Rajani, the Goddess of Night, always wondered what she would look like if she had had the complexion of the golden sun, instead of the night.
Mustering courage to ask for the impossible, she climbed up to Mount Kailash. Prostrating herself at Shiva’s feet, she implored, ‘Lord, I am an unfortunate soul who’s forever dark. Could you bless me with a golden hue?’
Shiva was in a jovial and generous mood. Instantly he blessed her and said, ‘Your dream will come true. Go and lie down on top of Mount Skanda. After a while, you will disappear into the womb of Mother Earth and be reborn as the plant of turmeric that will have the complexion of the sun. You will become the symbol of purity and auspiciousness. And when I descend on Earth as Khandoba, my favourite offering will be the powder of turmeric.’
Sure enough, as you walk up the hillock of Jejuri, you will find yellow clouds of turmeric wafting in the air, and softly landing on the 200 stone steps that lead you to Khandoba, the lord of the tribals. Turmeric is in fact everywhere at this temple.
Jejuri is the abode of the lord of one of the oldest tribes in Maharashtra, the Dhangars. They are an upright and valiant community of shepherds, deeply attached to Khandoba as he is said to have married Ganai, the daughter of a shepherd.
Khandoba in fact had two wives: One is a goddess and the other is a shepherd’s daughter. Nevertheless, couples throng here soon after marriage, seeking blessings for a happy married life. And incidentally, Jejuri is the only temple where a couple has to make the offering to the deity together, standing next to each other.
One of the main visual attractions of Jejuri is the deepmaala, or garland of lights. It consists of two tall, vertical columns carved in black stone. When lit up on a moonless night, the shimmering flood of light created by this stone garland is enough to rival the molten gold of turmeric that forever adorns the steps of Jejuri.
There are also ritual songs sung by traditional families, on request, for the fertility of newly married couples. Armed with an ektaara, and blessed with a rustic voice, they sing without inhibition; praying for the marital bliss of couples.
But Khandoba, despite his demeanour of an easily appeased lord, is actually an angry incarnation of Lord Shiva, who descended to Earth to slay two demons, Mani and Malla.
The deity has an interesting martial symbol, called Divti. It’s shaped like a dagger, but doubles up as a lamp. When it’s lit up, it looks like a flaming dagger; a symbol of light that slays darkness.
Interestingly, Jejuri once upon a time also had a fort. It’s here that Shivaji met his father Shahaji, after a long gap of 14 years, and discussed guerilla strategies to ward off the Mughals.
The temple too is not the original. The old one that inspired Arun Kolatkar to write the poem Jejuri, which won the Commonwealth poetry prize, is situated atop a hill three kilometres away. Describing the dilapidated condition of this temple, Kolatkar wrote: “That’s no doorstep. It’s a pillar on its side.”
Relocating the world
There’s also a story about how the old temple moved to the new location. Long ago, you had to undertake an arduous climb to reach the old temple.
One of Khandoba’s devotees had been doing that daily, for over 50 years. One day, he realized that his mind was willing but his body couldn’t take it anymore.
So he bid goodbye to Khandoba, saying that it was his last visit to the temple. The lord was touched by the words of his ardent devotee, and he told him: ‘Since you can’t come to see me, I will come with you and live in your house. But on one condition; you shouldn’t turn back to look at me when I’m following you. If you do, I will stop right there’.
The old man’s joy knew no bounds, and he readily agreed. As the lord started following him, the old man thought to himself: ‘The lord has asked me not to look at him, but I can always keep an ear open for his footfalls’. But after a while, the footfalls stopped. Fearing that the lord had lost his way, he turned back. The lord froze into stone then and there, and a new temple was built around that idol.
It’s a scenic location. Looking down from the temple, you see Kaara river, in which Khandoba descends to take a cool dip on the moonless night of Somavati Amaavasya.
On that day, the throng of devotees swells, and they sprinkle more turmeric powder than usual. And the steps of the Jejuri temple are even more resplendent than ever.