A lively war dance

Himachal’s famed thoda ka khel, a game of archery, is played between two teams called pasha and saatha who identify themselves as descendants of Pandavas and Kauravas,
writes Roshni Johar

Sugo devta temple at Bakhog
Sugo devta temple at Bakhog

At tiny Bakhog, a village of 150 apple-cheeked paharis, 26 km from Shimla, the quietude is broken by distant musical beats of the dhol. Lo! A scene of villagers in colourful dresses, a quaint tall temple towering amidst slated roof hamlets against a backdrop of lush green conifers, greets us.

Here folklore, religion, sport and nature have combined in an age-old fair, showcasing pahari culture. It’s Himachal’s famed thoda ka khel, a game of archery, where the target is a dancing human, essentially an impressive martial art of these hills originating from The Mahabharata, when Pandavas and Kauravas, who roamed in inseparable valleys of Kulu-Manali, fought epic battles with bows and arrows.

Thoda originated around Kulu while some say that it began in the interiors of Shimla hills, though the khel is played at several places like Theog, Narkanda, Chopal, Sirmaur and Solan. Also called Bishu, it’s celebrated elsewhere at Baisakhi.

Thoda is played between two teams called pasha and saatha who identify themselves as descendants of Pandavas and Kauravas. Himachali lore says that the Kauravas were 60, not 100 as believed. Thus their descendants are termed saatha while five Pandavas are pasha. Indeed, paharis are continuing their chivalry culture through this traditional folk play that re-enacts the great Mahabharata battle, reminiscent of a dynastic struggle.

Collectively termed Khashiya, Thoda’s performers are of Thakur clan, being expert in archery and dancing. Khashiya groups range from around 50 to more than 100 each. Villages form Thoda committees, inviting Khashiya to perform Thoda. Last year four villages around Cheog jointly hosted Khashiya while this year, other four villages have been assigned this task.

Buried in hoary past, thoda is derived from thod that pertains to a chabootra (a raised platform open or with a thatched, wooden or slated roof). Khashiya offer prayers, halwa and coconut, often sacrificing a goat on thod, before embarking upon a Thoda. Others opine that thoda means rounded piece of wood fixed on an arrowhead, some feeling that thoda is a version of thuda i.e. lower limbs where arrows are aimed. In earlier times, a few villagers would visit another village to throw leaves into a well at dawn. They would hide behind bushes, challenging locals when they drew water from well, thus sparking off a Thoda encounter.

Dhol, nagara, shehnai, narsingh, etc struck a lively note as a group of smiling Khashiya danced joyously and enthusiastically into the arena, brandishing their glittering golden dangroo (axe), challenging their opponents. Khashiya wrap their legs in layers of patti or thick pyjami worn under coarse salwar or suthan, topped with naltoo, a short shirt along with tough boots, to prevent wounds. Now commences the much-awaited Thoda ka khel.

An ambience of a lively, rather musical, war dance prevails with one group dancing furiously, side-stepping and kicking legs in all directions, while the other aims arrows on their calves, rules prohibit aiming not above thighs, only below knees. And these are no ordinary bamboo bows and arrows. A bow is around seven feet long with a three feet string, while a piece of round wood is fixed to an arrow’s end. Points are scored. Watchful eyes prevent foul scores. Violators are playfully attacked by dangroo. Thoda ends with sing-song war-slogans, winners being declared true khund or warriors.

Lending colour and cheer to simple and smiling paharis’ lives, Thoda is a two-day annual fair. Not doing so invites their Sugo devta’s wrath or ill luck befalls villagers.