Maha Shivratri 2024: Exploring The Ancient Folktales Of Lord Shiva

Explore the ancient folktales of Lord Shiva this Maha Shivratri 2024, from the mythological tale of Shiva and Parvati to the cultural legacy of Khandoba
Devotees throw turmeric as an offering to Lord Khandoba at the Jejuri temple, Maharashtra
Devotees throw turmeric as an offering to Lord Khandoba at the Jejuri temple, MaharashtraShutterstock

A couple quarrels over a game of dice; the husband loses and storms out in a huff, heading for the distant forests. The wife is initially amused but soon gets worried when he doesn't return. She looks for him in the woods, calling out his name. The husband hears her but remains hidden, secretly enjoying her anxiety. Although familiar with the forest, the wife unexpectedly comes across a tiger, his eyes as baleful as his growl. Startled, she cries out, "Trahi mam Girisha – Oh Lord of the Mountains, save me!" Hearing her plea for help, the mollified husband rushes to her rescue. This story has been passed on from generation to generation, and many will know that the couple in the mythological tale is Shiva and Parvati, playing a game of dice at their snowy abode, Mount Kailash.

Shiva loses to Parvati, staking his possessions one after the other. In the last roll, he stakes his home. Having lost Kailash, he has to leave the Himalayas. Dejected, he wanders southwards, crosses the Sahyadri and enters the dense forest of Gomantak. In Kailash, the forlorn Parvati leaves home to search for him, crossing rivers and mountains, and finally enters the forests where Shiva has taken refuge. But an encounter with a tiger turns the course of events. Terrified, she calls her husband for protection, but her words get jumbled up. "Hey Girisha Mamtrahi," she wants to say, asking the Lord of the Mountains to protect her. Instead, she says, "Trahi mam Girisha." Hearing these words, Shiva, who had assumed the form of a tiger to frighten his wife, instantly returns to his normal form. But her plea for help becomes an iconic name for her rescuer. Since then, Shiva, in parts of Western India, is also known as Mam Girisha. And over time, Mam Girisha has become Mangesh.

Shree Saunsthan Nagesh Maharudra temple in Goa
Shree Saunsthan Nagesh Maharudra temple in GoaShutterstock

Temple Tales

Perched on a hillock amid thick forests in Goa, the temple in Priol village is known as Mangueshi. It is believed that devotees discovered a shivlinga in the area where Shiva had taken refuge and built a temple there. It is one of the largest and most frequently visited temples in Goa. Shiva, as Shri Mangesh, is the kuladevata (family or clan deity) of the people of the region. Devotees throng the temple for festivals such as Magha Purnima (Jatrotsav) and Mahashivratri.

The temple's name has another legend attached to it—the Mangesh linga is believed to have been consecrated on the mountain of Mangireesh on the banks of the River Bhagirathi by Brahma. From there, devotees brought it to Gomantak. They settled on the banks of River Zuari, at Kushasthali (or modern-day Cortalim), and established a shrine there. But with time, the linga found another abode. As devotees feared the temple would fall under the invading Portuguese, they moved the Mangesh linga deeper into the forests to its present location at Mangeshi in Priol.

A scene of Khandoba temple immesered in turmeric powder
A scene of Khandoba temple immesered in turmeric powderShutterstock

Symbol Of A Cultural Ethos

Shiva, as Mahadev, is the beloved pan-India deity worshipped in different forms across India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Saurashtra to Assam. Mostly represented as a yogi, Shiva is also described as a fierce deity, Bhairava, his militant form. One such avatar is Khandoba in Maharashtra. Khandoba, also known as Martanda Bhairava, Malhari, or Malhar, is worshipped as a manifestation of Shiva and is the most popular kuladevata or the patron deity in this part of the Deccan Plateau.

He is the God of the Hills, a solar deity, and a regional guardian, assimilating various regions and communities. He represents everyone—from the warrior, farmer, and shepherd to priests, merchants, and royalty, as well as hunter tribes native to the hills and forests of this region. He is also a subaltern god, embracing all communities. The legend goes that Shiva gifted the boon of invincibility to the demon brothers, Malla and Mani. The brothers wreaked havoc, destroying kingdoms and vanquishing kings and seers. Desperate, the seven most revered sages—saptrishi—approached Shiva for protection.

