Jaharveer Mela In Mathura Is An Assertion of Dalit Faith, Cultural Identity
The Jaharveer festival is an important event in the life of Mathura’s Valmikis, marking their distinct culture and identity
“Kalwa, Hari Singh Nalwa vishisht aur bade ‘paun’ hain jo zyadatar parivaron mein pooje jate hain. Kai deviyan bhi hain jinme Maai Madaran ullekhaneey devi hai. Kahne ko toh basti ke sabhi log Hindu the, lekin kisi Hindu devi devta ki pooja nahin karte the. (Kalwa and Hari Singh Nalwa are very special spirits and are worshipped widely. There are many goddesses, as well, among whom Mai Madaran is the most important. Although the basti’s people were Hindus by name, they did not worship any Hindu gods or goddesses).”
This excerpt from Joothan, the autobiography by Omprakash Valmiki, speaks of the local deities of the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh. His work is one of the few to document this kind of worship that is common across northern India.
Among the most prominent and celebrated deities of the Dalits of the north, especially the Valmiki community, is Jaharveer. Traditionally, Valmikis – also categorised as Mahadalits in Bihar meaning the poorest of Dalits –
have worked as sweepers and manual scavengers. They are found in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and nearby regions.
Jaharveer is worshipped on a large scale in Mathura, an important hub of Vaishnavite worship located in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. But little is known about the deity outside the Dalit community. “People everywhere know about lord Krishna but they don’t know that a Jaharveer Mela also takes place in Mathura,” said Roma, 40, a Valmiki from Mathura.
The folklore of Jaharveer has changed shape over time. One of the earliest stories emerged from Rajasthan and travelled across the rest of north India. Each folklore stays unique to Valmikis and other communities who worship Jaharveer.
Rahul Kashyap, 38, a manual scavenger, lives in a Valmiki Basti in Mathura, and he and his family are regular visitors to the mela. He narrates the story around Jaharveer and the mela: “Jaharveer is also called Gogaji, and he belonged to the Chauhan dynasty of Rajasthan. His mother, Rani Banchhal, was childless for 12 years because she had broken the eggs of a pigeon, which in anger cursed her to remain childless for seven births. To end this curse, the queen worshipped Guru Gorakhnath for 12 years; and being pleased, he gave her the googgle fruit to eat. Soon after she ate it she was blessed with a son, Gogaji, who is also known as Jaharveer or Jaharpir. A fair is held every year at Dadrewa in Rajasthan, where he was born. In Mathura, it is celebrated in the [monsoon] month of Savan.”
Stories of Jaharveer’s valour have grown over the years.
Marginalisation Of Dalit Deities
In South India, Dalit cultures, deities and festivals see better representation in mainstream media and literature. Movies like Kaala, Vada Chennai, Karnan are examples of this. But this is not the case in the north.
Chandan, 22, a resident of Mathura, complained about the marginalisation of Valmiki culture in Mathura. “Kanhaiya ji ke mandiron, tyoharo ke bare mein toh media bhi dikhati hai, hamare mele mein kabhi koi nahin aata. Hamare devon ke bare mein koi nahin janta (Nobody knows our gods, the media does not cover our festival).”
Philosopher and theologian Jeremiah Anderson, in his book Community and Worldview Among Paraiyars of South India, talks about the “lived” religion of the Dalits. “Unlike the scripture-based understanding of the world, Dalits developed their perception from the orality of their culture. The understanding of the concept of gods, deities, spirit, soul and human life within Dalit communities were developed from their lived reality, but does bear the impact of Hindu religious worldview,” he says.
Jaharveer’s mela speaks of the multiple lores, histories and stories of the Valmiki community. Although Jaharveer is known to Sikhs and Muslims in the area too, only Valmikis exclusively celebrate Jaharveer’s mela in the city.
The Mela Tradition
As in most cities, Dalit communities live in bastis or specific neighbourhoods. And the celebration of Jaharveer is centred around areas like Bharatpur Gate, Churiana Mohalla and many others, where the Valmiki community is concentrated in Mathura.
Saurabh Khare, 24, a community member and a student at the Bharatendu Natya Akademi, Lucknow, says the festival holds an important place in the life of Valmikis as a symbol of cultural assertion.
“Despite the ‘untouchability’ of this festival, celebrations like these play a vital role in maintaining the emotional and social relationships among Valmikis with all their struggles. Women get a chance to step out of the house for a while, wear new clothes,” he says.
