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Rites hindous

Gérard Colas
Gilles Tarabout

Genèses et transformations

The lord of Mapusa

Genesis of an urban god in Goa

Alexander Henn


Cette étude de cas s’intéresse à l’évolution d’un dieu mineur tutélaire local, Boḍgeśvar, en une puissante déité urbaine dans la ville provinciale de Mapusa située dans l’État indien de Goa. L’on remarquera que la métamorphose du jāgeveiḷe ou gardien local en Iśvar, ou dieu haut placé, implique aussi la référence à un baba ou moine mendiant. Accédant à la visibilité au moment de l’émergence d’un temple somptueux et de l’accroissement continuel de ses dévots, l’essor du dieu local est par-dessus tout le résultat de la libération de Goa de l’autorité portuguaise et reflète en particulier le dévéloppement de Mapusa, petite ville-marché devenue une métropole. Cela étant, le Seigneur de Mapusa ne doit pas, toutefois, son succès au seul dynamisme de la communaute des Vani et des Bhandāri, principalement des petits marchands, des petits fermiers et des pêcheurs, bénéficiaires de la démocratisation postcoloniale et du boom économique, et constituant le groupe des administrateurs de temple du dieu urbain à ce jour. Une bonne part de la popularité de Boḍgeśvar revient aussi au vaste groupe de travailleurs immigrés, venus des États voisins du Karnataka et du Kérala, qui vivent et ont un emploi dans la ville et qui sont particulièrement attirés par la personnification divine d’un étonnant moine-mendiant-travailleur.

Texte intégral


1The question of how religion and politics, and by extension tradition and history, relate to each other in Hindu society has been a matter of discussion for a long time. Earlier approaches tended to relegate religion to a domain of tradition whose allegedly rigid structure (or ‘essence’) left comparatively little space for the negotiation of political conditions and therefore took religion as their expression (Dumont 1970). More recent studies have maintained, against this position, that religion has always been a part of political history, and therefore that it structures, rather than expresses, political conditions (Dirks 1993).

2In the following I would like to pursue this problem in the context of a case study from Goa. More precisely, I am attempting to reconstruct how, between 1935 and 1995, an inconspicuous wayside shrine in the Goan town of Mapusa developed into a sumptuous Hindu temple, and how a minor tutelary being became a powerful urban god. My analysis will be structured in four chronologically ordered sections, which, however, will not only pursue the historical development, but also scrutinise the social agents of the religious cult. Given the fact that the events described mark the period of Goa’s transition from colony to part of postcolonial India after 451 years of Portuguese domination, the article has two main aspects. One is to reconstruct the processes that happened in the narrower religious domain, that is, the changes and transformations in the iconographic representation, theological conceptualisation and local accommodation of the god and the ritual services dedicated to him. The other focus will be on the political and social circumstances that eventually led to and, in the medium term, followed Goa’s liberation from colonial rule in 1961, and to analyse their relationship with the development of the religious cult and its agents.


  • 1 For a more detailed analysis of the system of local religion in Goa, see Henn 2005.

3According to many old people still living in the region, what was eventually to become the most sumptuous Hindu temple in Mapusa had rather humble origins. It began around the year 1935 in the fields and forest south of the town, where people cultivated rice and vegetables, and put their cattle out to pasture, and where a well-frequented path connected Mapusa with the neighbouring villages. There, a small shrine appeared, which at first was not equipped with any idol or image, but marked only by an oil lamp, a couple of saffron flags, and the usual remnants of incense, flowers and food offerings that one finds at wayside shrines in Goa. This inconspicuous place of worship was located under one of the tall boṇgi-trees (Pandanus tectorius soland) which dotted the landscape there and whose flowers are especially esteemed for their fine fragrance. Near the shrine was one of the stone rests (davarne), which, in former days, one could find along all the main footpaths to provide people with loads on their heads the possibility to rest at intervals without having to put down their loads. Concerning the identity of the sacred being whose abode at this spot was thus being noticed by the general public, two pieces of information are of special interest. First, the deity came to be known as Boṇgīṇi or Boḍgeṇi, both names that are said to be derived from the local name of the fragrant tree flower. Secondly, among the offerings that the god regularly received were vīdī and vido (local type of cigarettes and chewing tobacco), fish, and occasionally even the blood sacrifice of a cock. Taking these scattered details together, there can be little doubt that Boṇgīṇi or Boḍgeṇi belonged to a particular class of local gods. Like the better known grāmadevatā, that is, village gods who are worshipped in Goa (as well as in most other parts of Hindu India) as spiritual patrons and protectors of their villages, this class of local gods is also associated with particular localities and territories. Generically known, therefore, as jāgeveiḷe, i.e. ‘those from the place’ (from Konkani jāgo, ‘place’ or ‘space’), or śīmeveiḷe, i.e. ‘those from the border’ (from Konkani śīmo, ‘border’ or ‘boundary’), they are indeed subordinated to the grāmadevatā. This is not only because the places they are associated with usually lie outside or mark the border of the territories that the village gods represent: local mythology also frequently constructs a functional hierarchy among local gods by classifying the grāmadevatā as ‘kings’ who are said to command the jāgeveiḷe and śīmeveiḷe as their ‘soldiers’ or ‘servants’.1

