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The Two Horses
In July 2018, after a suspension of nearly 12 months, I was transferred to a place called Chandil. Chandil, in Seraikela-Kharsawan district of Jharkhand, is the point where roads from three major places meet: Ranchi and Jamshedpur, both in Jharkhand, and Purulia in West Bengal. Chandil is about 30 kilometres from Jamshedpur and 100 kilometres from Ranchi, on National Highway 33; and about 56 kilometres from Purulia on National Highway 18.
Like my hometown Ghatsila, Chandil, too, is situated by the river Subarnarekha. In Ghatsila, the Subarnarekha fulfils the needs of the humans who dwell by it, and also supplies water to the factory of Hindustan Copper Limited. In Chandil, however, the Subarnarekha is more of a landmark. This is largely because of the Chandil Dam, the construction of which started in the 1980s.
Through my visits to the dam—once on a picnic from medical college and a subsequent visit thereafter—Chandil, the place, had taken on the form of an exotic destination, quite synonymous with both the dam and the river. Long before coming to live and work here, I had memories from my childhood of returning from Ranchi to Ghatsila by road on a rainy day, watching the entire landscape around Chandil washed in a verdant, refreshing green, clouds floating on the Dalma Hills by the highway.
Over a decade later, having actually lived in Chandil, I am wiser. I now know that the place where I saw clouds gliding over the Dalma range on a rainy day is a village called Nargadih, which falls under the Rudiya panchayat of Chandil block. I know that there is a nursery in Nargadih from where my colleagues purchase plants for their home gardens, but I have yet to visit it. I have also learnt that the Subarnarekha has done more than just yield its water to a dam and a factory. It has, in fact, created borders.
While researching this essay, I learnt from hearsay that the Subarnarekha and its tributary, the Kharkai, which originates in northern Odisha and flows into the Subarnarekha at a point called Domuhani on the outskirts of Jamshedpur, were used by the local royal families to demarcate the areas of their kingdoms. Towards the east of the Kharkai was the Dhalbhum kingdom, the land ruled over by the Dhal kings. Towards its west was the Singhbhum kingdom, ruled by the Singh Deo kings.
The Singh Deo kings had their capital at Seraikela. The dynasty is supposed to have given its name to Singhbhum district (the district was further divided into three). The Singhbhum kingdom had a border in the valley very close to which the Subarnarekha made a curve. The Patkum estate (I say “estate” because I learnt that Patkum was headed by a zamindar and not a raja) extended towards the east of that valley; while further eastwards from Patkum was the Manbhum region which today falls within the area of West Bengal state and has places like Purulia and Bankura.
When I started working, living, and observing places and people in Chandil, I saw horses—in pairs. Not real horses, but statues. The statues looked fairly new, built of cement. If they were painted, one was white while the other was black. I especially saw these paired horse statues on my way to Seraikela, our district headquarters, where we are often summoned for a meeting or for training.
Seraikela is about 36 kilometres from Chandil, and I saw these horse statues at at least three places on the road that leads there. The first time was in the year 2018, when I had just established base in Chandil. In the Chandil area, too, I saw these horses in at least three different places. And just when I began to think that this was a local phenomenon, I spotted a pair in Jamshedpur, in a basti on the Marine Drive road by the Subarnarekha, walking distance from the new campus of XLRI, the management school.
They were usually built on a platform high enough to signify a position of importance. There were no markers of ritual around these horses. Markers would have been hard for me to notice anyway, as I saw those horses through the windows of moving vehicles. However, at one or two spots, I did notice small, terracotta horse figurines placed at the hooves, like offerings.
Those tiny terracotta horses reminded me of one of our Santhal devotional rituals at the Baha-Mak Moray ceremony. Over the spring and summer months of March, April and May, figurines of elephants and horses—haati-saadom, in Santhali—are placed at various shrines in the Jaher, the sacred grove of us Santhals. I wondered if the horses I saw in Chandil and Seraikela had a religious significance.
When I first started enquiring about the statues, I was told that those two horses were part of rituals observed by the Bhumij community and went by the name Ghora Baba, the Horse Hermit. In the Chandil area, the Bhumijs are a dominant group. However, the Bhumijs, like the Santhals, are Adivasi, and idol-worship is not practised among Adivasis. How then, I wondered, was it possible that the horse statues were part of rituals followed by the Bhumijs?
“The Bhumijs profess their autonomous animistic tribal religion which is amalgamated with few elements of Hinduism,” I had read in a handbook on the Bhumij community.  But was a mere amalgamation enough for an entire community to worship statues whose origins seemed rather vague? Also, was it possible that those statues would be given a name by a community that does not worship statues? To try and get to the bottom of these questions, I decided to go looking for the story behind the horse statues.
n a Thursday in early April, I met Azad Shekhar Manjhi at his house in Mirudih village, about five kilometres from the busy traffic intersection at Chowka on the NH-33. The four roads from Chowka lead to four major destinations: Ranchi, and further north towards Hazaribagh; Jamshedpur, and further towards Kharagpur and Bhubaneswar, via Ghatsila and Baharagora; Chaibasa, via Seraikela; and into West Bengal, via Ichagarh and Muri, a major junction of the Indian Railways and the place where the Hindalco factory is based.
