The enigmatic Garhwal division of Uttarakhand in its initial years was famous as Kedarkhand, the region meant for indulging in spiritual bliss. Many sacred sites and holy practices evolved here which sometimes sprouted out of legends. While other times, out of the beliefs of the native Himalayan people. These religious beliefs fabricated the culture and traditions of the Garhwal region
One such invaluable cultural heritage of Garhwal is the Pandava Nritya also known as Pandava Leela. This pompous religious dance and theatrical performance is observed at various hamlets. Most of which are nestled in the Mandakini and Alaknanda valleys of Rudraprayag and Chamoli districts.
When and why Pandava Nritya or Pandava Leela is performed:
Between November to February, when the biting winter chills engulf the high-altitude areas of Uttarakhand. The inhabitants of several tiny villages in Garhwal, keep themselves active by rehearsing the Pandav Nritya. This ceremonial dance is performed to commemorate the journey of Pandavas and to bring happiness in the homes and villages of Uttarakhand.
Pandava Nritya and its religious Significance:
The Pandava Nritya narrates the story of the Pandava brothers, beginning from their birth to commencing the Swargarohini Yatra- ‘The Journey to Heaven’. The sundry elements of their journey are covered in this ritual dance, staged on the thumping of the drums. This 10-12 day long, dance skit touches various plots like Kichaka Vadh (slaying of Kichaka), Narayan Vivah (Lord Vishnu’s marriage), Chakravyuh (a military tactic designed by Guru Drona), Genda Vadh (sacrificing dummy rhino). The last day of Pandava Nritya marks the closing ceremony of the fest, followed by a grand feast for the villagers. After which the sacred weapons used in the Pandava Leela are safely kept in the quiver.
Let’s experience how the hill folk of Uttarakhand stage Pandava Leela:
‘Devbhoomi’ Uttarakhand is a land of diverse cultures with every region, toy town and village boasting its unique traditions. One such minion village called Tarwari in Darmola Panchayat has kept the Himalayan culture alive by cherishing its regional dance, fairs, and festivals which unites Pahadi people. The village celebrates the spiritual sojourn of Pandavas in Kedar Valley region through Pandava Leela Manchan. Let us learn how the Garhwali people of Tarwadi village in Rudraprayag district perform Pandava Leela:
Local artists from the village portray the characters of Paanch Pandavas namely- Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Symbolic figures of deities called ‘Nishan’ are made to represent Lord Shiva, Ma Rajeshwari, Nagaraja and Lord Narayan. All the artists impersonating Pandava brothers dance to the beats of dhol-damau, Pahadi instruments. The locals believe that while performing the Pandava Leela, the cosmic energy of Pandavas enters the body of the performers.
This fest takes place in every village of Kedar Valley. In a few villages, it is performed at a gap of one or two years and in few, it is observed every year. The Chakravyuh plot is also showcased in the Pandav Leela, in which the Kauravas killed Abhimanyu by adopting the smartest war tactic. The Pandava Leela is concluded by hosting Naugiri Kauthig on the second last day and Genda Kauthig, which takes place on the last day.
The story behind Naugiri Kauthig:
During Agyatvas, the period of disguise, Pandavas and their consort Draupadi stayed in the Kedar Ghati region of Uttarakhand. Leaving their royal stature behind, the Pandavas engaged in day to day activities like the locals. Therefore, Naugiri Fair is organized to remember their celestial presence in the region.
Genda Kauthig and its Importance:
Local lore suggests, during that time, the five brothers used rhino’s horn and skin to perform Shradh of Raja Pandu, the father of Pandavas. To complete this ritual, Arjuna went to Naga Loka in search of a rhino and was able to find one. Upon seeing Arjuna, the creature ran towards Raja of Naga Loka, who told him it belonged to his grandson, Nagarjuna. The latter challenged Arjuna to fight him to win the rhino.
A fierce battle took place between the two, which was lost by Arjuna. Vasundatta, Nagarjuna’s mother was also present there. She told Nagarjuna that Arjuna was his father, after which her son agreed to give away the rhino. Arjuna took the creature and used its horn and skin to perform the ritual. To display this plot, a dummy rhinoceros is made from a pumpkin. It is sacrificed to perform Raja Pandu’s Shradh. Hence, Genda Fair is held to offer peace to the departed soul of King Pandu.
Swargarohini Yatra- The highlight of Pandava Nritya:
When Pandavas won the battle of Kurukshetra, they were guilt-ridden for killing their own brothers in the war so they went to Maharishi Vyasa for seeking the answers. The sage told them, they can’t enter heaven without seeking an apology from Lord Shiva for causing death and destruction, to humanity and all the living creatures. To repent their wrongdoings, the brothers embarked on a journey to heaven along with a dog, which became their companion halfway.
To remorse the bloodshed happened in the war, they journeyed to Kashi in quest of Mahadev but found no success, as the anguished Lord was hiding from them. From Kashi, the Pandavas traversed all the way to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Devprayag then Rudraprayag. Finding no traces of the Lord, the brothers headed towards the mountain region of Garhwal, formerly known as Kedarkhand. From Guptkashi they went to Gaurikhand, where Lord Shiva was hiding.
Here, they spotted a villager who was grazing his cattle. It took no time for the brothers to speculate the divine presence of Lord Shiva, who had taken the form of a bull. Bhima, the mightiest of all asked Nakula and Sahadeva to guide the cattle to move between his legs. The one who wouldn’t do so would be the Lord himself. Shiva refused to abide and went inside the womb of the earth.
It is said that his upper torso went to Pashupatinath in Nepal and the lower body went to Kedarnath. The body parts in his bull avatar were later assembled to collectively form the five group of temples known as “Panch Kedar”. It is believed that the ‘bahu’ or hands were seen at Tungnath, hump at Kedarnath, the head appeared at Rudranath, his navel and stomach surfaced at Madhyamaheshwar and his ‘jata’ or matted hairs were found at Kalpeshwar. These Five Kedars were built by the Pandavas to appease Lord Shiva.
After seeking forgiveness from Lord Shiva, they surmounted Satopanth Tal from where they went to Baikunth, which opened their doors to Swarga ‘Heaven’. It is believed that only Yudhishthira was able to reach heaven in his mortal avatar with the help of dog which was Yamraj. The Pandavas stayed at Kedarkhand for a long time and did a lot of work, spent their time in Agyatvas and also mingled with the locals who used to give bhiksha (alms) to them. Therefore, the local populace re-enacts Pandava Leela with great fervour.