  • 2 For general information on the history of Goa’s decolonisation and liberation, see Pearson 1987 and (...)
  • 3 The division between the two areas known today as the Old Conquest and the New Conquest goes back t (...)

4By placing the appearance of the shrine of Boṇgīṇi or Boḍgeṇi in the broader context of political history, one can argue that it has been part of the process of decolonisation in Goa.2 This process, which arguably started by the midnineteenth century, was driven by various factors and forces. The far-reaching economic decline of the Portuguese colony, which in the first half of the twentieth century lead to severe labour migration by Catholics out of the area known as the Old Conquest,3 contributed to this. Another factor was the gradual rise of political liberalism in Portugal, which, after the proclamation of the republic in 1910 (and despite repeated setbacks caused by reactionary forces like Salazar and his regime), repealed all public restrictions against the practice of Hinduism in Goa. Both developments not only led to a steady growth in the number of Hindus, who outnumbered Catholics in Goa by about 1920 and have ever since constituted a growing religious majority. Part of the decline of colonial domination also took the form of a revival of Hindu culture in the area of the Old Conquest, which manifested itself above all in the (re-) foundation of Hindu temples and Hindu shrines.

5In this period, the development of Mapusa can be seen as a particular instance of these parameters of Goa’s decolonisation. Though traditionally known for its large retail market, and being the capital of the district of Bardes since 1859, Mapusa too was not spared from the economic calamity that characterized social life in late-colonial Goa. Thus the demographic sources indicate that, due to the massive labour migration of Catholics, the population of the town stagnated after 1850 at little more than 10,000 for almost a century, and eventually, in the final decade of Portuguese rule, even declined to little more than 8,000 (Xavier 1903: 442; India Portuguesa 1956: 74; Phal 1982: 54). In 1927, the Portuguese administration therefore made the problem of emigrção a key issue of its Seventh Provincial Congress. The proceedings of this meeting record that–for reason of faltas de meio e milhora, the ‘need of means and dough’, as it was worded–one third of Mapusa’s 10,876 inhabitants had migrated either to British India or Africa (7° Congresso Provincial 1927: 81). With 3,200 of the migrants being Catholics and only 100 Hindus (ibid.: 91), the town confirmed the relative growth in number of Hindus in Goa in the first half of the twentieth century, which was reinforced later by the absolute decline of its population figures between 1950 and 1960. By the end of this last decade of Portuguese rule, Mapusa’s population had fallen to 8,198 (Census of India 1971, cited in Phal 1982: 55), of whom about two thirds were Hindus and one third Catholics. By way of a first conclusion, it is therefore worth noting that the origin of the shrine of Boṇgīṇi or Boḍgeṇi not only marked a period of revival in Hindu culture, but also of a serious demographic and economic decline in the town of Mapusa.


6It is hardly surprising, therefore, that it was another thirty years before Boṇgīṇi’s or Boḍgeṇi’s shrine eventually became a real temple. This first was hardly very elaborate, as can be seen from the photographs showing the temple of the tutelary god built in 1966: a one-room building with a sloping roof in an open yard surrounded by a fence, all made of colourfully painted concrete. This simple sanctuary was located in the middle of an extensive piece of ground, next to a large boṇgī-tree, most probably the same one that had sheltered the shrine. The modest design and peripheral location indicate that the builders of the new temple had far fewer means at their disposal than, for instance, the group of merchants administering the precious old Maruti temple in the heart of the town. However, the letters ‘Śrī Boḍgeśvar Prasanna’ that adorned the gate arch of the new temple indicate that, by adding the suffix īśvar, i.e. ‘lord’, to his name, the tutelary god had been raised to a distinctly higher rank in the hierarchy of Hindu deities in 1966.

