Chapter 4 Kings, Gods, and Political Leaders in Kullu


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Kings, Gods, and Political Leaders in Kullu (Himachal Pradesh)1
Daniela Berti

The historian Pamela Price remarked that political authority was shared in Indian kingdoms not only by the king and local chiefs, but also with deities who "amidst their various identities, were royal and ‘ruled’ their devoted human subjects from temples" (1989: 562). Numerous studies on South-Asian regional models of royalty have been dedicated to this sharing of power between a king and the gods in his kingdom. Nevertheless what is not always explicitly clarified is how a god can physically "rule" over those who are considered to be his political subjects and how he can exercise any political power with (or in competition with) the king. This chapter will develop this question by taking into account a contemporary political context where actors, while sharing democratic and "secularist" slogans, still resort to pre-colonial and regional forms of politico-religious power. The focus will thus be less on the model of kingship itself than on how this model is enacted in a contemporary context, by people making their own choices and decisions, playing ambiguous roles at times and interacting with each other on different registers.

The setting for these observations will be the territory of a former kingdom, Kullu, which nowadays gives its name to a district of Himachal Pradesh. Here, Mahesvar Singh, the descendant of the royal family, is involved in electoral politics as member of the Hindu right-wing party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). From 1998 to 2004 he was an elected Member of the Delhi Parliament.2 This political role often merges with his role as Raja (rājā), still relevant at a ritual level, as he maintains strong ties with local gods through their different human representatives. These relationships, which were once associated with kingship, have been incorporated and transformed within the political system of contemporary India.

My observations will focus on royal festivals. In former times, these were occasions when royal power was ritually and publicly celebrated, transmitted and transformed. The king displayed and reaffirmed his religious role of protector of the dharma (socio-cosmic order), as well as the relations he had with regional gods. Royal festivals were thus a privileged framework where politics were strictly combined with ritual and religious activity. With the end of the kingdoms, these ritual contexts, far from being abandoned, have been integrated and reinterpreted by the new democratic state. Since the 1960s or 1970s (depending on the region), most royal festivals have become National Festivals, patronized by the state’s local representatives who occasionally try to appropriate for themselves symbols of ancient royal power in the public ritual space. An example given by Peabody (1997) concerns the celebration of the Ramlila, an open-air pageant play celebrating the victory of the god-hero Rama, the king of Ayodhya, over his enemy Ravana. During the 1986 Ramlila celebrated in the town of Kota (the capital of a former kingdom in Rajasthan), an elected member of the State Government from the Congress Party whose constituency included Kota, came to the festival dressed up as Rama. He was not alone, since the local Raja who was claiming to detain this right was, also, similarly dressed as the god.3

Another way for the post-colonial politicians to exploit the kings’ ritual role on the new political scene has been to put Rajas up for elections in the constituencies covering their former kingdoms. As J. Pouchepadass stresses:

"The British tutelage had drastically reduced their powers, but not their legitimacy. Their divine ancestry was still proclaimed, and in the eyes of their people they remained the protectors of everyone’s dharma. … Thus, stripped of any control over their territories (already quite curtailed for several years), they nevertheless remained kings—at least symbolically—for the people. Entering politics under the new sovereign, the democratic State, which reinstated them somewhat in a constituency, was like a natural opening for them." (Pouchepadass, 1988: XXIII)4
By involving the state in royal festivals, and kings in electoral politics, post-independence political leaders have implicitly created the conditions for keeping alive pre-colonial politico-religious roles and relationships in the contemporary democracy.5 I will study this process by analysing the complex overlap of two systems in people’s discourses and behaviour: one still embedded in values and models of interactions pertaining to royalty, the other emerging from the "secular" politics of the democratic state.6 I will focus on a long-standing conflict between different groups of villagers, who quarrelled over assuring their respective god a right of precedence during the festival. The arguments and the multiple interpretations of this conflict, as exposed by its different protagonists (king, gods’ mediums, villagers and politicians), will show the multiplicity of registers used to construct and legitimize both divine and political authority. Before going into the case, I will present a historical background of the ritual and political relations that Mahesvar Singh’s ancestors had established with these regional gods in the past, and how these relations have been transformed in the contemporary political context.

