By Pramod Ranjan
When our train chugged into the Mahoba railway station, it was already late in the night. We were 600 km away from Delhi. This region, Bundelkhand, once occupied the summit of cultural prosperity but now is known for hunger and acute water scarcity. We, the journalistic fraternity, head to this region only when we hear the news of worsening drought and people dying of hunger.
But today, we, Rajan and I, are on a different mission. Rajan, a graphics designer with Forward Press, is a young man with an abiding interest in Adivasi issues. He is a colleague who is ever ready to go anywhere, anytime and does not fight shy of taking on anyone.
We have two photographs with us. The first is of a stone structure which resembles neither a house nor a temple. It is a hut-like structure made of roughly hewn stone slabs. The other photo shows a roadside signboard declaring “Bharat Sarkar, Kendriya Sanrakshit Smarak, Bhainasaur Smarak Mandir, Chauka, Tehsil Kulpahad – Bharatiya Puratatva Sarvakchhen, Lucknow Mandal, Lucknow, Upa-Mandal, Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh”, whose English translation would read “Government of India, Central Protected Monument, Bhainsasur Memorial Temple, Chauka, Tehsil Kulpahad, Archaelogical Survey of India, Lucknow division (Lucknow), Mahoba sub-division, Uttar Pradesh”.
India Today’s Piyush Babeley had emailed me these photos on 16 October 2014. We do not know each other personally.
On 9 October 2014, the police had raided the office of Forward Press. Some people associated with Hindu organizations had a case registered against us alleging that by publishing a painting by Dr Lal Ratnakar titled “Martyrdom of King Mahishasur” in the October 2014 issue of the magazine we had hurt their religious sentiments and “spread enmity between the Brahmins and the OBCs”. This would have been laughable had things not taken a serious turn. The police picked up four of our editorial colleagues, Rajan being one of them.
The police also raided the home of Ivan Kostka, the owner of the magazine. Coincidentally, he was not in the city at the time. The police laid siege to a hostel in Jawaharlal Nehru University to arrest me and even deployed the riot-control vehicle ‘Vajra’. How I evaded arrest is another story. Mr Kostka and I would get anticipatory bail from the court several days later. But meanwhile, the print and electronic media carried a string of misleading stories and our ideological friends and foes were engaged in a verbal duel in social media.
The attacks were scathing. People associated with Hindutva organizations began targetting Mr Kostka for being a Christian. Left-leaning organizations were, as always, undecided. Some of them were statedly in favour of “freedom of expression” but were trying to prove us liars in every possible way. They were not ready to accept that there was anything like a Mahishasur tradition in the country. We were presenting several evidences, including Tribal lore, but they were not ready to go beyond Markandey Purana and Durga Saptashati.
Given this situation, the photographs that Piyush Babele had mailed came in handy. They proved that a “temple” dedicated to Mahishasur existed in Bundelkhand, especially because the temple carried the stamp of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). We released the photographs, along with a press note. That was enough to shut the mouths at once of those who accused us of spinning a yarn.
A year after that incident, on the fast-descending night of 2 October 2015, we were at the Mahoba railway station. But we did not know where to go. Those two photographs contained only two words by way of address – Mahoba and Kulpahad. We found some people at the hotels and tea shacks around the railway station. We showed them the photographs and asked them about the “temple”. None of them knew had an inkling, but they told us that Kulpahad was about an hour away by bus, and that we would get a bus the following morning.
That meant spending the remainder of the night in Mahoba, We found a government guesthouse.
Pangs of separation
The next morning, we were at the Mahoba bus stand. The bus was to leave for Kulpahad in an hour, but once seated, it was almost impossible to get out. The bus was chock-a-block with men and women and our co-travellers included two goats. Once the bus started moving, it took about an hour to reach Kulpahad, a small town with a local market selling clothes and eatables. We went around asking the shopkeepers, drivers of the buses passing by, rickshaw and tonga drivers, “Do you know the temple shown in this picture?”
The crowded bus and the sultry weather had exhausted us. It was like a forlorn lover going around showing a photo to people and asking, “Have you seen this person?”
“Pehle agni birah ki, picche prem piyas,
Kahe Kabir tab janiye, peev milan kee aas”
(At first, go through the pangs of separation, then the thirst for love. Then discover the kindling of the hope of reunion, says Kabir.)
I tried to cheer up Rajan by reciting several dohas (couplets) of Kabir, but ultimately gave up and decided to take a break at a teashop. I had gained some weight but I could still walk for hours. With Rajan for company, however, I could be gentler with myself. As such, he doesn’t drink tea. He is a Kabirpanthi (follower of Kabir) without diksha (formal investiture). So he went from one shop to another asking people, “Have you seen this place?”
Meanwhile, I engaged people in small talk at the teashop. An ordinary-looking Kulpahad today has a rich history. According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India: United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (1909), two villages, Kulhua and Pahadia existed, which when merged came to be known as Kulpahad. It was part of Hamirpur district till 1995 and now falls in Mahoba district. This area has several monuments under the protection of Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI), most of which are temples and ponds of the Chandel era. The locals mentioned the temples but nobody could give us any lead to our “peev” (beloved/the object of desire).
A barber at a nearby salon advised us to meet Dr B.P. Awasthi. His late father was a local litterateur who had done a lot of work on the history of the region. Dr Awasthi met us at his home clinic. He said that his father, Brajmohan Awasthi, had produced literature of different genres and had recorded folklore prevalent in the area. He has diligently preserved his father’s works and is trying to get them published. He gifted us some books written by his father. But even Dr Awasthi or his wife who is also a doctor did not have any medicine for our cure.
(Kabir baid bulayiya, pakar ke dekhi baanhi
Vaid na vedan jaansi, karak kaleje mahin
(The healer was called. He checked the pulse, but could not diagnose the ailment. This was so because the pain was in the heart.)
All these enquiries led to a finding that there was a place called Chauka about 70-80 km from Kulpahad. However, we were told that there was no such temple there. Nevertheless, we decided to visit Chauka, temple or no temple, having already travelled a long distance.
We “reserved” an autorickshaw and started for Chauka. The driver appeared only too willing to help the tourists who had come to his area. Now, he was in possession of the two photographs, and after every 10 km or so, he would stop and ask passersby, “Have you seen these?” But we drew a blank.