7Moreover, the formerly aniconic representation of Boṇgīṇi or Boḍgeṇi had received an idol by then. What this looked like is indicated by pictures that are sold today by the stalls set up during the temple’s annual festival. Among these pictures is a black and white hand drawing, available today as a photographic reproduction, which most probably corresponds to the iconographic representation of Boḍgeśvar that was displayed inside the temple in 1966. The picture shows the god as a male figure of truly impressive height, dressed in a white loin-cloth that left his lower legs naked and a rough blanket wrapped around his upper body and over his right shoulder. With a white turban on his head, solid leather sandals on his feet, a walking stick in one hand and a burning torch in the other, the god looks like a handsome farmer walking through his fields. From this picture, it is clear that Boḍgeśvar belongs to a more precisely defined category of local gods that are known by the generic name of deunchārā in Goa and in the Konkan region. The exact meaning of this name is not known, but local mythology usually describes deunchārā as giant guardians who are always walking through the territories they are associated with, thus filling the air with the tinkling of the bells on their feet and lighting their path with a torch at night. Given also the interesting fact that, in some temples in South Konkan, deunchārā are frequently offered leather sandals by their devotees, we may be justified in suggesting that their name is a combination of the Sanskrit terms dev, ‘god’, and chārā, ‘walking’, so that it designates a kind of ‘divine walker’.

8The foundation of the new temple was completed by its official appreciation. By executing the law introduced by the Portuguese in the nineteenth century laying down that any Hindu temple in Goa must be officially registered and given legal statutes (compromissos), the General Administration Department of Goa, Daman and Diu announced on 21 October 1966 that “sanction is hereby accorded to the regulation of the Hindu temple of Shri Bodgeshvar of Mapusa” (General Administration Department 1966/3: 428). This meant that, besides the temples of Maruti, Sateri, Lakṣmī-Nārāyanṇ and Viṭṭhal-Rukminī all of which had been registered already, now also the sanctuary of Śrī Boḍgeśvar had received the official status as a Hindu temple in Mapusa. As was the rule, the government notification registered the temple’s immovable and movable property, and recorded its main sources of income and expenditure flows. As the date of the temple’s annual festival “pousha sudha chaturti”, the fourth day after new moon in December/ January, was laid down. Moreover, the entries under the headline ‘servants and duties’ indicate that, from the date of its official recognition, the temple also had a ‘‘bhat puzari”, that is, a Brahman priest. The duties of this priest are defined as the performance of the rites of daily worship and also the Satyā-Nārāyaṇa pūjā, that is, the special worship that is dedicated to one of the appearances of the god Visnu, on the second day of the yearly festival. “Besides the bhat puzari”, the text continues (ibid.), “there are more servants according to the needs of the service”, which indicates that non-Brahman priests also worked in the temple. Indeed, by judging by the practice today, it can be assumed that it was these non-Brahman priests who offered the oblations to the god and also presented devotees’ wishes and vows to him, while the services of the Brahman priest were restricted to particular Brahmanical rituals. Finally, the administrative document listed the names of nineteen “individuals of male sex professing the Hindu religion” who were registered as mahājan, literally ‘great persons’ and by extension the trustees or patrons of the new temple (ibid.). Since this entry in the administrative records departs from the practice usual in the case of pre-Liberation temple registrations and does not list the mahājan according to ‘class’ (as the sensitive matter of caste was cautiously treated and, yet, consciously affirmed in late-colonial documents), we must resort to local information to learn anything about the caste status of Boḍgeśvar’s patrons. The majority of them, it is said, belong to the Vani caste, a community of traders and merchants in Goa who trace their origins from Kudal in present-day southern Maharashtra and identify their varna status as Vaiśya. Others are said to belong to the amorphous castes of Bhandāri and Marāṭha, which include a number of agricultural occupations (especially toddy-tapping) that are classified as Śūdra in the classical system. Finally, there are individual families among Boḍgeśvar’s patrons who are said to belong to craftsmen castes like the chāri or carpenters, kansar or coppersmiths, and mhālo or barbers.

Śrī Dev Boḍgeśvar in 1966, popular reproduction, Mapusa.

Śrī Dev Boḍgeśvar in 1966, popular reproduction, Mapusa.

Photogr. Gabriele & Alexander Henn

  • 4 In this ancient village organisation the political power of the group of ganvkār, i.e. those clans (...)
  • 5 The considerable influence which certain Hindu merchants retained in Portuguese Goa has been analyz (...)