Realizing that he had to undo his mistake, Shiva assumed the avatar of Martanda Bhairava or Khandoba, riding the Nandi bull and leading an army of gods, including his two sons Kartikeya and Ganapati and his wife Parvati, locally known as Mhalsa. Khandoba was as luminous as gold and the sun, covered in turmeric with a crescent moon on his forehead, holding the trishul, the damaru, and the khanda (or the khadga), a double-edged sword. That was how he was named Khandoba. The war continued for six days. The gods finally defeated the asura army, with Khandoba killing Malla and Mani. A remorseful Mani, while dying, prayed for the well-being of humankind and offered his white horse to Khandoba, begging that he be present at every shrine of Khandoba, with an offering of goat meat—a ritual that continues to be followed by Shiva devotees. His wish was granted.

Mani was blessed, unlike his unrepentant brother, Malla, who—before dying—cursed everybody with death and destruction. Khandoba went on to decapitate him, earning the name Malhari, or killer of Malla. Copper figurines of Khandoba riding a horse (sometimes with Mhalsa) are worshipped by devotees in household shrines. Legend has it that two lingas appeared where the demons were killed, giving rise to the Khandoba temple, standing proud on a hillock in Jejuri near Pune.

Another scene of Khandoba temple
Another scene of Khandoba templeShutterstock

Inclusive Ways

A rich legacy of ballads and stories hails Khandoba, elevating him from a folk deity to Shiva, the destroyer. Khandoba's two wives—Mhalsa and Banai—are identified as Shiva's wife, Parvati and Ganga, but with details that highlight their cultural and social moorings. Mhalsa and Banai are women from different communities and backgrounds, and their unions with Khandoba throw light on a deep socio-cultural connection between the divine and the community. Khandoba's first wife is Mhalsa, from the merchant community, and his second wife, Banai, is a shepherd's daughter. His marriage with Mhalsa was "arranged" and was conducted with rituals and revelry. Khandoba's love for Banai culminates in a "love" marriage.

There are threads in the relationships that women across generations may identify with. Mhalsa is described as an excellent cook, while the sultry and free-spirited Banai has poor culinary skills. Mhalsa has a "cultured" background, as against the earthy, non-conformist Banai, who personifies "nature." Folk songs recount tales of their quarrels—the most prominent being that of Mhalsa's fury at the second marriage when Khandoba returns to Jejuri with his new bride. To ease the tension between his wives, Khandoba hands the upper half of the hill to Mhalsa and the lower half to Banai.

The idol of Mhalsa is placed with Khandoba in the main shrine at the top of the hill at the Jejuri temple, while there is a separate shrine to Banai, situated lower down. But there is more to these clashes than mere domestic disharmony. The fights between Mhalsa and Banai again reveal the essential conflict between nature and man-made norms, the wild against the restraint posed by social rules. The presence of his numerous other wives displays a strong inter-community connect. Khandoba's third wife, Rambhai, is a tailor who is both beautiful and talented. She is also worshipped as a goddess. His fourth wife, Phulai, comes from the gardener community, again celebrating the irrevocable bond between humankind and nature.

Candai Bhagavin, the fifth wife, is the daughter of an oil-presser, another prominent sect in the region. Each marriage joins communities, reiterating that Khandoba is a clan god for all sections of people, the beloved God who grants wishes. As the husband of many wives, Khandoba is considered the God of fertility. Newly married couples visit Khandoba temples, particularly the shrine in Jejuri, seeking blessings on the consummation of marriages. To add the element of chivalry and romance, the groom is expected to carry his bride up the steep stone steps to the Jejuri temple—proving his love and devotion as Khandoba did. That few can venture more than five steps merely confirms mortal limitations.

Yellow And Gold

Khandoba is worshipped with turmeric. The Jejuri temple is distinct and unusual, embraced by the bright yellow of turmeric thrown around it. The hues are an ode to Khandoba, swathed in golden robes, distributing gold goodness. For the devotees at Jejuri, the turmeric signifies the riches Lord Khandoba would bless them with. His idol is often depicted with four arms. He holds a bhandara patra or a bowl of turmeric powder, and a sword. But Khandoba or Mangesh, to a cross-cultural swathe of people and places, is an interpretive faith not determined by strictly religious notions but by a socio-cultural ethos.

The story of how Shiva becomes Mangesh and Khandoba illustrates how ancient folktales of the divine turn into a symbol of the cultural ethos of a land and its people. It is a narrative passed from one generation to the next through stories, songs, prayers, and belief.

Kavita Kané is a former journalist and author of seven novels romancing the word and the world of Indian mythology.

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