Ruling on behalf of the gods

The gods’ sovereignty takes on two specific and distinctive meanings in the region of Kullu. One is exercised by village gods, who are considered to rule over encapsulated territories, the largest of which include the territories of subordinate gods. A village god is perceived as king over his territory and receives regular tribute (nazarānā) from those who live within his jurisdiction. He exercises his sovereignty through a set of various representatives. Firstly, he can be consulted directly by speaking through his own institutional medium, the Gur (gur). A Gur can belong to any caste and is considered to be the god’s receptacle when occasionally possessed by means of ritual procedures. During consultations a dialogue is held between the god and the villagers who ask him to interpret their problems or to give advice on some decision to be taken. Secondly, a god is officially represented by his administrator, the kārdār, who manages his land properties and the practical organisation of his ritual. The administrator acts together with the deurī, the members of the temple committee. They are high-caste people, Brahmans, Rajput or Thakur.7 Thirdly, gods have their own palanquin, a wooden structure decorated with metal faces and coloured cloths. The palanquin, like the medium, is considered to be the god’s receptacle, and its movements are said to be directed by the god himself and not by its bearers – who are in most cases high-caste villagers. Yet a further way for the god to express his will is by manifesting himself through ordinary people in his jurisdiction. For example, during ceremonies, any villager can suddenly start to tremble and to speak in the name of the god.

The royal authority that a god exercises at local level is thus distributed and fragmented among many people who, in different ways, act in his name. The way in which each of these gods’ representatives contributes to the local political and religious activity varies from village to village, according to personal power and charisma.

A second model of divine suzerainty is associated with the god Raghunath, another name for the god Rama.8 In Kullu dynastic chronicles as well as in local stories, the statue of this god is said to have been introduced from Ayodhya during the 17th century by King Jagat Singh of Kullu. The kingdom of Kullu was then transferred to Raghunath. From that time onwards the Kullu kings considered themselves as mere "servants" of Raghunath, and officially ruled on his behalf. The widespread story narrating this episode underlines its religious aspects.

"King Jagat Singh, having caused a Brahman to commit suicide is affected by these symptoms: whatever he eats is full of worms and whatever he sees is full of blood. He consults a Baba bābā, ascetic who advises him to bring to the palace the statue of god Rama situated in a temple of the plains, to offer him his kingdom and to rule as god’s governor. The Baba is sent by the king to the temple where, thanks to his power to become invisible, he steals the statue and brings it back to Kullu. There, the king offers the throne to the god and declares himself as his delegate and first servant." (Kamla Kishori Sharma, the king’s family priest)

The Baba who, in the story, is presented as responsible for the introduction of the god, is a certain Damodar Das, said to be a disciple of Krishnadas Payahari, an ascetic devoted to Rama who spread the worship of god Rama to many regions in the Himalayan hills.9 In Kullu, Krishnadas Pahyari, named Pyari Baba, is represented inside the royal palace by his coat and sandals, and is still honoured by the members of the royal family.

Although the introduction of Raghunath corresponds to a project of religious proselytism, it also proposes a model of legitimation of royal power. Since this transfer, all the Kullu kings have ruled on behalf of this god, as testified by two royal documents from king Jagat Singh and from king Pritam Singh’s time respectively. Kubram, a tankri10 translator, gave me the following documents taken from the originals kept in the Shimla museum. They show that public acts proclaimed by king Jagat Singh were from then on signed in common with the god.

"Aum Supreme King of the Kings Sri Ram Chandra [Raghunath], and Jagat Singh who is his servant (gulāmī) …"

"Aum Supreme Kings of Kings, Dasharatha’s son, Sri Rama Chandra and King Pritam Singh who made his service duty (gulām) to Raghunath …."

Parallel to this transfer of royal authority, the Kullu kings also assigned land to some village gods, who thus became land-holding gods (muāfidār devtā), (Hutchinson & Vogel 1933). The British administrator, Coldstream, who was in charge of the region at the beginning of the 20th century, explains the division of royal land between Raghunath and village deities.

"The god Raghunath is the most important of the Kulu deotas. It is said that King Jagat Singh, who procured the idol from Ajudhya [sic], endowed it with a third of the revenue of Kulu. The remaining two thirds were assigned to local idols [village gods] and to Brahmins and pious mendicants who had to pay the tribute [nazarana] to Raghunath." (Coldstream 1913)11

All these land-holding gods were supposed to recognise royal authority by paying annual tribute to Raghunath and by going to the capital once a year, with their palanquins, villagers and temple functionaries, to pay homage to Raghunath and to his human delegate, the king of Kullu. Gods who were not present at the festival were to pay a fine to the king. Even today, on the penultimate day of the festival (the Mohalla day), all village deities must present themselves to the king inside his royal tent, on the festival grounds… although no fee has to be paid if one is absent.12

A Kullu lawyer, B. Thakur, told me the story of the introduction of Raghunath and of the submission of the village deities to this outsider god, and explained what was, according to him, its political dimension:

"The story of Raghunath… I don’t believe in it…how can I believe that the cause of all this is due to the fact that the king was responsible for a Brahman’s death! Kings used to kill so many people...what else should happen to him if he killed a Brahman?... In fact, the real problem of the king at this period was that villagers accepted nothing but the decisions taken by village gods and their mediums and the royal political power was always felt by them as imposed upon them from outside. For any decision, what village gods said was final. I think, thus, that the king was having some problems, and so he decided to bring Raghunath to Kullu. Afterwards, he ordered all village gods to come here during Dashera. He gave the power to village gods by giving them land and he forced all of them to come here."

