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Celebrating the land Gods of rural Delhi in Khirki village

As Delhi expanded southwards in the 1950s and 60s, it gobbled up the farmlands of the rural villages that had existed along the periphery of the city for hundreds of years. Khirki was one of them. Suddenly dispossessed of their land and livelihoods, the people continued to retain their ties to their traditional ways of life and social organisation.

Written by Ekta Chauhan , Sadaf Hussain | New Delhi |
Updated: May 11, 2022 2:39:34 pm
Khirki, khirki village delhi, delhi urban villages, delhi villages, khirki extension, delhi stories, delhi news, delhi, new delhi, indian expressWomen preparing the ceremonial bonfire for Holika dehan on the morning of Holi. (Ekta Chauhan)

“Pehle Bhoomiya ki uss aur kaun hi jaata tha. Khet the aur Jungle the. Light ka intezam bhi nahi tha. Ab dekho parli side sab chamak dhamak hai (Hardly anyone would go across the Bhoomiya (shrine). There were fields and jungles. There was no provision of electricity either. But now it glitters over the other side).”

The sparkling lights, 80-year-old Kamla is talking about is the newly constructed Select City Walk Mall and Saket District Court Complex built on the agricultural land of the residents of Khirki village.

At a time when there was no electricity, the outermost boundary of the world of Khirki villagers was marked by the Bhoomiya shrine. But with the passage of time, things changed. The residents now have access to electricity, piped water, paved roads and modern housing, however, they continue to hold on to their customs and traditions as the last remnants of their agricultural past. Even today, if a local was to walk to Khirki village via DDA Satpula park and cross the Bhoomiya Shrine, they would say “haath jod lo, gaon aa gaya (fold your hands in obeisance (to the Bhoomiya), we have arrived at the village).”

The story of Khirki village

According to the village’s traditional record keeper (called Bhatt) of Khirki, one Khoobi Singh migrated from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi in the 12th century CE and established this village. The dominant Chauhan community considers Khoobi to be the father of the village. Over time, several other castes and communities have settled in the village.

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The village derives its name from the beautiful Khirki Mosque that was built between 1351-54 CE by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the prime minister of Feroz Shah Tughlaq.

At 14th Century monument in Delhi, the word ‘masjid’ keeps disappearing from board The village derives its name from the beautiful Khirki Mosque that was built between 1351-54 CE by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the prime minister of Feroz Shah Tughlaq. (Express Photo by Amit Mehra)

The Khirki Mosque, one of the seven mosques built by Junan Shah, exhibits some unique features and architectural achievements of its time. Most prominent among them is its covered square plan as opposed to the typical open courtyard congregational mosque, and the fusion of local elements such as “jali” style windows with mosque architecture. It is from its windows that the mosque got its name – Khirki – and then lent it to the village around it.

The village also has a water harvesting dam, Satpula (seven bridges, indicating the seven main bays), from the medieval city of Jahanpanah (refuge of the world). The structure provided irrigation water to the people of the city and was believed to possess healing properties due to its association with the Sufi saint, Nasiru’d-Din Mahmud Chirag-Dehlavi (1274-1337). It is believed that the saint performed his daily oblations here before offering prayers.

The residents have fond memories of the clean water of Satpula. It was only after the 1950s that the lake slowly started to disappear as the seasonal streams that fed it dried up.

Khirki, khirki village delhi, delhi urban villages, delhi villages, khirki extension, delhi stories, delhi news, delhi, new delhi, indian express Satpula Lake. It is completely dry now and often used either as a playground by children or keeping of cattles by some families in Khirki. (Ekta Chauhan)

A resident, Sushil Kumar Chauhan, says that while the lake no longer existed during his childhood years in the 1980s, the groundwater table was so high that one could dig with bare hands and find crystal clear water. The area is now completely dry and one can even see children playing cricket in a low lying dry crater in front of the historical structure.

For the last 900 years, the “Khirkiwalas” have occupied the same space, witnessing rise and fall of empires, independence of our nation and the modern state. As India (and its capital) embarked on its modernisation project, it required land. As the city expanded southwards in the 1950s and 60s, it gobbled up the farmlands of the rural villages that had existed along the periphery of the city for hundreds of years. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) however did not displace the population during its land acquisition process. The “abadi” (settled population) area was left untouched for reasons that are unclear. Suddenly dispossessed of their land and livelihoods, the people continued to retain their ties to their traditional ways of life and social organisation. Taking a stroll through the inner lanes of Khirki village, one can still spot men smoking hookahs on the street corners and women drying their laundry or pickles. The pace of life is slow unlike the city and if examined closely one can see the struggles of a whole generation trying to adjust with the new urban ways of life.

