Keslapur Nagoba Jatara

Keslapur Nagoba Jatara  is a tribal festival held in Keslapur village, Inderavelly Mandal Adilabad district, Telangana, India.

It is the second biggest tribal carnival and celebrated by Mesaram clan of Gond tribes for 10 days.

Tribal people from Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh belonging to the Mesram clan offer prayers at the festival.

The Nagoba Jatara starts in pushya masam in every year according to English to the English months December to January.

Every year, in the winter months of December/January, the Mesram clan of Raj Gonds and Pardhan Adivasis in the North of Telangana State make preparations for their most important religious and cultural festival, the Keslapur-Nagoba Jatara. The event is unique as it serves as a link between the present and the past, where customs and traditions that centuries old survive even today, underscoring the importance of solidarity within their community.

15 days before gond people bring Godavari river water to jatara to worship the god.

The adivasi Gond and Pardhans of Mesram clan come to Keslapur for the annual pilgrimage, Nagoba jatara, which will begin after a ritualistic puja at the Nagoba temple in Adilabad.

Thousands of aboriginal people come here from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and different parts of the district to participate in the week-long event that showcases the high points of the adivasi culture still alive in these parts of the country.

The pilgrims who arrive in bullock carts even from far off places are camping under the holy banyan tree and will together move into the temple premises on Sunday to perform various religious activities over the next five days. Women will participate mainly in the rituals associated with invoking of the serpent god which is the Mesrams’ clan god.

They will fetch water in sacred pots from an old well near the village and mix it with the sacred water from Godavari and purify the sanctum sanctorum of Nagoba temple. The puja will be performed at about 11 p.m. followed by one of the most interesting rituals called ‘Bheting’.

This is a ritualistic introduction of the new brides in the clan during the previous year by way of marriage. The white clad brides are brought to the temple in a solemn procession to be introduced to Nagoba which will render them eligible to pray to the clan god.

The Gonds also perform ‘Toom’, in remembrance of the departed people in the clan. This year, abut 70 ‘Tooms’ will be performed, means 70 persons of Mesram clan died during the last 12 months since the last jatara.

On the third day of the jatara, the tribal darbar will be held where in all the arms of the administration are made available to look into the grievances of the Adivasis. The trend was started in 1946 by famous Austrian Anthropologist Christopher von Furer-Haimendorf in an effort to strengthen the Gond panchayat system of which the Mokashi or Raja was at the head.

The Betal puja and Mandagajiling are the two events scheduled for the last day of the jatara. These are meant to recall the Gonds’ antecedents as warriors and to bid adieu to them.

Very little has changed in the ritualistic aspects of this festival for centuries as pilgrims still walk barefoot through the hilly forest countryside to fetch holy water from a river bank and arrive at Keslapur in bullock carts carrying food and essentials for the duration of the 5 day event.

Just before the start of the sacred lunar month of poos (Pushya masam) which coincides with the calendar months of December or January, a handful of Mesram elders deliberate on the schedule for the month long fest, at the quaint and nondescript village of Keslapur in Indervelli mandal of Adilabad district. The discussions take place at the Pen thana (the resting place of the God) revolve mainly around the dates of important rituals and rites to be performed.

Nagoba, the serpent god Sheshnag, also known as Sri Shek is the clan-god of the Buiguita branch of the Mesram Raj Gonds and Pardhans. He is considered to be the mul-purush or progenitor of the clan. Mesram Manohar, a Pardhan elder who has been visiting Nagoba festival every year since 1976 when he was only nine explains, “The Nagoba festival ensures that all the Mesram clan members are at Keslapur at least once every year which strengthens the ties within the community”. Around 2,500 Mesram families attend the jatara every year, with some of them coming from across the borders with the neighbouring state of Maharashtra.

Legend has it that Nagoba had come down to Keslapur, to punish king Padiyor for his misdemeanours, but was appeased after the Mesram Raj Gonds offered him naivedyam of seven varieties. The annual festival of Nagoba Jatara revolves around this fable with rituals involving prayers to and pacification of the serpent God.

