A Strange Diwali Celebration

By Shekher Phadnis
Diwali is celebrated all over India in a multitude of ways. Kali puja in Bengal, Narakasura Vadham in South India, Bharat Milap in North India and so on. But the strangest celebration is by having a ritual…cow dung bath!

Granted that cow dung is a very respected item in Hinduism. But on Diwali day to smear yourself with cow dung and call it a celebration seems very odd. Anyway that is what the villagers of Gummatapura, a hamlet in the border of Karnataka-Tamil Nadu have been doing for the past few hundred years.
The festival is called Gorehabba and is similar to the festival of tomatino in Spain when villages splatter each other with old and rotten tomatoes as international tourists watch by. Gorehabba is played a day after Balipadayami. Balipadayami is the day, when the puranic emperor King Mahabali comes to inspect the world.
According to a village elders Chandrashekarappa, Shivankarappa and village leader Puttanna, it all began hundreds of years ago. It was the day after Balipadayami. A person called Devaragudda, hailing from the North, was working as a servant in Kalegowda’s house. After Devaragudda died, his bag and a stick he carried was thrown into a garbage pit. A few days later, a Linga was found in the pit where his things were thrown. A bullock cart which was passing by happened to run over it and surprise! The Linga apparently started bleeding!
Later, Lord Shiva apparently appeared in the village chief’s dream and ordered him to build a temple for him. The Beerappa temple is situated exactly where the Linga was found. Since then, the next day of Balipadyami is celebrated as Gorehabba. It is also believed that participating in the cow dung splashing game cures people of all kinds of disease, which is one of the reasons for keeping the tradition alive, even after hundreds of years. Gorehabba is celebrated by splashing cow dung on each other; it is celebrated exclusively by the Kannada-speaking community of the village. The celebration is to send a message of harmonious co-existence in society. Before the villagers start playing with the cow dung, there are a few interesting rituals which are followed.
Starting early morning, men, women and children begin collecting cow dung from all over the village and dump it in a place designated for it, behind the Beerappa temple. Beerappa, who is the patron-god of the kurumas, has different names like Kurukuntappaswamy, Antharangappa. Lakshmi is the wife of Beerappa
Later, children go all around the village collecting oil and butter for offering pooja at the temple. After the required oil and butter are collected, they offer pooja at the Karappa temple which is about one km away from the Beerappa temple. In 2010 the youth and children had gathered in front of the Beerappa temple where nearly nine truckloads of cow dung were heaped early in the morning. The celebration began with worshipping the deity. Once the pooja is done, the villagers come back in a procession. On the way back, one person is designated as a Chadikora (sneak). He is then fixed with a moustache and beard made of grass, seated on a donkey and brought to the temple in a procession. After reaching the temple, the Chadikora’s moustache and beard are removed and buried in the pit where the heap of dung has been deposited. Pooja is offered to the heap of cow dung and then starts the fun! Immediately after the pooja is offered, a handful of cow dung is splashed on the priest which is the green signal for the others. Every single person in the village is pushed into the pit and smeared with cow dung. Thousands of people from the nearby villages gather to watch the game. 
Later, an effigy of the Chadikora is made and taken to the Kondigekara Gudda (a hillock nearby) to be burnt. A chicken too is burnt along with the effigy. The villagers clean themselves in the lake, come back to the village and abuse the Chadikora. It is also believed that participating in the cow dung splashing game cures people of all kinds of disease, which is one of the reasons for keeping the tradition alive, even after hundreds of years.
While many in India are not aware of this odd mode of celebrating Diwali, the BBC has filmed this strange ritual. Gorehabba not only carries with it the story of Devaragudda transforming into a legendary figure but also reflects on social structures like the feudal system. Certainly it calls for a more in-depth, serious study. MF