Mysticism in the ‘Holy’ Himalayas

Spirit possession séance is a rather common phenomenon in the mystically inclined hills of Uttarakhand. Source: Mukesh Rawat Central Himalayas comprising the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of Uttarakhand remain a place where spirits abound and mysticism is the order of the day


  • This write-up was published in Hardnews magazine in July 2015 and can be read here

In October 2015, 37-year-old Dinesh Verma was at a reputed private hospital in New Delhi. His wife was battling for her life. Her kidneys were malfunctioning; stomach was gripped by a severe infection; a scrub typhus attack in her brain had resulted in problems with her eyesight. All of this started with jaundice.

She was rushed to New Delhi after doctors in Haldwani and Bareilly had given up hope. The treatment began and after 10 days (nearly six in the ICU), they drove back to their village in Uttarakhand. She had made a miraculous recovery.

Verma, no doubt, expresses gratitude towards the doctors who treated his wife. But he also strongly believes that this ‘miracle’ was possible because of the blessings from their kul devata (family deity).

“There wasn’t any hope. After 10 days in the ICU, the doctors in Bareilly informed us that her survival chances were a meager 15%. We then prayed to our kul devata to come to our rescue. We weren’t disappointed. The doctors did a great job but I think it was with the blessings from our kul devata,” he says.

After reaching their village, the Vermas soon performed a jagar (a traditional ceremony of spirit possession séance, prevalent in the Central Himalayan regions of Kumaon and Garhwal) to thank the deities and find solutions to other unresolved issues that were troubling the family. Apparently, the cause of the tragedy was that the kul devata was displeased at being ignored for so long. The family had failed to carry out the customary rituals from time-to-time.

The land of mysticism

Spirit possession séance is a rather common phenomenon in the mystically inclined hills of Uttarakhand. A visit to any village will be marked with countless stories of ‘lived experiences’ with ghosts and gods alike. Villagers here are skilled in amusing, entertaining and exciting you with dramatic narrations of such anecdotes, one after another.

Be it the forests, rivers, hillocks or valleys, everything is sacred here. The terrain is dotted with countless temples called than. These are not grand structures. Most comprise little more than a few stones and an earthen lamp. But they are arguably pivots of the social, religious and cultural lives of the hill people because they house the thousands of devis and devatas that are worshiped in Uttarakhand.

Every family has a kul devata whose blessings are sought in times of crisis. The village too has a deity that protects it from evil spirits. Photo: Mukesh Rawat

Travelling in the Kumaon-Garhwal hills in the 1970s and 1980s, Bill Aitken (a renowned chronicler of the region) was excited by the ancient tradition of jagar. His masterpiece, The Nanda Devi Affair, not only devotes considerable space to his experience with this tradition, but also gets its name from one of the widely-revered deities of the hills, Nanda Devi, personified in the sublime Himalayan peak as the ‘guardian deity’ of the state.

Connecting with the other-worldly 

The Kumaonis and Garhwalis are a very religious people. Though part of Hinduism now, they have also maintained a remarkably distinct tradition of worship in which the spirits of gods and the dead possess/incarnate upon humans. In a jagar they are often invoked by narrating devata legends in the form of ballads, accompanied by folk music, to settle a crisis in the family or the village. The presence of this tradition is said to predate the arrival of Hinduism in the region.

The ceremony in which the gods and spirits are invoked is called jagar. It is a non-Sanskritic ceremony in which caste and gender generally do not impose many barriers. Writing in Himalayas: Past and Present, Allen C. Fanger says that “a jagar is essentially a spirit possession séance in which a designated deity or deities (devatas) are induced by ritual drumming and the singing of traditional devata legends to possess a prearranged medium of the spirit”.

Though the ceremony is prevalent across the Kumaon-Garhwal hills, there are slight variations from region to region, sometimes even in neighbouring villages.

Every family has a kul devata whose blessings are sought in times of crisis. The village too has a deity that protects it from evil spirits. The kul devata is worshiped not only during a jagar but on all occasions be it marriage, birth or everyday rituals. Apart from these, the spirits of the dead also play an important role.

Fifty-five-year-old Jeewanti Rawat is a strong believer. Sometimes she also enters a trance during a jagar. Apparently, there have been occasions when people have benefited from the solution she gave them. Her mother, Shanti Devi, was also an active participant in jagars in her prime. She would recount the tales and miseries of the people, living and dead, and offer solutions. Even though now in her sunset years, she is still highly respected in her village and the region around for her ‘sacrifices’ and ‘devotion’.

Rawat explains that a jagar is performed usually when there is some problem in the family. Many a time this is because the spirits of our ancestors are not at peace. It can be because they were victims of a treachery, they (or their children) were denied property or because proper rituals were not carried out after their death.

“It is these unhappy spirits that often trouble people. During a jagar all such spirits are invited, along with the deities. They are given a proper hearing. Their demands are sought and generally a compromise is made. The family religiously fulfills the demand,” she says.

Besides these, jagars are also performed during celebrations to seek divine blessings for the family. When it is done for the village, it is called a jatra. Unlike jagaras, jatras are organised over days and weeks. There are some villages where until a decade back, jatras would go on till 14 days, sometimes even more.

