At last the mystery has been solved! No more confused mixed messages, gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. I met a very informative chap yesterday who finally provided the definitive version of the Snake Mother (Bhuri mata) story and it seems that while the other versions contain some nuggets of truth, some details are absurd fabrications. I was relieved to hear, for example, that her son, the Naag Devta (Snake God), did not commit wilful matricide by flinging his mother across the valley where she either landed in a rock-face or the middle of a forest, but that he merely accidentally flattened her, pancake fashion, against the wall as a result of an involuntary twitch.
Bhuri Mata temple at Chadhyana
Bhuri Mata-ji was the consort of a Rishi (or Muni) – an ascetic chap who decided to devote his life to meditating in the Kiala forest. She devoted her life to looking after him. Sounds like he got the better deal. Eventually she gave birth to a snake, which initially was a bit of a disappointment but she grew to accept that all was well after Lord Shiva explained that this was no ordinary snake, but divine. However, the snake grew so massive that even coiled up there was not enough room in their modest dwelling for herself and her Muni, so she had a bit of a grumble. The snake responded by saying “If you stroke my tail gently with that brush, I will gradually get smaller and smaller”, like Alice in Wonderland.
So she started stroking him but being a mountain lady was a little rough, he twitched and squashed her against the wall, fatally, inasmuch as she no longer continued in human form but was transmogrified into a deity and now sits at her favourite spot in the temple in the forest just down the road (where we celebrated the end of Navratri a couple of days ago with around 300 friendly local people.)
Not sure how the Muni reacted to this turn of events but the snake went down to the river to Koti where he found a convenient hole on the ground in the middle of a patch of brambles (a small temple now marks the spot) in a field where cows grazed. Every day the snake would stick his head out of the hole and the cows would obediently queue up in a line through the bramble patch, stopping to let the snake drink their milk, like cars queueing up at a filling station, in reverse.
The local Raja evidently enjoyed milk and other dairy products and sent in an armed contingent of his men to get to the bottom of the sudden drop in yields from his cows. They observed the cows queueing up in the brambles, followed them in, seized the milk-filled snake and chopped him into three. That night the good people of Bhumrara had a collective dream in which the spirit of the head of the recently separated Nag Devta appeared so they concluded that he wanted to stay there and built him a splendid temple.
Bhumrara – the Head
Just down the road, the inhabitants of Gunda had a similar nocturnal group event concerning his midriff, while those of Baginala awoke to find they had all been visited by his tail, in spirit.
The temples of Baginala, Gunda and Bhumrara can all be visited, along with the Bhuri Mata temple in the forest where I met my informative friend. You can also visit the birthplace of the Naag Devta, now surrounded by apple orchards, and another older temple dedicated to Bhuri Mata.
My friend also clarified some other issues regarding the local temples on our side of the valley, over the top. The small stone temple by the side of the road is dedicated to Kali, the consort of Lord Shiva, and not as we were previously told, the spot where the local deity, Lankra Veer, sat and meditated and became deified. Lankra Veer now resides in Kiari temple, the largest temple in this area, near which is the school which the farm kids attend – a one and a half hour walk up through the forest and down through the orchards. Veer is evidently a term used for many human-cum-deities and means something like brave, being ultimately derived from the Sanskrit for semen, and related to virility. Spunky.
Kali ‘chalet’ temple near Bareonghat
The actual (minor) local devtas or divine beings are Bendra Devta in Deori and Chambi Devi in Bareon. It is these that we occasionally see being taken out on an ornate palki or palanquin, to a kheen, for example, where they communicate with people via an oracle or mulli.
Devta on a palki
My friend also told me that some kind of ancient dome or gumbad has recently been unearthed down by the river at Gumma. He says there was a long chain wrapped round it and leading to the river. When in spate, the chain would rotate the dome. This merits further investigation.
O C Handa has this to say about Kiari (Kiyari) temple:
“The Durga temple of Kiyari … is one of the little known tower-type temples … [and] and interesting relic of the Buddhist past. In it, the layout parameters of the Kushana age [30 – 375 C.E.] and the later Gupta architectural features may be found blended under the bolder effects of the vernacular architecture.
… it may be conjectured that in the medieval past … this temple complex might also have served as a defensive fort. Earlier, this fort-like structure may have served as a convent for the tantric Buddhist monks belonging to the cult of Vajravarahi, which has now been identified with Kali or Durga. In fact, many temples, dedicated to Vajravarahi were converted into Kali or Durga temples under the Hindu revivalist movement of Shankarachariya (788 – 820 A.D.) in this area.”
Temple Architecture of the Western Himalaya: Wooden Temples, by O C Handa (2001).