HOLI POLES ERECTED AT THE HOLI FESTIVAL
IN THE COASTAL REGION OF MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

Short report of the 1st and 2nd survey
done in February 1997 and March 2000
with reference to a representative village (Hasne)


Nold Egenter


Illustrations:

INTRODUCTION

It was overwhelming! According to the new maps edited by the coastal districts of Maharashtra, namely Sindhudurg, Ratnagiri and Raigad which are listing all principal villages (not the wadi, the hamlets) according to regions (taluga) these three districts count about 1600 villages (Sindhudurga ca. 400, Ratnagiri, ca. 700, Raigad ca. 500). According to our survey of about 100 villages it can safely be said that at least 95% of these villages erect holipoles as the core activity of the annual Holi festival.

There was a distinct difference in the northern part (Raigad and Ratnagiri) and the southern part (Sindhudurg) regarding the structure of the festivals. In the north festivals went over a week or more and consisted of a day to day erection of decorated poles which were then immediately burnt in the framework of a fire festival. This 'serial festival type' will be described later.

THE SINGULAR POLE TYPE
OF THE SOUTHERN DISTRICTS

More interesting for our documenting survey were the events of the southern part. They all showed a 'singular pole type'. There one pole was cut down usually in a non cultivated (jungle) area, then brought ritually (music) to a traditional communal festival place ('chauhatta') or to the village temple or, on the level of hamlets, to the hamlet sanctuary or to a particular paddy field. There it was prepared and decorated mostly with mango twigs and leaves and then erected at a specific place. The erection meant the establisment of sacrality in the traditional sense. Often a Brahmin performed a puja after erection to emphasise sacrality also in the Brahmanic category. The pole was considered holy and decorated with flowers. Coconuts were used as offerings. In some cases huts were built around or beside the pole and deities from nearby temples were brought there and set up. The pole and, eventually hut, or the corresponding temple then became the centre of festive activities which last several, in general 5 to 10 days. One month later, in the night of full moon, the pole is cut down. Only a stump of about 80 cm protruding above earth is left to indicate the place for the same ceremony next year.

A relatively hierarchical system of places is involved. First the distinction of village and its subunits, the wadis (hamlet) plays a primary role. Usually the hamlets have their own festival with one pole erected on the private paddy field of some important or ancient family. This was paralleled or dominated by the village festival which usually takes place at the communal festival place (chauhatta). Sometimes the compounds of the village temple are used for the village festival.

It is evident that the cults and poles have a strong territorio-semantic function. On the hamlet level the poles reflect the autonomy of the 'wadis' in the larger unit of the village. Similarly on the village level, the 'chauhatta' seem to be a primary communal sacred place different from the official temple with anthropomorphous Hindu deities. The erection of the poles are the primary condition for other ceremonies. After the end of the ceremonies the poles remain standing for a further month and are usually cut down at this time.

It is fairly evident that these festivals are a traditional survival of an agrarian society in which the ontology or worldview was highly complex, relational and spatially condensed. Aesthetics, religion, territorial conditions, social structure were closely related to local history. This history was not written, it was ritually fixed, the cyclically remade poles and their toposemantic functions containing the codes and informations of this history. In this sense they are the expressions of a deeply rooted "existential philosophy". If we try to understand this philosophy from its own existential conditions, it makes more sense than many other philosophies highly praised in learned books! In addition the events are extremely beautiful and socially dense. They produce a high degree of identification.

We will later produce a documentation of the main charactistics of the first and second survey of about 100 villages in the Konkan region, north and south. For the moment we present this exemplaric study of one village which shows traits of the survey which can be considered representative. The village is called Hasne.


HASNE VILLAGE

The permanent sacred topography

Hasne village is sited on the south of the Radhnagiri Water Reservoir. This is a large artificial lake on the high plateau on the western end of the Kolhapur district. From the Sindhudurg district it can be reached along a mountain pass road winding up the hills. Culturally the village seems to be rather related to Kolhapur which has a history as the capital of an important Maratha state (the last Maharaja died in 1983).

Hasne village consists of three main hamlets in the centre, one small additional hamlet called Satichamal, further, another additional pastoralists' hamlet and one Harijan hamlet of scheduled castes.

The names of the three main hamlets are - in sequence of their origins - Pahliwari, Majhliwari and Warsiwari.

Satichamal has its own sanctuary, an open site with a small stone altar, an earth altar and a place for a Holi pole. The hamlet's name and the stone altar allude to an aristocratic lady named 'Sati' who commited suicide, 'chamal' meaning 'her forest'. The hamlet was originally located in the dam area and when the reservoir was enlarged the group of houses was moved here.

The three main hamlets who form the largest surface of the settlement with dwelling space and fields have a large common sacred grove at the foot of the western wooded mountain range. In the centre of a fairly large open space the village temple devoted to the deity Gangoba is oriented towards the West. South to it a smaller temple is devoted to Pauna devi and at the northern limits of the glade a small Linga temple is found. The entrance to the sacred grove is marked by stones commemorating wealthy ancestors having lived in the village. About in the middle of the path leading to the glade on the left a monument of Sati, the lady who commited suicide is found. At the end of the entrance path leading to the glade are stones of nameless deities. The sacred grove is not cultivated in any ways, its fauna is left wild like in a jungle.

With its temples the sacred grove is situated in some distance from the main villages, but there is another sacred meeting place, the "Chauhatta" in the middle of the three main hamlets. It shows no temple, just trees, a large place surrounded by fences, one entrance from the village, another from the fields. However, there is some sort of an elevated podium made of stones which serves temporarily as an altar for the deities dislocated to this place and there is also a fairly thick tree stump, about 70 cm in diametre, with its upper part evidently cut off on the height of about 80 cm and deeply embedded in the earth.