The shrine of Bhoomiya Baba

Only a few architectural remnants of Khirki’s agricultural past now remain. The shrine of Bhoomiya (or Bhumiya) Baba is one of them, located close to the Satpula lake. A common practice among farming communities across India (and perhaps the world) has been to pay their respects to the forces of nature such as trees, water bodies and animals. Bhoomiya Baba is a reflection of this practice where communities erect a small shrine at the entrance of the village abadi area in honour of the land god/goddess. It is often also associated with the founding ancestors of the village. In their 1962 research paper, Ruth S. Freed and Stanley A. Freed wrote that although the founder ancestor is often a male, it is women who predominantly worship the shrine especially during wedding procession and the site is celebrated during the mating of humans (weddings) and even cattle. William Crooke collected an impressive amount of anthropological data during the 19th century and in his 1896 publication says that Bhoomiya is often a local male godling in Delhi area, female in Oudh (Awadh) region and either a male or a female in the Punjab region.

Khirki, khirki village delhi, delhi urban villages, delhi villages, khirki extension, delhi stories, delhi news, delhi, new delhi, indian express Bhoomiya Baba Shrine in Khirki Village. One can see tiles with religious symbols. These are new additions. Traditionally the shrine was only a stone placed inside a small white plastered structure/sanctuary. (Ekta Chauhan)

Thus the shrine represents a very primitive form of worship that transcends the boundaries of gender. Worship of the Bhoomiya Baba is a community affair and can be seen as a “little tradition”.

Holi in Khirki

Ruth and Stanley Freed argue that the diversity of Hindu religion can be understood through its little and great traditions. Historically, little tradition precede great tradition, are often hyperlocal and popular among the lesser educated groups. Great tradition grows out of this through the efforts of the literati class that elaborate the little tradition and associate it with sacred texts. The little tradition, however, does not disappear and instead continues to survive and receives influence from the great tradition. The result is a symbiotic practice or a ritual that combines elements of both. The area around the Bhoomiya shrine is often a public space where people can gather and celebrate various festivals and rituals. While there is no specific ritual associated only with Bhoomiya Baba Shrine, it is an essential part of almost all celebrations; the first lamp of Diwali is lit here, the first colour of Holi is offered here, and sweets are offered during wedding and birthday celebrations.

The shrine, however, comes alive during Holi. While Holi is mostly celebrated as a festival of color and associated with the tale of Hirankashyapa and Holika, it is also a harvest festival and marks the arrival of spring in North India.

Khirki, khirki village delhi, delhi urban villages, delhi villages, khirki extension, delhi stories, delhi news, delhi, new delhi, indian express Women playing Holi near Bhoomiya baba shrine in Khirki village. (Ekta Chauhan)

One of the major rituals associated with Holika Dehan in Khirki is to roast wheat plant ear or baaliya in the ceremonial fire. This would have marked the success of the season’s wheat crop and indicate that it is ready to harvest. However, while agriculture is no longer practised, one can spot baaliya vendors around Khirki in the weeks preceding Holi. The roasted baaliya are often eaten after the ceremonies and even kept in homes as a sign of good fortune and to ward off the evil eye.

As Holi is celebrated as a festival of harvest in Khirki, the food and offerings also revolve around wheat. Poode, made out of whole wheat and sugar/jaggery, is offered to Bhoomiya Baba first along with kheer and sabzi and then distributed among the poor. This is another major part of Bhoomiya worship.

Most of the ceremonies revolving around the shrine have an element of alms. One can always spot groups of women and children waiting for their shagun (often cash, grains and some food) by the shrine. Sunita (40) who has been collecting waste from Khirki for several years tells us how she looks forward to such celebrations for this is the only time she can expect to make some extra cash, get sweets for her children as well as take part in the collective celebration. Neither she nor her mother, however, remember when and how they became part of the ceremonies.

The practice also traces its origin to the days when landowners would have invariably involved workers working on their fields in the celebration of harvest. In this way, Holi becomes a largely secular and community festival. It was perhaps in this spirit that Baba Bulleh Shah wrote his “hori khelungi kah kar bismillah (I will play Holi in the name of the lord)”, encapsulating the secular and playful spirit of the festival.

Part 1 of the series on Delhi's urban villages |Eid in Hauz Rani: One roof, many cultures and customs

Rituals and ceremonies around the shrine are largely performed by women. Such a female led ritualistic space, according to Ruth and Stanley Freed, is another major aspect of the little tradition of Hinduism. On the occasion of Holi, women make the ceremonial fire in the morning (which is lit by men at night) and greet each other by applying turmeric powder paste on their faces. One can also spot groups of women singing folk songs such as the popular aaj biraj mein Holi re rasiya with their dholkas and manjira.

But modern city life has had its impact on the rituals as well; turmeric paste is increasingly being replaced with artificial colours, folk songs with Bollywood songs, and manjiras with Bluetooth speakers.

What is, however, fascinating is the influence that the Bhoomiya shrine holds among the residents of the village. The shrine is believed to protect the village and is spoken about with immense pride. Even those who have moved out of the village visit the shrine on important occasions, especially weddings. Talk of a destination wedding by the younger generation is then met with ridicule for Bhoomiya baba resides only in the village and cannot travel to any exotic location.

We often think of “Old Delhi” as the current Shahjahanabad area. However, a number of urban villages in the city (especially concentrated in South Delhi) trace their history to the Sultanate era. This five-part series focuses on the history and culture of Delhi’s “urban villages”. We would explore the everyday practices and living culture of these communities and situate them within the larger history of Delhi.

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