Mirudih falls in Chandil block, on the road that goes towards Ichagarh block, the home of the erstwhile Patkum estate. Azad Shekhar Manjhi, who is Santhal, is an assistant teacher in Mirudih’s Upgraded Middle School, run by the government of Jharkhand. On that hot, sunny summer day, even though my companions and I would have preferred to sit in the breezy shade of one of the many trees surrounding the house, Manjhi invited us to sit in his veranda.
“The erstwhile Singh Deo kings of Seraikela used the horse statues as a method to expand and mark their territory,” Manjhi said. This insight did not exactly startle me, but it was quite removed from the track I had been following. I’d been on the verge of accepting that the statues were a symbol of faith and religion. Now I also had to see them through the lenses of politics and territorial strategy.
What Manjhi told me after this held up a mirror to the faith and culture of the society we live in.
The kingdom of the Singh Deos and the Patkum estate was separated by a valley called Lakhna Singh Ghati, on the road that goes from the intersection at Chowka towards Seraikela. The word ghati means valley, and the Subarnarekha takes a turn quite close to the Lakhna Singh Ghati. Chandil was once part of the Patkum estate. It was understandable that the Singh Deo kings would have horse statues built within their territory, but why did those horses cross over into the Patkum estate?
“That is because cultures merge,” Manjhi explained. He went on to elaborate how the Adivasi culture of this area had adopted elements from Bengali culture. It was the sort of syncretism that must have taken place much before modern borders were drawn and community-specific jingoisms were born. “The Seraikela culture was influenced by Odia culture,” Manjhi said, “while the Patkum culture was influenced by Bengali culture. The kings of Seraikela attempted to distinguish their culture from those of other territories.”
The difference in cultures could be seen in art forms, even if they fell within the same genre. “There are two Chhau dance forms in this area,” Manjhi added. “The Seraikela Chhau and the Manbhum Chhau, which has its origin in regions around Purulia. But while the Seraikela Chhau is known for its shringar rasa,”—the element of beauty— the Manbhum Chhau is known for its veer rasa,”—the power element.
Manjhi further recounted an incident that seemed to suggest how the horse statues were given a home in this area, not as a marker of territory but as an identity of the local people. “A man from the Kumhar caste”—the potter caste—“dreamt one night that he was being chased by a horse,” Manjhi said, reminding me of a legend associated with the revered deity Hathikheda. The seat of Hathikheda, which, in the local form of Bengali, may mean either “one who chases elephants away” or “the act of being chased by an elephant,” is at Laujora village of Patamda block in the neighbouring Purbi Singhbhum district, about 35 kilometres from Chandil. The story goes that a person who fails to fulfil a pledge to the deity is chased by an elephant in their dreams, often to the verge of lunacy.
The Hathikheda story found resonance in the legend of the Kumhar man being chased by a horse, and that was perhaps how the Singh Deo kings perpetuated the legend. It may have been how they encouraged the lower caste, usually Dalit, population of the villages to worship or hold ceremonies for the horse statues, which then came to be known as Ghora Baba.
There are two points to be noted here. The kings did not encourage their Adivasi subjects to adopt the two horses as deities. Instead, they encouraged Dalits and the potter community, in particular, to worship the horse statues. Secondly, Brahmins—traditional worshippers in the caste system—were not made part of this ritual. Even today, the ceremony involving the horse statues is not presided over by Brahmins but by priests from the local village community, be they Adivasi or Dalit. However, in both cases, I learnt through further research, horses, or indeed any statues, are not worshipped. These instances are recounted in further paragraphs.
The origin of the two horses now started making sense to me. But I still wondered what those horses signified. Fine, a horse appeared in a man’s dream. But in order to be worshipped or even command faith, those horses needed to do more than just appear in dreams. They needed to fulfil wishes like the Hathikheda Thakur did, didn’t they?
“The horses could have a connection with Ma Pauri,” Manjhi said, introducing another deity and opening a new line of inquiry. Ma Pauri is a mother-like female deity. I understood that in order to know more about her and more about the two horses, I needed to go to the same spot on the road to Seraikela where I first saw the statues in 2018. I needed to speak to the laya or naya, the village priest from the Bhumij community. (We Santhals call our village priest naikay.) That village, I learnt, was called Nischintpur.
But first, there was a detour to a place near the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary.
he Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary is home to several species, most notably the Indian elephant. The gate to the sanctuary is adorned by several figures of elephants. This gate is in Saharbera, a village on the NH-33, about 13 kilometres from Chandil and on the way to Jamshedpur.
Saharbera is a revenue village and has four tolas. A tola is a part of a village and the origin of a tola may be both social and geographical. There can be several communities living in a village; and each community may have a tola to itself. A village may be established over a huge area, comprising higher ground and low-lying land; so the part of the village on the higher ground becomes one tola, while the part on the lower ground becomes another.
The NH-33 cuts through Saharbera, dividing the village in a way that there are two tolas on either side, as if separating one part of the house from the other. Tuilung and Edelbera lie towards the Dalma hills; while Saharbera and Pathardih are on the other side. The village is home to several communities, primarily Bhumij and Mahato, but also Tantubai or Tanti, the weaver caste; Kuiri; Gwala, the cattle-rearer caste; Karmakar, the blacksmith caste; and Santhal.
