My journey to Ani had been uneventful, bordering on the boring. For one thing, a road-block at Theog had forced me to back-track up to Basantpur and make a detour via Luhri which was hot, hot, hot. Ani itself was unspectacular, constructed along the highway, all it had to show for itself was a row of really unattractive shops. I couldn’t wait to move on to Khanag where the memorial plaque for Penelope Chetwode (I’ve written about this earlier) waited to be explored.
At the guesthouse, I bumped into some men who work for the Public Works Department. Anything interesting to be seen in these parts, I asked them. Well, there’s a little temple at Shamshar. Nothing great, you see. But it’s not bad. Considering that I’d been starved for any sort of cultural relief, I grabbed at this opportunity. The men were headed the same way and agreed to go with me to show me the temple.
I won’t go into a detailed description of the temple as is my wont. It was a typical Himachali temple: chalet and spaceship rolled into one, quaintly attractive, unobtrusive and tremendously colourful. There were two taller structures behind it. One squat, painted white and embellished with the most attractive wood carvings you ever saw. The second was built in the typical “dehra” style. A tall building topped off by a pagoda-style roof, painted in candy shades. This temple was draped with a huge rope whose diameter was thicker than my wrist. Idly, I asked one of the PWD men if Himachal had a tradition of people physically pulling the Gods’ chariots with these ropes. Oh, no, no, he said. And thereby hung a tale. I am going to recount it almost as he told me.
It is said that on the orders of his father Jamadagni, Parshurama had killed his mother Renuka. When asked what boon e would like for this act of extreme obedience, Parshurama begged his father to bring his mother back to life. However, he needed to expiate the sin of matricide, so he donated land to the Brahmins of Nirmand and deemed that a “yajna” every three years and “bhunda” (human sacrifice) every twelve years.
The person who offers himself as sacrificial victim is called “beda” and comes from a community of people which has, for generations, offered one of its members for this purpose. He is required to plait a rope over 500 metres long. This rope will play a very important role in the “bhunda” ceremony. During the fifteen days preceding the “bhunda” ceremony, the “beda” is fed and clothes at the expense of the temple and is associated closely with the goddess as he is no longer seen as one of the human race.
The rope the victim has plaited will be slung out over a cliff and the “victim” will have to slide down this rope. Should he be fortunate enough to survive this slide, his life is spared, but in the old times, death must have been a certainty. Hundreds of devout volunteers carry the rope which has been carefully plaited by the “beda” to the site where the “sliding ceremony” will take place. Meanhile, the “beda” is taken to the temple and formally dedicated to the goddess Ambika. Draped in a shroud, he is carried to the sacrificial site by other devotees. Weighed down by sacks filled with grain and/or sand, he is made to walk on the rope.
As I’ve said above, death is a certainty, but there is insurance for his widow. When the “beda” is dead, his widow is allowed to select any of the items she sets her sights on. Whatever she touches is hers that day. In this way, tradition ensures that she is not left destitute by the demise of her husband.
So important is this ceremony that Gods of neighbouring areas specially visit Shamshar in full ceremonial regalia. They are taken out in a procession their path lit by huge flaming torches. An interesting aside to this event is that a sacred water vessel belonging to Parshurama is brought out especially for this occasion. Water in this vessel is replenished by a sacred spring in the village. Legend has it that the spring appears only the year “bhunda” is held. It remains dry, indeed, invisible for the entire period when Parshurama is in retreat.
Once the ceremony is over, all ritual articles and the image of Parshurama are taken back to the shrine. The visitng Gods depart for their homes, taking with them the masses of curious, innocent villagers who had come to witness this unique ceremony; the massive doors are bolted, not to be opened for a further twelve years.