Destinations / JOURNEY
Just before nightfall, the procession reached the
cultivated ground. The Great Tower of Chaini loomed in
the foreground, recalling a time past when warring tribes
inhabited these valleys. Originally a defensive castle, the
tower was built nearly 400 years ago and stands an aston-
ishing 147 feet high (roughly 13 stories). It’s the tallest
free-standing structure in the entire Western Himalayas
that’s built in the traditional style.
Sakiran Dhar Ridge and made a final push for the crest.
Shringi Rishi’s mountain temple finally came into view.
This modest wooden structure seemed to humble itself
before the grand Himalayan ranges. Without warning, a
bare-chested gur went into a violent trance, dashed around
the peak to ward off evil spirits and flogged himself with
metal chains. The villagers looked on calmly as if to say
“all in a day’s work” for a gur, then retired to temporary
encampments where they spent the chilly night.
THE PEAK WAS HUMMING WITH ACTIVITY WHEN WE
WOKE UP THE NEX T MORNING TO CLEAR SKIES. One after
another, villagers offered small vessels of milk and clarified
butter at Shringi Rishi’s temple. These symbols of regeneration are offered to the god because he follows the more
orthodox Hindu precept of nonviolence toward animals.
But ritual animal sacrifice (bali ), a common form of wor-
ship in the Seraj, was being performed at a stone shrine
only several yards away. The shrine is dedicated to a yogini,
a wild nature goddess with dangerous cosmic energy and a
healthy appetite for blood. Her power is so threatening that
even the supremely powerful Shringi Rishi pays homage to
her and asks for her protection. Villagers rarely mention
the yogini, for fear of inciting her wrath, and they nor-
mally steer clear of her mountaintop
shrine. But once a year, when they
follow Shringi Rishi to Sakiran Peak,
they offer a goat for sacrifice to win
the yogini’s goodwill.
Just clear of the crimson-colored
The crowd suddenly shifted to Shringi Rishi’s temple.
ground, a crowd gathered around
Shringi Rishi’s gur. The gur was
seated cross-legged and his long
tresses, which he’s forbidden to
cut and normally hides from view,
flowed down his chest as a sign that
the devata was present. The gur was
using his god-given powers to divine
the future. Just as die are cast and
tea leaves are read in other cultures,
black mustard seeds are counted in
the Seraj. Gurs hand out the seeds
in seemingly random pinches and one’s future is fore-
told by the number of seeds one receives. Goaded on by
the crowd, I suspended my disbelief in predestination
and accepted some seeds from Shringi Rishi’s gur. My
number was disappointing, and I was motioned to take a
second try (inauspicious again), and a third (auspicious
at last). I suspected that my repeated tries were break-
ing with tradition but I figured that in India, where “the
guest is God,” dooming me to an ill-fated future would
have been the greater sin.
All eyes were on its gabled roof where two goats, facing
opposite directions, were straddled. A hush fell over the
crowd as the goats were swiftly beheaded. Their blood
was left to purify the temple until Shringi Rishi returned
again. Even the vegetarian Shringi Rishi hasn’t forsworn
this age-old practice, one of many things in the Seraj that
can’t be explained.
The peak emptied out quickly after this climactic event.
In a sprawling pasture below the peak, slaughtered goats
were being divvied up and nothing edible was left to waste.
I reached into my pocket for the lucky mustard seeds, let
them slip through my fingers and drop to the sacred ground,
and started the long walk down. M
This page, top to
herald the god’s
arrival; Shringi Rishi’s
oracle (gur) hands out
mustard seeds that
forecast the future;
gur in a trance in Chaini
village. Opposite page:
Example of traditional