The festivities and decorations are organised by men. At the centre of the fairground chhadis are installed and these hold a prominent place in the festival. A chhadi is a thick bamboo pole that can be several feet long; it is decorated with flowers, coconut, cloth and often topped by chandeliers or lights. “The men who install the chhadi, go on a fast on the day of the mela and wear new clothes. These men are called ghoda (horses) – they only eat grass and chane (black chickpeas) on the day of the fast,” said Revati, 68, a member of the Valmiki community and a sweeper.
The chhadis are carried by each family to a common point, from where the entire community holds a procession to the centre of the mela in the evening. The men hold these tall poles with a rope grip though they sometimes balance them on their teeth, shoulder, or forehead.
“People sing bhajans to Gogaji, and there is dancing too. But the highlight is the chhadi competition. The one that is the tallest and best decorated wins a prize and honour for its owner,” says Harry, 26, a Valmiki who works with an NGO, says the mela is an exciting event.
The women take on the task of cooking festive dishes and cleaning up for the event. They also play a crucial role in singing bhajans about the birth, marriage and battle triumphs of Gogaji. In the evening, they head for the mela at Chowk Bazar in groups to look at the chhadis and enjoy community recreation events. The mela lasts all night long but the women return home early. Radha, 36, a resident of the area, says there is sometimes a DJ at the scene and some dancing too.
Songs to celebrate the festival are built around the theme of Jaharveer’s birth.
Janve Jaharveer mahal ke/Dware naubat baaj rahi hai/Birja ho rhi magan/ Magan sab hai rahe mulla kaji hai.
Festivities And Untouchability
It is crucial to understand that this festival is not accepted or celebrated by other communities in the city. “Upper castes think that we are untouchables, so our festivals should also be treated like they treat us,” says Raghu, 30.
Khare points to the caste dynamics at play during the festival. “Although the so-called upper castes do not celebrate this festival, honoured guests called to witness the chhadi competition are usually from rich, upper-castes. Their presence is not to show their love [for the community’s traditions] but display their place in the caste hierarchy,” he says.
Unlike the celebrations around Jaharveer’s birth, most festivals of the dominant community revolve around the destruction or death of subaltern deities or figures in mythologies: Holi, for instance, is celebrated as the killing of a Bahujan woman, central to Ram Navmi is the killing of Shambuka, a shudra, and Durga Puja marks the killing of an indigenous king.
Academic and writer Kancha Illaiah has discussed the nature of the relationship between Dalits and their regional deities. “Our relationship with our deities was transactional and rooted in the production process,” he says. Hence, the prayers to Jaharveer are all about birth, health and safety; they do not seek salvation, wealth or prosperity, as is the norm in dominant cultures.
Khare reiterates this point: “Salvation is desired by those who have all [material] facilities in life, here there are none. There is scorn, there is ostracism, in the midst of all of this, this fair is [an expression] of joy.”
The Valmikis of Mathura seek Gogaji’s protection against disease, perils and childlessness. Women pray for a male child, others for protection from disease, natural perils and failure.
“Gogaji protects us from snakes; whenever any snake is found at home or in farm fields, we worship Goga ji, then they don’t harm us,” says Rahul Kashyap, 38. “He fought wars for us; in return, we have given him a special place in our lives.”
The folk deities of Dalits are human, of human nature; they are not transcendental. They are not there to establish their power but to reduce their burden by participating in their sorrows. The gods of the privileged castes, on the other hand, are perceived as figures of power and dominance.
In his work, Cultural Expressions of Dalits, SA Samy states: “The upper caste oppressors saw to it that the Dalits would never produce a culture of their own. The others ingeniously used the art form and the various traits of their culture to oppress and dehumanise the Dalits…The contemporary upsurge of Dalits in Indian cultural and political mainstream, therefore, not only challenges the existing historical and sociopolitical scholarship on South Asia but also tries to provide new epistemological alternatives by bringing the ideas and articulations from the margins to the core in rewriting history.”
Dalits must retrieve and revive old and new faith-based systems to maintain their humanity and self-respect. By erasing these, we deny them the means to do so.
Babasaheb Ambedkar says: “In Hinduism, one [cannot] have freedom of expression. A Hindu must sacrifice his freedom of expression. He should act according to the Vedas. If the Vedas do not support the actions, instructions should be sought from the Smritis, and if the Smritis fail to give any such instruction, they should follow in the footsteps of the great men. He should not argue. So, as long as you are in Hinduism, you cannot expect freedom of thought.”
[This story is edited by Jahnavi Uppuleti and Malini Nair.]
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