bhairavnath; some others start throwing red gulal powder around and soon, the dancers are almost steeped in red. Several 'City Sonawanes' occupy strategic points to record the procession in handycams, digicams and cellphones...
Some devotees go around with the red powder and apply it to the foreheads of those around who in turn give a 'return dusting' with the same stuff. Very soon, we are all choking with gulal...
The palkis reach the temple and the dancers rush into the temple one by one; there they are given a drink of sanctified water and are calmed - the spirit seemingly leaves. It is almost 8 pm now.
Vitthal's family gathers for dinner in a stone-built village house with cowdung plastered floors. Being mostly vegetarian and followers of 'Warkari'-induced 'Satwik' devotion, they bring their own food and eat it separately, not partaking of the celebratory mutton.
Later, we go out to watch the main feast. People sit on the road in front of the temple, paper plates in hand. A strong, spicy aroma rises as a devotee brings a bucketful of mutton pieces of which he gives everyone a generous handful. Then comes another guy, who tips a dash of gravy from another bucket into each plate. Then each person gets a stack of rough bhakris to go with the 'bakra' and off they go. Within minutes, they are done and a fresh set of devotees take their place and wait for the bucket of mutton nuggets...
Dawn breaks, silhuetting the Purandar hills to the east as I drive up towards Pune. It has been an eventful day, the proceedings have been far more than worth losing sleep over...
(*) - Strictly speaking, these are not sacrifices. The mutton is not ritually offered to Bhairavnath; the slaughter and consequent communal consumption of the mutton is more of a celebratory act than a religious ritual. Yes, these matters of detail apart, I certainly *do not* find animal sacrifices morally repugnant or whatever - if someone is non-veg why can't he not share his favorite meat with God?