Saturday, March 23, 2002
S I T E S   A N D  S C E N E S

Mystic Mandi and its colourful Mahashivratri
Prabodh Saxena

There are very few places now where we chance to see the continuum of culture and tradition in its purest and splendid form. Mandi, in Himachal Pradesh, is finest example of a place and society which is still as deeply embedded in culture, tradition, religiosity and ethnic pride as it was a few hundred years back. The best time to study this beautiful and continuing journey of faith is during the celebration of Mahashivratri.

Mandi, named after Rishi Mandavya, is the second biggest district of the hill state. Panini, an ancient Hindu grammarian, had also referred to Mandi as ‘Mandvati Nagri’ in Asthadhayayi. The town also finds place in the Vedas and the Puranas. Mandi also means a marketplace. The town used to be a trade centre during ancient times where traders from Tibet, China and the Ladakh area used to assemble and barter their produces for other items they required at their homelands. The present Mandi district consists of two erstwhile states of Mandi and Suket which were ruled by Sen dynasty which had come from West Bengal during the second half of the eighth century.

Mandi, the headquarters of the district, is situated on the banks of the Beas. It is known as the town of temples or Chhoti Kashi of Himachal Pradesh. It has more than 60 small and big temples within its boundaries. The ruling deity of Mandi is Lord Shiva.


The local devtas add colour to the week-long Shivratri Mela 

The celebration of Shivratri is closely linked with the founding of Mandi town. Until 1520, Purani Mandi was the capital and the present Mandi was a forest. An interesting legend is associated with the transfer of the capital. Raja Ajbar Sen (1499-1534), the ruler, saw in a dream for several nights in succession, a cow offering milk to the image of Shiva. The dream was recounted to his ministers and courtiers. On an investigation, they discovered that the dream was a reality. A cow crossed the river every day and offered its milk to the idol. Raja Ajbar Sen, after visiting the spot, had a temple constructed there in 1526. It is known as Bhutnath temple. This temple was the first construction on this site. Thereafter, Raja Ajbar Sen became an ardent devotee of Shiva and shifted his capital to this new place. It was since then that the Shivratri fair came to be celebrated.

But the celebration owes its glory to Raja Suraj Sain, one of the most notable of the Mandi chiefs. He had 18 sons, all of whom died in his own life time. Left without an heir, he decided to assign his kingdom to Lord Madho Rai, an incarnate of Vishnu.

Shivratri begins on an austere note. The people of Mandi observe fast on this sacred day. Later, the gods and goddesses who have their shrines in the erstwhile state of Mandi hills trickle into the town. They come on their rathas accompanied by their priests, kardars, turis, worshippers, drummers, etc. The gods first pay their homage to the silver image of Madho Rai.

The procession on Shivratri day is led by the Deputy Commissioner, who first pays obeisance to the Madho Rai. The procession then moves to the Bhutnath temple where an elaborate Shivratri puja is conducted by the Deputy Commissioner. Unlike the Kulu Dasehra, where the Raja of Kulu conducts the ceremony, the honour of performing the puja is with Deputy Commissioner, perhaps due to the reason that the last Raja of Mandi was also the first Deputy Commissioner for a brief period.

The actual fair, however, begins the day after Shivratri. The number of days of the mela is ordained by the astrologer. Each day of the mela is further dedicated to other temples of Mandi such as those of Jagannath, Tarna Devi, Jalpa Devi, Triloki Nath, etc. During the morning time, the gods go in procession to the specific temple for worship and later grace the fair ground where the public can also pay homage to them. On the last day of the fair, chaddars are presented to each of the gods by the local people and organisations such as the Beopar Mandal.

During the first day of Shivratri fair, Madho Rai leads this colourful procession. The procession is grand, to be modest. There is festivity and rejoicing. Beautifully decked devtas follow Madho Rai in strict protocol. The procession looks like a baraat, with participants attired in traditional costumes and Rajasthani pugrees. The entire town resounds with musical notes played by accompanying jugglers and musicians on traditional instruments like the cymbals and trumpets. Three such processions, locally called jatras, are taken out on the opening, middle and concluding day of the mela.

The heroes of the week-long show are undoubtedly the devtas. Devtas are deeply rooted in the tradition and history of the hilly areas of Himachal Pradesh. The system of devta and its functionaries is an interesting study of socio-cultural and economic dimensions of a remote rural hill society. The ‘service area’ or the population dedicated to a devta is known as har. Out of this population, important functionaries of the village devtas are nominated, such as gur, bhandari and kardars (members of executive). They have to discharge various duties like maintenance of puja, upkeep of the village devta as also regular service. In the olden days for this work, each devta was granted a sasan i.e. maufi land, the income of which was enjoyed by the entire community. A fraction of this income at times was to be contributed for major expenditure incurred on the repairs of the temple(dehra)-cum-store of the village devta for taking him out to attend festivals.

A unique feature about these devtas is that they are very much human and continue to be a part and parcel of the entire village community. They have their own parents and other relatives like human beings. They are with the people in their moments of joy and grief.

It may surprise many that the Shivratri Mela Committee spends around Rs 8-9 lakh on travelling allowance, boarding and lodging of the devtas. The entire retinue with the devtas are provided travelling allowance, food and fuelwood. A number of people arrange dham (community feast) for them each day in turn. Their place of rest is also earmarked. Some spend the night at the Tarna temple, while others are housed in the Bhutnath temple and annexe of the Raj Mahal. The system of travelling allowance to the devtas from their place of residence to Mandi plus a fixed monetary assistance (which varies from devta to devta as per their recorded status) was introduced to ensure the presence of the maximum number of devtas at the fair. In changing times, kardars and others do not like to abstain from their work for almost a month, which is the time taken for travelling to the site and attending the mela. The Committee, therefore, has been very liberal in extending these incentives to them. As a matter of fact, devtas are invited through specially printed invitation cards, almost two months in advance and revenue officers of respective subdivisions are personally entrusted the job of delivering the invitation to the more sacred of them. The first devta to arrive is Kamru Nag (the god of rains) who is personally received by the Deputy Commissioner. During their long journey, both ways, the devtas are received by locals at prespecified destinations and small community gatherings are organised. The devtas, all through their journey and stay, receive gifts, are welcomed, fed, feted, housed, heard and held in awe.

Interestingly 14, new devtas are also emerging. Devta politics is even a part of election politics. These new devtas use all types of influences to register themselves with the Shivratri Mela Committee. This is strongly resisted by the ‘original’ and ‘old’ devtas. To avoid this, registration has now been closed. In the existing register, the remuneration slabs for devtas is directly commensurate with their status and historicity. In fact, an association called the ‘Devta Association’ has been formed by the executive bearers of devtas to look after their interest.

All said and done, it is the presence of these devtas which accord meaning and significance to the mela and it is this deep religious feeling that has lifted this local affair to a regional event. It is the devtas who add colour to the festivities for the whole week.