The introduction of the worship of Raghunath may be considered, according to this interpretation, as a politico-religious form of tutelage by which the prerogatives that local deities were already enjoying inside their respective territories, had to be sanctioned by the palace.13 At the origin of such alliances was the king’s awareness of the political influence exercised by village gods on the local population, more disposed—as B. Thakur said—to following the gods’ instructions than orders from the palace.

The relations between the central authority exercised by the king on behalf of Raghunath, and the local powers exercised by villagers on behalf of village gods and goddesses, seem to have always been complex and ambiguous. In the nearby kingdom of Kinnaur, Singh (1989) observed that the control over local deities was crucial for the king in order to exercise and maintain effective power over the kingdom’s whole territory.

"The Kings used the devtas [village gods] as their representatives for manifesting royal presence in remote areas … Since the King did not often visit Kinnaur, the devta’s frequent tours on his behalf manifested divine sanction for the King’s rule." (Singh 1989: 89)
Nevertheless, as the author himself pointed out, village gods, through their mediums, could also be used by villagers to express disapproval towards the king:
"the village deity represented, in a way, the collective will of the village against the unchecked absolutism of the King who moulded the devtas’ pre-eminence to his own purposes." (Singh 1989: 89)

In another nearby kingdom, that of Mandi, we know from Emerson’s work (1910) that the king controlled village rituals by interferring in the nomination of temple administrators, of the god’s mediums, or in the construction of the god’s palanquins.14 In Kullu, stories tell how the king could also exercise "pressure" on village gods and on the powers (śakti) they were considered to have over rain or sunshine within specific territories. In times of drought, for instance, he used to organise a "universal consultation" (jagtī pūch) by ordering all the village gods’ mediums to come to his palace, in order to ask the deities to give rain. It is said that, when the request was not satisfied, the king considered the mediums responsible for the gods’ failure. He would threaten to cut off their head if rain did not fall at once. We will see how similar consultations are still organised by the present king of Kullu.15

Even after the region was annexed by the British in the 19th century the ongoing worship of Raghunath has been a constant preoccupation for the descendants of Jagat Singh. For instance, Men Singh (1892-1921) received a paid assignation of 338 Rupees from the British in order to assure the continuity of the services owed to the god. Coldstream (1913) refers to a petition in which the king complained that this amount was not sufficient. During Coldstream’s period, the king also received the tribute (nazarānā) that village deities owed to Raghunath and which amounted to 545 Rupees (ibid.).

The fact that the British administration did not intervene in the economic and political aspects of deities’ ceremonies, and even officially recognised the deities’ land properties, probably left almost intact the relations between village gods and Raghunath.16 Even if the king had lost his kingdom he continued to celebrate the Dashera festival and village gods continued to be brought to the capital once a year to pay their annual homage (Lyall, 1869). It is possible, of course, as the British administrators suggest in their gazetteers, that participation in Dashera dropped during the colonial period, as the king no longer had power to oblige village gods to come.

What stands out from this brief account of the pre-independence period is a form of political power which "passes through" the gods, in two different ways. At village level, it passes through the authority of village deities, an authority which seems to be fragmented locally among various representatives at different levels of society – gods’ medium, the temple administrator, the temple committee, and ordinary high- and low-caste villagers. On a central level, the transfer of the kingdom to Raghunath may be interpreted as a way for the king to centralise all these fragmented local powers by introducing an authority from the outside.

Royal roles in new electoral politics

Similarly to what happened in other parts of India, the history of post-independence Kullu shows how the political leaders who did not belong to the royal family repeatedly tried to appropriate for themselves the public space of the royal festivals. One way to do that was by transforming Dashera into a National Festival. According to my informants, this transformation took place at a period when participation in the festival was reduced as a consequence of land reforms that gave the opportunity for tenants (including temple tenants) to become land-owners. Many rich village gods were thus reduced to poverty and their villagers were no longer motivated to go to the capital and face the expense of a six-day stay.