The road towards Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary is green and inviting. One needs to pass through the elephant gate to reach the tolas there. There, too, I saw the two horses. These horses, though, were not in as good shape as the ones I saw in Nischintpur.
I went to meet the laya in Saharbera a day after I met Azad Shekhar Manjhi. He was Mahendra Singh, a retired school teacher, and a Bhumij. Singh was accompanied by a middle-aged gentleman named Jagat Mahato. For context: Mahatos are perhaps the most dominant community in this area and have been included in the Backward Castes category.
The conversation I had with Singh bordered on the personal. Neither Singh nor Mahato saw the statues of horses and the ceremonies attached to them as related in any way to empires and territories. They were not even aware of any stories or histories associated with the horses. In Singh’s words, the ceremony associated with the horses was something that their purwaj—ancestors—had observed and they were just carrying the tradition forward.
They, in fact, saw the two horses as an embodiment of the Gram Devta, the village deity. The ceremony held was for the Gram Devta and not for the horses. It is a ceremony in which everyone from the village participates irrespective of their community or caste. However, worship is done only by the laya, who is invariably a Bhumij, and it takes place in the Jahir Than, the sacred grove of the Bhumij (please note the variation in spelling between Jaher and Jahir) for “gaon-ghar ki shanti,” the peace and prosperity of the village and its households. No horses, the two men said, were directly worshipped.
“There is no question of worshipping idols here,” both Singh and Mahato told me. “Ours are adrishya devtayein.” These invisible deities are the Jahir Baba and the Jahir Ma. The rituals in this worship, too, conform to the method of worship of the Adivasis. A paanthaa, a ram goat, is slaughtered and the head is consumed only by the laya and his family. If a devotee pledges something to the Gram Devta, they offer small terracotta figurines of horses to the Gram Devta, typically placing those before the horse statues. Mahato told me that the white horse is meant to stand for shanti or peace and the black for naash, destruction of adversities.
The worship is done in the month of Ashadh, around June-July, preferably on the day of the sankranti when Ambuvachi is celebrated. (Ambuvachi is locally known as Rajassala, and we Santhals call it Raja Sakrat.) Every village—rather, every Jahir Than—has their own date to worship the Gram Devta, but it has to be in the month of Ashadh.
Only male members of the laya’s vanshaj, his descendants, carry the tradition forward. I sensed a bit of dejection as Singh revealed that he did not have a son, and nor did his brother. Who was to carry the tradition forward once Singh wasn’t there anymore? “Anyone from the vanshaj or the extended family,” he explained, “or anyone from the village whom the villagers choose.”
“This selection, too, is guided by the village deities,” Mahato added. The next laya will be determined by the process of the jhupaan, in which a deity, whom Mahato called Devi Ma, comes upon a villager, putting him or her into a trance—the jhupaan. The deity then speaks through that medium and announces who the next laya of that village should be. There has always been, so far, a male heir in the laya’s line. This will perhaps be the first time the process of jhupaan will be used to determine the next laya.
The Jahir Than of Saharbera is on the road that goes towards the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary. The place is called Deoli Paat, paat meaning hill or hillock. It is a classic sacred grove, without boundaries, its area marked only by rocks placed at certain distances. The Jahir Than is under the shade of a huge tree which I guessed was of the ficus family and was identified as pondo gaach, gaach being the Bengali word for tree. The horse statues are a short distance from the Jahir Than. Sadly, the horses here were not in good shape: the head of one of them hung from its trunk.
Interestingly, the horse statues aren’t historical, even though the legend of the horses might be: the ones at Deoli Paat were built just a little over a decade ago. Before that, there were no statues: worship at the Jahir Than did not require any. The horses, too, were simply a belief. The physical manifestations of the horses, at several spots, are a recent phenomenon.
Mahato told me about a tradition at the Deoli Paat. In earlier days, people who went out of village limits placed a rock at the Jahir Than. When they returned safely to the village, they’d place another rock at the same spot. This practice was consistent at several Jahir Thans in the area. Sometimes, a small mound was built by all the rocks that villagers placed as offerings.
Ancient beliefs, irrespective of the land they might belong to, often converge. In the 2019 Bhutanese film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, the protagonist is a young man named Ugyen Dorji, a government school teacher in the capital of Thimphu. Punished by the government for not being serious about his job, he is transferred to Lunana which, at an altitude of 4,800 metres above sea level, is said to house the world’s remotest school. The journey to Lunana involves an eight-day trek.
On the trek there, Dorji’s companions, who have come from Lunana to receive him, stop at a shrine at Karchung La Pass. At the shrine, the men from Lunana sing a hymn to the mountains, and place a stone at the shrine so that they may journey safely and also return safely to be able to place another stone.
From Mahato, I heard about the legend of Phedan Budhi. Phedan Budhi is a female forest deity who watches over people when they pass by the area she dwells in. Passersby mumble a prayer to her. It reminded me of the legend of Bonbibi of the Sundarbans; the difference being that Bonbibi has been given a human form, while Phedan Budhi remains an “adrishya devta.”
right red blooms of krishnochura and polash gave me company on the day I finally got to see, up close, the first two horses that set me off on this journey. The village of Nischintpur is snuggled in the industrial zone of Seraikela-Kharsawan district, about 25 kilometres from Chandil, on the way to the district headquarters in Seraikela. It is inhabited by Bhumij, Mahato, and Gwala families.
