The Zatra at Shirgao

Though Goa is known mostly for her beautiful beaches, white-washed Portuguese Churches, and delicious cuisine, beyond the littoral of Goa there is a Zatra (Temple feast and procession) no less famous among the Goan Hindu community. People from the surrounding villages arrive in groups to participate in the events which last almost 24 hours. From the small village of Maulingam alone, about 30 participants and 20 observers arrive during the morning hours.

In the early part of may, the small town of Shirgao, in Bicholim taluka. east of Mapusa, comes alive as thousands of devotees of Lairai gather and for the entire day undertake rituals and poojas culminating in the famous jaunt through ‘hot coals’ raked from an enormous bonfire.

This festival originated among the tribal communities of Goa and is the festival of the Hindu labor class (non-professional). In olden days, the zatra would last five or six days, and of late, the time has been cut down to one full day and night. Beginning in the morning and continuing throughout the day, men and a few women bathe in special water tanks located near the Temple. Following this ritual bath, the devotees walk barefoot uphill to the temple as an act of penance, endurance, and worship. In the evening, they are joined by more devotees undergoing the same acts of worship and penance, all of whom dress in a particular style of a dhoti in keeping with their traditional dress. This style is akin to that worn by fisherwomen and is wrapped around and between the legs to allow greater physical movement and dexterity. They also wear some form of white tee-shirt (of late, owing to the inclusion of women), a colorful cape around the shoulders, and a scarf-like cloth around the waist for additional decor. They also adorn themselves with necklaces made from jasmine and other tropical flowers. In their right hand, devotees carry a 6-foot stick made by twisting vines together and forming a handle, which is used throughout the ceremony. Originally covered with flowers, each stick is made by the devotee who then decorates it with wisps of colored yarn to symbolize the flowers of past festivals. The more yarn a devotee places on the stick, the more devotion he feels. (and more business for the yarn sellers ;-).

shirg02Around 10 pm, the ritual reaches a climax and those participating in the zatra begin the celebrated temple ‘dance’ once inside. Brightly lit for the occasion, inside the temple, the devotees gather and form a tight circle in front of the image of Lairai. While chanting and moving in a tight circle to the rhythm of drum beats, the sticks are held in the air and clash against one another in a tight demonstration of devotion and strength. The beat quickens and the circular dance and chanting reaches a feverish pitch, after which time, a single drum beat signals the end of the dance. The devotees fall back, drenched in sweat, and make room for the new arrivals who have just entered the temple. Those who have already participated in the dance proceed down the hill to bathe once again and repeat the dance.

Around midnight, the dancing ceases, and the crowd gathers around the huge pile of wood located in a large clearing several hundred meters from the temple grounds. A chosen man emerges from the temple in a frenzy of spiritual possession, and racing to the pile with a blazing torch, proceeds to light the massive bonfire and begin the second half of the zatra. Once lit, the bonfire blazes for several hours during which time, the ritual participants circumvent the fire, chanting devotions to Lairai and touching the bonfire with their sticks. The closer one circumvents the fire, the more devotion and courage he/she demonstrates. This continues until the early hours of the morning when the fire dies down enough to rake its coals.

Once the raking process begins, the devotees converge near the smoking fire in wild expectation, waiting for their turn to walk through the coals. Pressure mounts and finally by 4 a.m. the participants begin the most anticipated ritual which brings people from all over Goa to Shirgao, for this special event. One by one and in quick succession, the devotees run through the hot coals carrying their sticks and screaming the name of Lairai. Some perform the ritual only once, not convinced of their bravery and manhood, perform the ceremony, several times, to the amazement of onlookers. As each participant determines he has ran his last, he throws his flower necklace into a nearby Banyan tree and returns home. As the sun rises, the festival draws to a close, and those who only observed, fearing hot coals, will have to wait until next year to muster their courage.

Article and photographs by
Karin Larsen
[Fullbright Research Student]