Friday, July 15, 2016

Meet Rajasthan’s Goddesses Of Small Things – Garbage, Sneezing Fits, Hens And Lunar Calendar Days


While some goddesses are enshrined in large temples, others are located in humble stone dwellings. All have triangular red flags fluttering on top.

On the outskirts of villages and towns in Rajasthan, one invariably comes across votive sanctuaries to local village deities. Nearly all of them are worshipped by locals and visitors as goddesses associated with fierce protective instincts and miraculous powers of healing.
Some of these goddesses are enshrined in large temples with ornate premises, others are located in humble stone dwellings in isolated spots surrounded by a grove of trees. To passersby, the presence of the mother goddess is signalled by triangular red flags fluttering atop her dwelling. The locals visit their protective mothers regularly, lighting lamps and offering flowers, coconuts, turmeric, rice and kumkum as part of propitiation rites. For all young married couples and new parents, whether they are locals or migrants visiting home, a visit to the local shrine to seek the blessings of these folk goddesses, is essential.

First comes the Earth Mother. The association of earth with motherhood has ancient origins. An Atharva Veda poet sage sang to her:

“She over whom universal waters move day and night in an unceasing flow
May she… pour milk to feed us… lend us her splendour.”

Mother garbage
In all manifestations, even the lowliest as a garbage heap, Earth Mother remains sacred. As Rodi Mata or Mother Garbage she is considered the creator of manure, a gift that encourages and sustains life and fertility within homes and out in the fields. So women of the family formally invite Rodi Mata to all family weddings via a full-throated singing of traditional welcome songs. Prior to the wedding, at the time of kankan bandhayi – or tying of the auspicious wrist band around the wrists of the young couple – Rodi Mata is requested to bless the union and make it a fertile one. To invite her, family women go to their area garbage heap and sing as they drive a long iron nail in the middle: “Ari Rodi nootatan maanai miliyo putadla ri jode (O Rodi Ma, I invite thee to a union of my son (or daughter), with someone I have chosen as his partner).” The nail is a symbol of steadfastness, and the iron in it is supposed to ward off the Evil Eye of jealous ones from harming the newly-weds.

After the wedding, on the morning of the day of the jeeman or community feast, the newly-weds are once again formally escorted to the garbage heap by a group of family women. They sing songs of thanksgiving as they remove the embedded nail, and the young couple offers Rodi Mata their regards with offerings of flowers, turmeric, kumkum and rice. The songs ask for Rodi Mata’s blessings so this may be a fertile union, resulting in many children – sons who will bring young daughters-in-law into the family fold in time, and also daughters whose weddings will be celebrated with joy.

River and road goddesses
In the parched desert state, rivers are the natural mothers of all life, keeping their human offspring and the crops rehydrated and alive even during the hottest seasons. River goddesses are also silent witnesses to all births, marriages and deaths among all those who dwell in their areas. In songs the four sister rivers – Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati and Narmada – are especially celebrated. They are also invited formally to every auspicious occasion and all new entrants to local families, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, newborn babies, must also pay homage to them as soon as possible.

Since the rivers are also where one carries the dead for the final rituals of cremation and immersion of ashes, the roads leading to rivers are also worshipped as goddesses. It is they, after all, who provide passage to both the living and the dead. Road deity, the Path Wari Mata or the Queenly Deity of the road, is praised in songs as one who offers food to the hungry and water to the thirsty – “Pathwari Mata, Path ki ai Rani, bhookhe nai Bhojan Mata, tisiye nai pani.”

Flora goddesses
The arid desert landscape is made shady and colourful by various trees and flowering shrubs. They are not only the places where mother goddesses reside, but some are also divine in their own right. Many tribes in Rajasthan worship trees as their Kul Devi or ancestor goddess. Thus the Lodhas among Oswals consider the many-armed Bada tree as their divine protectoress, others treat the amla or bordi trees as theirs. They will protect these trees completely and, despite the shortage of greenery, will not use them as fuel or fodder. Peepul trees and tulsi plants are also worshipped. Childless couples will sometimes perform formal marriages between a green Vrinda (tulsi) shrub, the symbol of Radha, and a Shyam (dark basil shrub), the symbol of Krishna, to gain fertility. There are also specific trees deemed specially powerful, believed to provide relief from inexplicable physical ailments like a sudden trembling of limbs or attacks of giddiness or migraines. One such is an ancient bada tree in Chittor district where people pray for relief from pain. After the patient is cured, people offer an iron trident to the Bada Mata.

Cattle goddesses and Laila-Majnu
Rajasthan has traditionally been a land of cattle herders. Each goddess here like the mainstream goddess Durga, the Singh Vahini, or rider of a lion, has her own favorite ride. Molela village near Udaipur is known for its production of handcrafted clay images of folk goddesses riding various animals. The chief among them are: Narsinghi Mata (rides a lion), Kalka Mata (rides a buffalo calf), Gorajya Mata (rides an elephant), Saand Mata (rides a bull), Machhi Mata (rides a fish) and so on.

