JATRA : Festival of Bhallesa

Arvind Kotwal
The mountainous region of the Bhallesa in district Doda comes alive with the annual religious festivities called jatras in the months of August and September. The beautiful mountains reverberate with the sounds of flutes, drums and joyous dancing. Jatras are convivial gatherings of the mountain folk held in honour of gram devtas and kul devtas (village and family deities). The festivities are held to worship and propitiate the deities for having bestowed their divine grace upon the devotees as also to remember ancestors. It is a medley of religious rituals, songs, dances and feasting, generally lasting two to three days from village to village on different dates during the two month period.
The ceremonies get initiated with the ritual of karaei as the families cook offerings for their respective deities. There after, the villagers converge at a central point in the village, generally the biggest rooftop or the largest open space with nishanis – maces, tridents and chains symbolizing the manifestation of their respective family deities. The sthapana of the nishanis is done with great fanfare and rituals by prayers and ablutions of flowers, halwa and other offerings and in the presence of the chela (shaman). Names of the patron deities are called out by the chelas. Villages have their own patron deities (devtas) who are manifestations of Lord Shiva or nagas or birs like Lord Manimahesh, Mahalnag, Kilerunag, Bhalunbir, Kelubir etc. Even Matas like Sithla Mata, Sarthal Mata, Roshara Mata are patron deities. The quaint band of the region – the dhons and other musicians play along during the pooja of the nishanis. During this process the chela goes into a trance called grehni and performs the role of a medium between the devotees and the deity. In this state he shakes uncontrollably and announces the commands of the deity to the devotees on a host of issues concerning their well being and the general good of the village. The chela also communicates the answer of the deity to the queries made by individuals seeking cures for adversity of any sort being faced by them. At times, the chela gets into a frenzied state and performs extreme acts like self flagellation with the chains and piercing cheeks with sharp metal objects. Once the sthapna is accomplished, the merriment starts off with the kud – the village fair or mela. Kud can be both, a day time affair or a nocturnal one. The day kuds of villages Kharangal, Inharra, Chanwri, Joura, Kansoo etc. are popular. Like any village fair or mela, kiosks selling sweetmeats, toys etc. are also set up during the kud. Dancing is the most important part of kud and the dheku dance takes the pride of the place in the dance forms of these mountains. Men, women and even children form a large circle and at times two concentric circles and go round and round twirling their bodies and flailing their arms while making circular motions with their hands to the beats of the dhons. Starting off on a slow languid note, the dance gradually gains tempo as the music gathers crescendo reaching a feverish pace at the culmination. The lasten on the other hand is a more vigorous dance in which people dance with abandon and jump up and down to the fast paced music..
The dhons is a fascinating ensemble comprising an over sized drum called dhol, flutes, a metal rod called bhanu, cymbals called jhelli, two long sticks called chamak and a curved horn shaped trumpet locally called narshinga. The arrival of the dhons party on the day of the commencement of the jatra is an occasion for great joy in the village. The band goes around the village from house to house playing the music to set the tone for the festivities that are to follow. The flautists play a simple melodic refrain set to a rhythm by the drum beats which are slow in the beginning and progressively accelerate. As the rhythm gets faster the chamak are used periodically to beat one side of the drum to create a staccato effect. Accompanied by sporadic peals of the narsingha, the effect infuses great energy into the music. A high point of the jatra celebrations is also the assembly of dhons parties of several villages at one spot during the day time festivities which compete with each other for best performance. The parties try to outdo each other by putting in virtuoso performances and are generally adjudged on the basis of the staccato effect which is played with great energy to create the loudest and stirring sound termed as malhar which has jocularly become proverbial in the Bhallesi dialect for a severe thrashing! The winning band is honored with a turban which is tied on the head of the band master.
The dances and festivities last the whole day or night as the case may be. The nocturnal festivities though not common are spectacular. The village of Bhejja west of Gandoh, the administrative headquarter of Bhallesa, is famed for its nocturnal kud, by far the biggest in the region. Held on the 8th day of Sharadh every year, the festivities begin at dusk and continue throughout the night till dawn with accompanying prayers, songs and dances. A huge bonfire is lit up which keeps burning throughout the night with people dancing around it. Towards the morning when the bonfire has been reduced to embers and its time for culmination of the festivities, the local chela called gathir proceeds to walk barefoot on the embers thus bringing the proceedings to a striking end. Other popular night kuds are held in the villages of Poora and Bhatola.
An equally significant feature of the jatras is bali or sacrifices of lambs which are conducted during the proceedings.
A lamb is splashed with water and its movement to shake off the water (biz) is taken as a sign of acceptance of the offering by the deity and is immediately slaughtered. Since relatives from far and near also join in the festivities the sacrifices provide enough mutton to families to organize feasts for several days. Besides the non- vegetarian food, another delicacy of the region which is relished during the festivities are chattroi. These are pancakes made of a batter of wheat flour and buck wheat flour. The batter is poured on to a hot ghee smeared griddle in a circular motion from a receptacle which has several nozzle like outlets so as form a large pancake comprising numerous thin lines. The chattroi is consumed by dipping it in a mixture of honey and ghee thus making it an extremely delicious dessert much like gheour which is consumed in the plains of Jammu. Many other snacks and savories like kankora, bade, thupen, etc. are also made.
After three days of hectic festivities, merriment and feasting the jatra conclude when the nishanis are taken back to homes and shrines and people disperse only to assemble for the jatra of another village a few days later. Jatras generally wind up towards the end of September and at times early October after nearly every village has celebrated the festival.
As a part of cultural tourism, jatras have the potential of attracting people from both within the state and outside. For a tourist the Bhallesa region holds double allure; natural beauty and colourful fairs and festivals. Though infrastructure in terms of facilities for tourists and road connectivity is gradually coming up, this region nevertheless is an ideal destination for the more adventurous tourists and culture enthusiasts who would like to backpack and see the scenery and the life and customs of the people of this remote and pristine area of our state.
(The author is Deputy Commissioner, Commercial Taxes)


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