Before we knew it, we had entered Madhya Pradesh, and the first town we passed through was Harpalpur. Then as we were heading to Jhansi, we saw a signboard that read “Bhainsasur Smarak Mandir, Chauka Tehsil, Kulpahad, Archaeological Survey of India”. We shrieked with joy. We were thrilled and clicked photographs of each other posing next to the signboard with the victory sign.
From there, we turned right and after driving for about 2 km on a narrow road, we turned right again. Chauka Sora village lay a little ahead. At the entry to the village stood the “Bhainsasur Smarak Mandir” (Bhainsasur Memorial Temple) of our photographs. Sitting atop a hillock, this stone structure does not look like a “temple” from any angle. The main structure is a small room and appears to be very old. It has an entrance, which ASI has closed with an iron door. On peeping in, a triangular figure was visible, which resembled a Shivalinga. It is probably the “pindi” (a piece of stone/metal or a clod of earth), which is part of Asur-Adivasi traditions.
The hillock is spread over a relatively large area, which the ASI has enclosed with a wall. It has probably earmarked the area for excavations that may be carried out in future. Next to the the hillock was a large pond.
After taking photos of the “memorial temple”, we met the villagers. Living in dire poverty, Kodris (Kushwahas) are numerically the largest community in the village, followed by the Ahirwars (Chamars). There are some Brahmin and Rajput homes, too. The Pal (Garadia) caste is numerically dominant in nearby villages. The village has a recently built well-furnished Durga temple. The villagers throng this temple for pujas, but there are no pujas in the Bhainsasur temple. Mostly villagers don’t even visit the “temple”.
We asked the Dalitbahujan residents of the village why no puja was offered in the Bhainsasur temple. All of them responded by saying that they didn’t know anything about the temple. A villager, who belonged to the dhobhi caste and was inebriate, shared his suspicion that we were treasure hunters. He warned us that some people had come to Bhainsasur temple looking for treasure but that each of them died afterwards.
Undoubtedly, the discovery of the remains of an ancient culture of India was certainly invaluable to us. We were thieves too, who were there a short while to collect information and then would disappear.
Erased from social consciousness and neglected by the archaeological department, this place is more accessible from Jhansi. The villagers told us that we should have got down from the train in Jhansi and headed to Harpalpur by road and then we could have spotted the board en route.
When was it built?
The ASI calls this structure a “memorial temple”. What does this mean?
On return from the trip, I sought information about the “memorial temple” from the ASI under the RTI Act. I asked: 1) When was it discovered? 2) Who discovered it? 3) When was it built? 4) What is it? In its reply, the ASI stated that “the ancient monument called Bhainsasur at Chauka, Kulpahad, under the Mahoba sub-circle of Lucknow circle of the ASI was discovered on 14 January 1924 by the employees of the ASI”. To the third question, the reply was that “the memorial appears to have been constructed around the 11th century AD during the Chandel rule”. Regarding the last question, we were told, “No document to this effect is available in this office.”
Their response was exasperating. They are not in a position even to ascertain the period of construction? Today, when many modern methods of verifying the age of any object are available, what is the meaning of “appears to have been constructed around the 11th century”?
Even after its discovery about a century ago, why has its age not been determined to date? What is basis of the “appears” to have been” statement?
Be that as it may, it would clearly “appear” to anyone who compares the excellent carvings of the Khajuraho temples with the rough-hewn-stone Bhainsasur monument that the latter must have been built much earlier. When sculpture had reached the heights of the Khajuraho temples, how was it possible to have rough-hewn-stone structure like this one in the same era? Minor differences in quality would have been understandable, but here the difference is vast. It is the Khajuraho temples that were constructed in the 10th-12th century AD during the reign of the Chandels.
The enclosure within which the “memorial temple” sits, has a noticeboard put up by the ASI but it doesn’t give any useful information. It merely says, “Causing any damage to this monument is punishable with a fine up to Rs 1 lakh or imprisonment up to 2 years.” But after reaching Khajuraho two days later, our attention was drawn to a fact worth highlighting. A board put up by the ASI in the renowned temple complex of Khajuraho declares, “If anyone causes any damage to this monument, he may be punished with imprisonment up to three months or fine up to Rs 5,000.” The ‘Bhainsasur Memorial Temple’ then was much more valuable than the Khajuraho temples – not only to us but also to the ASI. Otherwise, why would there be a such a huge difference in the fines? From an archaelogical point of view, the the Bhainsasur Memorial Temple represents a clear footprint of a lost culture, a treasure trove.
Layer by Layer
On our way back from the Bhainsasur Memorial Temple we paid off the autorickshaw driver in Harpalpur and caught a train for Mahoba. We lay sprawled on the berths in the empty general coach and reached Mahoba late in the night.
The next day, we hired a taxi to go around Mahoba. Temples and other structures and ponds constructed by the Chandel and Pratihar kings, dot this area. These include several excellent examples of medieval Indian architecture. But our main interest lay in the discovery of Mahishasur traditions. We had heard that Mahishasur was worshipped in many parts of Mahoba. But we were unable to find concrete evidence of this practice. So, we did the rounds of the historical places in and around Mahoba. When we asked the autorickshaw driver about the places of interest in the area, among others, he also mentioned Gokhar Pahad. This perked my ears – Gokhar or Gorakh? Is it Siddha Guru Gorakhnath? On enquiry, the driver said that the hill was indeed named after Gorakhnath. We were told that Gorakhnath, along with his disciples, had made the hill his home for a couple of years.
Leaving our taxi by the side of hill, we were about to begin our climb when a Sadhu stopped us. He wanted us to perform a puja at the Shankar temple located at the foothill. Laughing, I told him that I was an atheist but he would not relent. He let me off only when I introduced myself as a journalist. We told him that we wanted to make a documentary on Gokhar hill and quickly resumed our climb.
Despite the hot weather, the hill really looked picturesque. As we climbed higher and higher, the silence became more pronounced. Gorakhnath must have chosen this place for this reason. At the top of the hill stood the temple of Gorakhnath. But it had no idol, only a platform.
