In Spirit: Dev Bhoomi, the Land of the Gods
Two years ago, I resumed my travels through India to reveal its mysteries. Armed with my camera and my notebooks, ready to discover everything I could learn about yoginis, I decided to start my journey in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, a village at the foot of the Himalayas which is part of the “Valley of the Gods”, or Dev Bhoomi in Hindi.
In this region, the temples are known for their wooden structure and the innumerable Devtas that inhabit them. These village deities, Grāmadevatā, have nothing to do with the classical Hindu pantheon. They exist only in their village and are represented by copper masks called mohas. For some important ceremonies or festivals like Dussehra, the devtas are transported on palanquins adorned for the occasion. The procession then travels with music, sometimes over long distances. It is accompanied by the inhabitants of the village and their Gur, the shaman who channels and speaks for the deity. Shaman and occasionally the villagers go into a trance, receiving the wishes of the deity.
I am told that in front of the cortege, enormous trumpets sound to drive away the yoginis that could attract the substance of the deity out of the mask that she inhabits. Yoginis are goddesses represented in groups that find their place between gods and humans. If in other parts of India their sculptural representation is very elaborate, at the foot of the Himalayas their form is primitive. The presence of yoginis is emphasized by red cloths or stones erected in the midst of small wooden temples bordering the main sanctuaries. The local Hindi call them jogini or jogni. Intimately linked to nature and the elements, they live in trees, close to rivers, like quiet and remote spaces. When we ask for explanations, we quickly realize that locals prefer not to talk about them.
Today, Manjeet is my guide. The young man tells me he knows a temple of yoginis to which he can bring me, so we leave at dawn. At the end of two hours of navigating the mountain roads we arrive at a village where we stop. I follow my guide into a small metal barracks where I find washed out Bollywood posters on the walls and three old men dressed in traditional jackets and hats playing cards. I accept a chai (indian tea) that a young waiter with slicked-backed hair serves me. It is almost anachronistic in this landscape. I am surrounded by men, in a space of men. I do not say anything, I do not ask, I observe and I listen. “Someone will join us,” says Manjeet, “we have to go through the village with someone from here to avoid having problems with the locals.”
Local beliefs are attached to their village. Each village has its deity, that is, its strength and energy. Not just anyone can enter it. To benefit from the energy of the deity of the village is an act that cannot be done lightly.
I take a seat next to my driver while one of the old men moves into the back seat, promptly joined by another young man from the village with a burdened brow. Nobody says hello, as if it were a superfluous detail. I appreciate this simple silence, where nothing is said.
The village of Nattan is not easy to access. The path ends at a creek where we must leave the car and continue on foot. At the entrance, women are perched like colorful birds on the railing of an elevated house, adorned with colorful headscarves on the head and wearing the traditional pattoo (large blankets skillfully draped and attached by a silver chain neck). All faces are looking at us. My guides advance at full speed. On the edge of the path, I see children playing, women washing laundry, and sometimes shy and curious faces emerging from the shadows of the door frames, observing us as we pass. I ask Manjeet if I can stop to take pictures, he says “no, not now. When we come back. Now we have to move on”. It clearly has nothing to do with a tourist visit. We cross this village which seems to exist out of time. An immutable and tribal atmosphere reigns there. I feel that I do not have all the codes and that many things escape my understanding. Their looks, the way they walking, all the rules of politeness, caste, respect that come into play; it is an unspoken dialogue that I do not have, so I stick to what I feel.
We finally sink into the forest. It rises steeply between rocks and pines. Forty minutes later, I finally see the roof of a wooden building drawn between the branches. Once my shoes are removed, I go around Shanchar temple in which we cannot enter because it is unfortunately locked. Manjeet proudly shows me the deities who do not really have anything of the yoginis that I know, but are simply several sculptures of goddesses, including the classic Mahiṣāsura.
In his book “Hindu Goddesses”, David Kinglsey explains how in the villages the local deity is much more important than that of the classical pantheon. The local goddess is not only the wife of the village, its mistress, married to it. She is the deity that precedes and therefore owns the village. Thus, any sculpture will be able to embody the shape of the goddess in its most essential archetype. The term yogini is vague. It is simply a form of the goddess, rather than a goddess form itself. A few weeks later, during my meeting with Mark Dyczkowski, he explained to me that according to his studies all the goddesses are in fact yoginis. Yoginis are therefore not so much a type of deity that gravitate in parallel to the predominant deities on a horizontal plane, they are rather on a vertical plane, an incarnation that any goddess can embody. This analysis requires understanding the notion of a goddess not only in terms of its representation, but also on the esoteric plane where its form may vary depending on the plane in which it operates.
After about fifteen minutes, we resume our walk and continue to sink between the tall trees. On the trunks, the red fabrics, sign of the goddess, become more and more recurrent. Manjeet explains to me that in this clearing many statues are buried. The earth is full of energy, and here, the villagers come to make requests to the Gods or to heal them. A little further, you can see massive stones standing between the grass. The old man explains that the stelae sunk in the ground determine a circular enclosure in which it is forbidden to step into. It is a circle of yoginis called jiddi, with magical and sacred forces.
In this esoteric place, the subtle world borders on the gross world. Deities are not unreachable entities, they represent living forces with whom everyone can interact.
We go back down to the village. The houses with traditional architecture and carved wood are raised, which allows the animals on the first floor to heat up and warm the room where the family lives during the winter. On the roofs, beans and corn dry in the sun and children cannot help this time to come to meet us. After a short stop in the village we continue our journey to other Bandhar, these buildings reserved to store the attributes reserved for the gods, and temples of the goddess (Temple of Tripurasundari in Nagga Village and Chamunda Temple in the village of Nashala). We come to pay our respects before the erected stones.
There are still places where the world of gods and men touch each other; where heaven and earth meet. In the simple things, in everyday life, the notion of the divine pace the actions of all. One evening, as I sink into sleep, I see myself meditating in my dream. I feel that behind me something is happening, but I cannot see. Suddenly, I feel for sure that it is the yoginis laughing at me: they laugh, because I am looking forward, to the point of crossing the world, searching for something that is actually so close to me, right there, behind my gaze. I bring this space back with me, as it exists beyond geography, and it is clear that I cannot go towards it , so I simply stop and let it take me.
Thanks to Aadi and her friends who opened the door of their world which allowed me to discover Kullu and it’s valley.
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