I remember when I came to Chandil in 2018, my first concern was accommodation. Chandil is about 70 kilometres from Ghatsila, and though it is well-connected, both by road and railway, a daily commute did not seem like a practical option. So I had to find a house or at least a room in Chandil.
“There should be a lodge-like place somewhere close to the railway station,” my father suggested, “where you can rent a room for weekdays and have meals in-house. You can hop onto a train to return home on weekends.”
We found such a place a few hundred metres from the railway station. It was on the NH-18 towards Purulia, and was called Ma Pauri Lodge. The building was locked from the outside. It was right on the road and had gathered dust on its walls. There was no one to talk to about the whereabouts of the proprietor.
In hindsight, I am relieved I did not stay at Ma Pauri Lodge. Yet, that place had made me curious about Ma Pauri. That she was a female deity, perhaps a mother deity, was understood. But who was she; was she an incarnation of a greater deity, and what was her story? I wondered if Ma Pauri was the local mother figure of Chandil, the way Ma Rankini is in Ghatsila.  Sometime later, I even saw private passenger buses with Jai Ma Pauri—Hail Ma Pauri—written on their windshields.
In Nischintpur, too, everything was dusty: the trees by the road, their leaves, the road itself. Dumpers, locally known as “hyva” after the technology they use, plied one after the other, carrying industrial dust or similar material. The dust, coupled with the summer heat, made me uncomfortable. Yet, the sight of the two horses spurred me into action. It felt like I was close to some kind of a realisation or a discovery.
At Nischintpur, I met the local laya, Gour Singh Sardar. Accompanying Singh Sardar was Shankar Mahato, an earnest, 34-year-old man who worked with the Indian Railways in Kharagpur and had returned home for the weekend. Shankar was an acquaintance of one of my companions on that journey, and had agreed to introduce us to the laya as well as serve as an interpreter.
Shankar advised us to leave the road, enter the village precincts, and park in front of the samudayik bhawan, the community building. The statue of the two horses was almost on the outskirts of the village, between the road and the village border. My companions and I drove to the samudayik bhawan, quite close to the road to Seraikela, and parked under a mahua tree.
What lay before us seemed like a theatre set. There was a huge ground, dusty and bare. There was a concrete stage on the other side of that ground; perhaps a stage for community purposes or cultural programmes. The stage bore this inscription in bold: Sarvajanik Chadri Paat Puja Committee, Nischintpur, Sthapit 2002. Public Chadri Paat Puja Committee, Nischintpur, Established 2002.
“That hillock is called Chadri Paat,” Manjhi had already informed me about Nischintpur. “Chadri meaning bald.” The stage was built under a scheme for the year 2016-17 and inaugurated by Dashrath Gagrai, MLA of the Kharsawan constituency, on 15 January 2019. The public puja committee of Nischintpur village was established in 2002, while the stage for the puja was established only much later. This sort of cemented my understanding that the statues were a recent development even though the belief in the horses might have come from the ancient past.
The horse statues at Nischintpur are not right next to the Chadri Paat the way they were at the Deoli Paat. At Nischintpur, the horse statues are at least 200-300 metres away from the hillock. “This has been done by design,” Shankar explained, for the horses aren’t the ones that are being worshipped. The worship was reserved for the deities on the Chadri Paat, so there was a respectful distance between the deities and the horses.
“Peacocks come down the Chadri Paat when it rains,” Singh Sardar said, leading me to imagine how the view must be—how green—during the rains. My memory of seeing the two horses on the outskirts of Nischintpur, framed by greenery, contributed to this vision.
Perhaps there was a reason the stage had been inaugurated on 15 January. On the Gregorian calendar, that date usually coincides with the first day of the Indian lunar month of Magh. That day, known locally as Akhan Jatra, falls on the day after Makar Sankranti, and is a new year’s day in several parts of India. It is an auspicious day, and is marked by ritualistic worship on the Chadri Paat. This worship is conducted by the laya, and conforms mostly to Adivasi customs, including the slaughter of goats.
Three deities, each having a shrine at the Than, are worshipped on the Akhan Jatra: Chadri Paat, Budha Baba, and Ma Pauri. The staircase, concrete at the bottom and rocky towards the top, led us halfway up the climb. The shrine of Chadri Paat was in the middle and not at the top of the hillock as I had expected. The shrine of Budha Baba was somewhat higher than that of Chadri Paat, while the shrine of Ma Pauri was somewhat lower than both, and a little apart.
While Budha Baba and Ma Pauri may be considered the Father Figure and the Mother Goddess—perhaps equivalent to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati in the Hindu faith—Chadri Paat is not exactly a deity. The hillock itself is seen as an entity worthy of veneration. There was no personification of Chadri Paat, because there is no idol worship among the Adivasis. Yet, there was a shrine dedicated to Chadri Paat at the Chadri Paat itself.
There is another day in the year when ritualistic worship is carried out at the Chadri Paat. This worship is in the month of Bhadra—August to September on the Gregorian calendar—though it takes place on a smaller scale. Apart from the ritualistic worship, devotees having pledges may commission the laya to conduct private rituals for them at the Than on any day.
