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Shedding blood for better future

Gautam Dheer in Shimla Dec 3 2017, 0:12 IST

An uneasy calm is only interrupted by loud chants from swelling crowd as stone pelters ferociously hurl stones at the target. At first sight, it would appear like a typical unsavoury setting dotted by stone pelters in insurgency-hit Valley.

Young men with masked faces in the backdrop of picturesque hill slopes and plummeting mercury belie the reality. Here's what it is, certainly not a situation that security forces have to often encounter in Srinagar or in other parts of the Valley facing rowdy law-breakers, threatening the might of the state establishment. It's, in fact, a quiet and serene setting in Himachal Pradesh with almost similar ingredients, but of an altogether different composition even though much of the ambiance remain the same.

It's the stone-throwing festival in a back-of-the beyond breath-taking village Dhami, some 35-km of hill drive from Shimla. It's a festival that has mysterious spiritual connotations, unexplained albeit sans rationale.

Stone throwing has been a ritual in this village for over a century. It brings good fortune, it is believed. So, every year after the festival of lights, Deepavali, villagers mark the festival-- "Pathron ka Mela" (festival of stone throwing).

It's a contest largely between descendants of the erstwhile royals and the locals. Young boys in several dozens on each side descend on the designated place in the village and take positions. The start is ceremoniously announced. Hundreds of people, including many from nearby villages, gather to witness the spectacle. Often they too duck when it's a hail of stones flying from both sides. They say this adventure adds to the charm. People dress themselves in new attires for the festive celebrations.

It's free-for-all when it begins, until blood begins to drip and fade away on the dusty road stomped by these young spirited fighters. It won't end until the injured are left bleeding. In fact, blood is the whole idea behind the exercise that continues unabated for over half an hour. The one who bleeds the first is the lucky one. He smears his blood on the forehead of Goddess Kali as a mark of obeisance. The ceremony then comes to a halt. Left behind are hill slopes and a serpentine road inundated by hundreds of stones that swung from each side relentlessly just a while ago.

The area would get cleaned in a day, and natives are happy to have successfully forayed into another year of good fortune. The event is held two days after Deepavali. Celebrations follow after the ritual is completed. This fair is held in village Halog of Shimla district. Halog was the capital of erstwhile Royal Dhami state.

In ancient times, human sacrifice, it is widely talked, used to be offered to Goddess Kali every year at the place where the festival is now held. It is also believed that on the day the festival was held, the fiancé of a ruler of the erstwhile royal performed "Sati" (voluntarily burning in the pyre). The practice of human sacrifice stopped long ago.

The legend has it that a woman from Halog village got engaged in the neighbouring princely state of Rangoili's royal. But due to age-old bitterness, residents of village Jamog poisoned the prince just before the marriage was to be solemnised.

Old-timers claim that the distressed woman from Halog village burnt herself on the pyre of her fiancé. Angry villagers on both sides fought with stones. Even today, large many on each side are natives of villages Halog and Jamog who throw stones at each other.

A circular rotary in the middle of the road is believed to be the place where the woman committed Sati. It is around this rotary that each side takes positions before displaying the aggression in stone throwing. It is also popularly believed that human sacrifice was offered to the Goddess Kali in village Dhami for long. The queen of the erstwhile royalty was unhappy by the custom. It was then decided to end the unholy practice of human sacrifice. Instead, stone pelting was introduced as an alternative to human sacrifice. That tradition has been passed on to generations.

A red banner is raised when blood is drawn. It signals the end of the fierce stone-throwing ritual. Elaborate security arrangements are made prior to the festival.

The local administration does not take chances given that emotions and tempers on each side fly high. So far, there haven't been any major causality. Ambulances remain on stand-by.

No invites are sent for the festival. Despite that, it's a much-awaited event with men, women, children and old precariously taking a place on the hill slopes. Descendants of the erstwhile royals say no outsiders are allowed to participate in the event even though there have often been requests from non-natives, including people from abroad, expressing interest to be in the midst of stone throwing.

Organisers carefully examine a list of participants who would "fight" on the street. They say the exercise to shortlist locals is important since the event has to be performed in line with the true spirit with which the event was conceived, beyond just a contest that attracts eyeballs.

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