Tracing the Lost Waters

Hills and the Pastoral Communities
by Vijaya Srinivasan, Minal Sagare & Niranjan Garde
Photo editing by Anuja Chawda and video editing by Harsh Pandey.

The hills of Pune and its region form a crucial component of the water cycle as the first receivers of rain which recharges the underlying aquifers finally feeding into the rivers. They have been a part of the movement tracks of the pastoral communities of the Deccan region since the microlith period and still hold the traces of those tracks. The cultural association of these pastoral communities with the hills and streams are found in the mythological stories of their rustic deities who had travelled with them. These stories represent the community’s values, identities, memories of landscapes and ecological wisdom. The rustic deities that otherwise are untraceable with time serve as potential links to trace Pune’s lost waters as imagined by these pastoral communities. These traces of lost waters are presented in three micro-stories - Hill Lands, Lap Lands and the Encounter, and exhibited through a photo essay.


Many generations ago, pastoral communities moved along the hills, streams, and flowing water bodies in the Deccan plateau and beyond. This story is about these pastoral communities, their rustic deities, and cultural landscapes. “This landscape was a result of the movement of these communities in search of water and fodder, as well as their corresponding geographical situation: the seasonal movement from the wetter Western Ghats to the drier eastern parts of Maharashtra and beyond. This formed the communities’ early movement patterns. The hills of Pune were an integral part of those seasonal movements.

The hills of Pune are a crucial component of the freshwater cycle as receivers of rainwater recharging the aquifers leading to an elaborate stream network feeding into the rivers of Pune. The hills of Pune still hold the memories of those seasonal movement patterns by the pastoral communities such as dhangars (shepherds), gawalis (cattle grazers), katkarisKatkari is a forest tribe in Western Maharashtra. Today, katkaris are also located in the riverine belts for freshwater fishing. (forest tribes), kolis (fishermen), bhois (fishermen) and their rustic deities such as Vetal, Mhasoba, Tukai, Sati Asara, Bhivai and Dhuloba.

This story talks about the association of pastoral communities with the environment through their livelihood practices, folklores, mythological tales and rituals, thereby throwing light on the ecological wisdom of these communities. The story is presented as a constellation of micro-stories anchored around the rustic deities of the hills (hill landsHill lands refers to “hills” that have steep and/or gentle gradients.) and of the lower lap of these hills (lap landsLap lands refers to flat terrain, extremely gentle slopes starting from foot of the hills, and plateaus.), and their encounters.

Hill Lands

The story begins with the travelling deity – Mhaskoba, Mhatoba or MhasobaMhasoba/ Mhaskoba/ Mhatoba refers to the same pastoral deity and is fondly called by such names as per oral traditions passed on by pastoral communities.. Fondly considered as a kshestrapal (protector of a territory) deity, He is often seen resting on the hill lands. In other instances, He goes down the hill and interacts with other rustic deities seen on the lap lands. At times, found along the rivers, He is the guardian of Sati Asara (seven sisters). Sometimes He marries and settles with His wife (Jogubai at Wakad and Mhatobagad in Kothrud). He prefers the wilderness of open-to-sky situations and at times resides in robust enclosures. He prefers a hen or goat as a sacrifice and likes to be venerated in festivals.

Hill Lands of Pune Region
Hill Lands of Pune region.

Mhatoba’s presence as seen in Pune, starts from His travel accounts accompanying the pastoral communities from the Konkan region to Chaskaman to Barpe in Tamhani Ghat to Hinjewadi. From Chaskaman He takes two sisters – Hirai and Sitai – to Hinjewadi hill. At Hinjewadi hill, due to the lack of water, He requests one of His faithful devotees’ Jambhulkar, a resident of Hinjewadi, to bring Him down closer to the River Mula, thereby landing at Wakad. There, He marries Jogubai and settles in Wakad. Even today, the memory of His descent is celebrated on Chaitra Paurnima (Hanuman Jayanti, March-April) as a part of Mhatoba Ustav by a processional palakhi connecting the Mahtoba temple at Hinjewadi hill and the Mahtoba temple at Wakad located on the banks of the River Mula.

Journey of Mhatoba from Konkan to Wakad.