Scores of jagars are organised every year in almost every hill village. The jagariya (priest who conducts a jagar) and dangariya (the person whose body acts as a medium for the spirit to possess) are much sought after. Photo: Mukesh Rawat

In 2015, Harish Rawat, a resident of Basai village, located on the Kumaon-Garhwal border in Almora district, performed a jagar. Apparently, it was found that the family was being troubled by the spirit of an elderly lady who was their ancestor, probably more than a century ago.

When she died, her arthi (the dead body along with the crude bamboo structure used to carry it) was not taken to the shamshan ghat (place where the dead are burnt in Hindu tradition). For being denied this, her spirit was troubling the family. In the jagar she demanded that the rituals be carried out. As a result, the family performed all the rituals with a puffed doll as the arthi, shaved off their heads, observed the tervi and abstained from any celebrations for a year.

These are not isolated instances. Similar stories of people being ‘troubled’ by the dead or the displeasure of the kul devata are common in Uttarakhand.

Scores of jagars are organised every year in almost every hill village. The jagariya (priest who conducts a jagar) and dangariya (the person whose body acts as a medium for the spirit to possess) are much sought after. There are many families which are settled in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh and elsewhere for decades now, but they still visit their villages just to perform the rituals, lest they invite the ‘ire of the devatas’.

A tradition inching towards it end

However, despite its immense relevance in the hill culture, the jagar is a declining tradition. The new generation, particularly those whose parents migrated to the plains, do not believe in it. It also faces the accusation of being nothing but superstition.

Sixty-year-old Kishan Singh, a resident of Naini village near Ranikhet, has been a dangariya for decades. He strongly believes that if you still perform the jagar with a “pure and devout mind”, you will definitely get the desired results.

“Its relevance has declined because people have now polluted the tradition. We are not observing the rituals the way we should. These days often the jagariya and dangariya are seen taking liquor just before the jagar. In the old times, they had to follow strict regulations and abstinence. All this sets a bad example and people lose their faith,” he says.

Naveen Verma, an NRI from Uttarakhand, says, “I can’t say I fully believe in it. But I don’t discard it totally either. I have had a mixed experience. On some occasions I did feel that it is true but there were also occasions when it appeared a hoax. At best, I take it as a guideline and try not to displease the deity. But to say that I am dependent on them for all actions will be incorrect.”

Another major reason for the decline in the tradition is the compromise with procedures in a jagar. Kishan Singh believes that the devatas are omnipotent, “but the ones performing the jagar should also be adequately learned”. He says, “The title of dangariya was not given so easily in old days. Earlier, when someone claimed that he or she is being possessed by the Gods, the person was subjected to rigorous questioning by the elders about the past and present. After the questioning, the person was made to lick and hold red-hot iron to prove that he or she is truly possessed by gods.”

“But today, vested interests have crept in. There is enmity and people don’t subject the dangariyas to critical questioning. As a result, all types of people claim to be possessed by devatas. But there are many who are not genuine.”

However, despite the alleged cultural erosion, there are still many who believe in the age-old tradition. “Of course I believe in it. I have seen it from my childhood. My uncle is also a dhami (another name for dangariya) and that strengthens my belief,” says Neeraj Bhandari, a resident of Dhyan village in Pithoragarh district.

He adds that as a child he often fell sick. “After everything failed, we performed a jagar and since then I have been perfectly fine,” he says.

Writing in the 1970s, Fanger also talks about meeting hill people who “express ambivalence” about the jagar and other rituals and express that they “no longer believe in it”, some even terming it as superstition.

Twenty nine-year-old Deepak Mehra, an engineer in the industrial town of Khatima and a native of Almora district, agrees with this view. He says, “For me it’s nothing but superstition. It may be a coincidence. Some get the result, some don’t. If there really is some power, shouldn’t everyone get the results? I think your belief depends on your social conditioning. People don’t know why they believe in it. They just do it.”

A jagar in Timila village, near Ranikhet in Almora district. Photo: S Roy Biswas

On the other hand, Verma confesses that he is in a dilemma. “It’s difficult to tag this as superstition. It depends on the level of belief you have. When you get the desired result, you believe. When you don’t, you call it superstition. I have seen people holding red-hot iron with bare hands during their trance state as if it was wood. I don’t have an explanation. It’s not absolute black and white. There are a lot of shades in between,” he says.

Bhandari, however, appears clear in his stand. “I believe in this. Try as much as you want, you can’t change it. It is not superstition. My parents believe, my grandparents believed and I too believe in it.”

Today, people may have differences on the relevance jagars must have in solving a problems. However, what remains indisputable is the fact that over the centuries, jagar has been an important part of the hill culture. The music and songs in a jagar constitute an important part of the oral traditions of storytelling and folk culture in the Central Himalayan region.

In the words of Fanger,

jagar is a dramatic and important cultural performance that reflects the rich and vibrant cultural heritage” of the Kumaon-Garhwal hills.

It remains to be seen whether this age-old tradition will survive the onslaught of ‘modernity’. Will it be embraced by future generations as a cultural heritage, or will it simply be buried in the pages of history as black magic and superstition?

Only time will tell.

  • This write-up was published in Hardnews magazine in July 2015 and can be read here.