Keskal Valley in Bastar is lush with green, forested hills and gurgling streams. On one peak, stands a temple. Inside is a black stone, reminiscent of a lingam, that stands on a raised, earthen platform. A diya sits at its base. For most of the year, the nondescript temple remains shut. Once a year its doors open, and tribals from surrounding villages flock to it. Because this is the home of their beloved god of healing, Khan Devta.
The black stone inside the temple represents a physician named Dr Khan, who lived in Bastar a couple of centuries ago. To the locals, he is the “Muslim God”. “Other gods are of wealth and prosperity. Khan Devta is the god of healing,” said one tribal. “There is a belief among us that Khan Devta treats all ailments far better than any doctor in a government primary health centre.”
Khan Devta’s temple opens its doors to the public during Sur Dongar, the annual pilgrimage to another temple dedicated to a goddess known as Bhanga Ram Devi. Bhanga Ram Devi’s temple doors open up to those of Khan Dev Temple. Dr Khan is believed to be Bhanga Ram Devi’s “main sevadar”. “People worship him as the closest associate of the goddess,” said 60-year-old Sarju Hidma of Allure village.
Every year in the month of September, thousands of people from more than 250 tribal villages of Bastar trek to Mount Keskal in Kanker district, which is approximately 170 km from Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. It’s a difficult trek. People have to negotiate 12 “hairpin bends”, according to one local, cross streams and make their way through dense forests. Still they throng the temple, which is said to date back to the 18th century, and pray for good health, and long life of community members.
A Muslim God in a Hindu Pantheon
The story goes of Khan Devta goes like this: long ago, a deadly epidemic ravaged the region, killing many people and afflicting hundreds. Tribal leaders were helpless and at the peak of despair, a Muslim “doctor” came to the rescue. All that is known of this man is that he was known as Dr Khan, he came to Bastar from Nagpur and that he was blessed with the healing touch, say the locals. Dr Khan saved hundreds, according to local legend, and did not leave even after the epidemic had died down. Instead, he made this region his home and continued to treat locals. While there isn’t a specific date for this story, people say Dr Khan lived in Bastar two centuries ago.
It was after Dr Khan passed away that the tribals built a temple to his memory and a tradition began of prayed at Khan Devta’s altar, making offerings to him. The good doctor became a god, one whose influence extends right down to the present, and who stands shoulder to shoulder with Hindu deities.
Legend has it that even the gods visit Khan Devta and during the Sur Dongar pilgrimage, it is believed that the divinities accompany the villagers who go on the trek. Re-enacting this legend, tribals climb up the hill, carrying on their shoulders their gram devtas, or village gods, who are represented by decorated wooden platforms.
“Dr Khan’s turn to worship the Devi comes after all other gods have had their turn at the main Bhanga Ram Devi Temple,” said Hidma. “All the village gods assemble at the main temple with their priests and offer prayers turn by turn. Following the prime rituals, they offer paan (betel leaf), also called gilori, to the priest of Khan Devta Temple. Then hukka is passed on to Khan Dev.”
As a final ritual, all the village gods offer prayers to Khan Dev to safeguard the health of his devotees, their crops, trees, pets and livestock. The prayers are accompanied by offerings of eggs, goats or hens to Khan Devta. Even though he’s been brought into the Hindu fold, Khan Devta’s devotees have not forgotten that Dr Khan had been a Muslim. Honouring this, devotees take care to ensure that the meat offered to him – usually a goat or hen – is killed using the halal method. Poor devotees simply offer him eggs.
The Gaur family look after Khan Devta, carrying out rituals at the Temple. Only one member of the family can perform the pooja. Balram Gaur, 65, lives in Keskal village, which is 15 kilometres from the temple. He has been entrusted with the Pooja responsibilities. “When and how we were given this responsibility is not known, but the fact is that for five generations one member of our family has always been a priest at the Khan Dev Temple,” said Gaur.
Ramvilas Negi, secretary of the Bhanga Ram Devi Samiti, said the rituals and beliefs are centuries old. “Today, many of our people have gone to the far corners of the world, but when the day comes to worship Khan Dev, they all troop to Keskal to mark their attendance at Khan Dev’s feet,” he said.
Negi is convinced that praying to Khan Dev always brings positive results. He said, “All issues, whether they are personal or related to the health of the community and safety of crops, are brought before Khan Dev. And he never fails to deliver. That is why people have faith in him, and that is why they flock to Khan Dev Temple.”
“Beliefs are what make people follow a system,” said Krishna Dutt, a social worker and writer who lives in Bastar. “Traditions and customs bring people together. Tribal worship of Khan Dev is one of the best examples of harmony and belief. At the end of the day, it is humanity that triumphs. I think traditions, taboos and customs have no written history. They are beliefs that find resonance among a people.”
While debates and anxieties about intolerance and communalism fester in other parts of India, here in Bastar, Khan Dev and the following he commands are a heartening example of how religion doesn’t have to be divisive. Hidma said he has been marking his attendance at Khan Devta Temple right from when he was a child. “My grandfather told me the story of Dr Khan Dev, and now when I’ve become a grandfather, I’ve passed on the legend to my grandchildren. Khan Dev benefits us all. In all these years nothing has changed. If at all, the belief is only getting stronger.”