9The newly registered mahājan of Boḍgeśvar’s temple comprised in more than a merely temporal sense a group of newcomers among the people patronizing temples in Mapusa. Thus, none of Boḍgeśvar’s patrons belongs to the ganvkār, i.e. ‘genuine villagers’ of Mapusa, who, despite the erosion of the functional aspects of the ancient village organisation,4 still have considerable social status and political influence in the town and in particular act as the mahājan of the temple of its grāmadevi, i.e. the village goddess Sateri. Similar differences in status and power divide Boḍgeśvar’s patrons from the mahājan of the temples of Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa and Viṭṭhal-Rukmiṇī, both of which had been founded only recently (in 1929 and 1926 respectively) and were dominated by Gaud Sārawat Brahmans, by far the wealthiest and most powerful Brahman caste in Goa. Finally, Boḍgeśvar’s composite group of mahājan from the Vani, Bhandāri and Marāṭha castes also clearly stays behind the social reputation and economic means of the extraordinarily long- and well-established Vani caste in Mapusa that patronizes the local Maruti temple, one of the first temples that was tolerated and officially recognized by the Portuguese in the area of the Old Conquest (Pereira 1978: 61 ff.).5

  • 6 For a detailed analysis of Goa’s political development after liberation, see Esteves 1986.

10Given this subaltern status of Boḍgeśvar’s patrons among the Hindu elite of Mapusa, it is evident that the establishment of the new temple was only made possible against the background of a historical event which totally changed Goa’s social and political landscape: liberation from Portuguese rule. Although this liberation was achieved by outside intervention, when, on Nehru’s orders, the Indian army took over Goa by force in December 1961, it had immediate effects on the political, social and economic life in the former colony. These effects were emerging not only from land reforms, the improvement of the education system, and the general economic upswing that followed the expulsion of the Portuguese in the medium term. Of particular importance was also the fact that, in 1963, the first democratic elections held in Goa were won by the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP). This party was led by Dayanand Bandokar, an industrialist turned politician, and a group of Hindu intellectuals whose primary political goal was to dissolve Goa as an independent political unit and merge it with Maharashtra. It owed its success to the votes of those masses of subaltern Hindus who had been socially and economically the least privileged stratum in colonial Goa and to whom also belonged the social grouping from which the patrons and devotees of Śrī Boḍgeśvar were recruited. Thus, although MGP could not realize its primary goal of merging Goa with Maharashtra (a political option that was enthusiastically discussed in the postliberation period, but eventually rejected in a referendum held on the subject in 1967), it remained in power till 1979 and created a political atmosphere that was clearly favourable to the foundation of temples like Boḍgeśvar’s not only against the possible political influence of the Catholics, but also of the Brahmans and other elite castes of Mapusa.6


11Thirteen years after the foundation of Boḍgeśvar’s temple, a paragraph in the first Gazetteer of the Union Territory: Goa, Daman and Diu gives an impression of the enormous popularity that the urban god had acquired by then. The paragraph, which lists Boḍgeśvar’s temple as the only Hindu sanctuary under the rubric “Places of interest” in Mapusa, reads as follows:

The small shrine dedicated to Kanakeshvar Baba also known as Bodgeshvar and popularly known as Bongini, who is considered to be the God for angavani, i.e. to whom vows are made, is situated in the midst of greenery. The devotees of the deity believe that he is capable of fulfilling their desires. The people therefore make vows to him for various petitions like the gift of a child, employment, relief from physical and mental ailments, etc. On the fulfilment of their desires, the devotees offer the god presents as promised by them earlier. The fair in honour of the deity is held every year in the month of December/January, when more than six thousand flock to grace the occasion. It is considered as one of the biggest fairs in Goa. [Gazetteer of the Union Territory... 1979: 787]

12The curiosity of a ‘small shrine’ whose annual festival has become ‘one of the biggest fairs in Goa’ is to be related, first of all, to the particular urban population development of postcolonial Goa. By exceeding even the general demographic growth in this period in Goa, Goan towns literally experienced a population explosion after liberation. Thus Mapusa’s population grew from 8,198 in 1961 to 20,001 in 1971 (Census of India 1971, cited in Phal 1982: 54), and 44,518 in 1981 (Census of India 1981, cited in De Souza 1991: 49), which corresponds to a growth rate of roughly 140 % for the first decade after liberation and 105 % for the second. As the Goan sociologist Phal (1982: 54) has pointed out, this spectacular rise in urban population was above all an effect of the fillip that overall social change after liberation gave to the secondary or industrial, and tertiary or service sector of Goa’s economy. Accordingly, one can argue that, at least in quantitative terms, this rapid urbanisation was and still is geared by one section of society, namely the numbers of people coming from traditional occupations in rural areas to take up working-class jobs in urban or suburban industry, road-building, construction and the simple service sector. It is also important to note that this section of society, which is mainly made up of people from former agricultural labouring and fishing castes, and to some extent also by people of tribal origin, has been especially expanded by the large number of immigrants coming to Goa from the poverty-stricken areas of Karnataka and Kerala.

