When we think of Goa, we visualise beaches, water sports, booze, and its free vacation vibes. Even for those people who have had an offbeat Goan experience, it is about waterfalls, jungles, bird-watching and architecture. Goa gets its unique culture from the Portuguese colonial effects. But beyond the Portuguese influence in the region, there still persists a strong ancient Hindu culture which is manifested through the spring festival of Shigmo. Shigmo is celebrated around the full moon night of the Hindu calendar month of Phalgun in the Konkan region. What is fascinating about Shigmo is that it is considered to be the ideal occasion to express gratitude to the ghosts and spirits.
The Gadyachi Jatra is a part of the festivity during Shigmo devoted to Devanchaar or the demon. The inhabitants of Sal, Borde-Bicholim, Pilgao, Kudne, Savai-Verem villages in Goa, worship the demon as the protecting deity of their villages. Though a demon, Devanchaar does not have negative or evil connotation amongst the locals. The most popular Gadyachi Jatra is performed in the village Sal attracting visitors from the neighbouring villages in Goa, Maharashtra & Karnataka. Men dressed up in white dhoti called Gade perform the ritual, hence giving it the name Gadyachi Jatra (the rally of the Gades). Gades are recognised as mediums who are possessed by the spirit of the deity and they only can participate in the ritual directly.
On the full moon night, the trunk of a mango tree is erected as Holi in front of the Mahadev temple in Sal at a sacred place called Mand. Mahadev is considered to be the god of demons & spirits in Hinduism, hence the place of worship is utmost significant. The next midnight all the villagers gather around the mand in pitch darkness to invoke all the spirits of the villages with their chants and songs called Gharanes. Towards this time the gades start to get into a trance and can see Uzzvadi, the fire shown to them by the Devanchaar. The gades run towards the fire while Devanchaar plays them by invoking fire in different parts of the forests. Interestingly, the spectators can also see these fires in the forest. Eventually, the gades return back to the mand. However, Devanchaar holds some of the gades and keeps them with himself. The number of returned gades is counted on the mand, and then the ones who have not returned are searched for.
These withheld gades are found lying stiff in the forests. They are carried to the mand and are revived. The procedure is followed for three days through which chanting continues while the gades perform the ritual. At the end of the third night, the gades who are still in trance have to bring objects from the cemetery which can even be unburnt corpse or logs. These objects are kept at the Holi and rituals are performed around them. Eventually, as the three-day long affair comes to an end the gades come to a conscious state without any memory of the previous nights.
At Poiguinim, the festival is celebrated with different rituals at the Betal temple which is dedicated to the god of evil spirits. Areca nut trees are erected on a platform opposite to the temple on which the gades are suspended by hooks on a rotating wheel. The ritual begins by reciting the inscriptions from an old document, and then the wheels rotate the suspended gades. When the audiences are convinced that the gades have pleased the deities, the ritual is completed.
Where to witness Gadyachi Jatra?
To understand the local perspective of the rituals and to witness Gadyachi Jatra live, you will need to head to Sal village, Bicholim in North Goa where it is celebrated in its grandest form. You can also visit the Betal temple in Poiguinim at the southern tip of Goa.
While the rituals may be unusual and spooky, Gadyachi Jatra is one of the most authentic festivals in India which has survived in its original form without getting influenced by the changing culture of the region. It certainly, is an offbeat experience which cannot be matched.