On the objection of His wife Jogubai, He drowns the two accompanying sisters – Hirai and Sitai in the upstream waters of the River Mula outside Wakad. A koli (fisherman) and parit (dhobi / washerman) who witness this event were also drowned in the River Mula on the order of Mhatoba. The drowned sisters resurfaced on the banks of the River Mula where their temple exists today.

Hirai-Sitai Temple at Hinjewadi.

At another instance, the same Mhatoba travels to Mhatobagad near Kothrud from Hinjewadi to meet His sister Tukaidevi (rustic goddess) near Sutardara. Here Tukaidevi is now lost in urbanisation. He comes down with the farmers community from Mhatobagad to Kothrud village where He is assigned the responsibility of being a gramdaivat (village-deity) of Kothrud village. He is accompanied by His wife Jogubai in this journey. Here too, the memory of Mhatoba’s descent is celebrated on Chaitra Paurnima (March-April) as a part of Mhatoba Ustav by a processional palakhi connecting Mhatobagad and Mahtoba temple located in Kothrud Village. Once there used to be a stream near this Mhatoba temple, now untraceable.

Journey of Mhatoba from Hinjewadi to Mhatobgad.
Way to Mhatobagad.
Mhatoba and Jogubai at Mhatobagad.
Gramdaivat Mhatoba, Kothrud Village.

The seasonal movement of pastoral communities in search of water, food and fodder for their livestock can be traced from the movement of Mhasoba/Mhatoba/Mhaskoba. This can be seen with reference to one of the routes taken by dhangars that spans between Supe to Bopgaon along the River Karha and its tributary Chambli.

Journey of Dhangar from Supe to Bopgaon.

The dhangar travels with his sheep and family from Supe to Bopgaon in the month of October-November and they stay in Bopgaon till monsoon sets in. They then return to Supe to look after their own fields for the entire period of monsoon. Along this route he with his community members pay a visit to Mhasoba temple at Hivre located at the confluence of River Karha and a stream – Mavlayancha Odha on the occasion of Mhasoba Jatra that is celebrated on Chaitra Amavasya (March-April). Opening rites of this jatra are given to the dhangar community of this region. Here Sati Asara are present along the stream, and are referred as Mavlaya (plural of Mauli). This journey, taken parallel to the River Karha, is a part of the larger network of movement tracks in this river valley traversed by the earlier generations of pastoral communities.

A dhangar family at a campsite on the way to Bopgaon.
Mavlaya at Hivre, Saswad.
Mhasoba at Hivre, Saswad.

Like Mhatoba, another rustic deity Vetal is venerated as the Demon-God of dhangars who is usually located outside the village boundary. In Pune He resides on a highland plateau at the junction of five village boundaries (Kothrud, Bavdhan, Pashan, Bhamburda and Erandwane) – popularly known as “Vetal Tekdi”. His younger brother Chota VetalChota Vetal, as called by devotees, is also mentioned as “Shri Vetal Maharaj” at Ramoshiwadi. Such variations of names of the same pastoral deity, as observed in literature references, or mentioned by devotees and found marked at the place of temple/shrine, need not be considered as any error. resides at the foothills.

Vetal Tekdi.

Vetalbaba and His Chellas/ Rakhandars/ Shipahi/Gote (soldiers) have highlighted this spot prominently – He is sitting at the centre and His Chelas surrounding Him at a distance and guarding the place. For the love of His devotees who are unable to undertake the uphill climb, Vetalbaba descends from the top of the hill and builds another resting spot at the junction of two streams on the foothill near Ramoshiwadi. Here, He is fondly called Chota Vetal or Shri Vetal Maharaj, where He is assigned the responsibility of being a gramdaivat of Ramoshiwadi. The resting spot of Chota Vetal probably indicates a camping site for dhangars consisting of favourable vegetation and assured sources of water, now lost to urbanisation. The memory of His descent is celebrated at midnight of Phalgun Amavasya (eve of Gudhi Padwa, March-April) as a part of Vetalbaba Ustav by a processional palakhi connecting the temple at Vetal Tekdi and the temple at Ramoshiwadi.

Vetalbaba Temple at Vetal Tekdi.
Vetal Maharaj Temple at Ramoshiwadi.