13A closer inspection of the paragraph in the Gazetteer gives a clue as to why Śrī Boḍgeśvar had such a strong appeal among precisely this section of the urban population. People are attracted by the god, the text indicates, because he is responsive to their wishes and needs, and grants them help and support in all situations of life. Accordingly, the god is associated with heart-warming stories, like the one about the woman who was about to die in labour, but recovered at the last moment because her husband made a vow to Śrī Boḍgeśvar, or the motor-bike rider who lost his way on a pitch-dark night, but, after invoking the god, was safely guided home by a miraculous light. It should be noted, however, that deities who are known to interfere with worldly affairs in order to protect or help their devotees are neither exceptional nor even rare in the Hindu world. And the divine responsiveness, to which people refer in the case of Śrī Boḍgeśvar, as well as in other cases, by calling the deities jāgṛ, i.e. ‘awake’ or ‘alive’, can be found especially with deities who are related to their devotees by locality or kinship, i.e. who act as the patrons or guardians of villages, houses, clans, families, etc.

14Therefore another aspect of the paragraph in the Gazetteer deserves attention. Obviously, the identity of the divine being who was attracting more and more attention in the town had still not been settled. The text therefore refers to a puzzling multitude of names, among which not only the popular name Boṇgīṇi and the Sanskritized title Śrī Boḍgeśvar, but also the name of a certain Kanakeśvar Baba is mentioned. In other words, the text hints at a completely different story of how the Hindu temple in the fields of Mapusa came into existence. This story does not refer to a god but to a baba, that is, a mendicant Hindu monk who, people claim, once had his abode under one of the big trees on the southern edge of Mapusa. This monk was, of course, not an ordinary man, but someone of supernatural powers about whom curious stories still circulate in the region today. Thus people say that he could climb trees to a height that was absolutely inaccessible to any other man, and also that he miraculously cured people, through which he became worshipped as a ‘holy man’.

  • 7 Gavda constitute, like Goan Kunbi, an ethnic group of tribal origin who claims to descend from the (...)

15In order to appreciate how the memory of this ‘holy man’ contributed to the popularity of Śrī Boḍgeśvar, both historical and sociological factors must be taken into account. It is to be recalled that, in the period in which the urban cult originated, mendicant Hindu monks indeed played a special role in the revival of Hindu culture in Goa. This became possible because the gradual liberation of the religious politics in Goa, that was implemented after the proclamation of republic in Portugal in 1910, allowed Hindu monks, for the first time after four centuries of exclusion, to enter Goa again. And a number of them who did so certainly left their mark there by performing outstanding deeds. Thus people remember for instance Vinayak Masurkar, a Vaiśṇava monk from Karnataka, who became instrumental in carrying out a much-noted series of re-conversions among Goa’s tribal population of Gavdas.7 More than 8,000 Gavdas whose ancestors had converted to Christianity in the seventeenth century, it is documented, agreed to undergo the ceremony of śuddhi, i.e. purification (as re-conversion to Hinduism was called), which Vinayak Masurkar performed in Goa in 1928 (Kakodkar 1988; Kulkarni 1994). Perhaps even more vividly remembered is Arjudh Anand, another mendicant monk who was active in Goa during the 1930s and 1940s. This man too, so local mythology claims, had supernatural powers, which he used to cure people during the various epidemic outbreaks of smallpox and cholera that were raging in Goa at that time. Accordingly, his samadhi, that is, the place where he died in the small coastal village Charpora, about ten miles from Mapusa, became a popular shrine to which people seeking relief from illness and hardship make pilgrimages till today.

  • 8 It therefore has become a common praxis after Goa’s liberation that idols of historical village dei (...)
  • 9 By extending the traditional idea of the divine qualities which Hindu monks gain through their renu (...)

