Let me begin from the end.
Scores of men scramble one atop the other to get inside the room. Women keep out. The room, the passage leading to it, the stairway that opens to the passage and the verandah that extends from the foot of the stairway are overcrowded with men trying to get inside the room. The house is bursting with eager men, most of whom are
carrying bottles, glass, bowls or some kind of container.
The main priest being assisted by a professional priest as they start the day’s puja
This is a typical scene at a Devi Ghar (house) on the 10th and final day of Devi puja (prayer) that is jointly organized by some 200 Pokhrel families during Dashain.
The men flock the house for two reasons: one, because tradition forbids worships at individual household of a member family before paying obeisance to the main Devi and without first receiving blessings and prasad (assorted food items blessed by the gods) from the Devi Ghar. Each of the 200 families, therefore, makes sure that at least one member of their family is present. The other reason is that each of them wants to get the water in the main kalash, a copper vessel, established as Devi on the first day of worship. There is never enough water for all, and to make matters worse, a quarter of it is always lost in the rough and tumble that men get into to get it.
The water, if sprinkled on people, is believed to keep them out of harm’s way, and if kept inside the house, generates vibes of auspiciousness on all occasions. So the priest has to ensure that there are at least a few drops for everyone. He does so by mixing the water in the other small copper vessels, also established as deities, with that in the main vessel established as Devi.
As a member of the Pokhrel clan, I had been observing this ceremony since childhood. But last year, due to some unexpected turn of events, I was compelled to see all of it from very close quarters. In fact, you could say I was the one who ran the entire show.
Each year, at the end of the Devi puja, a family is voted as a Dashain Ghar or Devi Ghar for next year’s celebrations. This year, the responsibility fell on our house. The tradition requires a member from the organizing family to be the main priest who, along with other professional priests, ‘steers’ the whole puja for nine days. The main priest never leaves the house to maintain the sanctity demanded by his role. Faced with the choice of either being a house-bound priest and sitting down for long rituals or running endless errands for nine days to coordinate things from outside, I chose the first one.
But the role of the main priest is by no means any easier. He sits inside the room for long hours for worship and rituals. He has to fast the whole day and eat only after finishing the evening puja. However, the rules have been slightly relaxed over the years and now priests are allowed light meals that include dry fruits and milk between the morning and evening prayers.
The pair of bel fruits, to be worshipped as the Devi from the eigth day, is brought home
Most Nepalis celebrate Dashain in some way or the other, and a lot of them, who may or may not believe in Hinduism, worship Goddess Mother Shakti and her nine incarnations called Navadurga (nava, meaning and Durga, one of the several names of the Goddess). So how is the celebration organized by the Pokhrel clan different? Well, two things that stand out are the rituals marked by complexity and richness of detail, and the sacrifice.
There is an interesting philosophy behind the Devi puja.
Shiva, the Supreme Lord, is hard to evoke, but easy to please. Devi, the Supreme Goddess Mother, is easy to evoke, but hard to please. Shiva dwells in a meditative trance and is the dreamer whereas Shakti or Devi is the force that brings his dreams come to life. Though the universe is considered as the dream of Lord Shiva, it is Goddess Shakti who gives shapes to his imagination. Thus, Shakti or Devi is considered the real fulfiller of wishes. Therefore, Hindus worship goddesses Mahalaxmi for wealth, Saraswati for knowledge, and Mahadevi for overall wellbeing.
Devi puja involves worshipping Goddess Shakti, the consort of Lord Shiva. All nine incarnations of the Devi are worshipped during the puja. Worshipping the Devi and her forms obviously is the mainstay of the Devi puja and the most important part of the nine-day worship. But what is interesting about Devi puja is that almost every Hindu gods and goddesses (and they say there are 330 million of them) are invoked, worshipped and appeased.
Historically as well as traditionally, the custom of elaborate Devi puja is alien to Brahmin practices as it is more akin to that of the Kshatriyas. The tantric rituals that involve sacrifices and worshipping weapons are in direct conflict with the Brahmin ideals of devotion to learning and abstaining from killing.
Nobody is sure as to when, how or who started the tradition to hold such a puja. There are, however, several versions floating around linking the puja to various individual families. Initially, only the royals performed the puja with comprehensive rituals and complex celebrations. The common folks were barred from performing the puja openly.
So, how did the Pokhrel’s got the right to perform the puja?
The story goes back to the time of Grivan Yuddha Bikram Shah Dev, one of the kings of the Shah dynasty. It is said that the king wanted weapons, particularly guns and rifles, for his private army. At that time, Indo-Nepal relation was not as it is now and it was hard to cross the border with a large cache of weapons without being noticed and caught. At this hour, it is said that some of the Pokhrels, who held one kind of post or the other at the royal court, came forward with a promise to smuggle the weapons from India.