What was the role played by the horses in this worship at the Chadri Paat?
“Ekta pagdi wala, ekta sari wala,” Singh Sardar said, in the local form of Bengali that most Bhumijs in the region speak. One horse dons the turban, while the other wears the sari.
Which one dons the pagdi?
“Kalo ta,” Singh Sardar said. The black one.
“Sada ta holo Pauri Ma-er ghoda,” Singh Sardar explained. The white horse is the ride of Ma Pauri.
“Gota duniya ghurbek.” Ma Pauri will roam the entire earth on her white horse.
And what about the black horse?
“Uta holo beta chhayer ghoda,” Singh Sardar answered. The black horse is the ride of the male deity, referring to Budha Baba.
The horse statues at Nischintpur are not right next to the Chadri Paat the way they were at the Deoli Paat. At Nischintpur, the horse statues are at least 200-300 metres away from the hillock. “This has been done by design,” Shankar explained, for the horses aren’t the ones that are being worshipped. The worship was reserved for the deities on the Chadri Paat, so there was a respectful distance between the deities and the horses.
So could the horses be considered as not actually signifying anything other than being the rides of Ma Pauri and Budha Baba, I asked.
“No,” Shankar demurred. “The horses are a part of the people’s faith. Even though the horses are not worshipped, people who worship at the Chadri Paat visit the horses. Those who have had their wishes fulfilled even place clay figurines of horses at the feet of the statues.”
“The worship at the Chadri Paat has gained popularity in recent times,” Shankar continued. “Earlier, when I was a child, there were no statues. In the 1990s, people prayed at the Chadri Paat when there were diseases and calamities. Once, during a drought, people prayed at the Chadri Paat and it rained just a few days later. Word spread, faith grew, and from two to five people in those days, nearly 2,000 people come to worship at the Chadri Paat today.”
According to Shankar, the horses at Nischintpur, too, were built quite recently, sometime between 2010 and 2012. Raw materials like cement were provided by GKCPL, a road construction company that sources stone chips from a quarry in Nischintpur. The masons were hired by the puja committee of the village.
So are the horses at Nischintpur all about faith or do they share a history with the royal family of Seraikela?
Singh Sardar, the laya, had a legend to share. He said it was nearly “chaar-paanch peedhi puraana”—four to five generations, or at least 400 years, old.
Once, the king of Dugni lost a horse from his stable. They looked all over but could not find the horse anywhere. Finally, the king found the horse here at the Chadri Paat. When he took the horse home, his queen asked him, “Where did you find the horse?”
“At the Chadri Paat,” the king said.
“Did you meet the laya there?” the queen asked.
“Yes,” the king said.
“What did the laya say?” the queen enquired.
“He said to do puja at the Chadri Paat,” replied the king.
“If the laya does the puja for you, maybe you should dig a pond for him to bathe before he goes to do the puja,” the queen suggested.
“And that is how the king dug the bandh here which is till today known as the Rani Bandh, the Queen‘s Pond,” Singh Sardar said.
There is, indeed, a pond outside Nischintpur, on the other side of the road to Seraikela. It is a fairly large water body, filled with water even in the April heat.
“Even in the government papers, this pond is called Rani Bandh,” Shankar said.
I now felt that any other question I may have regarding the horses and Ma Pauri might be better placed before a member of the royal family of Seraikela. Shankar gave me the contact of Lal Babu Singh Deo, a scion of the estate of Dugni, who graciously agreed to meet me the same day.
t is not every day that one gets to meet royalty. The last time I met someone from a royal family, nearly seven years ago, he told me how the Adivasi subjects on his land were friendly people. I wasn’t as anxious about meeting Lal Babu Singh Deo as I was about how I would discuss matters like caste, community and territories with him. Perhaps, I thought to myself, it needs special skills to interview royalty on possibly touchy matters.
Lal Babu Singh Deo didn’t exactly look like a king, or at least his appearance didn’t match my idea of what a king should look like. Admittedly, that idea has been shaped by Hindi films, and the appearance of the descendants of well-known royal families. But Singh Deo was quick to say, “I am not a king.” He actually smiled as he said this. “We were not kings. The family at Dugni was not a royal family. We were just zamindars—landlords.”
We met at a roadside tea stall in Dugni, close to a Hanuman temple. It was Ram Navami that day, so songs and bells from the temple provided a soundtrack to our conversation. From a distance, Singh Deo appeared like a regular man in his sixties. But, up close, I could see what set him apart from the others gathered at the tea shop: his built, demeanour, and dress sense. He was in brightly coloured attire that day: a blue kurta and an orange waistcoat. Singh Deo used to work in the minor irrigation department and had been posted in Godda district of Santhal Pargana division of Jharkhand from where he retired in 2015. In his youth, he was a regular commentator at local football matches and used to be invited to matches held as far as Patkum.
Today, the distance between Dugni and Patkum might not appear too much; but in Singh Deo‘s youth, 45 kilometres was quite far. He must have been a gregarious person to have deserved that adulation; indeed, he did seem gregarious when I met him. He seemed quite at home narrating stories from his past and about the royal family of Seraikela. Maybe he had answered those questions several times before. We’re all quite curious to know about royalty, aren’t we?