When we were back at the bottom of the hill, we found the same sadhu waiting for us. The knowledge that we were journalists had changed his attitude towards us. We asked him if it was true that Mahishasur was worshipped in the district of Mahoba. His answer sent our hearts soaring: that very moment, we were standing in the proximity of a shrine of Bhainsasur. Close to the path that led to the top of the Gokhar Hill, there was an open space in front of the Shankar temple. There, on a large mound made of clay, stood five small terracotta triangular figures. Nearby, similar triangular figures sat on two smaller mounds. Probably, they were plastered during a ritual some days ago, but due to the heat, cracks had developed in the fine clay. This was indeed Mahishasur, alias Bhainsasur.
I began an informal conversation with the revered Sadhu but asked Rajan to turn on the video camera on the phone all the same. As I watch the video while writing these lines, I feel that what he said had many layers of facts, which need careful consideration, hence this transcript:
What is the reason that Mahishasur is being worshipped?
That is because he is considered the protector of cows and buffaloes. If someone’s cow or buffalo stops giving milk or has some other ailment, he takes care. That is why prayers are offered to him. The Yadavs come here once every year to offer a special prayer.
In which month?
On the sixth day of the month of Bhadon/Bhadra (roughly August). It was offered recently.
Is Durga Puja also celebrated in Mahoba?
Earlier, people did not know about Durga Puja. They knew absolutely nothing about it until 25 years ago. As such, Mahoba was not our district earlier. It was Hamirpur. Mahoba district came into being only in 1995. A few people had begun worshipping Durga before the creation of the new district. At that time, an idol of Aalha was put up in Mahoba. The same set of people involving in installing Alha’s idol decided to install an idol of Durga, too. It began with one idol. The next year, two-four idols were installed. Then, the number of these [idols] kept growing each year. Now, at least four-six thousand idols (of Durga) have been installed in the district. Though Durga was worshipped earlier, too, she was known as Ma [mother] Kali. Then, Kali was worshipped once in a year in the month of Aasadh (roughly June) … here everyone worships all gods/goddesses. But those pujas have ceased.
All this has happened within the last 25 years?
Yes. Recently. Within the past 25-30 years. Earlier, nothing like this happened here.
Just as Karwa Chauth has become a festival (in India)?
Yes, earlier Kajli Mela (fair) used to be held at Kirtua and another fair was held here at Gokhargiri. This hill is called Gokhargir. It is also known as Gokhar pahad (hill). Besides, Gudri Mela was also held near Haveli Darwaza (gate). Now, these fairs have been replaced by a single fair held in Kirat Sagar, which continues for a week.
Is there any fair of Bhainsasur held nearby?
No, there is no Bhainsasur fair held here. Most of the people know him as Maikasur here. In some places, he is also called Karas Dev.
There is a Kaalbhairvi in Adivasi-Bahujan traditions. Is she there in Maikasur tradition, too?
Yes. Both are one and the same. There is also a place of Kaalbhairav deity here, at the foothill. There are 9 Naths and 84 Siddhs. Bholenath (Shankar) is supreme among the Naths. He is Trilokinath, master of all the three worlds. There is Hanuman ji. All are there. All gods and goddesses are there in Mahoba. On every full-moon day, a four-and-a-half-kilometre Parikrama [walking around the object of reverence] of the Gokhar hill is performed and it begin
How is Bhainsasur worshipped here?
People come with puris [to offer]. They also bring cooked vegetables [as offering]. They pray to the gods to fulfil their wishes. They offer coconuts. Sometimes, people are possessed by god. He fulfils everyone’s wishes. He is a demon called Maikasur. He is a true/real god. We believe in him because we live here. Many people come with their sick cows and buffaloes. It may not be yielding milk or is not feeding the calf properly. We give them “bhaboot” (ash of holy fire) in the name of Maikasur and it is cured. As such, we offer herb-based treatment, too. Honestly, I can’t take credit for curing them. It is his blessings. Whosoever comes here, regardless of the ailment, is cured. We take nothing from anyone. If someone wishes, he may offer a coconut, if not Jai Shri Ram (may Ram bless him). If someone offers us wheat flour, I cook meal, otherwise sleep without one.
Which castes do the people who come here to worship Mahishasur, belong to?
Mostly Yadav and Pal. Pal means Garedia. They offer the first milk of the animal to him.
Is Mahishasur worshipped in their homes, too?
No. Women cannot even eat his prasad. If a coconut is offered, women aren’t offered its kernel as “prasad”. Women aren’t allowed anywhere near him.
Even women of Yadav families also don’t take ‘prasad’?
No. Only men can partake of the “prasad”. However, it is not that only Yadavs will partake of it [non-Yadav men are also allowed].
Is he the god of the Yadavs only?
No, everyone comes here. It is just because Yadavs and Pals are in a majority here (hence they are seen here more often). All lower-caste people come.
It seems these stories are linked to Durga. Tribal lore has it that Mahishasur was killed by Durga by deceit. She lived with him for nine days and killed him on the tenth day.
Yes. Whatever may the case. Buffalo is their mother. So they seek fulfilment of their wishes/desires from that mother. That is why they do not make this platform pucca (hardening the surface to make it last long). When cattle come here, they prance around and scratch the surface with their horns. This pleases him (Mahishasur) … Just wait, after a month or two, this (mound of Mahishasur) will disappear, thanks to the frolicking cattle.
Is there any other Mahishasur place?
In Mahoba, you will find it in every village. There is one at Jhanjh in Rajasthan, too. There, he is known as Karas Dev. Actually, Karas Dev is brother of Mahishasur. They also had a sister, whose name I’m unable to recall. Karas Dev was born from lotus. His sister was unhappy that she had no brother. He was born after she undertook fasting. Though his name was Karas Dev but he was not dark-complexioned. I don’t remember the complete story but when Karas Dev, the snake, was in trouble, a peacock rescued him. Once when Karas Dev found out that his brother was in danger, he entered the hole. As he fought the intruder snake, it hissed and emitted poison. He drank all the poison. And that is how he turned dark. Earlier, he was very fair.
This sounds like the story of Shiva. He too had become Neelkanth.
Yes, it is like Shankar’s story. Maikasur had two brothers, too. I don’t remember the name of the younger one but the elder was called Ajay Par. His madia [shrine] is also nearby. They are all one – Mahishasur, Maikasur, Karas Dev, Karia Dev. They all are one. Here, he is also known as Gwal Baba.