Even some birds and animals are worshipped as local goddesses. Hans Mata (swan), Murga Mata (hen) and, of course, the holiest among them Go Mata (cow) are just a few examples.

The chief protector of all cattle is Kheda Devi, whom villagers worship collectively. During Navratri festivals all cattle herding Dangis gather at the Sapetiya village near Udaipur to collectively worship Kheda Devi. The participants come carrying large pots of milk and use it to cook massive quantities of kheer in the premises of Mata’s temple. The kheer is then distributed as prasad and consumed. It is believed to help ward off sickness among one’s cattle.

A few legendary lovers are also worshipped for their steadfastness, and capacity for suffering to prove their love. There is an unplastered grave (Mazar) in Anoopgarh tehsil in Ganga Nagar district, which is said to be the final resting place of the fabled star-crossed lovers, Laila and Majnu. Here people, both Hindus and Muslims, pray to get what they want, and offer a chadar or sheet as thanksgiving after their wish is granted.

Goddesses of allergies
A few dates in the lunar calendar are also goddesses with specific powers. Thus there is Chauth (fourth day) Mata who brings good luck to families, Chhath (sixth day) Mata, worshipped on the sixth day after a child is born, Dasa (tenth day) Mata, worshipped to improve one’s finances, and Bachh Baras (twelfth day) Mata, worshipped to keep calves healthy and disease free.

There is also an interesting group of goddesses who, it is believed, will even cure specific health problems like a sneezing fits – Chhink Mata of Jaipur; hiccupping nonstop – Sati Mata of Sanwad; polio and physical handicaps of various sorts – Awari Mata of Chittor, and those affected by a black spell cast by an unknown enemy – Bhadana Mata of Kota. The most sought after curer from that most dreaded and disfiguring disease, small pox, is Shitala Mata. As the goddess of measles and small pox she is believed to have various forms. She is Nana Mata, when the rashes are tiny; Mota Mata, when the rashes are the size of millets, Patasya Mata, when the eruptions are large like Batashas, traditional sugar drops, and Jhoomkya Mata, when the eruptions come out in clusters.

The name Shitala is significant. It literally means: she who cools. She is offered special pooja in the month of Chaitra (March and April) when a special feast is cooked the previous day and eaten cold after the pooja the next day. Shitala Mata’s familiar mount is that humble and uncomplaining bearer of all human loads, the donkey.

Sati Mata, guardians of Sat
The word Sati, which has acquired strong pejorative connotations over the years, actually derives from Sanskrit’s satya, meaning truth. The word Sati originally meant someone willing to lay down his or her life for upholding the Sat or quintessential truth. Kabir confirms this when he addresses his Guru as Sat Guru, the one who shows Sat Marg, or the path of truth. Likewise, the medieval saint poet Guru Gorakhnath applies the adjective to signal truth telling: “Bhasha ka sati, kanchh ka jati, vo nar sachcha utpathi (One who is truthful in speech, and can control sexual urges, is prime among human beings.)”

The adjective Sati simply means someone who is revered because she willingly laid down her life to save Sat (truth) and honour. It is notable that not all Satis are worshipped as goddesses – many are revered by clans they were born into, as a great ancestor. Nor were all Satis married martyrs. For instance, Ghevar Mata of Malwa was a young girl who volunteered to perform a dangerous fire sacrifice to firm up a fort. She died after she had achieved her aim and is worshipped as a goddess for having laid down her life for the greater public good. Several local stories about deified Satis also make it obvious that they were not women forced to cremate themselves at the pyre of their husbands but rebels against royal tyranny and injustice who led their people into successful revolts.

At least four among the Satis are firebrands from the traditionally meek Chaaran families, who were court poets who sang paeans to the king and accompanied him in battle. They are worshipped because in public memory each of them challenged wickedness and helped the common folk to overthrow tyrants, and replace them with good rulers. Of these Anwad Mata is said to have initiated and blessed the line of Bhatia kings, Kamehi Mata that of the Godanhs, Birwadi Mata is the founder the Sisodiya branch, and Karni mata that of the Rathods.

Karni mata, whose temple near Bikaner is known for the army of rats milling about the temple premises, was an animal lover. She killed cattle hustler Rao Kanha, and cursed his Chaarans who followed and flattered the robber baron. They became rats and then sought shelter in Karni Mata’s temple. The goddess, a lover of all creatures, forgave them. Today, seeing a white rat (known as kaba) at the temple is supposed to bring great good luck. Bikaner has never had an outbreak of the dreaded plague despite the rats running about free. The water from the temple is still believed to be an effective antidote to plague.

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