It was not uncommon for Nepalis to live and work in India even in those days. So these Pokhrels crossed the border and purchased all the weapons they needed. But the difficult part was carrying then across to the Nepalese side. The group worked out a plan. They tied all the weapons to bamboo rafters tacked together in the way Hindus do when they carry dead bodies to the cremation ground. They covered the weapons with a white cloth, just as they would dead bodies. Whenever they were stopped at the check points by security personnel, they told them that they were carrying the dead body of their friend who wished to be cremated in Nepal. Now, since it is considered inauspicious to touch a dead body except by those who are joining the funeral procession, the Indian officials let the group pass without even trying to peek inside the cloth.
The Pokhrels then took the weapons to the king who, impressed by their valiant act, offered them several districts as birta over which they could rule or do as it pleased them. But apart from the rule over the vast land, they also entreated the king that they be allowed to hold Devi puja just like the royals did. The king permitted that also.
Some Pokhrels hold that until the year 2007 B.S. (1950), the year when Nepal was transformed from a kingdom to a democratic state, only the royals and Pokhrels performed the Devi puja in a grand manner.
Nobody knows who those valiant Pokhrels were and how long they practiced the tradition. Some of the present-day elders told me that they remember their grandfathers performing the puja in the hills. The rituals are so cumbersome, time consuming and costly that these days, the Pokhrels think it is impossible for a single family to perform the puja with complete rituals.
Consider, for example, the number of items they need for the nine-day worship. The list is endless. You need pots and vessels made out of specific metals. You need taparas and dunas, small bowl-like containers made from leaves. You need vermilions of different colors. You need the leaves of different trees like banyan, pipal (ficus tree), mango, tulasi (basil), etc. You need teel, jaun, rice, paddy, fruits, wicker, oil, cymbals, hand drums, chamar, ghee, milk, honey, sugar, mud, flowers of different colors (particularly red and white), nuts, etc. And you need them twice everyday because the puja is performed in the morning and in the evening. And the items have to be fresh for both prayers.
Apart from these items, two other very important things needed for the worship are goats and kubhindos (a type of gourd). They are sacrificial offerings to the Devi. The rule is to offer two goats, one each at the end of the morning and the evening prayers. But since goats are too expensive, the Pokhrels decided to cut down the number of goats and offer kubhindos instead.
The rising cost, the cumbersome rituals and their busy life have forced the Pokhrel families to come together to contribute funds and jointly organize the puja in the best possible way they can.
Worshipping kubhindo and khukuri. Kubhindos are used as sacrificial offerings on some days as goats are becoming increasingly expensive.
Every morning, the priests involved in the worship, enters the sanctum sanctorum after finishing their morning rites. The rituals begin with the main priest taking a solemn pledge that he would conduct it with full devotion. Then the assisting priests chant Nayaran Kavach while the main priest touches different parts his body – from head to toe. Kavach means shield, which is sought from the savior Lord Narayan as protection against the possible harmful effects of the tantric rituals involved in the puja. Then the main priest sprinkles water and scatters mustard seeds around him and all over the room to purify the area of worship.
After that begins the rituals that involve invoking and appeasing a host of gods, goddesses, devas and other supernatural beings.
As is the case in all worships, the rituals always commence with homage to Lord Ganesh. Then, as the assisting priests chant one mantra (devotional incantation) after another in the name of different deities, the main priest goes around paying obeisance to Chaturmukhi Devi, the Goddess with four heads; to Shodasmatrika, the sixteen Goddess Mothers; to Brahma, the creator; to Navagrahas, the nine planetary deities; then to Indra, the God of Rain and the king of heaven. After Indra, homage is paid to other heavenly deities like Agni Dev, the God of Fire; Vayu Dev, the God of Air; Varun Dev, the god of water, and so on.
Finally, Devi, the main deity, is worshipped, and after placing a wick light before her, the whole attention of the priests is focused on the supreme lord, Shiva, who is worshipped in a special way. Every day one of the assisting priests makes 108 lingas (phallus symbols of Shiva) of pure mud. These lingas are placed in a large copper plate over which stands a tripod holding a copper bowl with tiny holes at the bottom. The priests ensure that this copper bowl never runs out of water that drips through the hole over the lingas. The water is poured at the end of the chanting and prayers dedicated to Shiva.
With that ends the morning ritual and the main priest is free till the evening. But the assisting priests sit for another half an hour after they have a light meal. One of the priests recites hymns from the Yajurved, the scripture that praises the virtues of Nature, and the other chants the mantra from ‘Chandi’, a section of the Devi Puran, which is a tome wholly written eulogizing the Goddess Mother.
Devi Takes a New Form
The rituals continue in the same manner till the sixth day, which is marked by a slight turn of events. The priests, along with some close members of the organizing family, leave the Devi Ghar on the sixth day to the place where they would have already identified a pair of bel fruits, growing out of the same sprig, a few days ago.