It seems that this entire tradition follows the battle between the Devas and Danavs. What do you think?
Yes, yes. He is a Danav. But he is very noble. God only knows the rest. We don’t know much. We are saints, recluses. We just sing Bhajans (devotional songs) and live here.
How long you have been staying here? Do you belong to this place?
Mahoba is my birthplace. But I am always on the move – I am sometimes in Ayodhya, sometimes somewhere else – we have two or three places.
What did you say your name was?
Shri Shri 108 Shri Ghanshyam Tyagi ji.”
Sadhu Ghanshyamdas Tyagi is a Gorakhpanthi. His information regarding locations of Mahishasur shrines around Mahoba proved to be a secret tunnel, which branched out to many other tunnels and, at the end, all of them hit a dead end while pointing to a huge ancient Asur civilization with its advanced agricultural and cattle-rearing techniques, love for nature, egalitarian values and finally horrendous violence.
Ghanshyam Tyagi’s first tunnel was in the city of Mahoba itself, on the banks of Kirat Sagar. Actually, Kirat Sagar is a lake built by the Chandel kings in the 11th century. The ASI has preserved this dried-up lake. The “Maikasur Memorial” was on the bank of the lake. The “memorial” was enclosed in about 300-400 square yards of land by a brick wall. There was a two-foot-wide door into the enclosure and a piece of flex hanging above it that announced, “Ancient Maikasur Temple: Yadav-Pal community welcomes all visitors on the occasion of Kajli Mahotsava and Rakshabandhan”. This so-called temple had neither a building nor an idol. It had the triangular mud structure like the one seen near Gokhar hill. Seven small stupa-like figures sat on this installation. The owner of a nearby dhabha told us that Maikasur cured cattle of their diseases and brought prosperity to farming. People offer milk and cauliflower here.
I recalled the works of R.V. Russell. Robert Vane Russell (8 August 1873 – 30 December 1915), a British civil servant, had done an in-depth study of the castes and tribes inhabiting central India. His monumental work The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of Central India was published in four volumes in 1916. Russell writes that rituals associated with Bhainsasur are performed on a large scale in this region. The Gond tribe offers pig to their god Bura Dev  and lower-caste Hindus offer pig to Bhainsasur. Both are regarded as protectors of crop. A stone kept in a field outside the village is regarded as the symbol of Bhainsasur. Whenever strong wind sway crops at night, it is believed that Bhainsasur has passed over them.
Hundred years after the publication of this important anthropological treatise, Bhainsasur continues to be the main deity of the cattle-rearers of Mahoba. Pig is no longer sacrificed. Instead, coconut is broken, and milk and cauliflower are offered. Only the symbols have changed, the sentiments have remained the same. As such, agriculture and animal husbandry are not very different from each other.
At this Maikasur place by Kirat Sagar, we got to know about a newly built Maikasur “temple” in Mohari village. This was a permanent concrete structure. It was about 15 km from here.
As soon we got this information, we sat in the taxi and sped off towards Mohari. The road leading to the village was tarred and the “temple” was located beside the road itself. A little ahead of the temple, some people were playing cards under a tin shed. We stopped there to inquire about Mahishasur. They were pleasantly surprised. While we were chatting, someone brought the temple’s “priest”, Ramkishore Pal, to us. According to Ramkishore, the village used to have a Maikasur and Karas Dev temple. He took us to the spot but we did not find a “temple” there. A temple has to have a building, even if it is symbolic. Nowadays, people build temples of wood or other material in their flats but even they have a symbolic miniature building.
There was a concrete platform with a roof over it supported by four pillars. On the platform sat a concrete pedestal resembling a Tulsi (basil) chaura, which had a lancet arch opening. There was no figure inside but it is believed that Maikasur resides there. On its right sat the sculpture of a he or a she buffalo and on its left was a sculpture of a woman holding the rein of a horse. Atop the pedestal was a peacock. I wondered whether the opening was symbolic of the snake hole which Ghanshyam Tyagi spoke of? Was this region, with its open fields and scarce fodder, better suited to buffalo rearing? D.D. Kosambi writes that, domestication of buffalo began after the Vedic age. Without this animal, it could not have been possible to clear the swamps and forests of the Gangetic plain. 
Or, were the inhabitants of this land culturally closer to the buffalo (Mahish)? Was buffalo their totem? Or, is King “Mahish” synonymous with “popular hero”? But who is this woman and what does her proximity to Maikasur mean? Which part of the world has this horse come from? According to Kosambi, in the Mahoba region, Durga is depicted as a slayer of Mhasoba (Mahishasur) at some places while she is portrayed as his consort or wife at other places.  In other words, did she also belong to non-Aryan race as did Mahishasur? It seems so. But then what about the Aryan horse? Was her love for Mahishasur an act that she put on under pressure or because she was offered an inducement?
Outside, there was an open space to the left of the platform, where a few small stones were placed. They are key to certain rituals performed there. Some of the locals said that the stone was Maikasur and the structure on the platform was Karas Dev. Some said they both were Maikasur and that he had five Gotis (songs dedicated to the cattle god).
In Mohari village, Brahman pandits conduct ceremonies in temples and marriages. But at the Maikasur shrine, someone from the Pal caste alone can be the priest. All OBC-Dalit castes, including Gaderia, Koiri, Ahir and Lodh (an OBC caste whose members consider themselves Rajputs), worship Maikasur. He has a considerable following among Ahirwars (chamars). He is gradually being accorded the status of Shiv. We also discussed Durga Puja with the elders in different parts of the village and asked them when Durga Puja began in the area. The answers were more or less the same – about 15-16 years ago.
We also learnt of another Mahishasur legend here. According to this legend, Durga had killed Bhairasur/Bhairodev, not Mahishasur.