“Dugni was not a kingdom,” Singh Deo explained to me. “Seraikela was. There were only two kingdoms: Seraikela and Kharsawan. Both had Maharajas, but the Maharaja of Seraikela was more powerful. He had even been granted the power to pass death sentences. There were three estates: Dugni, Icha, and Banksai. The royal families of Seraikela and Kharsawan and the families of Dugni, Icha, and Banksai belong to the same gotra”—clan—“with Singh Deo being our surname, so marriages within these families are not allowed. The estate of Patkum had rulers who had the surname Shah Deo.”
Here was an opportunity to route, via the matter of gotra, the conversation towards the caste of the royal families. Were they Kshatriya, like how it is in Hindi films, I wanted to know. But Singh Deo had already changed track and started speaking about a different topic.
“Our families in Dugni, Icha, and Banksai held the title of Peerpatidaar,” Singh Deo told me. “Each Peerpatidaar had a number of moujas under his control. A mouja had about five to seven villages, even more if the villages were small. Our family in Dugni had 84 moujas under us. Each village in each mouja had a Mahato as the tax collector. This person belonged to the Mahato community and also held the title of Mahato. These Mahatos collected tax from their villages and submitted that to us. We then submitted that tax to the king of Seraikela.”
The king of Seraikela to whom Singh Deo referred was Aditya Pratap Singh Deo who ruled from 9 December 1931.  “Maharaja Aditya Pratap Singh Deo had enormous property,” Singh Deo continued. Adityapur, a satellite town outside Jamshedpur and a major industrial hub in the Seraikela-Kharsawan district, was named after him. The land on which the Regional Institute of Technology was built also belonged to Aditya Pratap Singh Deo. 
“Now we have become bhaalu ka bachcha,” Singh Deo laughed—bear cubs. I was struck by his ability to transition so conveniently from a sombre discussion about the past to black humour about present-day reality. “Now we have nothing. We only have our name. Everything else is finished. If a wall in our huge house falls, we wonder how to get it repaired.”
I had to focus, for I had to chase the horses and Ma Pauri.
“Ma Pauri was the isht-devi”—the presiding deity—“of the Seraikela royal family and all the rest of us from the same clan,” Singh Deo informed me. “We worshipped Ma Pauri on the sankranti of every month and before auspicious occasions like weddings in the family. A horse is supposed to be the ride of Ma Pauri.”
The Wikipedia entry on Seraikela State suggests that it was founded in 1620. If the clan started worshipping Ma Pauri almost immediately after they became royals, it means that the legend of Ma Pauri is at least 400 years old.
Singh Deo then recounted an interesting anecdote about Ma Pauri and her horses. “Once, some 200 years ago, the Dugni estate was besieged by enemies. They had horses and weapons, and, yet, they could not enter the ramparts of the estate because they saw several horses galloping all over the ramparts. Those horses weren’t ours. The enemies saw those horses and retreated. Where do you think those horses came from? Whose horses were those?”
Then, when Singh Deo said, “Ma Pauri does not have a form,” it caught my attention. Adivasi deities, too, do not have forms; so could it be assumed that Ma Pauri was an Adivasi deity?
“No,” Singh Deo responded calmly. “Ma Pauri is our own, our own isht-devi.”
So how did Ma Pauri, or her horses rather, come to gain so much popularity? They are ubiquitous throughout Seraikela. Was it related to affairs of the kingdom? My questions were now forthright.
Singh Deo refuted this. “The royal family of Seraikela did not ask anyone to worship Ma Pauri. But everyone knew about Ma Pauri. So whoever had faith began worshipping her in their own way.”
The story of Ma Pauri was finally revealed to me—from a horse‘s mouth, no less. I was finally at peace. Now it was time for me to seek out another aspect of the devotion towards the two horses. So far, we had seen the horse statues venerated indirectly, after a worship done in the Adivasi way, by a laya. It was now time to see the horses being venerated—indirectly, once again—in a non-Adivasi way.
Before I left, Singh Deo, gracious as ever, invited me to meet the current scion of the royal family of Seraikela. The most interesting thing I heard about Pratap Aditya Singh Deo was that he wakes up at 10 in the morning. Here’s a man who loves his precious sleep, I thought. It would be interesting to meet him someday. But for now, and promising to meet again, my companions and I took leave of Lal Babu Singh Deo. Our next appointment was with the Baij brothers.
Balaram to Boram
he Baij brothers too live in Dugni, not very far from the tea stall where we met Lal Babu Singh Deo: some 500 metres ahead, on the way to Seraikela, on the same side of the road. Baij are of the Kumhar caste. Potters. Artisans. Creators of possibilities out of clay.
When I heard the surname of the gentlemen we were going to meet, I was immediately reminded of Ramkinkar Baij, the celebrated sculptor whose “Santhal Family” and “Mill Call” are unforgettable works of art. Ramkinkar Baij was not Kumhar. My author-translator friend Bhaswati Ghosh, who translated Somendranath Bandyopadhyay’s book, My Days with Ramkinkar Baij into English, shared an article which says that Ramkinkar Baij was born a Poramanik, in the Naapit or barber caste, but gave up the surname Poramanik to adopt the surname Baij. 
