The Baneshwar tribal festival
Rajasthan. "Land of kings" in Sanskrit. Above all, a land of the sacred. Dive into the biggest religious festival of the Bhil tribes.
They are blacksmiths, shepherds or farmers. In the distant past, they were an influential group in Rajputana (formerly Rajasthan), Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, and fought alongside the Mewar rulers against the Mughal armies. History has made them formidable warriors and unrivalled hunters. They are the Bhil, India?s third largest tribal community and the country?s best archers, it is said.
Every year, on the full moon at the end of January or February (Magh Shukla Purnima), they gather in their thousands on the delta of the Som and Mahi rivers to celebrate Baneshwar "the master of the Delta", the local nickname for the god Shiva Linga whom they worship. With fervour, they pay homage to their ancestors, scatter the ashes of the year?s dead and purify themselves in the sacred waters. For three days and three nights, they pray, dance and sing around bonfires lit in the surrounding desert. For most of the faithful, this pilgrimage required real organisation between families and neighbours.
Crammed inside and on the roofs of the few cars owned by the richest people, clinging to the doors, they sometimes travel hundreds of kilometres on chaotic roads. The others come on mopeds (it is not uncommon to see up to 5 people on one), camels or on carts pulled by buffaloes with painted horns. But most of the time, pilgrims make the journey on foot. On arrival, they spread out in a gigantic improvised camp of stretched tarpaulins, jute canvas and colourful awnings.
Vendors selling souvenirs, holy pictures, knick-knacks, various utensils and amusement parks complete the décor and help to create the atmosphere of a lively and cheerful fair.
The festivities begin with a visit to the temple of Shiva, the third deity in the Hindu triad. Just before entering the sanctuary, a half-Sâdhu, half-cerber priest beckons us with the tip of his stick to take off our shoes. Definitely! When we come out, they will have disappeared. Thieves also frequent the temples. No matter, we leave with a third eye on our foreheads and we tell ourselves that our trainers have made people happy.
At the temple, the ritual consists of adorning the Shiva Linga with saffron - the symbol of fire and purity - a stone statue in the shape of a phallus erected on a circular base and resting on the yoni, the feminine symbol. It is accompanied by Shiva's vehicle, the bull Nandi. The faithful bathe it, perfume it with incense or adorn it with petals. A few signs traced in space, fragile markers of a kingdom of wind and light, a bell struck in passing, devotion is at its height. An impassive yogi, matured in shilom, clings to his dreams; time has no hold on him...
The tribes then set off in groups for the river to immerse the remains of the year?s dead. The ashes are wrapped in a white cotton cloth if it is a man, red if it is a woman. The riverbanks are swarming with people, but there is no sadness on their faces, only contemplation. As best we can, we make our way through the colourful crowd, surprised to see a few Westerners lost in this place. The women bathe and wash together, alone or alongside the men of the family. The water glues the saris to their skin, highlighting the grace and beauty of the multicoloured silhouettes reflected in the water. A few ablutions, a sip or two of water, a few prayers chanted, and almost everything is said. Here, water is a divinity. Everyone offers their being to it. Even your car!
Not only is it good for the soul, it can often heal the body. That's why mothers don't hesitate for a moment to give it to their babies to drink, before our incredulous gazes. It doesn't matter that the river is full of filth and rubbish, and that everyone does their washing and their business in it! You have to immerse yourself in it, sprinkle yourself with it and drink this "nectar of immortality". And immortality in India is not up for discussion. Hindus know full well that sooner or later, in this life or any other, they will achieve osmosis between their soul and the divine. We are all born and die over and over again. And in this game, every being has all eternity to win! Just imagine for a moment that you are living so that your next life will be better? it puts a lot of things into perspective!