Festivals promote diversity, they bring neighbours into dialogue, they increase creativity, they offer opportunities for civic pride, they improve our general psychological well-being. In short, they make cities better places to live ~ David Binder
Probably that’s why we Indians love to celebrate festivals. And if we look back, a couple of centuries ago, the Shivratri of Mandi was a festival to settle disputes, strategize for the expansion of state, and frame new regulations for
better governance of the regime.
Apart from the usual trading business, it was seen as an event to showcase power and influence on the Royal Family by the deities coming from the far flung areas of the ‘state’.
In this story, we shall see how things have changed with time, how new deities have become a part of this tradition, and at the same time how some of the old deities have stopped participating in this festival because of disputes with the organizers.
Historically, the festival can broadly be classified into three phases; the Royal Shivratri (before 1664 A.D.), Madho Rao’s Shivratri (1664 – 1947 A.D.), and Post Independence Shivratri.
The Royal Shivratri was entirely a Royal Affair until 1664. Unlike today, not every aspect of the festival was open for the general public. Some ceremonies were strictly meant for the Royal Family.
Today, the custom of Narol (in which six Goddesses stay within the main temple premises throughout the festival) is reminiscent of the same Royal Shivratri. In addition to Madho Rao, these goddesses residing in the palace act as hosts of the fair. These can be termed as the quasi-private affairs of the royal house, in which queens have been replaced by the goddesses.
The second phase was when Raja Surya Sen assigned his kingdom to Lord Krishnaor Radha Madho Rai.
Surya Sen, father to 18 sons saw all his kids dying in his lifetime, which prompted him to assign his kingdom to someone who was beyond life and death, and time. The Kingdom was then handed over to a silver idol of Lord Krishna and thus came the system of Theocratic Kingdom of Mandi.
The third phase was when the Indian State was freed from the clutches of the British. Prior to that, the turmoil of the Second World War resulted in the suspension of the festival, primarily because of financial crunch. Post Independence, administration took over the charge of organizing the festival and the first few years saw numerous changes in the format of the festival.
Not all events of the festival were open for the general public, likewise not all deities of the ‘state’ were invited for the festival. And even among those who were invited, there was a certain order of appearance and a hierarchical setup. Post Independence, the hierarchy was disturbed largely and that saw many deities pulling out of the festival, while many new ones also joined because of opening up of the system.
Post Independence Shivratri remained Raja Madho Rao’s Shivratri but the format was now more flexible and role of the Royal Lineage was gradually subsiding.
Another major change was the introduction of the Madhyam Jaleb (second procession), which was introduced after the State came under the British Rule. Prior to that, there were only Two Jalebs, one at the beginning, and another at the culmination of the festival.
During the Mandi Shivratri 2015, 190 deities appeared from across the state, while invitation was sent out to 220+ deities.
Although the official list that is being sent out by the District Administration, contains more than 200 names, the important ones are shared below with you. The entire region is divided into seven zones namely Sadar, Padhar, Kotli, Balichowki, Gohar, Thunag, and Aut. Every zone has its important deities.
For instance, the most important deity of the festival is Kamru Nag of Gohar. which is considered as the rain God of the entire State. The age old tradition is that only the insignia of the deity will participate in the event and not its rath (palanquin). Moreover, the deity will not reside with other deities but will oversee the proceedings of the festival from the Tarna Hill.
If Kamru is the main deity of Gohar zone, Magru Mahadev is of Thunag Zone, Aadi Brahma is the chieftain of Sadar Zone, Dev Pashakot of Padhar, Markanday Rishi of Aut, Rishi Pundrik of Balichowki, so on and so forth.
Until a few years ago, Magru Mahadev wouldn’t participate in the Shivratri Festival, as told to me by the Chief Priest of the Temple. Rishi Parashar used to be a part of the festivities. Deities decide on their own to participate in the festival. Mostly, tussle with the organizing committee and seating arrangement in the mela ground causes such conflicts.
Edited: After a gap of 22 years, finally Parashar Rishi is coming to Mandi for the 2017 Shivratri Festival starting from 24th February. Interestingly, Dev Parashar and Kamru Nag wouldn't meet each other. While Kamru Nag would as usual stay at Tarna Temple, Rishi Parashar would observe Narol.
Usually chieftains are seated in the front row or according to the pre-decided order but with a festival of such vast scale riding high on faith, misunderstandings can’t be avoided for long.
The festival has come a long way and it is bound to see many more changes in the future.
However, one thing that has remained the same throughout these years is the faith that people of Mandi ‘State’ has put in the Kingdom of Raja Madho and its deities.
Immovable and Unadulterated.
P.S. I have based my article mainly on four sources; Vinod Bhavuk's Blog, Handa's books, Elisabeth Conzelmann's research paper and my personal research. I am also thankful to Lawan Kumar Thakur for helping me with the Official List.