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X. A Bhandari Mystery

In the heart of the great palm-groves to the north-west of Dadar lies an "oart" known as Borkar's Wadi, shaded by tall well-tended trees whose densely-foliaged summits ward off the noon-day sun and form a glistening screen at nights, what time the moon rises full-faced above the eastern hills. Not very long ago, at a time when cholera had appeared in the city and was taking a daily toll of life, this oart was the scene of a bi-weekly ceremony organized by the Bhandaris of Dadar and Mahim and designed to propitiate the wrath of the cholera-goddess, who had slain several members of that ancient and worthy community. For the Bhandaris, be it noted, know little of western theories of disease and sanitation; and such precautions as the boiling of water, even were there time to boil it, and abstention from fruit seem to them utterly beside the mark and valueless, so long as the goddess of cholera, Jarimari, and the thirty-eight Cholera Mothers are wroth with them. Thus at the time we speak of, when many deaths among their kith and kin had afforded full proof that the goddess was enraged, they met in solemn conclave and decided to perform every Sunday and Tuesday night for a month such a ceremony as would delight the heart of that powerful deity and stave off further mortality. The limitation of the period of propitiation to one month was based not so much upon religious grounds as upon the fact that a Municipality, with purely Western ideas of sanitation and of combating epidemics, refused to allow the maintenance of the shed, which was to be the temporary home of Jarimari, for more than thirty days. Yet it matters but little, this time-limit: for a month is quite long enough for the complete assuagement of the anger of one who, though proverbially capricious, is by no means unkindly.

Let us glance at the ceremony as performed on a Tuesday night towards the middle of the month of propitiation. In the darkest portion of the wadi stands a rude hut, containing the emblems of the Mother, occupied for the time being by Rama Bhandari, who acts as a species of medium between the goddess and his kinsmen. In front of the hut a space has been cleared and levelled, flanked on one side by mats for the Bhandari musicians, singers, drummers and cymbal-players, and on the other by four or five chairs and a few wooden benches for the initiates in the mysteries; and to the stems of several neighbouring trees lamps have been affixed about five feet from the ground, which cast weird shadows across the threshold of the goddess's home. Rama, the high-priest of this woodland rite--a dark, thin man with a look of anxiety upon his face--enters the hut with his assistant, Govind, while several fresh looking Bhandari boys take up their position near the gong, cymbals, and drum, prepared when the hour comes to hammer them with might and main. A pause--and Rama returns bearing the symbol or idol of the Mother, followed by Govind carrying a lighted saucer-lamp. The idol, for such we must perforce style it, is nothing more nor less than a bright brass pot, full of water, set on a wooden stool which is thickly covered with flowers. In the mouth of the water-pot rests a husked cocoanut, with a hole in the upper end into which are thrust the stems of a bouquet of jasmine, with long arms of jasmine hanging down on either side. Now the water-pot is the shrine, the very home of Jarimari and the thirty-eight cholera mothers. Behind the jasmine-wreathed stool Govind places another stool bearing a tin tray full of uncooked rice, camphor, and black and red scented powder; and close to it he piles the cocoanuts, sugar, camphor, cakes, betel-nuts, and marigolds which the Bhandari initiates have sent as an offering to Rama. He next produces a pile of incense-sprinkled cinders, which he places in front of the goddess, and several incense-cones which he lights, while Rama lays down a handful of light canes for use at the forthcoming ceremony. And while the rich scented smoke rises in clouds into the still night-air, shrouding the goddess's face, Govind takes a little rice from the tray and a few flowers, and places them on a Tulsi or sweet basil shrine which stands a little northward of the hut.