“Bhairasur was a companion of Gorakhnath but Gorakhnath was displeased with his behaviour. Bhairasur did not conduct himself properly with Durga Devi. He deceived her. The Devi was “adh kunwari’.  She decided to give Bhairasur another chance. She organized a feast at her residence to which Bhairasur and Gorakhnath, along with nine virgins, were invited. During the feast, Bhairasur demanded meat and liquor, which enraged Durga, and a battle ensued between the two. When she realized that she might lose the battle, she invoked Shankar and hid herself in a cave. On Shankar’s command, Maikasur joined forces with Durga. But Bhairasur remained adamant and tried to enter the cave. At this point, the Durga attacked and killed him. Does this entire lore point to the ideological differences between the Siddha and Nath sects? Was Bhairasur a Siddha, who was abhorred by the Nathpanth, which came later? Is this the same Bhairasur or Bhaironath, who is portrayed as a god riding a dog in Brahmin scriptures? There is a temple dedicated to Bhairodev in Banaras and Ujjain, where liquor is offered to the deity and then distributed as prasad among the devotees.
While returning to Mahoba, darkness descended. Close to Mahoba, in Ramnagar, Charkhari, we found a rectangular platform of Maikasur, surrounded by dense vegetation, far removed from habitation. A huge scorpion lay in wait on the platform. I didn’t see it and was about to touch it as I felt the mud on the platform. I narrowly escaped being stung.
Meanwhile, we learnt that the triangular representations of Mahishasur seen at Gorakh Pahad and Kirat Sagar were the exception, not the rule. The place representing Maikasur is usually a rectangular platform installed outside the village, generally made of bricks and plastered with a thick layer of clay. The triangular “place” of Maikasur in Kirat Sagar is older. In fact, it was moved to the Gokhar Pahad though devotees continue to perform rituals at the first spot. When we stopped at the nearby settlement to get more information, everyone told us that there was a Maikasur place outside every village. But I was engrossed in something else. In the morning, when we climbed up Gokhar Pahad, we found there just was a platform, no idol.
Lali mere lal ki, jit dekhoon tit lal
Lali dekhan mein gayee, main bhi ho gayee lal
(The illumination of my beloved is everywhere. When I set out to see it, I too became illuminated)
We decided that we would spend the night at the guest house in Mahoba and would drive to Khajuraho in the same taxi the next morning.
I was probably restless, because of which I got up very early in the morning. As such for the past several years, I have had insomnia. With an irregular lifestyle and habits of an ascetic, this was bound to happen. Normally, I go to sleep in the morning and by the time I get up, the magic of dawn is gone.
Whatever may be the state of the rooms in government guest houses, they are very spacious. The openness makes a difference. An open space lay here in front of the room too, and some fruit-bearing trees. This space could neither be called a lawn nor a courtyard. I went out of the room to find the trees in slumber. The wetness of the plaster of ash on the earthen stoves was drying up. All sorts of bizarre thoughts filled my mind. It must have been 4 am or 4.30 am. I wonder what we call this hour of the day. When Narsingh deceitfully killed Asur hero Hiranyakashyap, what hour was it? He was killed at the gate of the palace – neither inside nor outside. Where am I now? I’m neither inside the guest house, nor outside it. He was killed when it was neither day nor night. What is the time now? It is neither night nor morning. At what time was Hiranyakashyap’s sister Holika burnt alive? The time of her cruel murder, celebrated each year, may also be decided on the basis of the Panchang (Hindu calendar). The hours of the day may also be counted on the basis of the ascertained time of the incident.
As I was immersed in these thoughts I didn’t realize when the blackness of the sky was replaced by saffron, as if someone had rubbed black slate with red-coloured chalk. Though it was after a long time that I had the chance to witness this time of the day, I missed the unforgettable scene of “Neel jal mein gaur jhilmil deh” (white, shimmering body in blue waters). I was very fond of Shamsher Bahadur Singh’s poem Usha  when I was in Grade 9-10. It was in my Grade 8 syllabus. My village did not have electricity. I would awake at 4 in the morning to study in the light of the lantern and step out of home, as if by rule, to see the poetry of Shamsher unfold in the skies. At the time, such crazy thoughts didn’t cross my mind but I do remember entertaining fancy ideas of becoming a great writer and of travelling like the American journalist and novelist Ernest Hemingway. Indeed, there is no comparison between the great novelist and me and neither his adventurous travels are comparable with my journey to Mahoba. Nonetheless, I continue to build castles in the air.
I woke up Rajan. Sometime later, the taxi driver also came. There are two routes from Khajuraho to Mahoba. Either way, it will take 2-2.5 hours to reach Khajuraho. By now, the taxi driver had realized that we were neither pilgrims nor tourists. Ten minutes after we hit the road, he told us that he had decided to take us to a few ancient temples in Mahoba. We weren’t consulted before he took the “decision”.
Driving through narrow lanes, he brought us to a Bhainsasur place. It was a small platform made of bricks, with three stairs leading to it. The platform was tiled with cheap marble slabs bearing the inscription “Om”. This was a Muslim-dominated area, probably settled later. Now, the Bhainsasur place stood in the midst of a densely populated area.
A little further ahead was the temple of “Mania” Dev. It is a white structure built in Islamic style, the outer chamber of which houses idols of some primitive gods and goddesses. Most of the visitors are Dalit and OBC Hindus, though Muslims also come to the temple to pay obeisance.
Among the idols is the figure of a four-handed dark-skinned women, who is shown sitting at an elevated place with her legs folded. Below it is the idol of a man, which was probably kept in some other part of the “temple” earlier. The man is sitting astride some animal. The room was dark and the idol was not clearly visible. We turned on the torches of our mobiles and saw that the animal resembled a dog. The wide jaw of the animal is worn down and not clearly visible. Probably, it is a tiger! But then, no Hindu god rides a tiger! Then, is it Bhairasur, the dog-rider, Asur hero Bhairodev? Is it Maniasur, a companion of Maikasur? Things are so hazy that arriving at a conclusion with certainty is difficult.
The writing of history of the Indian sub-continent suffers from so much bias in favour of mythological tales that addressing these questions is like venturing into a dark and dangerous tunnel. The likes of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, D.D. Kosambi and Motiravan Kangali have been beacons but this tunnel is thousands of miles long and wide.
