"It was Someshwar Devta's blessings that it didn't rain during the festival," said Gajendra Singh Rana, the chief organiser of the recently concluded Anduri Utsav in Raithal village of Uttarkashi. The belief in his eyes spoke volumes of the faith villagers pose in their kul devta.
"The weather conditions were unsuitable, so we had prayed to him to ensure there was no disruption of any sort at the mela," Rana added, referring to the incessant rains wreaking havoc in many parts of Uttarakhand.
Untouched by rains, the radiant bugyal (meadow) of Dayara, about 11 km from Raithal, was adorned with makkhan and mattha (butter and buttermilk) as part of the Anduri Utsav festivities, also known as the Butter Festival. Observed on August 17, the locals used the occasion to thank Lord Krishna for his blessings and for keeping their cattle healthy.
A gamut of spirituality and traditions, the festive trance prompted revellers to groove to the folk tunes, smear the desi makkhan on each other and aim their buttermilk-filled water guns at their fellow attendees. However, the multi-hued doli (palanquin) of Lord Someshwar, complemented by Pandava Nritya, caught one's eyes the most. "This was the deity's first appearance at the festival, and his presence has only magnified the festive fervour," Rana added.
Someshwar Devta is the collective deity of five villages, including Raithal. After the symbolic dance to commence the celebrations, the palanquin bearers took the doli off their shoulders to perform the Pandava Nritya as a tribute to the five Pandavas, Yudhishtir, Bhima, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev. The folk dance holds great significance for locals, who re-enact the tales of the Mahabharata with much gusto. Accompanied by folk instruments such as dhol damau (drums) and bhankore (trumpet), these artists stage lila (play) through dancing and recitation. This tradition is mainly prevalent in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.
Also known as Pandava Leela, it is one of the most revered rituals of the land of Gods. "The tradition of Pandava Nritya has been continuing for centuries. It is performed as a ritual to thank the kul devta for ensuring our good health, well-being and harvest," Rana said.
Scriptures like "Skanda Purana," a prominent religious text in Hinduism, have mentioned the Pandavas-Garhwal connect. Its "Kedar Khand' explores their arrival and subsequent visits to the villages they stayed in before setting out on their search for Lord Shiva.
"Pandava Nritya has its origin in many folklores," said Rana. "After being told by Lord Krishna to surrender their weapons as penance in the aftermath of the Kurukshetra war, Pandavas left them in several villages of Uttarakhand," he added.
The legend goes that it was at these places that the Pandavas had come during their descent into exile, search for Shiva and, finally, ascension to heaven. On their way, they crossed the Mandakini River and several hamlets, where they left their arms, such as bow, quiver, sword, mace and javelin. Pandava Leela is said to be observed with great pomp and show in the areas where they stayed or rested.
Pashvas is the term used for people performing the Pandava Nritya. It is said that once the music reverberates, the divine presence of the five Pandavas is activated in their bodies.
"Pashvas are handpicked, as their role requires absolute devotion and dedication," said Rana. "The songs sung during this ritual, take the Pashvas to a state of spiritual consciousness, with the men appearing to project the presence of a supernatural force in their bodies."
Moving in circles and taking turns, these men thump to every beat of the folk instruments. Their symbolic embodiment of the Pandavas establishes the significance of many legends about Garhwal's sacred past. With every beat, the Pashvas engage in a camaraderie with their deity. From hand gestures to footwork, these customary movements add to the exuberance. Basking in the holy glory, the fascinated bystanders also clap and whistle.
With their presence traced in various Garhwal regions like Rudraprayag, Joshimath, Uttarkashi, and Sonprayag, among others, the Garhwalis proudly identify as descendants of the Pandavas. They celebrate their Pandava lineage in many ways. Like in some places, Pandava Leela is organised between November and February to thank the almighty for a prosperous harvest season and to pray for an even better new year. Festivities last from three days to a month, varying from village to village, attracting locals and tourists alike. In districts like Rudraprayag, the dates for the spiritual act are decided as per the astronomical calendar, panchaang.
Another common belief is that the spiritual exercise is a way to cure khurpak ( hoof-and-mouth disease), found in cattle. Moreover, the married daughters also come home on the occasion to share their tales of joy and sorrow. It is a camaraderie of the old and young over music, food and shared laughter.