By the 1960s, Lal Chand Prarthi, one of the main Congress Party regional leaders, then a member of the local legislative assembly and a minister in local government, asked for some funds from the then Punjab government, which included Kullu at that time, to finance a programme of folk dances during the Dashera festival. His explicit aim was to reinvigorate the festival which he considered to be "the most important cultural heritage of the valley" (Prarthi 1973). The funds were granted and increased each year. After some years, Lal Chand Prarthi not only financed the folk dance programme, but also "invited some gods" by promising their villagers that they would be reimbursed for the expenses. A Kullu erudite, M.R. Thakur, remembers this period:

"First he [Lal Chand Prarthi] invited the dance groups in order to attract the public. When the grants increased, gods also started to come [with their palanquins], and they [the Panjab government] reimbursed them … Last year [1999], 175 gods came to Dashera and the government gave 5 lakhs of rupees [500 000 rupees] to villagers."
With the state patronage, the Kullu Dashera became classified as "National Folk Dance Festival". A committee was created whose president was a representative of the government.17 In 1973, with the participation of a Romanian group in the dance programmes, the Kullu Dashera was classified as an "International Folk Dance Festival". A whole political, administrative and economic organisation progressively gained importance and started to mobilise different protagonists – the Deputy Commissioner, the police, public officers, intellectuals, political leaders along with villagers and their gods.18

The end of the kingdom and the "nationalisation" of the festival had transformed the relations between village deities and central power (or nowadays the state). Whereas deities were formerly obliged to come to the festival and to pay tribute to the king-god, they now receive money (designated by the same term, nazarānā) from the state for coming to the capital with their villagers.19 Bringing their deities to the festival is no longer an obligation for their villagers, but a privilege. Each group of devotees does its best so that its deity gets money and honours from the administration, offerings from devotees, and visits from the other participants in the festival. All these things are important for the deity’s prestige, and can increase his fame and power.

Even though it is the Dashera Committee which finances the people and deities’ trips to the capital as well as the dance programmes, the king continues to be the main protagonist of the religious ceremonies.20 He also maintains a link to all village deities in relation to whom he is still considered a real king. The role he thus held during Dashera disturbed the MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) Lal Chand Prarthi who, himself having the control of an important village goddess, knew perfectly well how important it was for a politician to extend influence to village deities. A school teacher in Kullu, Chambial, recalls that period:

"Lal Chand Prarthi did not tolerate that people were giving more importance to the king than to ministers and the MLA. The king’s dynasty was over but the people here continued their devotion to, and respect for the king today. Lal Chand Prarthi did not want the king to sit in a palanquin, receive all the village gods, and have processions carried out in the royal palanquin every day during Dashera … . He said that India was an independent state and a king has no right to maintain the festival. He is no longer head of this. Then politics is involved … Lal Chand Prarthi wanted to give political colour to Dashera because the main deity Raghunath was in the king’s possession. He said: ‘you cannot sit in the royal palanquin’; and the king said ‘this is tradition, I am the chief worker of Raghunath and I must keep his rituals intact.’"

The schoolteacher remembers many episodes which opposed the Congress MLA and the then king of Kullu, Mahendar Singh. For instance, in 1972, Lal Chand Prarthi wanted to perform Dashera on his own, without the king’s presence. He brought Raghunath’s chariot to the festival ground without putting the god inside, since his statue was in the king’s possession. Just four or five gods participated in this procession of the "empty" chariot, during which – as Chambial remembers – Lal Chand Prarthi himself was possessed. While trembling (a sign of possession), Lal Chand Prarthi said he was āhāra kardu, a group of local gods.21

In spite of Prarthi’s efforts the king succeeded in preserving the ritual control over the Dashera festival. Lal Chand Prarthi and other Congress Party politicians who took control of the Dashera Committee after him, had to accept to limiting their presence and influence on the festival to the dance programs only, and to leave the ritual phases to the king. A separation was thus progressively created between the "ritual scene" of the Dashera, whose protagonists were the members of the royal family, and the "folk dance scene". Here Congress Party politicians, in their role as local representatives of the state, also had control over the Dashera Committee. In that role they also took part in the festival as cultural benefactors, and they could use the festival as a public place for their political propaganda.

The reunification of the religious and political scene of Dashera took place with the present descendant of the Kullu royal family, Mahesvar Singh. In addition to being a fervent devotee of the local gods and a defender of what he considers to be local tradition, in 1976 Mahesvar Singh started a political career in the Hindu right-wing Party (at that time the Jan Sangh, now BJP). After having been a MLA, in 1998 he was elected Member of Parliament for the Mandi constituency, which includes the territory of the ancient Kullu kingdom.22 In 2000 and 2001, when the conflict I will now analyse occurred, Mahesvar Singh thus had two different roles: ritually, he was king – and I will use here the term in that sense; politically he was a Member of Parliament (MP), and in this role, he was also the president of the Dashera committee.23

The case concerns, as mentioned before, a long-standing conflict between different groups of villagers who quarrelled over ensuring the honorific rights of their respective god during the Dashera festival.

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