The same article further says that the name Baij was “derived from Boidda (Baidya) and Boijo.” Baidya may also be a practitioner of traditional Indian medicine. Why did Ramkinkar Baij adopt the surname Baij? And did he do it to take up the Baidya identity (that of a healer) or the Baij one (that of a creator) as he himself was a sculptor?
Ghosh opined that Ramkinkar Baij took up the name Baij “because he felt a close association with Santhals and people of the land in general.” I learnt from her that Ramkinkar Baij considered his neighbour Ananta Mistry, a carpenter who drew pattachitras—scroll paintings—of deities and built clay idols, as his first teacher. Whatever the reason might have been, I think it is important to know in order to connect the dots, and also to know Ramkinkar Baij, the man, more intimately.
The brothers I met in Dugni are Binod Bihari Baij and Badal Chandra Baij. Binod Bihari was a government teacher who retired from service in 2004. He is probably about 78 years old now. Badal Chandra, who must be in his 50s, is a respected teacher in the area.
The brothers’ ancestors migrated to Dugni about 400 years ago from the Manbhum area, currently a part of West Bengal; more specifically, from Bardhaman district. This part about the Baij brothers’ ancestry struck me, for Ramkinkar Baij was also from the Manbhum area, from present-day Bankura district. 
“Balaram is our chief deity,” Binod Bihari explained. “Balaram, the elder brother of Lord Krishna, signifies the soil for us. As Kumhars, we work with the soil; but we are also farmers. So on the first day of Magh, which is also the first day of the year, when we are done with the farming of the season, we worship Balaram.”
“The name has been corrupted down the years,” Badal Chandra added. “From Balaram, it has now turned to Boram.”
“The place where we worship Balaram is called Boram Than,” Binod Bihari said.
So where do the horses come in the picture?
“The horses are Balaram and Krishna,” Binod Bihari said readily. “You know that story about Balaram and Krishna stealing horses?”
I wasn’t too sure about that legend, but the notion that the two horses embodied Balaram and Krishna set quite a few matters in perspective. For one, it explained why there were exactly two horses and not only one or more than two. Second, it also explained why the colour of one horse was white while the other was black.
“We do not worship the horses,” the Baij brothers said nearly in unison, quite similar to how Mahendra Singh and Jagat Mahato had expressed themselves in Saharbera. “We worship the shila-patthar”—the rock stone. “That is Balaram, our Boram. We do not have statues. Our deity is adrishya.”
“The horses are a recent addition and they are just for show,” Binod Bihari added. “The horses at our Boram Than in Dugni were created only in 2004. Before that, only worship at the shila-patthar was carried out in the Boram Than. Those who had pledges placed clay figurines of horses and even elephants at the Boram Than. Over the years, those horses have come to be known as Ghora Baba and what-not, but the fact is that the horses are not worshipped.”
Later, I visited the Boram Than of Dugni. The Boram Than of the Kumhar community is markedly different from all the Jahir Thans where I saw the statues of two horses. The horse statues were at some distance from the shila-patthar, which had its own niche surrounded by a short boundary wall. I couldn’t get a clear view of the shila-patthar. It was surrounded by sal trees, and there was no way I could get any closer. I can only assume that the shila-patthar is an ordinary rock which has been rendered extraordinary by the faith attached to it.
The horses were out in the open—just like at the Jahir Thans—but the entire compound, including the shila-patthar niche, was surrounded by a larger, higher boundary wall. A Jahir Than does not have a boundary wall.
The Boram Than’s boundary wall was built in 2021, under the patronage of Dashrath Gagrai, the same MLA who had inaugurated the stage at Nischintpur. The inscription on the plaque, though, labels the Boram Than as Jaher Than. This may be a mistake: perhaps it is a nuance no one was bothered to look into in the larger scheme of religion—or faith—and politics.
I still had questions for the Baij brothers. Do the Kumhars, too, worship Ma Pauri? And did the royal family of Seraikela encourage the building of the horse statues, thinking them to be symbolic of Seraikela’s influence in the area? I was thinking of my conversation with Azad Shekhar Manjhi in Mirudih and all that he told me about the rulers of Seraikela having influenced the Kumhars.
“We do not worship Ma Pauri,” Binod Bihari said. “At our Boram Than, we worship only Balaram. There was no influence on us from anyone, either regarding whom we worship or the horses at our Than. We’ve been worshipping Balaram for as long as I can remember.”
And how long has it been, I asked.
“The previous Boram Than in Dugni village was at a different location,” Binod Bihari and Badal Chandra said, trying to remember. “In the same village, but at a different spot some distance away. There was some dispute around that spot, so the Boram Than was transferred to its present location. This incident took place nearly 150 years ago.”
The antiquity of the faith in the Boram Than and the fact that the Baij brothers had their roots in Manbhum caused Bhaswati Ghosh to remind me of another set of famous horses from Manbhum: the terracotta horses of Bankura. She directed me to an essay on the Bankura horses written by blogger Madhurima Chakraborty on her personal website, Orange Wayfarer: “Bankura horses are worshipped as Dharmathakur’s bahan (ride) and often symbolically sacrificed at ‘Thans.’” 
