‘Thieves’ have their moment under the moon


ou've got to admire their guts and, to a large extent, belief.
Eight of them, four with no heads, are a picture of calmness: no pain, no reaction, no fear, as they lie still with their bodies buried beneath the ground for close to two hours or slightly more.Four of those who are buried have only their heads above the ground-although they do not appear to be breathing-while the other four lie around motionless, crossing their legs and hands. Four faces are nowhere to be seen as they enact the scene of villagers' heads being cut off and their bodies severed.
For an outsider, the sight of the 'thieves' being buried just in front of the Sateri Kelbai temple in Zarme is hair-raising stuff. For the locals, it's child's play. Well, almost.
"This is being done in honour of our ancestors who were wrongfully portrayed as thieves and killed. For one night every year, those who were killed in that barbaric act are fondly remembered," says Chandrakant Gawas, a local, who remembers the practice being carried out for more than seven decades.
Now 81, Chandrakant says a lot of practices and traditions elsewhere may have changed with the passage of time but the Chorutsav or festival of thieves in his village has remained essentially the same.
"What we enact each year is not fiction or legend. This is a true story," says Pandurang Gawas, another village elder, vouching for the authenticity.
According to the legend, a true happening the villagers add, ten villagers from Zarme in distant Sattari taluka had gone to another village to shop for their daily wares.
On their way back they were waylaid, eight of them were ruthlessly killed, but not before hanging a coconut garland around their necks, giving the impression that they were all thieves.
Two from the group managed to escape and narrated the tale to the grieving villagers. Since then, Chorutsav has taken shape and remains the most important event in Zarme's social calendar.
"Although this is being held on the day of Holi, this has nothing to do with the Shigmo festivities," corrects the temple priest, taking pains to explain that while most Shigmo festivities are based on legend, Chorutsav is firmly established on a true story.
So, who are the eight 'thieves' who happily risk their lives each year and why do they go through, you would imagine, nervous moments?"These are all villagers. Married men from the village, I must add," discloses Vithoba Gawas.
Just hours before the actual practice commences or a little before dusk, the village's married men gather at the Sateri Kelbai temple and the eight lucky ones are handpicked. There are no rules for selection but, as the temple priest discloses, these are the chosen ones and nobody dare turn his back.
"Care must be taken to avoid those men whose wives are pregnant or whose wives are menstruating," discloses a village elder.
Twice in the recent past, two men left everything to chance by not revealing their wives' condition. Not surprisingly, they paid a price.
"They became stiff during the burying process," discloses the priest. All of the danger died down, though, as the ignorant 'thief' was brought to the temple where he begged for forgiveness in front of the goddess and had a sip of the holy water.
The burying of the thieves, though, is shrouded in secrecy with little or no chance for an outsider to have a closer or authenticated look. Select villagers, including some children, walk in and walk out of the sacred premises, hidden away for the outside world with a large curtain.
Two hours before the curtains can come down all that you get to hear is the sound of the pickaxe and shovel meeting the earth, clearly some digging activity is in progress. Then for a long time there is a lull, until children, youth and elders dance in front of the temple to the beats of drums and other traditional musical instruments. Many of the villagers hold branches of trees in their hands while dancing.
The most awaited sight is when the curtain is brought down: the crowd fall over each other to have a closer look, which they somehow manage to get. Many marvel at the ability of the 'thieves' to remain still, while others rub their eyes in disbelief and seek a second look.
Twenty minutes later when the curtain goes up again, there is furious activity again behind the curtain as the 'thieves' are brought out. We see one of them, his body covered in mud, walking around with his young child tugging at his little finger. Perhaps the child knows, sometime in the near future, he too will have his moment under the moon. [TOI]