Thursday, March 28, 2013

The 'Spirit'ed Night

Goa's villages are replete with folklore surrounding the spirits, both good and bad. The tales of the Holy spirit, better known as Devchaars, are especially popular. The devchars are treated with all seriousness and offerings are regularly made to them, seeking protection from the forces of evil. Over the years, a lot of villages have evolved their own unique ways of guaranteeing protection, resulting into an eclectic variety of annual customs and traditions that are a culture junkie's delight. They are as varied and exciting as it can get.

Every year, in the days near Holi Pournima, a few villages in Goa celebrate what is known as the Gadyaanchi Jatra or the Feast of the Gades. Gades are generally male members from a few designated families in a village that take part in the ceremonies of the feast. The Jatra in the Villages of Kudnem, Sal, Pilgao and canacona are especially popular. Having witnessed the one at Canacona a few years back and having heard so much about the ones at Kudnem and Sal, I hoped to attend them this year. The cocktail of bizarre rituals, the fear factor, and genuine interest in local traditions make for a heady mix. And so we set out to experience the gadyaanchi jatra of Kudnem, a village near the town of Sanquelim in Goa's Bicholim Taluka, on the evening of 26th March 2013.


BEFORE

The unique thing about the Jatra at Kudnem is that the main rituals are carried out in darkness, lit by moonlight only. No other light sources are allowed. No electric lights, no fire....and no cellphones- or cameras. We honestly didn't know what to expect, and hence we arrived in the village before sunset, at about 6.30pm. The festivities happen in front of the Kudneshwar Mahadev temple in the village. Right in front of the Temple was a small pit. We were told that the ceremonial pillar is buried in this pit and the Holi, the festive pyre is lit around it. The Gades then dance around this pillar for the entire night. It was to be the epicenter of the festivities for the night. A clear area had been demarcated around the pit and an approach road to and from the pit was also demarcated. However, the strange thing was that almost the entire area outside the demarcated zones had been covered in mattresses, tarpaulin sheets etc by villagers, as a form of reservation for their place for the night's spectacle. This was clearly a big deal. But other than that, the village seemed quite empty. we were the only outsiders there at that point. We asked around about parking space and what to expect. We were told that the rituals begin at after 12 pm. We clearly had a long time to pass. We went to a nearby town, had our dinner, and returned at about 8.30pm. The villagers had made arrangement for parking in a nearby field. Ours was the very first car for the evening and the arrangements seemed rather optimistic. We wondered whether so many people even turn up for the ritual. We were in for shock, but more on that later. 

We were by now quite anxious, and the silent night only added to the drama. A village kid walked up to the car and asked us to 'switch off the car'. He was basically asking us to make sure that under no circumstances the car should light up in the middle of the night, a common occurrence with today's electronically protected cars. He said to switch off any cellphones that we were leaving behind in the cars. If anything in the car lights up while the Gades are out at night, they would destroy the car, he warned us. That sent a chill down my spine. I regretted getting my car, and prayed I would see it again the next morning.

Nevertheless, after passing some time, we walked back to the temple by 9.30pm. The area was slightly more crowded by now, but still relatively empty. We found an empty piece of sitting area that wasn't reserved, right in front of the ceremonial pit. We had the front row seats to the event, and I couldn't stop wondering why they weren't taken first. It was a discomforting thought, but we sat there nevertheless. From then on, began a long, monotonous wait. We had left behind our phones in the car- batteries removed, just in case. Leaving the seats would mean losing them, and so we sat there, doing nothing but talking. In hindsight, i feel the ideal time to come would have been around 10.30pm. That would be early enough to get a good seat, yet late enough to not be bored to death. As the clock ticked by, crowds started gathering around us, and how. What was a sparsely crowded area at 9.30pm, had close to 3000 people by 11pm! 

The crowd, somehow diluted our anxiety. The streetlights were still on, and there was no hint of the spooky night we had come to expect. We waited. 12pm came and yet there was no hint of any activity. Finally, after a long time of sitting idly, the drum beats started at 1.30am. The villagers carried a long bark of a tree that was to become the Holi pillar. It was really long, approximately as tall as 3 to 4 storey building. I couldn't fathom how they were gonna erect THIS long a pillar without the help of a crane or any other mechanism. The crowds standing in front of me made sure I couldn't see it either, so that remains a secret. But after a Herculean effort and half an hour's work, they managed to erect it. The tall pillar made for a majestic sight. The holi fire was lit and put off, rituals performed and the crowd were cleared out of the demarcated area. We now had a clear view :)


DURING

At 2am, the game began. Without a warning, the lights went out. All phones switched off, all fires extinguished .  The crowd, which had swelled to about 5000 by now, went quite. The drums around the pillar, began playing an eerie rhythm, a beat every alternate second. some villagers around the pillar, began singing the Namans, or incantations. One by one, the Gades, dressed in Pure white dhotis and shirts walked up to the center and stood there. Within a few minutes, one by one, they started collapsing to the floor. The villagers took off the shirts of the fallen Gades. They were now 'possessed'. One by one, they started dancing around the pillar, in perfect sync to the drum beats. As their number rose, the excitement went up. I was expecting about 20-30 of them. Turns out, there were about 240.

