“So the man was killed”? I asked him in a bewildered voice.
“Yes” he said with a strange calm and settled gesture.
“And this happened during the worship of Gal Bapsi”?
He was searching my face to find out why my voice was getting so agitated while talking about this incident. I persisted in my questioning tone, “Where did this happen”?, “At Alirajpur” and suddenly his Chinese-made mobile phone rang loudly, playing a folk song ringtone quite popular in this area, breaking the languid silence of the dusty air. Mahesh, the Bhil tribal young man, start talking in his tribal dialect with the occasional giggle.
Jhabua located in the western part of Madhya Pradesh, is known for its Bhil tribal community who live in a long stretch of land which runs from western to central India. Every year on the occasion of Holi, people from the Bhil Community worship the animistic god Gal Baba or Haldiya Baba in return for the fulfillment of their wishes which usually includes cure from disease, the birth of a healthy child, marriage, the recovery of stolen goats and the list goes on. This year the family of renowned tribal artist Lado Bai, performed Gal Bapsi for the safe return of Lado’s teenage daughter.
The place of worship is marked by a raised wooden platform having four wooden pillars twenty feet high. Worshippers reach this platform by climbing wooden ladders which are attached on one side or sometimes on each side of the platform. A trident and a stone are placed on the ground. On the platform there is built a rotating wooden bar with belts. The whole structure is painted with vermilion every year.
There is no priest in the worship of Gal Bapsi. Male members of the family decide to become Lada; worshippers who take part in the ceremony. This year Mahesh’s paternal uncles Kishan and Babu decided to become Lada. Two days before the ceremony they started acquiring ritual purity by keeping a fast and by physical seclusion from other members of the family, keeping a strict separation between the sacred and profane spheres. As well as Lada there are two young assistants called Poteni. Poteni are usually young boys that accompany the Lada wherever he goes. A day before the ceremony turmeric paste is rubbed on the entire body of the Lada and he wears ceremonial garb with a headdress. In the morning they sprinkle country-made tribal liquor, Mahua in the courtyard of the house. After this they make their way to the place where the structure of Gal Bapsi is situated. Usually this is built at a common place close to all the villages of the Bhil community.
At the place of worship of Gal Bapsi hundreds of people from the Bhil communities assemble from different villages. The whole area is filled with the loud noise of drum beats and people’s voices shouting the glory of Gal Bapsi. Pairs of Lada’s, the main worshippers, take to running circumambulation around the wooden platform. After this each worshipper or Lada climbs to the top of the platform where two or three people help to tie him to the rotating bar. One end of a rope is attached to the rotating bar and on the ground family members of the tied worshipper pull the rope while running around the platform thus revolving the tied worshipper. Usually they take seven rounds but it could also be less. Once the worshipper completes revolving, he comes down. In between family members sacrifice a goat by the side of the platform in front of the public.
“What if a worshipper fell from the rotating bar”? I asked Mahesh.
“He will be killed by the people, because his fall to the ground means that he climbed on Gal Bapsi with evil intention and Gal Baba punished him by making him fall to the ground” Mahesh said with a plain voice. Crime against Gal Bapsi is a crime against the whole community and offending imposters are punished by the hands of the whole community.
The ceremony ended and it’s now dark. Everybody has left for home. It seems that the god Gal Bapsi after going through the daylong noisy boisterous festivity and spilled blood is now dozing in the encroaching darkness of deserted night. The Bhil tribal people retreated to their forest villages with staggering feet as they danced too much drank too much and are now tired. I am waiting for Mahesh to respond to me about my question but he disappeared by telling me that he is going for a pee. In the darkness the place looks ghostly; the languid wind is laden with the mysterious smell of a dead day and the mist of frightening silence in the surrounding forest is occasionally broken by the beastly shrieking of wild animals. I think God is sleeping.