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When the blood is spilled and goddess becomes happy!

Held every year on Raksha Bandhan, Devidhura Bagwal is a unique festival

India is a land of myriad cultures. The different cultures and societies have their own festivals. And, even the festivals common across cultures have different ways to celebrate. Most of these festivals find their roots in mythological stories and legends, therefore don’t feel surprised when I say that even today a festival is celebrated where people throw stones on each other with intent to hurt so that blood is spilled which would eventually make the goddess happy and she will shower her blessings.

Barahi Devi temple at Devidhura

Festival happens at Devidhura in Champawat district of Himalayan state Uttarakhand every year on the day of Raksha Bandhan, which falls on full moon day of the Shravan (or sawan) month of the Hindu calendar. It is more commonly known as Devidhura Bagwal.

I had heard about the festival for decades but was able to witness it only last year. A year has passed and it is time again for it.

I usually make either Shitalakhet or Almora as my base for bike travels in Kumaon region. Devidhura is around 80 kilometres from Almora and it take roughly three hours to reach there by road on the Lohaghat route. It’s a beautiful route passing through dense forest of pine, silver oak and deodars, with occasional views of Himalayan peaks moving along.

The term ‘bagwal’ itself means war of stones. There is no written history of how old this tradition is, or what is the reason behind this festival. It’s all a part of the rich oral heritage of the region, transferred through generations for many centuries. But what most of the legends agree upon is a story that this festival is actually a reminiscent of practice of human sacrifice prevalent in the region. Bagwal is played at the ground right in front of temple of Barahi Devi and it is said that as a substitute to human sacrifice this festival was started in a form of fight by throwing stones on each other and let blood equivalent to that of a human body spill in total to please the goddess.

It is also said that Garhwal and Kumaon regions of the hill state have had a rich tradition of bagwal at many places. Seemingly, use of stones as a war tool has been prevalent here in early historic times. There are a few mythological stories as well. Eventually, only this one bagwal at Devidhura is what left in the entire region.

Well, the curiosity of witnessing this festival and documenting it brought me from Delhi to Almora and then Devidhura in the company of my well known photographer friend from Almora – Jaimitra Singh Bisht

It is a very popular festival and many-many thousands of people from near and far as well as tourists come to see it, making this otherwise small and sleepy town bustling with activities, fair, food and all. With a crowd many times its carrying capacity, it simply seems like bursting at it seams.

All moving towards the field of action.

Moreover, because of the COVID pandemic, festival wasn’t celebrated in actual form for two years – 2020 and 2021. Only symbolic prayers were done. But, it was going to take place again in its original form in 2022. So, the added excitement after two years of wait had also brought more than usual number of people here. Even the state government had designated this as a state festival.

A winding mountain road takes you to Devidhura, located at the altitude of 1850 metres. With so many people there, the road leading to Devidhura becomes parking place many kilometres before the actual town. Finding a place to park your vehicles is a tough job, or you have to do it quite downhill and do a trek from there till town and then to temple. We had to walk almost two kilometres with all our heavy cameras, after leaving our vehicle. 

After entering the town and while moving towards the temple ground, known as – Kholikhan Doorvachoud maidan, we felt like moving through sea of humans and we could just see he heads all around. By the time we reached, all the places around the ground within the safe distance and with good view as well, had been occupied by the people. We moved inside the ground towards the main stands where all the action was supposed to take place. 

Bagwal is a long and highly ritualistic affair. Festival itself runs for many days. I won’t go in details of these rituals. But the basic concept is that people from four specific communities of the region, related to erstwhile warrior clans, only can take part in the bagwal. Group of people taking part in the festival come all dressed up in traditional costumes with a stick in hand and accompanied by drums and other traditional musical instruments. They also carry bamboo made huge shields to protect themselves from the stones being thrown towards them. These shields called as  – ‘chantolis’ are also traditionally made for this festival.

On the full moon day, around the noon time the groups of people participating in the bagwal, reach the temple ground. They have a designated time and direction to enter the ground. In a pre-decided order these community-based groups pay their obeisance to the goddess Barahi at her temple, one by one. For the bagwal four communities constitute two sides. 

At an auspicious moment the main temple priest announces the start of the bagwal by blowing a conch shell. Immediately both sides start throwing stones on each other. Stones are already collected and kept in hand (baskets) for the purpose. It is actual throwing, not symbolic. At times you can see hundreds of stones flying in the air from one side to other. Stones keep hitting people and injuring them. It continues for almost 10 minutes. When the priest believes that enough blood has been spilled, he reaches the ground and announces the closure of bagwal and the stone war stops.

Since this festival involves lot many people getting hurt, there has been a big controversy on it for last many years. The matter had even gone to the Uttarakhand High Court which passed some directions on it and asking organisers to use flowers and fruits instead of sones. But then does such directions hold any weightage in the matters of religion! We did see few baskets of fruits lying in the ground, but actual preparations were all of stones. People were busy breaking big rocks into handy stones. Locals do come prepared for it, even those who are not participating in bagwal. I saw many people sitting close to bagwal area wearing full-faced helmets. I realised the importance of it only later. 

We witnessed brutal stone-throwing and actually I myself got hurt in the very first minute. A stone hit me on my head just above my left temple. I immediately started bleeding. At that moment, I was right at bottom of the audience stands facing the throw. I moved aside. With stones flying everywhere, it was not possible for me to go the medical centre established there. My friend tied my handkerchief tightly on the wound to stop the bleeding. I was lucky to have escaped with that injury, could have been a serious matter. 

As per our count, number of injured people were in hundreds. After the stone-war was over and we somehow managed to reach the first-aid desk, the medical assistant suggested me to get stitches on my injury from the hospital. But, I ignored his suggestion, for good perhaps in the hindsight! It wasn’t that serious.

After it was over, coming out of the town, back to the main road was equally painful. It was utter chaos, with everyone jostling to move out. Even walking through streets was impossible, as they were literally jampacked. And, when we were able to manage through that crowd, second struggle awaiting us was on the road to wade through vehicles parked on both sides and suddenly wanting to back and go downhill. 

Blood on my head, a handkerchief tied tightly and cameras taking some rest amidst flying stones!

Thus, I got the long-awaited chance to witness this unique festival by actually and inadvertently becoming the part of the bagwal. I still carry the scar!

How to go

Devidhura is about 80 kilometres from Almora towards Lohaghat and 43 kilometres from Lohaghat. You have many ways to reach there. You can either reach Almora and then go to Devidhura via Jalna and Dol, or you can go take Khatima, Banbasa, Tanakpur, Champawat and Lohaghat route to reach Devidhura. Alternatively, you can also take Bhimtal, Padampuri, Dhanachuli and Shaharfatak route to reach Devidhura, which is actually fastest route to reach from plains.  

Devidhura has some small hotels, a few have come up in recent years with influx of tourists increasing every year. They are not the luxurious ones, but few are good with all basic comfort. But unless you have a connection to this region, tourists hardly stay here overnight (locals do), more so during the bagwal festivities. It is better to make any of nearby cities – Almora, Mukteshwar, Nainital, Champawat or Lohaghat as the base and make a day visit to Devidhura. It also makes sense because bagwal is just the day affair and one has enough time to get back to the base.

You can also watch the exclusive video of this Devidhura Bagwal on my YouTube channel by clicking on the thumbnail below:

Have you been to Devidhura to see the bagwal? Share your experiences with us in the comments sections below!

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