The highly revered presiding deity in the Himalayan terrain of Lahaul Valley in Himachal Pradesh that goes on winter sojourn in a beautifully decorated palanquin once in three years in each village is exercising restrain this time in days of coronavirus pandemic.
Old-timers say as per their living memory this is for the first time that Lord Gyephang (Raja Ghepan), or the protector of people, has cancelled his winter sojourn.
After five days of brief excursion, Lord Gyephang is returning to his temple in this village situated on the bank of the Chandra river in Lahaul-Spiti district on Wednesday after ‘Dev Milan’ (divine get-together with other deities) with seven other prominent deities of the region that is dominated by the Buddhists.
On normal occasions, Lord Gyephang spends two and a half months in visiting villages dotted the valley at the invitation to take part in religious ceremonies and for merrymaking too.
“On his return, Raja Gyephang will spend two days in this village. After that he will return to his temple,” Prem Lal, ‘kardar’ or head of the temple, told IANS.
He said once in three years the deity is taken out of the temple in a procession for his sojourn to bless the disciples in each village.
The temple, located at an altitude of 3130m, is not open for the outsiders.
Himachal Pradesh is also popularly known as the ‘Devbhoomi’ — the land of gods.
Every village has several resident ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ — who are invoked as living deities.
The deities ‘live’ among the people and ‘speak’ to their followers and tell them what to do. They have families and relatives who join them in celebrations.
As per the centuries old believe, the affairs of the gods are managed by the ‘devta’ committees that comprise a ‘kardar’, the ‘gur’ or oracle, musicians and a priest.
The gods accept invites of their followers and move to various locations as per their wish. Sometimes they decide to undertake a pilgrimage. Some do so after one-two years, others do so after 30 to 40 years and some embark on special pilgrimage after hundreds of years.
The ‘devta’ summons the ‘gur’ and speaks through him. The oracle goes into a trance and connects with the deity. The deity’s wish spreads and its followers are ready to obey the sacred command.
One member of each family in a village has to join the deity’s procession. No one can lift the palanquin of the deity if he/she is not willing.
The long and tough journeys are to be performed on foot. It takes days, even months. Strict rules and rituals have to be followed. The deity sets the time and pace of the journey.
As per the believe, when Raja Gyephang, revered the king of the valley, is on sojourn his en route does not get heavy spells of snowfall to hamper his movement. During his visit, people offer animal sacrifice and perform rituals.
Sonam Tashi, the ‘gur’ of the deity, said Raja Gyephang took the decision to cancel his proposed journey after consulting with other prominent deities.
Sissu resident and journalist Kundan Lal told IANS that the visit of Raja Gyephang across the Lahaul Valley during winter once in three years has a huge reverence.
“He’s travelling village to village to bless his followers in a tastefully decorated palanquin amid the sounding of trumpets and drums,” he said.
The divine congregations during his visit help understanding the symbiotic relationship between the humans and the divine, he said.
During the journey, the place of stay, its duration and the deity dance are predetermined.
The entire Lahaul-Spiti district is populated mainly by tribals. The climatic conditions are harsh as much of the land forms part of a cold desert where the mercury drops below minus 25-30 degrees Celsius in winter.
Most important local festivals and rituals fall when the villagers are marooned in the snow. Even the celebrations of a wedding, solemnised in summer, are held at that time.
Octogenarian Tirath Negi of Jispa village said their invitation of community feast was duly accepted by Raja Gyephang at his house to mark his son’s wedding that was solemnised in 2018.
“Now with the cancellation of his journey, we have to wait for three years more for the arrival of our ‘devta’ for the celebrations,” he said.
Prem Lal, head of Raja Gyephang’s temple, said at least 60 invitations were received this time from his followers. “Now they have been put on hold till his next sojourn that is likely in 2023.”
The Lahaulis, as the local people are called, are mostly farmers and grow mainly peas and potatoes. The Lahaul valley’s seed potatoes are in great demand in states like West Bengal, Bihar and Karnataka.
‘Chollo’ or gambling is a popular form of entertainment in winter. Most of the men folk begin their day with the consumption of ‘arah’, local liquor extracted from barley, and even end the day with it.
Halda, celebrated in the second and third week of January, is one of the major festivals of Lahaul when the entire village gathers and celebrates. Such celebrations continue for days together. Normally each villager stores enough ration in his household before the onset of winter.
This Buddhist-dominated district in the Himalayan terrain attracts globetrotters not only for nature-based activities but also to ancient monasteries like Tabo and Dhankar.
The population in the district is mainly rural, spread across 521 villages.