Once the schedule is fixed, a two member team comprising of Mesram Hanmanth Rao, the clan katoda (chief priest) and the chief of Pardhans (bards), Mesram Tukdoji, set out on a 10 day journey covering villages within a radius of 25 to 30 km of Keslapur. The journey in a two seater bullock cart called chakda first takes them to Sirikonda where they place an order for 120 earthen pots and lamps that are to be used during various rituals of the festival. The Guggilla potter family has been making the earthenware for the Mesrams since centuries. The duo later visit the 22 families in the clan, which have a major role to play in organising the jatara, and inform them about the schedule. Despite the availability of modern-day conveniences like motorised vehicles and cellphones, they diligently follow the traditional rituals by travelling on a bullock cart and personally invite families for the festival

Once the elders return, another meeting takes place to discuss the stopovers during the 15 day barefoot journey of the pilgrims who will set out to fetch gangajal (holy water) from river Godavari. Also, the names of those who wish to undertake this journey to Hastinamadugu near Kalamadugu village in Jannaram mandal, now in Mancherial distirct, are registered.

The 90 km route, takes pilgrims clad in white, walking in a line through jungles across hillocks and valleys, to the sacred spot at the river bed since this ritualistic event originated. The sacred brass vessel to hold gangajalcalled jhari, said to be 1,400 years old, was carried by the Hanmanth Rao (in 2018) while the pilgrims were led by Tukdoji in their walkathon.

About walking in a single file, Mesram Tirupathi, the kotwal for the festival explains thus, “We walk in a single line, trailing through forests and difficult paths mimicking the movement of a snake. We also ensure no man or animal crosses our path as it could prove inauspicious for our Patels (village heads). In the legend, the Pardhan (bard) is mainly responsible for pacifying Nagoba and hence he always leads us.”

On Jan 8th 2018, the devotees reached Hastinamadugu at daybreak, and after quickly brushing with a daatun(neem twig) huddled together to take a dip in the cold waters of Godavari while chanting in chorus “Jai Nagoba! Jai Nagoba!” A community lunch was prepared from the offerings of food grains like jowar, lentils and rice flour that each of the devotees had brought. The pilgrims began their return journey the same day and head to Gowri Gonduguda, the native village of Hanmanth Rao.

While most pilgrims dispersed, Hanmanth Rao was joined by his family and a few devotees as they proceeded to Indrai temple at Indervelli. After performing pooja here, they made their way to Bhourmachua or the sacred banyan tree outside Keslapur to camp there until the day of mahapuja (on Jan 16th 2018). All this while, due care is taken to sling the jhari from branches of trees when the pilgrims are resting as keeping it on the ground is an anathema.

The following night the Patels (village elders) arrive under the banyan tree to a ceremonial welcome by Pardhan musicians. The Patels light the sacred torches of the torch-bearers and these remain lit during the entire course of the Nagoba jatara. The flickering light from the torches illuminate their path through the darkness and is a part of all the rituals. Only after the Patels have set up their camps, ordinary Mesram families from various corners of the tribal heartland start joining them under the banyan tree.

The camp under Bhourmachua consists of temporary dwellings hinging around the carts around which all items necessary for the four day stay are arranged. The women set aside groups of sacred baskets containingnaivedyam in a separate area. The days are filled with children’s fun and frolic, women busy preparing meals or carrying water, while the men discuss important matters relevant to the community.

The nights, however are reserved for recitals of Nagoba Bhidi, the legend of the serpent god, by Pardhan bards as their audiences gather around camp fires, and flickering flames offering them much needed warmth, all together creating a mystical aura.

On the morning of Jan 16th 2018, the Mesram men dressed in spotless white and women covering their heads with a white cotton scarf made their way into the Nagoba temple in a ceremonial procession. The head priest carried the sacred jhari into the temple and slung it from a branch of a small tree close to the where the earthen pots were arranged.

While all rituals and ceremonies pertaining to the preparation of the Nagoba jatara involved men so far, the women gain prominence and participate actively from the day of the mahapuja. Traditionally, most alliances of Raj Gond bachelors are fixed during post-harvest Dandari-Ghusadi festival, and the nuptials take place between March and May. For the Mesram Raj Gonds and Pardhans, the gamut of weddings is complete only after the bheting ritual, which is held on the first day of the jatara and entails introduction of brides to the serpent god and thereby into the clan. This ritual is most significant part of the Keslapur-Nagoba jatara.