The pair of bel fruits replaces the kalash as Devi on the eighth day.
A procession, comprising men, women and youngsters of the member families, leaves the Devi Ghar on the eighth day led by a band of musicians hired to play traditional Nepali instruments, towards the place where the bels are.
All along the way, the devotees sing out loud eulogies extolling the virtues of the Devi. The main priest carries the palaki (palanquin) in which the Devi is placed. This palanquin is a long, cylindrical wood painted in red with hooks at the two ends to which a bright yellow cloth is tied. Leading the palaki are women carrying kalash, and the whole procession is guarded by men armed with weapons like swords, khukuris, spears, etc. The pair of bel fruits is plucked from the tree after a long ceremony of rituals and sacrifice, placed in the yellow cloth and brought home, that is to the Devi Ghar. At the Devi Ghar, the fruits are placed inside a specially designed wooden structure that resembles a miniature temple.
Sacrifices, as a part of rituals and worships, are very common in Nepal. Most Brahmins, Newars and Kshatriyas offer animal sacrifice during Dashain, or while conducting special pujas.
Some of the devotees say the Devi is very aggressive and always thirsty for blood. Therefore, offering kubhindo (a type of gourd) is only a ‘compromise’. The benefit accrued from such worship lasts only for six months. The reward increases with the quality of blood being offered. Goat’s blood, for example, brings in 10 years of blessing; sheep’s 20 years; Buffalo’s 100; and human’s (hold your breath) 100,000 years! Given the Devi’s special liking for human blood, people say that some devotees in the past would make a slash on their thumbs and drip the blood over the Devi’s idol. But there is no record of a Pokhrel family offering human sacrifice during the Devi puja.
From the beginning, the custom has been to sacrifice goats. Initially, they used to sacrifice 10 goats, one each at the end of prayers during the entire 10-day worship. The goat is dragged into the room and made to stand near the sanctum sanctorum. The goat and the weapon used for sacrifice are first worshipped separately with prayers wholly dedicated to them. The priest recites the names of the heads of each member family in whose name the sacrifice is made. After the names are pronounced, just before the goat is sacrificed, the priest apologizes to the goat and assures it that having sacrificed its life for such a good cause would entitle it for a better next life. Some even say that the animal used for the sacrifice is born as a human. After the goat is sacrificed, the blood dripping from the sheared head is offered to the Devi. A few drops are kept at a distance for the demons and evil spirits. This sacrificial ceremony is repeated every day till the 10th day when the final sacrifice is made.
Four sets of wicks are lighted for chaturmukhi Devi, the Goddess with four faces
After finishing the regular rituals, the devotees gather for aarati, a riotous worship where they sing the regular prayers at the top of their voices. They beat cymbals, play damaru (hand drum), toll hand bells, and clap and cheer. All this while, the main priest, standing in front of the sanctum sanctorum, waves a blazing fire made by lighting a bundle of cotton wicks soaked in ghee and placed on a metal plate.
After the aarati, the priests partake in a final ritual that involves seeking forgiveness for any shortcomings in carrying out the ritual. The devotees who have gathered for the aarati disperse after they warm their hands in the aarati fire, put tika and receive panchamrit and prasad.
Devi puja can be called the most primitive form of nature worship. It mixes the practices from the Vedas and Purans, both compiled by saints and sages in pre-historic times. In fact, there is nothing superstitious about the whole worship as it may appear to a person who hears about it, except, perhaps, the sacrificial rituals, which I myself didn’t find convincing.
The main purpose is to worship the forces, mostly natural, that is beyond the control of one’s power and appease them for safety and overall wellbeing of oneself and one’s family members. Worshipping Indra and paying homage to Agni, Vaayu and Varun all point to this fact. Even in the case of the Devi, you are not worshipping her idols or forms so much as the qualities her incarnations stand for.
The Devi Puran lists the good effects of the Devi puja in the following manner: “Cleanses sins and ill consequences of past, present and future actions; ensures victory over enemies; gives protection from all kinds of epidemic and freedom from all kinds of diseases; removes obstacles, worldly as well as astral; ensures material gains and expansion of the family tree; and attainment of property and fulfillment of worldly pleasures. Since the worship is conducted on behalf of all the members of the Pokhrel families that are a part of the celebration, they want to ward off ill luck and usher in prosperity for all involved.
Most religious scriptures tell you to put a leash around your desires and surrender all your wishes at the feet of the lord. But here, you are asked to let your desires loose and ask whatever you want for yourself, for your children and for your kith and kin. Call it blind faith, unbridled devotion or reckless pursuit fueled by pride and desire, but performing the elaborate 10-day puja at the Devi Ghar, where some 200 Pokhrel families gather, is definitely not without a reason.
Amendra Pokhrel is a freelance writer and can be contacted at email@example.com.