Lap Lands

The story of the lap lands is about the rustic goddesses, Sati Asara – the group of seven sisters who dwell in rivers, wells, tanks, and other water bodies. Sati Asara and their place specific incarnations are primarily associated with the river-based communities such as kolis, bhois and katkaris. These deities are Korya SuvashiniKorya Suvashini – As explained by Anne Feldhaus in her book House and Home in Maharashtra, possibly there has been a change in usage of this term in recent decades, with the gradual disappearance of the custom of pre-pubertal marriage. (married but having no husband) and are Maherwashini (one who is on a visit to her maternal home). The place where they dwell is their maher (maternal home). They appear as rock outcrop along the riverbanks or as seven river pebbles – tandala if they are seen resting in a shrine. These seven sisters are always seen in the company of Mhasoba who is their guardian or protector.

Sati Asara are the ecological signifiers marking the spots where the river is calm, it has a doha (deeper trough), it harbours a gene pool, and offers rich fish stock. Communities such as kolis, bhois and katkaris have thrived at such spots with fishing as their primary livelihood. Fresh springs are also seen in such spots serving as natural refrigeration for the caught fishes. Fishing methods, timings, netting techniques, and surfing techniques have been developed around the nature of riverbed, river water flow, types of fishes, movement pattern of fishes and their seasonal changes.

River Mula at the Lap Land of Pune region.

The katkaris were originally seen on hills but eventually moved down to the lap land in search of freshwater fishing. The scale of such activities takes a humble form for the katkari community seen along River Mula near Hinjewadi. The presence of a dense cluster of Satis Asara in a close proximity at Hinjewadi indicates the richness of the river ecosystem.

Katkari man fishing in the Mula River at Hinjewadi.

Further downstream at Mhalunge, there are three spots of Sati Asara not so much in close proximity as seen in Hinjewadi. These three spots marks the stretch for fishing activity. Here bhois use rubber tyres for surfing with nets for catching fish. The fish found here are rohu (Labeo rohita), chilapi (Mozambique Tilapia/Oreochromis Mossambicus), kanoshi (Labeo calbasu), mrigal (white carp) and tambara (Catla).

Bhoi man preparing for fishing in the Mula River at Mhalunge.

Still further downstream towards the city core, river pollution has considerably reduced the intimate relationship between Sati Asara, livelihoods, culture, mythology, and rituals of the fishing communities. A severe rupture of this intricate relationship is seen in Bhoi Galli of Kasaba Peth.

Sati Asara near Bhoi Galli, Kasaba Peth.

Bhois of Bhoi Galli have adopted newer waterbodies for fishing on the outskirts of Pune city such as at Bhugaon, Bhukum, Katraj, Garade Dam and Bhigvan. Here though the livelihood aspects continue, the association with Sati Asara is entirely forgotten.

Bhoi fishermen at Garade Dam on River Karha, Purandhar.

In another instance near the city core, at the sangam of Rivers Mutha and Mula, the ritualistic connection with Sati Asara continues even though the fishing activity is discontinued.

Confluence of Mula-Mutha Rivers.
Sati Asara and Mhasoba at the confluence of Mula-Mutha Rivers.

The Encounter

At Kambleshwar near Baramati, at the turning of the River Neera, the encounter between two other rustic deities – Bhivai and Dhuloba is observed, wherein, Bhivai is a folk deity associated with the koli community and Dhuloba is associated with the dhangar community. As per the folklore, Bhivai has traversed from one bank to the other (i.e. from Baramati side to Phaltan side) to meet her brother Dhuloba located at Dhuldev, a place about 7 kms from Kambleshwar. Bhivai (singular) or Bhivayya (plural), like Sati Asara, are also the river Goddesses and are regarded as Korya Suvashini.

Bhivai Jatra, an annual festival of Kambleshwar takes place on Magh Paurnima (January-February). Every year from Chaitra Ekadashi to Chaitra Paurnima (March-April), the annual festival venerates both Bhivai and Dhuloba. During this festival a palakhi with Bhivai’s tak (mask) is taken to the temple of Dhuloba at Dhuldev depicting Bhivai’s journey to meet her brother Dhuloba.

River Neera at Kambleshwar near Baramati.