All is now ready. Rama bids the boys sound the note of gathering, and at once such a clashing and drumming arises as would frighten all the devils of the palm-groves. The people come but slowly, for many of them work late in the mills and have to go home and cook and eat their evening-meal before they can take part in the rites of the Mother. But at last groups of women appear out of the darkness, bareheaded save for flower-wreaths and a few gold ornaments, their saris wound tightly round waist and shoulder. They cluster silent and close-packed round the door of the hut; for they are the women whom the thirty-eight Mothers love to possess and to lash into the divine frenzy which only the human form can adequately portray. Govind stirs the incense-heap; the dense smoke rolls forth again and shrouds all; there is a feeling of witchery in the air and in the midst of the smoke-pall one can just descry Rama bending low before the Mother. Now he rises, draws the rattan-canes through his hands, and then leans against a palm-tree with eyes tightly closed and hands quivering as if in pain. But hark! there is something toward in the hut, and out of the darkness dash two young women right in front of the goddess, leaping and tossing their arms. They sway and twist their lithe forms in the smoke but utter no word. Only one can see their breasts heaving beneath the sari and can catch the sharp "Hoo, hoo" of their breathing, as their frenzy heightens. Now from the other end of the hut two more rush forth, staggering, towards the Tulsi shrine, and after the same mad gyrations dance towards the Mother and bury their heads in the smoke; and they are followed at momentary intervals by others who fly, some to the Tulsi shrine, others to the Goddess but all mad with frenzy, dancing, leaping, swaying, until they sink overpowered by fatigue. Meanwhile Rama is performing a devil dance of his own in the smoke-clouds; the gong is ringing, cymbals clashing, onlookers shouting; the tresses of the women have fallen down and in the half-light look like black snakes writhing in torture; the women themselves are as mad as the Bacchantes and Menads of old fable: in a word, it is Pandemonium let loose!

The noise ebbs and flows, now dying down as the first frenzy fades away, now rising more shrill as the spirit of the Mother wracks her devotees more fiercely. That tall finely-formed young woman, who dances like a puppet without will and who never seems to tire, is Moti, leader of the dancers and the favourite choice of Jarimari. There behind her is Ganga, the slightly-built, beloved of Devi, and in the midst of the smoke, swaying frog-like, is Godavari, lashed to madness by Mother Ankai. Around them dance by twos and threes the rest of the women with dishevelled locks and loosened robes, whom Rama taps from time to time with his cane whenever they show signs of giving in. But at length Nature reasserts her sway, and the dancers one and all crouch down in the smoke, their dark sides heaving painfully in the dim light like the implements of some ghostly forge. Now Govind appears again with a tray and marks the brows of the women with a finger-tip of vermilion, his own brow being marked by them in turn. He places a cake of camphor on the tray and sets light to it; and as the clear flame bursts forth in front of the Mother, the whole congregation rises and shouts "Devi ki Jaya" (Victory to the Goddess). Then Moti takes the tray and, balancing it on her head, dances slowly with long swinging stride round the Mother, while the music bursts out with renewed vigour, urging the other women, the human tabernacles of the cholera deities, to follow suit. Thereafter the camphor-cake is handed round to both women and men in turn who plunge their hands in the ashes and smear their faces with them; and so, after distribution of the offering of cocoanuts, sugar, and betel, the celebration closes. A few girls still dance and jerk their shining bodies before the altar, but Rama who is getting weary touches them with his hands, commanding the frenzy to cease, and with a sigh they withdraw one by one into the dark shadows of the palm-grove.

Such is in brief the ceremony of propitiation of the Cholera-Goddess. What does it signify? It appears that according to Bhandari belief the disease is the outcome of neglect of the Mother. The present conditions of life in the cramped and fetid chawls of the city, the long hours of work necessitated by higher rentals and a higher standard of living, leave her devotees but little leisure for her worship. She is maddened by neglect and in revenge she slays her ten or fifteen in a night. Yet is she not by nature cruel. Fashion for her a pleasant shrine, flower-decked, burn incense before her, beat the drum in her honour, let the women offer themselves as the sport and play-thing of her madness and of a surety will she repent her of the evil she hath done and will stay the slaughter. In spirit-parlance a woman chosen by the spirit, into whom as into a shrine the mother enters, is known as a "Jhad" or tree: for just as a tree yields rustling and quivering to the lightest breath of the gale, bends its head and moves its branches to and fro, so the women, losing all consciousness of self, play as the breath of the Mother stirs them, quivering beneath her gentler gusts, bending their bodies and tossing their arms beneath the stronger blasts, and casting themselves low with bowed heads and streaming hair as the full force of the storm enwraps them. They are in very truth as trees shaken by the wind. Nay more, the Mother herself once lived in human form: she knows the pleasure, the comforts of the body and she is fain, by entering the bodies of her female devotees, to renew the memories and suggestions of her former life.

In conclusion one may briefly record what the Bhandaris thought of the presence of a European at their sacred rite. Some feared him as one that contemplated the imposition of a new tax; others viewed him askance as a doctor from the Hospital despatched by higher authority to put an end to the ceremony; and yet others,--the larger number insooth,--deemed that here at last was a Saheb who had found physic a failure and had learned that the Mother alone has power to allay grievous sickness.