Holi-festival:
an earlier toposemantic system comes to light

We have so far given the permanent 'sacred topography' of Hasne village. We might add the houses, in which sanctuaries are set up, usually in the sacred room at the back of the house. Related to this relatively stable and important grid of the whole settlement, we can now describe temporary activities, the cultic festivals related to it. This phenomenological description is extremely positive, because it keeps us from falling into the Eurocentric terminology of conventional religious studies.

The stump we mentioned before forms part of a semipermanent system which we would not notice during a normal visit of the village except if somebody would inform us about. But, these insignificant wooden stumps here and there are the witnesses of the dialogue of time and space or time and place. They are the cores of some sort of a cyclic marriage ceremony of the people who live here with their earth, a festive event which exceeds all what is lived in this village during the 'normal' year: the people come together to build poles and to set them up in the landscape. Signs in the land. Semantic architecture. An elementary and very important form of toposemantic culture.

Let us first mention the distribution of the poles. As said before, the biggest and most important represents the village as a whole, the main hamlets in the narrower sense. The tree is cut in the 'jungle' of the sacred grove where the temples are, but is brought from there in a rough state towards the village, more precisely to its sacred meeting place, the Chauhatta. It is deposited there, is decorated with mango leaves and twigs, with special symbols at the top and is erected there by being put up in the hole of the former stump which in the meantime has been taken out. Evidently this is the most important Holi pole. It represents the whole village and thus is of a higher order. But the lower order is there too. The hamlets produce the same symbol and erect it at particular places in their own domains. Immediately after the main pole in the Chauhatta has been erected and vertically secured, the three main hamlets start building their own smaller Holi poles in particular places within the paddy fields. The making is the same, the trees may vary, the mango clothing is the same. The symbols at the top too are made of the same materials, a very white and shining tree bark called "khaushi". The ways to lift the symbol too is the same and the primordial way to fix it in the earth.

All hamlets have their own pole except the hamlet of the pastoralists. The Harijan hamlet erects it in the centre of their house group. The three central hamlets of the village, as mentioned, erect theirs in particular places of their paddy fields. The Satichamal hamlet produces one in its sanctuary, another of which the coordination has not been clarified. It seems to be related to the more recent establishment of a forest zone.

Territorial demarcation

Thus, the holi poles, in their essence, clearly show their primary function as a territorial demarcation. They evidently are survivals from times where the land was not secure, no larger unit protected the farmers. They used their own traditional toposemantic system to manifest their existential claims. The technological criteria and the spatial independence speak of something very old, much older than the temple.

However, the poles are not primitive, in contrary. In contrast to much simpler demarcations with rooted grasses these poles show a sequence of quite evolved technological and organisational processes. They are on the level of an industry using wood and corresponding instruments in a fairly elaborate stage. The size and hight implies a wider spatial communication system. This reflects in the forms. The poles covered with mango leaves are relatively homogeneous, they refer to a considerable diffusion of the size of southern Maharasthra.

High ontological values

As soon as the poles are standing they are considered sacred. There is a dimension of high ontological values. Religion somehow. Holi is a name equivalent to a deity's name. The ground is nicely arranged around the pole, slightly elevated and sacrifices are made, mostly coconuts, but also money is laid down, or other valuable things. In many villages of the region a Brahmin priest celebrates a Hindu ceremony (puja), surrounding the pole with grasses which are then burnt. This forms a circle of fire, later of ashes, which give the whole a magic atmosphere.

In Hasne there is a strong distinction between the autochthonous tradition and the temple. Before cutting the large tree for the village Chauhatta, a very small "Holi pole" is erected in front of the temple, more precisely in front of the sacred pot with the Tulsi plant, and the Hindu ceremony is made there and in the temple. One can read this as a concession to the historical temple system, implying that both systems are harmonised, but, definitely, the Holi pole system also keeps its own character, on the hamlet level as well as on the village level. The Holi pole in the Chauhatta and those erected in the fields are a matter of the village and the hamlets proper.


CONCLUSION:
A VERY ANCIENT AND HIGHLY SUSTAINABLE TRUTH

History and prehistory, local parallelism and regional diffusionism, this bilevelled view seems to be unavoidable. It would mean that, while studying this cultic festival of the Holi poles, we had hit on something important, something which has very deep roots in India. It seems to be something which - in its vital and traditional aspects far exceeds any information found by archaeology or historical constructions. It is a vital transmission, it is there, it is breathtakingly real, and it makes sense! On one hand because it is existential. There is an existential base, an existential philosophy in all this. Seen in this way, it is entirely different from all the conventional Western pseudotheological projections of "fertility cults", of "animism" and the like. The earth is there, the territory, an age old problem, that by far exceeds the human dimension in depth. And then there is this other dimension, the toposemiotic momentum. It is a human solution, harmonises the spatial tensions.

There is also the human dimension of construction, an empirical dimension with a deep temporal depth. Place, space and sign. Paired with feast, festival, cult, highest values. Maybe the farmers of Hasne - and in the wider sense of southern Maharashtra - want to communicate to us something very deep rooted which we have lost in our urban lives. It is a truth that is true because it is very ancient and has proved to support human existence over long times. It tells us about a highly sustainable human condition.


Introduction
Dr Roy Burman's photographs
Illustrations 1st survey 1997 (Hasne village)
Illustrations 2nd survey 2000 (Hasne village)
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