16However, the impression that these and other Hindu monks left behind in Goa certainly refers to more than the personal charisma of the holy men. It is also noteworthy that the monks appealed especially to a population that was seeking religious security under conditions of being alienated or cut off from its religious traditions. Moreover, it is important to emphasize that these conditions existed not only when Goan Gavdas–whose ancestors, as mentioned before, had converted to Christianity–were re-converting to Hinduism, nor, more generally still, when Goan Hindus were returning to the land from which their ancestors and local gods had formerly been expelled.8 Interestingly, a similar deprivation of the religious security that is usually granted by having a personal relationship with one’s village deities is also invoked today by all those who left their villages, or, as in the case of the immigrants from Karanataka and Kerala, even their states, in order to work and live in the city. In other words, the remarkable rise in popularity of Śrī Boḍgeśvar is due especially to the fact that his identity, and by implication his protective qualities, are derived not only from a strictly localised village god, but also from a mendicant monk. By combining the idea of a deity who is related to men by spatial and genealogical ties with that of a god-man whose charisma is independent of home and descent, the urban god became an especially attractive focus for a population for whom the urban environment tends to be both home and exile.9


17The jātrā, that is, the annual temple festival that was celebrated in January 1995, provides a final insight into the remarkable ascent of the urban god and his cult. Celebrated in the new temple, which had been under construction for several years and eventually replaced the old temple in 1993, the festive performance in and around the new building in 1995 was intensified by its being declared the ‘sixty-year jubilee’ of Śrī Boḍgeśvar’s shrine. The circumstances of this festival reflected thus in a particularly impressive way the immense growth in popularity and wealth that the urban cult had acquired over the years. Located in the middle of a large plot of ground along National Highway No. 17, which connects Panjim via Mapusa with Bombay, the new temple is visible from far and has become a landmark of the capital of Bardes. Its spacious marble platform is raised about twenty steps from ground level and is open on three sides. The building itself is covered with a tile-roof on tall columns and decorated with richly ornamented arcades that might recall an ancient Greek temple, were it not for its unmistakably Hindu decoration. Thus its interior ceiling is adorned with a sumptuously elaborated and colourfully painted bas-relief of scenes from the two great Hindu epics, the Mahābhārata on the right and the Rāmāyaṇa on the left. Towards the closed built-in side of the temple are ten identical silver figures of the god Visnu, each one located in a separate shrine at which special rituals are performed. Certainly appropriate to house a real dev, that is, a god, as Śrī Boḍgeśvar is now explicitly being referred to, the centre of the building is occupied by a huge idol. This shows the god in the familiar Gestalt of a deunchār behind a large marble table on which devotees offer bananas, coconuts, flowers and other vegetarian gifts to him.

18Similarly impressive as the new temple were the crowds that, on the occasion of the festival, flooded to and from the sanctuary for two days and nights, causing an almost impenetrable jam of people and vehicles in the provincial town. Although most of them lined up in long queues in front of the temple in order to present their offerings and have their wishes and vows given to the god by the temple priests, people’s motives in visiting the festival were naturally not confined to religious purposes alone. Moreover, the festival provided an opportunity to enjoy on a large scale the pleasures and entertainment that a religious fair can offer in Goa. Thus one could find not just the performance of dhaśavtārī, a religious drama presenting stories of the ‘ten incarnations’ of Visnu, as well as a large number of stalls selling food and drinks and cheep consumer goods like kitchenware, toys, clothes and kitsch. Indispensable for children were also the giant wheels, merry-go-rounds and games of skill, while for adults, and men especially, Boḍgeśvar’s fair has become known for its wide range of lotteries and gamble games.

Śri Dev Boḍgeśvar in 1995, Mapusa.

Śri Dev Boḍgeśvar in 1995, Mapusa.

