'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Divine Menagerie

I have been in Gujarat for a while now but have made no real local contacts; my experiences and opinions on the place are still very 'touristic'. This post is an outsider's take on some aspects of local religion.

The Gujarati pantheon features a rich gallery of Mother Goddesses - Ambaji, Meldi Mata, Momai Mata, and so forth. In popular iconography, most of these Goddesses resemble Durga as she appears in standard. 'calender' images all over the country - many armed, heavily armed, sari clad, with a beatific or heroic facial expression - at least to first impression, hardly any variety.

But each of these Gujarati Goddesses has a very real distinguishing feature - the *mount* she has been provided with (at variance with the lion/tiger which Durga always rides): Meldi Mata rides a black goat (to my knowledge the only goat-rider among Indian divinities, she sits in Victorian style, without straddling the animal). Momai sits in surprising comfort atop the hump of a camel, again in Victorian manner; and still more remarkable is 'Hadkai Mata', who rides a dog! - a 'Google images' search will show several pictures of all these goddesses. And the other day, I saw a goddess riding a huge rooster... and a buffalo rider too - I don't know their names yet.

There are several commercial establishments named 'Khodiyar' in Ahmedabad. During earlier visits, I had guessed these might be owned by Konkani immigrants ('Padiyar', 'Gadiyar' etc. are fairly common Konkani surnames) but have come to know that Khodiyar Mata is actually a very popular Gujarati Goddess. As opposed to the Durga-esque mother goddesses mentioned above, Khodiyar looks like a village girl; she wears ghagra-choli and has only two arms. But she also wields a trident and is always shown with a (!) crocodile; the croc is probably the Goddess's vehicle but she is never actually shown riding it.

Let me also mention another recent discovery - Ramdevji or Ramdev Pir (no, not referring to the Yoga guru!). He is a Hindu-Muslim syncretic deity (maybe comparable to 'Satyanarayana'/ 'Satya Pir' about whom I had written a bit here long back). Although Ramdevji hails from Rajasthan, he is very popular in Gujarat as well; icons show him as a bearded and richly dressed man, riding an elegant horse and holding a flag aloft. I vaguely remember seeing pictures of a riderless horse with a flag planted on its back in a Muslim-run shop in Pune; perhaps that was a popular Muslim way of representing Ramdev Pir (without showing a human figure; in some sense comparable to Buddha being represented by just a pair of sandals or a parasol or a Stupa in pre-Christian Hinayana art). One sees a certain resemblance between Ramdev and Sufi deity Khwaja Khidr, a St. George-like a 'knight-rider' who comes to aid those in distress.

I conclude with a verbatim quote from the Wikipedia article on Ramdevji:

A mystical festival is also held in villages across Kathiawar to worship 'Ramdev' called Mandap. In this festival, a long (almost 30 feet in height or more) wooden log is used called the Khamb. It is given a loose base to the ground. It is decorated and has eight ropes in eight directions attached to it. It is laid on the ground. Several rites and rituals are performed for almost a month or so. The whole affair is funded by villagers and rich folks. At a given time and date, with the utterance of "Ramapir ni jai" meaning Victory to Ram Dev Pir, the Khamb starts to stand up. Very mysterically and strangely, the Khamb stands on its own without any support. The eight ropes are loosely tied in eight nails that are driven in the ground. Lakhs of devotees flock this mandap to have darshan and prasad. The khamb stands there for 24 hours exact and the very next day in the same fashion as it stood up, the khamb returns back to its position. It is believed that RamDev Pir himself appears in the Khamb


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