The Idea Of India Project Update: The Eunuch Goddess

Note: This essay was originally published on March 21st. This is an update based on a recent meeting with historian Samira Sheikh who has generously provided me with her research into the legend and contested history of Bahuchara Mata. All updates reflect insights gained from her work.

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A continuity of history has been erased at the temple of the goddess Bahucharaji. As I walk into the center of the temple I am surprised to see a dozen or so men busily working at carving and cutting away stone and cement blocks, constructing a new temple where once a classical Indo-Islamic structure had stood. The shrine complex that I had expected to see is no longer.

I remember seeing the original structure in a photograph taken by Professor J.J. Roy Burman. It showed a rather humble yet elegant shrine with arches, domes, cupolas and a beautiful, multi-pillar supported low roof. A large varakhadi tree towards the rear, its branches gently resting on the dome and roof. But no more. The original structure had been torn down and was now being replaced by a classical Nagara (perhaps some Solanki influences can also be seen?) temple structure, complete with a dominating shikara, the likes of which can be seen all across this region.

 

The shrine of Bahucharaji Mata has always been a contested space, her origins, mythologies, and ritual practices contested by many. A virgin goddess, it was not only her origins that were a source of conflict, but also the various rituals that were practiced here. And this contestation become particularly intense when in 1859 a group of Brahmins were appointed by Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda (now Vadodara). As Samira Sheikh, who has done extensive research on the story of the goddess Bahurajai Mata, points out in her essay ‘Lives of Bahuchara Mata in Idea of Gujarat 2010‘ in The Idea Of Gujarat Ed. Simpson & Kapadia:

It was in 1859 that Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda appointed a dakshini or ‘southern’ Brahmin, Narayanarao Madhav, to officiate over the rituals of the temple in place of a ‘Rajput’ offciant. This would seem to be the first time in the record that Brahmins presided over the temple ritual. Six Brahmins were employed to attend the goddess and twenty-one other temple servants of other castes were retained on the Gaekwad’s payroll

The elite Brahmin community, while acknowledging the power of the goddess, were always uncomfortable with the rituals and practices that occurred there. Her legends offered evidence of practices that were clearly repulsive to the new caretakers – animal sacrifice always occurred here, and many rituals carried Muslim influences and gender-bending attributes. Furthermore, as Samira Shiekh writes:

The temple was also associated with theatrical performances such as bhavai, which were staged in the outer halls of the temple. Reformers such as Rammohanray Desai were appalled by the lewdness of bhavai performed at the temple in the 1930s and campaigned to have performances banned from the premise.

The new construction seems yet another attempt to ‘civilize’ and normalizing the a goddess that just refuses to be either. These attempts to redefine her story, and to bring her into the broader, uniform pattern of an official ‘Hinduism’ reflect a continuing discomfort with her un-gendered, uncomfortable and uncontrollable values, ideals, meanings and influences. The largest battles to control her were of course textual and mythical. Her appeal to a wide range of people – mostly non-Brahmin, has meant that, as Samira Sheikh points out, the:

…narratives about the goddess arise out of local relations between Rajputs, Bhils, Kolis, Marathas, Brahmins and Muslims, and of course the hijadas. There are many variations and modulations in these narratives, depending upon who does the telling. The tension between those who seek to reform and those who seek to retain has introduced new variants to the old stories, and added meanings that are only intelligible to those who understand the frontier politics of the region.

One group defined her to have excellent Puranic credentials, but this was challenged as recently as the 1930s when new myths of her origins were offered. It was claimed that Bahuchara, one of three daughter of the court poet Kathiawad and Deval – who herself was an incarnation of a goddess, was traveling with her sisters to meet her father when she is raped/killed near the town of Shankalpur by a bandit called Bapaiya. Before dying she commits tragu (a ritual to cut off the breasts and place a curse on another) and places a curse of Bapaiya turning him into an eunuch, a state that he can only overcome by starting a temple in Bahuchara’s name and worshipping her there. She also promises that any eunuch who stays at the temple dressed as a woman will find salvation from this life and place in her divine abode. Bapaiya spent his entire life worshipping her.