We were told that the building belongs to a Muslim family and the descendants of the family continue to reside behind the temple and on the upper storey. They are the caretakers of the Mania Dev temple and the income by way of donation accrues to them. What is the rationale behind a Muslim family protecting a place of idol worship? It seems that various cultures have taken undue advantage of the remains of the non-Aryan culture in different ways. Did this happen when Muslims established their rule over Mahoba? But when could this have happened? Was it in 1203 when Qutb al-Din Aibak wrested this area from the Chandels by vanquishing the valiant warriors Aalha and Udal? Or in 1545, when Sher Shah Suri brought this area under his control?
We thanked the taxi driver for bringing us here and asked him to drive us back to Khajuraho as quickly as possible. It was already past noon. When would we reach Khajuraho? Anyway, it was good that he had brought us here.
Sadho rah dunu hum dekha,
Hindun ki hinduiayee dekhi, turkan ki turkayi
(I have seen both the paths. The Hinduism of the Hindus and the Turkism of the Turks)
The ‘temples’ of Khajuraho
By the time we reached Khajuraho, it was late evening. The temples are open to tourists from 8 am to 6 pm. The light and sound show amid the western group of temples begins afterwards. We decided to watch the show and spend the night in Khajuraho. Mobile apps for booking hotels have made travel very convenient. We found accommodation at the enchanting “Jungle Resorts”.
Moving through the courtyard of Khajuraho temples during the light and sound show was an exciting experience indeed. Film star Amitabh Bachchan has lent his voice. When he narrates the story of the temples, it seems events are unfolding before our very eyes. But the script seems to be attempting to Hinduize the historical and archaeological facts. A conscious attempt to glorify the Brahmin caste is visible. The ASI should avoid lending credence to unsubstantiated facts.
Anyway, if we are trying to promote the interest of non-Dwijs, we should approach not only the popular light and sound show with caution but also the statedly objective disciplines like Archaeology, Anthropology and History and glean things that are useful to us. When you work your way in this direction, we not only encounter darkness but also the so-called dazzling knowledge that may mislead us.
The light and sound show tells us that these majestic temples were built by different kings of the Chandel dynasty from 10th to 12th century AD. In 1335, traveller and historian Ibn Batuta visited this place to find these temples had been abandoned. He found that some mendicants offering cure of various ailments inhabited these temples and a large number of people visited them. This means that the temples remained popular for about 300 years.
Subsequently, they “disappeared” for about 600 years. They were “discovered” in 1838 and the credit for discovering them goes to British engineer T.S. Bert. It was not that the temples had sunk into the earth; they were very much above the surface and visible. Before the “discovery” the locals were aware of the temples but they didn’t care about them. The archaeological department tells us that before the “discovery” of these “lost” temples they were surrounded by dense forests. But the forests couldn’t have been that dense. The shepherds took their cattle to graze in the surrounding areas. It was these shepherds who had told Bert about the temples. These facts are astounding.
After all, what led the people to reject these magnificent temples? Did a new culture appear which considered women’s sexuality a sin and taught them to repress it? Or, was coercion employed to make the people abandon the old ways of worship and adopt new ones?
We had already seen how the Bhainsasur Smarak Mandir at Chauki Sora has also been neglected. The temple means little to the residents of the village. The same is true of the temples of Khajuraho. Is it pragmatic to believe that such majestic temples located in a jungle which was frequented by the shepherds remained neglected due to the presence of some kind of deep cultural antipathy? A study of the cultural history of these temples is yet to be undertaken.
The next day, we were at the temple even before sunrise to have a closer view of the marvels. Thousands of people have written on various aspects of the architecture of these temples. They stand testimony to a highly advanced civilization at the zenith of material prosperity. People who were bored of material comfort might have been indulging in maximizing sexual pleasures. I have also seen the Konark and Lingaraja temples of Orissa. Both these temple complexes, along with Khajuraho, have a platform at the centre of the main building. This platform, which can accommodate two people easily, is surrounded by half-walls. This set-up was probably used for a public display of lovemaking.
Behind the Khajuraho temples lay the ruins of Chuashath Yogini Mandir. A booklet which we had bought from the ASI stall said that it was built around 885 AD and was much older than the Khajuraho temples. When we arrived there, the humad (small fire lit as part of worship) was still burning; perhaps, someone had just then performed a puja. There were some small stone idols in front of a room, whose faces had been worn down beyond recognition. While clicking pictures, lo and behold, we noticed that here too, was a big platform without a roof! It had many small chambers, most of which lay in ruins. At the top of each chamber was a small angular, stupa-like tower. The lower part of the tower had a triangular structure adorning the opening below it. They were similar to the clay platforms and the triangular, stupa-like representations we had seen at the Mahishasur places in different villages. The sole difference lay in the size, massive structures here and miniature terracotta versions there. It was as if the Mahishasur shrines were smaller clay replicas of this temple. Certainly, these had close links with the Brajyani and Siddha tradition. They are probably pre-Buddhist traditions, which survived until much later.
Most of the Khajuraho temples were named much later. The archaeology department has put up boards outside the western group of temples – Laxman Mandir, Kandaria Mahadev Mandir, Matgeshwar Mandir, Vishwanath Mandir, Laxmi Mandir, Jagdambi Mandir, Chitragupta Mandir, Parvati Mandir and Ganesh Mandir. In addition, there are Varah and Nandi Mandaps, too. Among the temples of the eastern group are Brahma, Vaman, Jawari and Hanuman temples.
A thousand years ago, when these temples were frequented by people, they probably had different names. It is possible that the new names were given on the basis of the similarity of the shapes. But the ASI should have had the scientific temperament and objectivity to concede that it did not know their original names and to label them as “Monument 1”, “Monument 2”, etc. Is the ASI meant to preserve ancient monuments or to patronize faiths of the later period?
What ‘temple’ means?
Leave aside the name of the temples, is it even proper to use the word “temple” to describe these structures? The term “mandir” is regarded as a synonym of “temple”. The word “temple” comes from the Latin word “templum”, which means a structure reserved for religious or spiritual rituals. In English, “temple” is used for places of worship other than a church nor a mosque. This word is used for places of worship in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, ancient Egyptian religion and other ancient religions. In English, the word “temple” presumes the presence of a building. However, in Hindi we are calling the platform of Maikasur a mandir, a temple! It is not a temple because it does not constitute a building.