Within minutes, they were in their 'zone'. 240 odd men, clad in white dhotis, dancing in perfect sync around the pillar, making strange sounds and wearing a completely detached look on their faces. Their movements reflected the tempo of the beats, quickening and slowing to the tune of the namans. Then the Devchaar began his games. 

The belief is that on the night of Holi pournima, the ghosts are let out in the open by Lord Mahadev. They possess the bodies of the Gades. The Devchaar plays around with the ghosts by showing them light at a distance(which explains the complete ban on other light sources). The Gades, chase the light sources, which extinguish within seconds. During the chase, the Devchaar takes a few of the Gades, which go missing. The Devchaar eventually returns them by showing the light again. If not returned within 3 days, the missing gades are considered to be dead. ( The game is slightly different at Sal, which i shall cover in the next blogpost) .

The distant lights, are an unexplained phenomenon, shrouded in mystery. Every few minutes, at a distance from the gathering, high up in tree canopies, bright embers of fire emerged without a warning. The moment the light appears, the Gades dancing around the pillar break their formation and madly chase the light. Its a sight to behold. I could personally see the light source only twice, as the crowd made it impossible to see, most of the time. The light fades off within seconds, and the Gades return to their formation. This sequence- Dance, appearence of light, chase, and back to dance- happened about 10 times. The mysterious lights, the mad scramble of the Gades make for  a part of the allure of the ritual. 

At 4am in the morning, began the real scary part of the night. The Gades, broke their formation and went away running into the darkness. They supposedly go the village graveyard, to dig up the dead bodies. They returned half an hour later. Each of them, carried what is said to be a part from a dead human body. Most carried flesh, a few carried locks of long human hair, bones and skulls. The scariest was a severed human hand and leg. They continued dancing around the pillar, their piece firmly in their hand. Some fell to floor, got up, and continued dancing. It was a sight that could well be from some zombie movie. The stench of rotting human flesh was all over. The experienced villagers had carried bottles of perfume, which they generously sprayed. Just imagine the sight. Pitch dark night lit only by the full moon, 240 odd gades, dressed in blood stained white dhotis, carrying pieces of human body, dancing to eerie drum beats. You don't see such sights everyday in your life.  

After a few minutes, the namans directed the Gades to return the body parts to their graveyards. The Gades obliged. Once they returned, the continued their dance for a few more minutes. Eventually, they all fainted to the floor and woke up within minutes to their normal selves again. By 6 am, it was over. 



AFTER

Once we got back to our car through the crazy crowd, the million thoughts started buzzing our minds. What the heck had we just seen? Was it all real? Was it a dream?  Are ghosts and spirits for real?  

The logic of our pragmatic minds refused to accept that it had anything to do with supernatural forces. The ban on light sources seemed more to keep the mystery intact than anything else. Its really difficult to distinguish real body parts from fake ones in the glow of moonlight alone. And the Gades seemed careful to not trample the crowds even in their 'trance' .

But some questions remained unanswered. What about the stench of the flesh? How is it possible for men to dance and run around all night long and not pant for breath? Not once during the night did the Gade collide with one another during their dance. Can 240 men really pull off THIS elaborate a ritual for an entire night without exchanging a single word or without a central command? If it were indeed a piece of choreography, is it really possible for so many men and their families to not spill the beans over so many years? 

As a friend put it, its all way to bizarre to be real, yet way too remarkable to be completely fake. 

Real or not, I had personally never experienced anything like it before. It was spooky, adventurous,  exciting.....stuff great stories are made up of. Also, its always a great feeling to experience the ingenious traditions of one's own people. These rituals are what makes us unique and special. They are our cultural endowments that we received from our ancestors. Such socio-religious customs punctuate the otherwise mundane day to day life for the rural folks. And it was great to spend a 'spirit'ed night with them :)


PS. At the time of publishing this, I am scheduled to visit the Gadyaanchi Jatra at Sal. I'm hoping to write a post on that too.  Stay tuned.

Update: I visited the Sal Gadyaanchi Jatra yesterday and it was bad. The crowds made everything chaotic and there was no organisation in place. Everybody kept running everywhere and no one had a clue of what was going on. The rituals too appeared more funny than anything else. Hence, i will not write the aforementioned blogpost








2 comments:

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  2. Hi Sagar,

    Beautiful post. The article is highly informative and takes the reader through the remarkable scenes that you and your friends witnessed that night.

    Well done.

    ReplyDelete