Every Somvati Amavasya, when the new moon comes out on a Monday, the temple town of Jejuri in Maharashtra erupts in celebrations. Located at a distance of 50 kilometres from Pune, Jejuri is famous for its Bhandara festival, which draws close to six lakh devotees.
Amidst riotous showers of bhandara, the colloquial term for haldi or turmeric, the deity Khandoba’s devotees make their way up a steep hill to meet their lord at the top. The entire stretch of the winding path becomes yellow-tinted during the journey. A stranger’s hand will dart out of the crowd and daub your forehead with haldi. By the time the hundredth step to the temple comes into view, Khandoba’s pilgrims have showered turmeric on every passing person and idol. The temple dog welcomes devotees by shaking out clouds of turmeric.
The bhandara festival takes place almost three times each year. Known locally as ‘sonyachi Jejuri’ or golden Jejuri, the festival begins with the ‘yatra’ of the idol and culminates in its immersion in the nearby Karha river. Devotees are served a feast at the ensuing ‘bhandar’ (food gathering).
Scratch a rock
What Jejuri is celebrating is Khandoba’s victory over the demons Mani and Malla. The poet Arun Kolatkar captured Jejuri’s spirit perfectly with a refrain in his Jejuri poems: scratch a rock/ and a legend springs. The legend can be read in the devotees’ chant, “Yelkot Yelkot Jai Malhaar, Sadanandacha Yelkot!” This refers to the ancient name of Khandoba, ‘Elkoti Mahadev’, which roughly translates as ‘the leader of six crore people’.
Though widely accepted as an incarnation of Shiva in his Bhairava form, Khandoba is known by more than half-a-dozen names. These names perform different functions. For the musicians on the hill, he is Khanderai or King Khandoba. For the temple trust, he is Shree Martand Malhaar, the god who slew the demons Mani-Malla. For some Muslim devotees, he is Mallu or Ajmat Khan, the Pathan-like deity who married a Muslim woman.
Khandoba is the ‘kuldaivat’ or clan god for a lot of Maharashtrian communities across castes. He is also perceived as an ‘ichchapoorni devta’ or a god who grants wishes.
“Ichcha poori hoti hai toh aana padta hain (When wishes come true, we have to come back here),” says Savitri Ramchandra Pawar, a devotee from Wai taluka, who has been coming to Jejuri for the last 40 years.
Khandoba’s reputation of granting boons and fulfilling wishes leads many to promise him a ‘navas’ or an offering. Vijay Ganekar, from Worli Koliwada, Mumbai, tells us of a promise his mother had made to the god when he had fallen ill. “Mein bahut bimaar tha, toh maa ne bola tha ki yeh har wakt somvati ko aa jayega” (I was sick, so my mother had pledged a pilgrimage here every Somvati if I am cured).
Tales of Khandoba’s largesse are legion. He is a deity who inspires devotion, love, obsession, fear, even sacrifice. Devotees whip themselves with a chaabuk(a long whip) to imbibe Khandoba’s power.