Anyway, describing all kinds of religious rituals as “puja” and the structures where they are performed as “temple” is linguistic compulsion. The intrusive and imperialistic Hinduism has mercilessly trampled upon other ways of life. The last nail in the coffin is being driven by Hindi, which has destroyed scores of languages and dialects. The entire literature of the Adivasis and the Bahujans was in their dialects and languages. Their words, poetry, lore – all have been destroyed. They had their own rituals and also designated places for performing them, but they certainly were not “puja” and “temple”. They were destroyed because there were elemental and philosophical differences between them and Hinduism. The “mandirs” are associated with the Sur civilization. The Asur civilization must have had a different name for their places of worship.
The “temple” complex of Khajuraho is so vast that closely examining the statues and engravings on their walls would require several days. Even in the month of October the sun was harsh. I sat down at the stairs of a temple. But Rajan never rests. He kept exploring. He was gone for a while and then suddenly appeared, astonishment written large on his face, and rushed me to see a statue.
With a crown of horns (which resembles the religious symbol of Gonds) and the face of a buffalo, the statue looked like that of a recluse, a sanyasi. It had four hands. His upper left hand held a trishul and his upper right hand held some other weapon, which I could not decipher. The lower left hand, opened outwards, was bent towards the feet in the posture of giving something while the lower right hand held a container resembling a kamandal.
The temple had at least a dozen such statues, probably even more. Their facial and bodily expressions were different. But the head of a buffalo and the crown of horns were common.
Is it the statue of Mahishasur? This is how the hero of an agricultural and cattle-rearer community would be symbolically represented. We went to the ASI bookstall on the temple premises and tried to locate a picture of or reference to these statues in them but there was none. We spoke to some people over the phone hoping that they could tell us about these statues. A friend gave us the phone number of Hindi author Sharad Singh, who has done his PhD on the architecture of the Khajuraho temples. She said that these were statues of Nandi (Shankar’s vehicle). Later, when I Googled it, I came to know that everyone had indeed concluded that it was Nandi – a form of the bullock, that too, a “Hindu bullock”!
Today, Mahoba may be in Uttar Pradesh and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, but on the geographical and cultural map, they are both parts of Bundelkhand. Village after village of Bundelkhand has “temples” of Mahishasur, who goes by the several names such as Bhainsasur, Maikasur, Karas Dev and Gwal Baba. The same Bundelkhand is also home to the “temples” of Khajuraho. Barely 70 km from here is the ASI-protected “Bhainsasur Memorial Temple” in Chauki Sora village. Given this scenario, what is more probable – Khajurao’s statues have the face of a buffalo or that of a bullock? I also called up a veterinarian and asked him how to differentiate between the faces of a bull and a buffalo. I was told that they look almost the same, although the horns of a bull often point upwards while those of a buffalo point backwards. But this is not always true.
I’m mulling whether it is the statue of Koya pahari pahandi Gurumukhiya (Shambhu Gawra) in the Adivasi tradition? Hinduized and propagated as Pashupati, this ancient guru’s face has been found inscribed on the seals excavated in Harappa. These inscriptions have similar, buffalo horns, which has been described by Moti Ravan Kangali as “Seal with Horns and Three Points”.  However, the face of the ancient guru in that inscription is manlike, but the inscriptions contains a bull/buffalo, too. In the Adivasi tradition, we come across another image, where the face and body are more clearly visible. It is the sacred animal of Adivasis, Nandiyal Konda, which is the vehicle of their ancestor Shambhu Gawra. In different parts of the country, “all Shambhu Gawra places have Nandiyal Konda, too”.  Whatever may be the case, given so many similarities, there is no doubt that Mahishasur is one among the great heroes belonging to this tradition.
Trinkets were for up for sale on the pavements outside the temple complex – glossy stones, necklaces, ring of strange designs designed to draw the attention of foreign tourists. One thing available in almost all the stalls on the pavement was the illustrated Kamasutra. One does not know what all is being sold in the name of this book written in the 3rd century. On these pavement stalls I found a book titled Bundelkhand Chitravali by Ambikaprasad Divya. Before buying it, I flipped through the pages. In the very first chapter, it reads, “In ancient times, the southern and eastern parts of Bundelkhand were under the control of the Yaduvanshis. Their capital was Maahishmati. One of the Yaduvanshi kings, Sahastrarjun, had tied Lankeshwar Ravana in his ‘Hayshala’ [stable]. Sahastrarjun’s descendants later became famous as the Haihay clan”.
Yadav clan? All old Hindi dictionaries have recorded that “Yadavi” was one of the names of Durga, which is no longer used by anybody. Despite the festivals associated with her being very popular and market-friendly, has “Yadavi”, associated with a people, been made redundant, to conceal a particular fact? And Maahishmati? Is it the same Mahishmati that has been described in Dirghanikas? Kalidas’ Raghuvansh refers to a city called Maahishmati located on the banks of the Narmada while describing the swayamvar (choosing of the husband) of Indumati. Bahubali, a 2017 film that smashed all box-office records also features Maahishmati. I bought the book. One doesn’t know how lengthy these tunnels are and which tunnel joins another and at which point.
I am not a specialist in sculpture and architecture. But even the specialists in these disciplines admit that precious little work has been done on Indian sculpture and architecture. Quality, authentic research work is negligible. In the future, when researchers from the Bahujan communities undertake research in this field, they will identify the non-Brahmin traditions in Indian sculpture and architecture.
On the way back
In the evening, we left Khajuraho for Mahoba. Our train was to leave for Delhi from Mahoba that night. Our car was cruising on the highway. There are few trees in this area. Those planted by the government on the roadside are either dead or emaciated.
Many questions and inner conflicts were racing through my mind.
This entire region is drought-prone. Historical facts show that in ancient times Bundelkhand was home to Gonds, Shabars, Kols, Kirats, Pulinds and Nishads. They had put up a stiff resistance against the Aryan encroachment in the central region.
Why would Aryans have invaded this unproductive arid region? Asur traditions are discernible in most parts of north India. There are countless number of villages and places named after Bhainsasur, Karas and Bhairon. One of the rivers that runs through this region has also been named after Bhainsasur. But it appears that the largest number of these traditions are alive and flourishing in Bundelkhand and the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh.
