India

The Bir Babas of Banaras

Anyone walking the narrow alleyways and lanes of Banaras is bound to be struck by the sheer volume of small shrines and objects that are the subject of ongoing ritual attention. They are widely diverse in nature, some resting on raised platforms or nestling at the base of holy trees, others housed in temple structures of various sizes. Many of the images are very familiar; Shiva lingas, Hanuman, Bhairava, Ganesha etc, but others are less identifiable and are likely to be memorials to Babas (ascetics) or shrines dedicated to the memory of the dead, known as Satis, Birs and Brams.

In Banaras the most numerous of these are the Birs, or Bir Babas. Once you start noticing them whilst walking around the city they are hard to ignore, there must be thousands of them. Some of these shrines look to be quite ancient, but others have less antiquity or have been subjected to a more recent makeover. If you have time to explore the rural areas just outside the heart of the city, it becomes clear that almost all these villages have at least one Bir Baba shrine. My first such encounter with a Bir Baba Shrine outside of the main city was a short distance from the archaeological remains of early Kashi, east of Malviya Bridge towards Adi Keshav Ghat.

Bir Baba shrines can take a number of forms in these villages, from mounds or pillars, image-less enclosures, carved figures in bas-relief, or images from recovered broken sculptures. The example I came across was quite an elaborate affair of no significant age, but clearly was revered in the neighbourhood. Carved Bir Baba images usually depict a standing figure holding a club, axe or staff in the right hand and a water pot in the left hand.

These Birs are often thought of as ghost spirits who suffered premature, unnatural or violent deaths, and so were not subjected to the normal rites of death. As such, they are not capable of advancing to the world of the ancestors, rendering them angry, jealous and unfulfilled ghosts who seek attention from the living. These ghosts can appear in visions or dreams, and cause misfortune or illness. Some people seek the help of an exorcist to remove the unwanted spirit, others perform specific rituals of appeasement which includes the creation of a shrine to subdue the spirit.

Although most Banaras Birs suffered a violent or untimely death, the locals who worship them consider them to be deities or gods, their power generated by the tragic and violent death. They are often also considered martyrs, having sacrificed their lives while defending their family, friends, caste, village or religion. In Banaras many of the Birs are said to have died during the time of the Mahanharata war, in regional chieftain battles, in conflicts with Muslim armies during the time of Aurangzeb, or in more recent conflicts with local rivals.

Some Bir Babas in Varanasi are also known as Jog or Jogi Bir Babas, this temple is one such example. Jogi Birs are described as Yogis who met with a violent demise, but the nature of worship at their shrines is exactly the same, as devotees visit them for the fulfillment of desires and relief from misfortune or illness.

There is a legend attached to this specific Jogi Bir Baba that stretches back 200 years, to a time when Rajghat was surrounded by forest with just a few scattered huts where people were living. Each day at sunset the forest would grow dark and quiet, and the wildlife would start to come out. The inhabitants of Rajghat would start feeling increasing afraid, and would shut their doors. Jogi Bir Baba was never afraid, and would each late evening boldly walk through the forest with his brass pot to collect water from the Ganga. His wooden clogs would clap and echo throughout the forest, a comforting sound for the people in their huts, who would instantly no longer feel afraid.

Looking at the carved idol in the temple sanctum, I couldn’t help but notice that Jogi Bir Baba appears to be wearing the wrist watch on his right arm ! I may be mistaken, but from the photographs it certainly looks to be the case. The time on the watch is almost 9pm – perhaps this was the time each day when he ventured out through the forest to collect his Ganga water.

All of the above is of course quite a simplistic rendition of what is a very complex subject matter. I fully realise I have merely scratched the surface of this topic, but I am far from being qualified enough to take this any further.

Flanking the entrance to the temple are a couple of Baranasi paintings. On one side is Kali standing on Shiva, on the other side is Durga with her lion. These are very much in the style of Rajasthani wall paintings, testament to the blending of cultural habits from all over India as people from everywhere in the country have settled in the city over the centuries.

The Jogi Bir Baba Temple is only a short distance away from the tomb of Lal Khan and archaeological remains of early Kashi, so all three could be easily clubbed together for a great and varied half day excursion away from the normal tourist sites of Varanasi.


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4 replies »

  1. Nice. A correction – “Kali on a slain demon” is incorrect. That is Goddess Kali stepping on her husband, Lord Shiva – that’s another story.

    Liked by 2 people

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