19Though thus underlining the special appeal that the urban temple has for the working classes, the festival also focuses on another section of society that is contributing to its remarkable success. This is an amorphous and dynamic social group, whose common characteristic is that its members have benefited particularly from the economic boom and from urbanization in postcolonial Goa. Represented by the patrons of Boḍgeśvar’s temple, this social group is recruited from the merchants’ caste, as well as from former agricultural-labouring, fishing and artisan castes who owe their recent prosperity either to the setting up of independent business or to employment in the urban trade, construction or service sectors. Thus constituted by businessmen, bankers, lawyers, doctors and teachers who obtained their positions in and through the social changes coming after liberation, for this modern urban middle class the new temple and its public festival is an arena in which economic wealth is converted into social prestige. This is not only evident on the plate that is put up in the new temple displaying the names of all the families that have generously contributed to its construction: the patrons of Śrī Boḍgeśvar and other nouveaux riches of Mapusa also self-consciously presented their cars, jewellery and fine dresses at and around the time of the festival in 1995. Eventually, it therefore became as much a religious as a social performance, when, on the second day of the festival, a distinct section of urban society (in exchange for considerable donations to the temple, it was said) were given the privilege of participating jointly in the solemn and sumptuous Satyā-Nārāyaṇa pūjā that was performed under the colourful canopy in front of the new sanctuary. Appropriate for the occasion of the sixty-year jubilee of Boṇgīṇi’s or Boḍgeṇi’s, alias Śrī Boḍgeśvar’s shrine, 161 couples were guided by the high-ranking superior of a Vaiśṇava monastery and assisted by a series of Brahman priests in presenting their naivedya, that is, vegetarian gifts, to the god.

20Altogether, one might receive the impression that Boṇgīṇi or Boḍgeṇi, the tutelary god of former days, has fully transformed himself into Śrī Boḍgeśvar, the present-day Sanskritized deity. This impression is fostered by more than the fact that the god only accepts vegetarian offerings today. We also learned that, since 1966, Brahman priests have been working in the temple. Today, these priests not only perform the solemn Satya Nārāyaṇa pūjā at the yearly festival, they are also in charge of rituals of aspiration (abhiṣeka), purification (āchamana) and other Brahmanical observances that are performed for individual parties. Interestingly, however, these rituals are not performed at the central shrine of the temple, but at the Viṣṇu shrines that are especially designated for that purpose. However, despite these indications that a process of ‘Sanskritization’ has been taking place, it should be remembered that, in many ways, the identities of the jāgeveiḷo, deunchār and Kanakeśvar Baba have kept alive in Śrī Dev Boḍgeśvar. Thus most ritual services continue to be performed by non-Brahman priests, who present the offerings and communicate the wishes and vows of the devotees to the god at the central shrine. It should also be noted that the bananas that are offered to the god in great numbers are cut by the priests on the altar-like table with a knife in a way that strikingly recalls the animal sacrifices that the god received in the old days. It is therefore also not surprizing that the idol of the god still takes the form of the deunchār, that is, the figure of the divine walker strolling through the fields equipped with a stick and a torch, although today the flames of this torch consist of colourfully painted plasterwork adorning the top of the roof of the temple and can be seen from far away. The builders of the new temple were obviously also extremely anxious that the idol of Śrī Boḍgeśvar should be placed next to one of the boṇgī-trees under which Boṇgīṇi’s or Boḍgeṇi’s shrine had formerly been situated, and had therefore deliberately left an opening in the roof through which the crown of the tree could protrude. And finally it is to be noted that the popularity of the god today rests more than ever on his fame in performing those kinds of miracles for which his predecessor Kanakeśvar Baba had formerly been praised.


  • 10 For summaries and a critical recapitulation of the various theoretical approaches to this field, se (...)

21If there is a general conclusion that can be drawn from this analysis of material from Goa, it is–as it has been mentioned at the start–about the relation between religion and politics, tradition and history in Hindu society. What should be stressed first, therefore, is that the origin and development of the religious cult reflect, in a very direct manner, the changing political and social conditions of Hindus in late and postcolonial Goa. It is also evident that the marvellous transformation of an inconspicuous wayside shrine into a sumptuous Hindu temple was immediately correlated with the spectacular urbanization that Goa has experienced since its liberation from Portuguese rule. Obviously, the urban cult owes its rapidly growing popularity not only to the fact that it provides religious security to an urban working class that to a large extent is cut off from its traditional local deities; the urban temple and its public appeal also makes up a privileged arena in which the prospering urban middle class converts economic wealth into social prestige. To this extent, the Goan case confirms the historicity and political agency that a number of scholars, arguing against the grain of a long-standing orientalist prejudice, have identified recently in Hindu religious traditions (Sontheimer & Kulke 1989; Dirks 1989, 1993; Inden 1990). Nonetheless, these events did not take place on a cultural tabula rasa. Indeed, the transformation that the urban god passed through repeats an ennobling process that is well-known in Hindu society, and that has often been described as part of a dynamic that mediates between the hierarchical poles of ‘high’ and ‘low castes’, ‘Sanskritic’ and ‘village deities’, ‘Great’ and ‘Little Traditions’.10 Nor is there anything new in deities who, as with the ‘survival’ of the tutelary beings Boṇgīṇi or Boḍgeṇi in the Sanskritized Śrī Dev Boḍgeśvar, alternate between these poles and may, as Fuller (1988: 24) reports, be depicted as having, for example, “a Brahman’s head and an Untouchable’s body”. What is noteworthy in the Goan case, therefore, is the fact that the rise in status from village to Sankritic deity contains a substantial allusion to a myth of a wandering ascetic or ‘holy man’. It is obviously this allusion to a highly charismatic idea of the divine that is detached from both descent and place, as well as being invested with supernatural power, that has the strongest appeal for a tentatively delocalized urban population threatened by a demystification of the world.