This legend contradicts the ones that link her to the Puranic texts, and claim her as one of the three Shakti pithas in Gujarat. The elite textual accounts even attempt to link her to the story of Krishna, by suggesting that she was an infant born to Yashoda who was exchanged for Krishna. But it was the poet Vallabha, a great devotee of the goddess, who did the most to make her ‘respectable’ and as Sheikh points out:

…re-invent or ‘engender’ the goddess as a respectable, Puranic manifestation of trans-regional Shakti. He also made the goddess acceptable to Vaishnavas, at a time when Krishnaite Vaishnavism was on the rise in late-Mughal Gujarat.

Other legends around the goddess have woven India’s Muslims into her world as well. A legend speaks of how Arab travellers passing through the town trapped, killed and ate cocks that they found near the temple. But a single-eyed cock managed to escape and told of the incident to the goddess. She immediately ordered the cock to crow, as it did so, the previously killed cocks inside the stomachs of the Arab travellers burst from their stomachs and returned to life. It has since been a tradition, particularly amongst the Muslims who come here, to release cocks in honor of the goddess. A number of them can be seen running free in the courtyard of the temple itself.

The temple sits in the middle of a small fortress, that carries the complete marks of an Indo-Islamic structure. In fact, the original dharamshala built by Manajirao Gaikwad in the 18th century is still intact, and retains its complete Mughal-era architectural elements and influences. The site had the constant attention of robbers and dacoits and the fort was constructed, complete with three large gates and towers to protect it. Inside were constructed a dharamshala, administrative offices, a school, a police station, a dispensary and a tank for ablutions. Today markets line the streets leading up to each of the three gates, with vendors selling the usual array of kitsch, memorabilia, snacks and knickknacks. Stern looking policemen sit at each of the gates, though they appear largely indifferent to the people going in and out. The entire place has a lovely, festive feel, as pilgrims arrive at all times of the day.

As I look over to the decaying walls of the fort, the pealing blue paint the covers the walls of the dharamshala and the sparkling new stone of the temple itself I can’t help but think that a determined, intentional carelessness towards the past is being exercised, while a meticulously and generously financed new ‘Hindu’ future is being constructed.The pounding of hammers against stone felt like the sounds of wounds being inflicted against a heritage that apparently no longer appeals, or can no longer be tolerated. Some of the original structures of course do remain. The shrine complex also contains shrines to deities such as Sahariya Mahadev, Nilakantha Mahadev and Kachroliya Hanuman. There are also memorials to some of the most passionate of the goddesses followers like Dada Narsinh Vir and the eighteenth-century poet, Vallabha Bhatta.

Today the power of the goddess to resist her homogenization, and incorporation into an official Hinduism is her true test. There is some hope that even this latest architectural attempt at homogenization will fail, as have previous such attempts. As Samira Sheikh reminds us:

But these elites have been…unable to pin singular, consistent meanings to the shrine and thus to render it transportable outside its immediate milieu. The shrine’s meanings continue to be elusive, un-gendered, unanchored. Although the custodians of the shrine have had competing sets of values, it is the continuing tension between these strands that is integral to the success of the temple. It is also in the mechanics of such popular religiosity, however so restricted, ambiguous and culturally confined, that we discern the particularities of Gujarati politics and religious adherence.

A Pandit at the temple that I spoke to said that Muslims still come to the temple and release cocks to receive the goddesses’ blessings. Historically the Kamalias, dressed partly as women and bearing Muslim rituals, and the hijadas (eunuchs) have been her most devoted servants. For the hijadas, many of whom are Muslim are a despised and mocked community in South Asia, she is a protector. But I wondered for how much longer would they be welcome here. But perhaps, as is often the case in India, the legends will survive even this most recent assault, and that the memory of this community will overcome the new narratives being constructed.

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