Does the worship at the Boram Than have anything to do with the history of the Bankura horses, I wondered. Chakraborty, too, asks an interesting question: why did the people of Manbhum area think of worshipping horses? “For three centuries and more, the Bankura horses have reigned in the region. An elephant, shaped round and known as Bonga Hati, worshipped by the Saotal (Santhal) tribesmen also reigned in the Dalma region. I understand the case of elephants, because they are aplenty in the jungle of India’s heartland. However, the case of the horses is a curious one.”
Now this curiosity bugs me too. How did horses take over the imagination of the people in Seraikela and Chandil?
The most well-known Boram Than in the region is the one in Gamharia, where a huge mela is held on the Akhan Jatra each year. It is a huge walled space, almost as sprawling as a football ground. And yes, the Than I saw near XLRI is a Boram Than, even though it isn’t as well-maintained as the ones at other places.
Even though the layouts of the Jahir Than and the Boram Than differ in aspects like the presence or absence of the boundary wall and the distance of the horse statues from the traditional deity, there is one similarity in how the worship is carried out at both Thans: Brahmins do not conduct the worship. Just like the laya from the Bhumij community carries out worship at the Jahir Than, worship at the Boram Than is done by the naya of the Kumhar community.
“But there are no animal sacrifices at the Boram Than,” Binod Bihari told me. “Only sweets are offered at the Boram Than on the Akhan Jatra. Sweets made of coconut, besan, and other ingredients. All those sweets are made at home. The people making the sweets cover their mouths so that the sweets are not desecrated. Sweets from the market are not acceptable, for who knows who is making those sweets and in which condition? In the market, confectioners may rub khaini and make sweets with the same unwashed hands.”
Also, as among the Bhumijs, the position of a naya among the Kumhars, too, is hereditary, with a male scion of the naya’s family carrying on the mantle of his forefathers. The present naya of Dugni village is Achinto Pal, a young man who had been a student of Badal Chandra. Pal took over a year ago, after the death of his father.
The Baij brothers recalled an incident that involved Pal’s father, the previous naya. One night, when the boundary wall at the Boram Than in Dugni had not been constructed, a drunk policeman climbed up the space where the shila-patthar had been placed. The story goes that he was chased by an invisible horse for the entire night. He fell into puddles, dirtied his clothes and injured himself, spending the night trying to escape the invisible horse. At daybreak, the poor policeman was guided to the naya’s house. The horse disappeared only after the naya conducted a puja at the Than. The policeman remembered to perform puja at the Boram Than on the next Akhan Jatra.
Achinto Pal, the current naya, is in the same situation as Mahendra Singh of Saharbera: he has a daughter but no son.
What happens if the naya does not have a son, I asked.
“The mantle would be handed over to someone else in his bloodline,” the Baij brothers said.
And what if no one in the naya’s line has a son?
“That won’t happen. Someone in their extended family will certainly have a son.”
But what if even that doesn’t happen, I persisted.
“Then a new naya is selected from the community itself, by discussing among ourselves.”
Do the deities have a hand in deciding a new naya, I asked. Is the jhupaan used among the Kumhars?
“No, we do not practise jhupaan,” the Baij brothers said. “And we’re not worried. There certainly will be a male child in the naya’s family.”
I took their unwavering faith as a positive sign. I also took it as a sign that my search for the stories of the horses was over. Before leaving, I accepted the Baij brothers’ invitation to attend the puja at Dugni’s Boram Than on the next Akhan Jatra.
Closing the Canter
do not know what kind of frenzy made me chase the story of the two horses, but now that I have learnt the stories—plural because there is never a single story—I am somewhat satisfied.
I have learnt that the belief in the horses is ancient, while the horse statues are not. The horses may be connected to belief, politics or other reasons but the fact remains that they command faith, a faith that is as unshakeable as the faith in the various Thans, be it the Jahir Than or the Boram Than.
I’ve also learnt that faiths merge. At the Chadri Paat, for instance, what started off as a ritual performed by an Adivasi priest during a drought has today turned into a ritual observed by so many Adivasis as well as non-Adivasis. Each community has brought its own method of worship. The slaughter of goats has merged harmoniously with the fragrance of dhoop kathi—incense sticks—and the offering of fruits and sweets like batasha.
I realised there was a kind of umbrella over different faiths of this region, especially when I heard Gour Singh Sardar recite the names of Chadri Paat and Deoli Paat with Lugu Buru,  and the names of Shib-Kali-Jagadhatri-Krishna-Balaram with Phedan Budhi and Ma Pauri.
Despite learning so much, I also realised how little we know. “We never sought to learn the history behind our rituals despite being so attached to them,” Shankar Mahato rued. Or, as Badal Chandra Baij said, “Our pragaitihasik”—prehistoric—“rituals are yet to be documented.” I wonder how much more we may come to know about the horses. If more people start sharing their stories, if we just reach out to more people, we may hear more stories.
I am yet to conclude when the first horse statues were built, and what the impetus behind building them was. In fact, I am yet to clearly understand how horses entered the popular imagination in Seraikela and Chandil. The answer to that, perhaps, could involve another interesting legend, one that we could add to what we already know. But maybe that can wait. For now, so many strands have been unravelled. One day, the entire fabric could be unveiled.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar has published articles in The Hindu, The Indian Express, Mint Lounge, Reader’s Digest, Scroll, and other places.