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The protectors of animals

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

India was not always cruel. In spite of the culture of animal sacrifice and ritual hunts by tribals, it was largely a peaceful country where people and animals co-existed. This has changed in the last 50 years. Now animals are either a nuisance, or a commodity, and people don’t think twice about hurting them. What can you say about a country whose government says, happily, that 52 per cent of our exports are meat, fish, and leather?

Till a few decades ago, most villages and communities had a gramadev: a god or goddess who looked after the area, had his/her own temple, and was regularly prayed to. Many of them represented, or looked after animals, and so did the villagers.

Among these is Bhramari, the goddess of bees and wasps who cling to her body. An avatar of Durga, she is mentioned in the Devi Bhagvata Purana. Her main temples are in Trisrota, Jalpaiguri, and in Nashik.

Legend goes that Arunasura meditated for thousands of years to Brahma. For the first ten thousand years, he lived on dry leaves alone; for the second, he lived by drinking only drops of water; and, for the third, he lived by inhaling air alone. For the fourth ten thousand years, he did not consume anything. Light emitted from his body and began to burn the whole world. Lord Brahma appeared and granted him his wish: protection from all two-or four-legged creatures. Thinking himself invincible, Arunasura then assembled an army of asuras to vanquish the gods.

Arunasura took the moon, the sun, and then attacked the abode of the gods, Mount Kailash. Unable to defeat him, Shiva called out to Parvati, and the Shakti grew tall, wielding a mace, trident, long sword and shield, in her four hands. She closed her three eyes in concentration, summoning forth six legged creatures – bees, hornets, wasps, termites and spiders from the skies. They emanated from her as Bhramari Devi and both destroyed the asuras and Arunasura.

Scorpions are also worshipped from times immemorial: seals with scorpion images are discovered in Indus Valley, heaven is called ‘scorpion world’ (puth thel ulaku) in Tamil. In Urvasi, or Peacock Island, in the Brahmaputra River in Guwahati, the devi in the Umananda temple is represented by a scorpion.

In Kandakoor village in Yadgir, Karnataka, the villagers celebrate Nagapanchami as Chelina Jatre (festival of the scorpion). They worship the scorpion goddess Kondammai and play with live scorpions. Interestingly, there have been no cases of people being stung by these scorpions. People come from nearby districts and states to be part of this ceremony.

Chelamma is a Scorpion Goddess of southern Karnataka. Followers believe that by praying at the Chelamma shrine, a person will be guarded from scorpion bites. She is the goddess of the Kolaramma temple, Kolar.

Gogaji, also known as Jahar Veer Gogga, Gugga Vir, Gugga Rana, is a folk warrior-hero deity venerated as a ‘snake-god’ in the villages of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, and Jammu.

According to legend, Goga was born with the blessings of Guru Gorakhnath and was called Goga ji because of his service to cows. It is believed that he lived in the 12th century and his kingdom was called Bagad Dedga, near Ganganagar. He was a member of the Chauhan clan.

Goga protects his followers from snakes, poisons, and other evils. Although a Hindu, he has many Muslim devotees. His symbol is a black snake. Fairs are held at Gogamedi in Hanumangarh, Rajasthan where it is a common sight to see people with snakes around their necks. According to a folklore in and around his birthplace, Dadrewa, it is believed that if someone picks up even a stick from Johra (a barren land which has a sacred pond in Dadrewa), it turns into a snake. In Punjab, Guggaji is worshiped in shrines known as marris. The shrines can range from ant holes to structures that resemble a Sikh gurdwara, or a mosque.

Nagnachiya Ma, the snake goddess, is the kuldevi of the Rathore Rajput clan. Her upper half is a woman and her lower half is a snake. Her main temple is in village Nagana near Jodhpur. She was originally established by Rao Dhuhad under a neem tree. In all villages where Rathores live they have her shrine.

Manasa Devi, the folk goddess of snakes, is worshipped, mainly in Bengal and north-eastern India, for the prevention and cure of snakebite, smallpox and chicken pox, and for fertility and prosperity. She is also known as Vishahara (the destroyer of poison), Nityā (eternal), and Padmavati.

Originally a tribal goddess, Manasa was accepted in the Hindu pantheon by the 14th century and is depicted as a woman covered with snakes, sitting on a lotus or a snake. Her canopy is the hoods of seven cobras. Sometimes, she is depicted with a child on her lap. She is often called “the one-eyed goddess” and, among the Hajong tribe of north-eastern India, she is called Kānī Dīyāʊ (Blind Goddess).

It is said that Kashyapa created her from his mind (mana) at a time when serpents and reptiles had created chaos on the Earth and Brahma made her the presiding deity of snakes and reptiles. In other myths she is the daughter of sage Kashyapa and Kadru, the mother of all Nagas. Myths describe how she saved Shiva after he drank the poison, and venerate her as the “remover of poison”.

Generally, Manasa is worshipped without an image. A tree branch, an earthen pot, or an earthen snake image is worshiped as the goddess. In North Bengal her shrine is found in the courtyard of almost every agrarian household. She is also worshipped in Assam, and a kind of Oja-Pali (musical folk theatre) is dedicated to her. Manasa is ceremonially worshiped on Nag Panchami – a festival of snake worship in the Hindu month of Shravan (July–August). Bengali women observe a fast on this day and offer milk at snake holes. In South India people worship her at the Manasa Devi Temple in Mukkamala, West Godavari, Andhra Pradesh.

Bagalamukhi is a crane-headed goddess who controls black magic, poisons and disguised forms of death. Her legend relates how an asura named Madan, ‘The Seducer’, once gained the boon of omniscient speech, whereby everything he said came to pass. Intoxicated with this power, Madan began to use it to defeat his opponents. The gods petitioned Bagalamukhi. Seizing Madan by his tongue she paralysed his power of speech. She is often evoked to win lawsuits, to gain power, to render opponents speechless, to block or paralyse enemies, and to increase eloquence, memory, and knowledge. The main temple of Bagalamukhi is located in the Newar city of Patan, in the Kangra Valley, and in Datiya in Madhya Pradesh.

Airy, whose eyes are on his head, is the gramdeva of Kumaon and the protector of animals. His main temple is Byandhura, Champavat.

Chaumu is worshipped as the protector of animals in the Jhulaghat-Pancheshwar region. His main temples are in Chaupakhia in Pithoragar, and Chamdeval in Champavat.

There are hundreds more.

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