Why are these traditions alive in both these regions? Is it because the invading Aryans regarded them as inhospitable and hence overran more productive regions of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh? Or is it because the regions having Mahish Gotra/kingdoms signs were more prosperous and they found it expedient to trample them ?
I have not visited Chhattisgarh but Mahendra Pratap Raj, a Gond schoolteacher in the state, disclosed recently that the Gonds and many other tribal communities of Chhattisgarh consider themselves descendants of Mahishasur. There, he is worshipped in the months of January, February and March. Mahishasur worship is part of the harvest festival and pig and liquor are offered to him even today.
My mind went back to what all Ghanshyam Tyagi had told us at Gokhar Pahad. How shrewdly a new tradition of Dussehra was planted there. He told us that earlier, Kali was worshipped in the area. Kali is a Adivasi symbol of woman power. He also talked about a male character, Kal Bhairav. There is a Sankat Mochan temple near the Mahoba bus stand, which has an idol of “Kaalratri”. The idol shows the goddess riding a donkey on heat. In the traditions of ancient tribes, Kal Bhairavi is a woman who is very powerful.
I was feeling suffocated after meandering through the maze of dark tunnels for so long.
I asked the driver to turn off the AC. If the weather is not hot, the soil smells good. I rolled down the window glass. Fresh air brings with it some fresh questions. Why on earth are the women not allowed to join the worship of Mahishasur, when there are innumerable rituals celebrating mother goddesses in indigenous societies? Unlike the brahmanical tradition, the Adivasi tradition has respect for women. They are not only life partners but also co-workers and comrades. Were women kept away from participation in the Mahishasur-related rituals as a reminder to the trap laid by a woman, which led to the slaying of the protector of their farms?
I was also thinking about the Karas Dev of Charkhari. He is revered by the Gurjar community in many parts of the country. For them, too, he is the god of cattle. The songs dedicated to him, known as “Got”, were popular in the past. Gurjars, Yadavs and Pals are all cattle-rearers. That statue of a woman holding the reins of a horse beside Karas Dev’s idol was striking.
But this should change. We started celebrating Mahishasur Martyrdom Day at JNU in 2011. Later, this movement gathered momentum and spread all over the country. The booklets that I edited to lay the theoretical foundation of the Mahishasur Martyrdom Day celebrations emphasized the participation of women in the celebrations.
It was late in the evening. We stopped at a dhabha for dinner. But my mind was still wandering.
Is it correct to define the tradition, which I had come here to observe and understand, as “Asur tradition”? No, “Asur, non-Aryan tradition” would be better nomenclature. It would more clearly indicate the ancient culture as well its remnants today. When we were working on a Forward Press special issue, Premkumar Mani had suggested a better term – “Bahujan-Shraman tradition”. This is more accurate as it also encompasses the traditions that came up later on the foundation of the ancient Asur, non-Aryan tradition.
What is the difference between the Bahujan-Shraman traditions related to Mahishasur in Bundelkhand and the brahmanical traditions? One major visible difference is that brahmanical gods live in temples and need magnificent homes, whereas there is no god in the Bahujan-Shraman tradition – only ancestors – and they live among their people, in their homes, farms and granaries and mostly in the open. In the brahmanical tradition, gods live in idols. They are given a human form through idols. The Bahujan-Shraman tradition mostly has no idols; there are pinds and platforms, which were perhaps built in earlier times to just earmark a place. Brahmanical gods are magnificent and distant from humans – they live in the skies, in heaven, the closest abode being the Kailash mountain. The gods of the other tradition live among them. In the brahmanical tradition, god is an external element. He exists independent of the daily activities of his followers. In the Bahujan-Shraman tradition, the ancestors are part of life and activities. They “visit” – are possessed by – them, communicate with them. At the root of this tradition must have been the desire to learn from the experience of their ancestors. In the brahmanical tradition, it is essential to have a mediator in the form of priest. The Bahujan-Shraman tradition does not require a priest at all.
The food was delicious. Mahoba was only a short distance away. Rajan was checking on his mobile to find out whether the train was late. No, it was running on time. Everything was fine and moving at its own pace. Only my mind was racing. Is everything really fine?
Why did they lose? A major chunk of the literature of Bahujan-Shraman tradition was oral. This tradition was opposed to the culture of private ownership – whether it is material assets or knowledge. In contrast, the brahmanical culture lays great emphasis on accumulation. Is it not true that they lost because they did not accumulate – they did not stake a claim? It is good that today Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs are staking a claim and they want their share. They are learning now. But what are they learning? Is there some other way of learning?
We reached Mahoba. There was some time before the train for Delhi arrived. I felt like looking closely at the statues of Aalha and Udal. Their songs are sung in my Bihar, too. “Driver saheb, can we go that way please?”
Translation: Amrish Herdenia; Copy-edting: Parmanand Baiga/Anil
 The dialogues have been edited for clarity.
 R.V. Russell and Hiralal: The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, McMillan & Co, London, 1916, Reprinted, Delhi Cosmo Publication, 1975
 Bada Dev/Buda Dev is the chief deity of the Gond Tribe. In the olden days, the priest of Buda Dev had to remain a bachelor. Women do not participate in the worship of Buda Dev.
 D.D. Kosambi, Prachin Bharat ki Sanskriti aur Sabhyata, (Rajkamal Prakashan, 1990)
 The resident of the village used the term “adh-kumari”. What he meant by the term could not be clarified. It could be a distortion of “Adya-Kumari”.
 Extract from Shamsher Bahadur Singh’s poem, Usha (translation): “The morning sky was deep blue as if the kitchen was dabbed with ash [the colour is yet to dry]/As if pitch black has been washed with a dash of saffron red/As if somebody has rubbed red chalk on the black slate/ Someone’s fair figure is shimmering in the blue waters./ And … the trance is broken, this morning is awakening/”
 Moti Ravan Kangali, Sindhvi Lipi ka Gondi mein Udwachan, Publisher: Chandralekha Kangali, Nagpur, 2002.
 Chandralekha Kangali, Gondwana: Jeev-Jagat ki Utpati, Utthan, Patan aur Punruthan Sangarsh, self-published, Nagpur, 1st print, 2000.
 Ambika Prasad Divya, Bundelkhand Chitrawali, 2014, Prabhat Prakashan, Delhi
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