In the Kullu region, often dubbed the “Valley of the Gods”, the village deity reigns supreme. No one knows how many devtas and devis inhabit the hills south of the Rohtang Pass, but nearly every hamlet has one. The part each one plays in village life depends on his or her particular powers; some heal, others protect the “parish” borders from evil spirits, summon the rains, or ensure the success of the harvest. Nearly all, however, communicate with their devotees by means of oracles. When called upon to perform, the village shaman, or gaur – drawn from the lower castes – strips to the waist and enters a trance in which the devta uses his voice to speak to the congregation. The deity, carried out of the temple on a ceremonial palanquin, or rath, rocks back and forth on the shoulders of its bearers as the gaur speaks. His words are always heeded, and his decisions final; the devta-oracle decides the propitious dates for marriages, and for sowing crops, and arbitrates disputes.
The single most important outing for any village deity is Dussehra, which takes place in the town of Kullu every October after the monsoons. Although the week-long festival ostensibly celebrates Rama’s victory over the demon-king of Lanka, Ravana, it is also an opportunity for the devtas to reaffirm their position in the grand pecking order that prevails among them – a rigid hierarchy in which the Kullu raja’s own tutelary deity Rama, alias Raghunathji, is king.
On the tenth day of the new, or “white” moon in October, between 150 and 200 devtas make their way to Kullu to pay homage to Raghunathji. As befits a region that holds its elderly women in high esteem, the procession proper cannot begin until Hadimba, the grandmother of the royal family’s chief god, arrives from the Dunghri temple in Manali. Like her underlings, she is borne on an elaborately carved wooden rath swathed in glittering silk and garlands, and surmounted by a richly embroidered parasol, or chhatri. Raghunathji leads the great procession in his six-wheeled rath. Hauled from the Rupi Palace by two hundred honoured devotees, the palanquin lurches to a halt in the middle of Kullu’s maidan, to be circumambulated by the raja, his family, and retinue of priests. Thereafter, the festival’s more secular aspect comes to the fore. Folk dancers perform for the vast crowds, and the maidan is taken over by market stalls, snake charmers, astrologers, sadhus and tawdry circus acts. The revelries finally draw to a close six days later on the full moon, when the customary blood sacrifices of a young buffalo, a goat, a cock, a fish and a crab are made to the god.
Kullu’s Dussehra, now a major tourist attraction, has become increasingly staged and commercialized. Book accommodation well in advance, and be prepared for a crush if you want to get anywhere near the devtas.