A different Dussehra

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By AT MANIKAGODA, PEOPLE CELEBRATE THE FESTIVAL IRRESPECTIVE OF RELIGION (The author is an Odissi dancer)
  • Published 3.10.11
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Guest Column

Ileana Citaristi

The ancient village of Manikagoda, on the western end of Khurda district, has a unique way of celebrating Dussehra. The population of the village is a little over 6,000, out of which around 500 are Muslims. Among Hindus, the most conspicuous are the khandayats or military caste, called paiks in Oriya.

An interesting legend explains the origin of the word Manikagoda. Long ago, the younger brother of a Khurda king, who had been expelled from the kingdom, started to roam around in the jungle dressed as sanyasi. He reached this region which was at that time inhabited by the fierce tribal population of the Sabaras and Khands and became a devotee of the local deity Bhuyan (‘from the earth’). The Goddess, it seems, did not want a temple for herself — every time the walls were constructed they would fall apart. In a dream, the goddess told the sanyasi that the walls could be constructed only if the head of a human being was buried in that ground. Nobody was willing to sacrifice his life. Finally the daughter of the Khand pujari’s sister, Manika, agreed on the condition that from that time the deity be called Manika Bhuyan and a well with the same name be constructed nearby. Later, a fort was constructed where the deity adorned the north-east corner and it was called ‘Manikagoda’ or ‘the fort of Manika’. Now, only part of the walls, where the entrance stood and part of the ditch dug around the fort remains. The rest was destroyed at the time of the British domination during the nineteenth century.

Manika Bhuyan ghara is a modest little house made out of clay, situated near a tank called Manika sagara; in front of it there is the newly constructed mosque. There are no houses around it, only a vast expanse of cultivated land. The house is empty except for a very old log-pole in one corner and a few round stones smeared with vermillion on the ground. The villagers say the log has always been there, nobody knows from when.

Manika Bhuyan, the grama devi or the mother goddess of the village, is worshipped by the Kandh pujari throughout the year, and by all villagers on Dasami. The most unique feature of Manikagoda dusshera is that the Muslim community takes part in the celebrations besides the Hindus.

The present dala-behera or group leader is a Muslim. His predecessors have held this post since the construction of the fort, an honour which the king himself would bestow. He still preserves in his house the royal sword or khanda which had been given to his ancestors by the kings of Khurda. During the dasami day procession, the dala-behera represents the king and meets the expenditure of the Puja.

Closely associated to the khandayats are the members of the karana cast, who, in the past, used to keep accounts, collect revenues and also suggest the king in matter of war-tactic and management. Their symbol is the lekhani, a stiletto-like-pen, made of iron, which is used for incision work.

On saptami, in a special house constructed for the occasion every year in front of the Bhagavati shrine, four symbols belonging to four different castes, are brought out and worshipped at the same time. On this day, the paiks also collect their weapons in one corner of the akhada (place for practice) and after having washed them, worship them with vermillion powder. They are not used for the next three years. On dasami afternoon the ustad or guru distributes them among the students. To mark the beginning of practice sessions, each item is demonstrated: danda (ground exercises), suna (aerial exercises), badi khela (play with sticks), mudgara khela (play with clubs), kati khela (play with knives), khanda khela (play with sword and shield) and kusti (wrestling).

Almost at the same time, the swords which had been kept ready since the morning for puja in each khandayat house are lifted and symbolically used to cut a plantain. By early evening, everyone assembles at the Manika Bhuyan ghara where the Khand pujari, called jani decorates the pole and the stones with oil, vermillion powder, mandara flowers and leaves of the bel tree. During the puja, members of each community enter the small house and pay homage to the tribal deity.

The goddess has a special way of communicating with her devotees — she transfers her powers to a man or a woman, called kalasi, who, under her influence, trembles and announces her wishes and decrees to the people. The religion of the Khands is essentially primitive in nature — their supreme goddess, Tari penu, the goddess of earth, is the solemn symbol of fertility and requires blood for her worship. Animal sacrifices are also made for Manika Bhuyan on dasami just outside her house. As soon as one animal’s head is cut the kalasi drinks the fresh blood as a sign that the goddess accepts the offer. Everybody then accompanies the kalasi with the symbol of Manika Bhuyan — a long pole adorned with a sari at the top — towards the Bhagavati shrine. On the way, the kalasi receives offers in the form of bhoga and blesses devotees.

At the Bhagabati temple, the representatives of the four castes, including the Muslim dala-behera, who has been invited to take part, lift in their hands their respective symbols and are waiting for the arrival of Manika Bhuyan. As soon as she arrives, they move together in procession towards a crossroad in front of the Mahadeva temple where aparajita homo or the “indestructible offer” is performed by the Brahmin priests.

The procession is headed all along by the paiks, who walk in a special pace called danduali chali at the beat of drums and gongs. Along the way at a certain spot, the kalasi is dispossessed of the spirit of the Goddess and from this point onwards only the symbol of Manika Goda proceeds. The spot where the procession is leading to is called yajnya kunda. It is a simple hole excavated in the ground at a point where three roads converge.

The representatives of the different castes and religions sit around the sacred fire. The bauri holding the long pole of Manika Bhuyan sits on the extreme right, next are the jani and the karana holding the lekhani and next to them is the Muslim dala-behera who takes equal part in the ritual and accepts the sindur and bhoga offered by Brahmins.

The khandayat sits holding the royal sword, the daumal gouda is next to him with the kathari and inside the circle, near the six brahmin priests, is placed the idol of Kanaka Durga. The fire for the worship is drawn from a cylindrical torch made of brass where it is kept alive by pouring castor oil. While Sanskrit mantras are been recited, an auspicious coconut is broken and placed in the fire; the homo ends when the shell of the coconut is completely burnt.

At this point the dala-behera and members of the karana caste are escorted to their respective houses by the paiks and Manika Bhuyan returns to her secluded home.