The gondhal, a dramatic rite of goddess worship, is a traditional family observance in Maharashtra. It is a form of worship that is performed exclusively by a group of men as part of rituals after ceremonies like marriage or a new birth. These are traditionally sponsored by Deshastha (Sub caste of) Brahmins and most Marathas in honour of their family goddess.
The literal meaning of the word ‘Gondhal’ is ‘commotion’. In this case, it is the commotion created by dramatic narration of mythical stories, praise of heroes or narration of folk legends. All these forms part of a ritual dedicated to different divinities.
In Renuka Mahatmya relates that after Parashuram had killed a demon named Betasur, he cut off its head, threaded the sinews of the head through the aperture in the crown, put it on his shoulder, and went to his mother playing tintrin tintrin on it. This first homage which Parashuram paid to his mother, playing the stringed instrument fashioned from the body and the head of Betasur, is the origin of the gondhal. Gondhal was performed as a festival of Bhutamata. It was celebrated with enthusiasm from the seventh to the thirteenth century.
People who perform the rituals are called as Gondhali. Gondhali are worshippers of Renuka and Tulja Bhavani. Gondhali maintain that they originated from Jamadagni and Renuka and that their place of origin is Mahur. Besides Renuka, another goddess who Gondhali worship is Tulja Bhavani. The two main types of Gondhalis, Renukrai and Kadamrai, are connected with Renuka and Tulja Bhavani respectively. There are also gondhali who worship Khandoba god and perform gondhal in his name. The term “gondhali” is also used in the sense of “demon” (pishacha) or “ghost” (bhut).
Rituals of Gondhal
Gondhal takes place in front of the host’s house. A wooden board on the ground is covered with a new cloth, on which rice or jowar grains are arranged in a square, in each corner a half coconut, betel nuts, dry dates, turmeric roots, a banana and betel leaves are placed. A pitcher filled with water, betel or mango leaves and whole coconuts are placed at the centre, near the idol of the Goddess. The Goddess is worshipped with flowers. Five stalks of jowar plants or sugar-cane sticks at each corner of the board have their heads tied together in a bunch above the pitcher. A string of thin wafer-like kadakanya i.e. sweet Puri and karanjya i.e. coconut pie, with a garland hanging over the pitcher are tied to the top, signifying the Goddess’s presence.
In their exuberance, some people would sing and dance, laugh and play, pronounce forbidden words, make obscene gestures, roll in the dust, and even smear their bodies with mud as if they were possessed. The term used for this in Marathi is ‘angat yene’ which means possession of the body by the spirit.
In one of the beliefs, gondhal was originally connected with Bhutamata and is a liturgical dance of Bhutamata’s companions, the troops of ghosts (bhuts). In its original form, the gondhal appears to have been a ritual in which a group of men dressed as ghosts formed a circle, made a clamour of songs and music, and danced. Later, it seems, this ritual was introduced into the worship of Renuka, and in time its ghost form was lost even to memory.
There are thirty-two people included in a Gondhal dance, there must also be a big enough space for them to dance in. A circular ground seven arms breadths from east to west and seven from south to north should be adequate for the dance. Precise stipulations are made about how the dance is to be done, who should stand where, who should hold the torches, who should use which musical instruments, and what is an appropriate time for a gondhal. A troupe of eight members is considered inferior. But in gondhal ensemble today, there are only four. One of them has the sambal (percussion instrument), other has the tuntune (string instrument), one does the narration, with songs and stories; the fourth interrupts the narration with humorous questions, making the audience laugh and keeping the narration from lagging. The chief Gondhali, the one who does the narration, is called ‘nayak’. He is the leader of the ensemble.
Performance of Gondhal
The nayak begins with gana (Ganesh arti) which is a hymn of praise to Ganapati. Then the gondhali praises goddess Jagdamba or Renuka and invite other gods and goddesses living in water, on land and in the sky to decent to arena of the gondhal. With them as witness, gondhali starts his performance which exhibits his memory, inventiveness, eloquence, and storytelling style. Gondhal is combination of drama, song, and music.
The main Gondhali dances and songs are fixed conventions, in circular, spinning movements, performing mudras with his fingers. The chief Gondhali, holding a flaming torch, has three to six comrades with musical instruments like taal, sambal, conch, and tuntune. Other social and mythological songs are also delivered with equal interest.
Following is a video of demonstrating the sound when all the three instruments play
Gondhal varies between devotional singing and dramatic presentation of any Purana part – epics and myths. They can comprise a story from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, or the Puranas with several interpolations. The narration proceeds through dialogues, jokes, songs, dances, and prose commentary, without any written script.
Some of the stories and ballads are, by virtue of their content and their form, a branch of folk literature. The Gondhali evokes the heroic mood with his powada (songs of bravery), he creates waves of various emotions with his stories and ballads, and at the same time, he brings forth bursts of laughter with his humorous songs.