From an ecological perspective, this turning point of the River Neera where it becomes calmer and has created a deeper trough, holds a large gene pool and significant varieties of fish such as chilapi (Mozambique Tilapia/Oreochromis Mossambicus), soni mangur (a type of Catfish), tambara (Catla), khavala (Sardines), gugli and chimta. It is believed that these fish belong to Bhivai, the deity, so fishing is prohibited here.

At Kambleshwar, Bhivai resides in Her own temple and comes out to bathe in a kund (well). She is served and protected by four rakhandars (protectors). At a little distance from Her temple, are shrines of Sati Asara and Mhasoba, indicating the inclusion of Bhivai in the clan of these deities.

Cluster of Rakhandars next to Bhivai Temple.
Cluster of Rakhandars next to Bhivai Temple
Bathing tank near Bhivai Temple.

Kambleshwar is visited every year around Dassara (October) by dhangars from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

River Neera and Bhivai are offered red haldi-kumkum (turmeric-vermillion), hirva chuda (green bangles), coconuts, cholkhan (blouse pieces) – in a rite known as oti bharaneThe rite of ‘oti bharane’ is performed for married woman wishing her fertility. .

These rites of ‘oti bharane’ among others are performed by married women.

Other rituals pertain to the appeasement of Goddesses for having a male child, or requesting fertility and nourishment after marriage by newly wedded couples.

When the navas (prayers) for a healthy male child and a good married life get answered, the communities perform another set of rituals- navas sodane (a rite performed at the fulfilment of a wish) by releasing a pardi (raft) in the River Neera. The rite is called as pardi sodane (releasing a raft with the offering and/or the person for whom the wish was made). The making of a pardi as well as the ritual of pardi sodane is performed by the koli community. Kolis have the ultimate right to the offerings made to the River Neera. One of the offerings that used to be made by dhangars was to throw a sheep into the river for appeasing Bhivai in the hope of increasing their herds, and the sheep was then fetched by the kolis.

Video of the ritual of ‘Pardi Sodane’.

Earlier rudimentary forms of Bhivai / Bhivayya (plural) as rock outcrops daubed with red colour evolved into sophisticated figurines.

Bhivai Devi at Kambleshwar on the banks of River Neera (Phaltan Side).
Bhivayya at Dhuldev near Phaltan.
Bhivai Devi at Kambleshwar on the banks of River Neera (Baramati Side).
Tak (mask) of Bhivai and Dhuloba, and Bhivayya Statue.

The story continues…

In all the above cases, the connections between far flung places have been forged primarily through the movements of pastoral communities and encoded in their stories, images, and figurations.

But a case of Sati Asara at Bavdhan in Pune offers a different narrative altogether as an indicator of changing imaginations implied through deities, communities, and geography. This Sati Asara resides in the premise of Dada Marathe’s residence, a migrant from Nimgaon in Solapur. The story of Sati Asara begins at Nimgaon when Dada Marathe’s uncle Tatyaba Marathe went missing and emerged from a nearby well with the Sati Asara. His family believed that it was the Sati Asara who brought him back, so the family started worshipping her. Dada Marathe’s father Sayaji Marathe continued the tradition of worship started by his uncle. Thereon, in his family, all auspicious prenuptials began with cooking in water from the River Bhima – “jal aanane”, now from a nearby well, for convenience. The food is first given to seven kumaris (unmarried young women) before feeding the villagers. When Dada Marathe migrated to Pune for livelihood reasons, the goddess moved with him. His devotion now connects Nimgaon and Pune. This story illustrates the connections between different places through the love of the founding devotee for a deity.

Adoption of popular imagery for Sati Asara by the Marathe family at Bavdhan as against tandala (elongated river pebbles worshipped as statues of deities) at their residence in Nimgaon (as seen in the framed photograph in the above image).

Concluding remark

These stories of pastoral communities and their rustic deities in hill lands and lap lands speak to how “places” get imagined, revered and connected into a melting pot of geography, culture and mythology. These rustic deities provided an emotional anchor in an otherwise hostile environment encountered during seasonal movements. Further, these deities which are now getting lost to urbanisation, are potential links to trace our lost water in its tangibility and intangibility as imagined by the pastoral communities, and their ecological wisdom.


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