On the day of mahapuja, the pots that were made specifically for the festival, are consecrated soon after the arrival of the priests and others to the temple in the morning. The Patels line up beside the pots while Mesram Tirupathi, the kotwal, calls the names of women to whom the pots would be handed over.

The women who come in pairs are daughters of Mesram families but have been married into other clans. They are handed over a pot which is meant for fetching water from a well near Bhourmachua (banyan tree).

After the distribution of the pots, the head Pardhan Mesram Tukdoji takes a seat and begins to tune his 200 year old bow-string instrument called kingri for another recital of Nagoba Bhidi in the temple premises. The Pardhans or bards are said to have preserved the myths and stories of Gonds in the oral tradition over centuries. Tukdoji has been singing the Nagoba katha for over 50 years, and has taken a family member under his wing to train him and eventually pass on the baton.

Once again, strains of pipri and dhol begin to waft in the air, as women carrying the earthen pots on head begin to line up. Everybody steps aside to make way for them and they begin walking at a uniform pace, the pots balanced on their head, leaving behind a trail of the afternoon shadows that follow rhythmically.

At the stepwell, each woman waits for her turn to fill her pot with water. After filling the pots with water at the well, the women return to the temple in a similar fashion. The water in these holy pots is used by women in the ritual of creating small mounds of clay also called boula (anthills). On a nostalgic note, Mesram Manohar reminisces, “Prior to early 1980s, all the rituals were performed at the boula. After the temple was constructed and a brass deity of Nagoba was installed, the prayers are offered only at the sanctum.”

At twilight all occupants under the banyan tree pack up and move with their belongings and bullock carts to set up camps around the temple. A circular open air structure called govad is made specifically for women and the “bheti koriad” – the daughters-in-law who wait to be introduced.

Inside the govad, at around 2:00 am women huddle in small groups huddle around bonfires, to keep warm while the light from the torcher-bearers casts a soft glow on the bheti koriad. The girls get busy donning on their white sarees to participate in the bheting ceremony. Two young girls who will soon lead the procession to the temple, are seated – one a daughter-in-law of priest while the other is new bride in a Patel’s family, wait as the koriad gets ready.

Mesram Jayanthi, a mother-in-law camped at the govad explains the bheting ritual, “We make our brides wear white clothes, take them to the Sathi temple, and pray for their prosperity and progeny. With their heads covered, the koriad are taken in a procession to the temple led by musicians. They take the blessings of Sathi Devi before being formally introduced to our clan God Nagoba.”

“If a family member has passed away recently or the bride is unwell, she cannot participate in the ritual and will have to wait for another year to be ceremoniously introduced into the clan and become eligible to offer prayers at the Nagoba temple. This is why the bheti koriad ensure that they make it to the ritual at any cost.”

Barring the banyan tree and the temple compound, the surrounding environs wear the look of a carnival; filled with tea shacks, make-shift restaurants, amusement arena with giant wheels and many vendors selling household articles and appliances. Most hawkers hope to attract business from newly-weds setting up a new home. Mesram Manohar was quick to point out, “All these facilities and conveniences are a much later addition, but the rituals remain the same and have retained their traditional zeal.”

At night, the Nagoba Jatara provides a stage to many rural folk theatre troupes who perform Gondi Ramayan and Mahabharat, so named as the shows are performed in Gondi dialect. These performances are a major draw and have the audiences riveted till the early hours next morning.

During the Nizam’s rule, eminent anthropologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf had conducted ethnographic studies on the tribes of Adilabad. In the year 1944 he had introduced the phenomenon of Darbar on the third day of the Jatara wherein the aboriginals could voice their grievances and concerns to the representatives of the government. Till date, it is an event the Adivasis look forward to and take an active participation. This year, despite a cloud of uncertainty looming over the Darbar on January 19 in wake of the recent Adivasi-Lambada conflict, the event was peaceful.

by S.Harpal Singh