22A. H.



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1 For a more detailed analysis of the system of local religion in Goa, see Henn 2005.

2 For general information on the history of Goa’s decolonisation and liberation, see Pearson 1987 and Esteves 1986.

3 The division between the two areas known today as the Old Conquest and the New Conquest goes back to history and is marked by profound social and cultural differences. The area of the Old Conquest, which includes Bardes and Mapusa, has been conquered by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century and was subjected to a radical transformation. The destruction of all Hindu and Muslim monuments and various campaigns of forced conversion had the result that by the end of the seventeenth century more than 90 % of Goa’s population were Catholics. The area known as the New Conquest, on the other hand, came under Portuguese rule only in the late eighteenth century, and never was subjected to forcible Christianization so that its predominantly Hindu culture, henceforth, marked a thorough contrast to the area of the Old Conquest.

4 In this ancient village organisation the political power of the group of ganvkār, i.e. those clans who claim descent from the original settlers in the village, rested among other things on the fact that these jointly owned the agricultural land of the village which was periodically redistributed among them (Pereira 1981).

5 The considerable influence which certain Hindu merchants retained in Portuguese Goa has been analyzed by Pearson (1973) and De Souza (1975).

6 For a detailed analysis of Goa’s political development after liberation, see Esteves 1986.

7 Gavda constitute, like Goan Kunbi, an ethnic group of tribal origin who claims to descend from the earliest settlers and cultivators of the Konkan lowlands. In historical time most Gavdas became land labourers on the fields of the land-owning class and also a special target for mass conversion campaigns of Catholic missionaries. Though being converted thus to Catholicism in large numbers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, their continuing social and economic neglect made them once again accessible for the campaign of re-conversion to Hinduism, whose spokesman was Masurkar in the 1920s. In the constitution of independent India Gavdas became classified as Other Backward Tribes.

8 It therefore has become a common praxis after Goa’s liberation that idols of historical village deities from the Old Conquest which had been salvaged from destruction and ‘survived’ in the New Conquest are formally relocated and reinstalled in (what is claimed to be) their original location (Axelrod & Fuerch 1996).

9 By extending the traditional idea of the divine qualities which Hindu monks gain through their renunciation of worldly desires, Fuller (1992: 177ff.) has recently emphasized the great appeal which wonder-working ‘modern god-men’ like Sai Baba of Shirdi and his want-to-be reincarnation Sathya Sai Baba have on an urban population that “feel (s) threatened by a social environment that they can no longer control as once they did, or believe they did.”

10 For summaries and a critical recapitulation of the various theoretical approaches to this field, see Sontheimer 1989; Fuller 1992; Michaels 1998.

Table des illustrations

Titre Śrī Dev Boḍgeśvar in 1966, popular reproduction, Mapusa.
Crédits Photogr. Gabriele & Alexander Henn
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Śri Dev Boḍgeśvar in 1995, Mapusa.
Fichier image/jpeg, 61k


Associate Professor in Religious Studies and Global Studies at Arizona State University with régional specialization on India and Goa, his current research deals with processes of cultural and religious encounter ; the early-modern history of colonial conquest ; rituals, icons and performative religion ; pluralism and hybridity in postcolonial and globalized India.
– 2003 Wachheit der Wesen. Politik, Ritual und Kunst der Akkulturation in Goa, Münster, LIT-Verlag.
– 2005 « Gods and saints in Goa : cultural diversity and local religion », in A. Malik, A. Feldhaus & H. Bruckner, eds., In the Company of Gods : Essays in Memory of Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer, New Delhi, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts/Manohar Publishers, pp. 83-104.
– (fthcg.) « Creative imitation : play, ritual and mimesis », in K.P. Koepping, ed., Encountering the Divine. Ludic Transformation in Myth and Ritual, Münster, LIT.

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