Birs as Village Guardian Deities
In the countryside around Banaras (see fig. 11) the word for the village guardian deity is dih[ *] , used interchangeably with variants diha[*] and dihwar[*] . These are generic terms that signify the guardians or protectors of the entire village unit and do not refer to village deities in general,
many of which are perceived as guardians of more specific functions or smaller social entities. A dih[*] will often have a proper name, in which case a villager might say, "This is Karman Bir. He is the Dih Baba of our village." It appears that the term dih derives from the Persian deh or dih , meaning a town or village (Johnson 1852:585), but in the Indian context the word took on the semantic dimension of "haunt, the site or ruins of a deserted village, the dwelling place of the ancestors, a heap of earth or mound, the place where worship of the village gods takes place," and simply "village gods (gram[*]devata[*] )."
The designation Dih[*] (Diha[*] or Dihwar[*] ) is most frequently used for the male guardian, or Dih Baba, but it may also refer to the female guardian or to the guardian pair, understood either as husband and wife or as two separate deities associated only in their role as protectors of village boundaries. Occasionally the female guardian will be referred to as Dihwarin[*] , a feminized form of Dihwar. This is true of the city's
Lahura Bir[*] Baba and his partner, Sitala Mata. A division of labor exists between them in which the Devi checks or manifests her afflictions (if she is a disease goddess) and the Dih[*] Baba controls other, more vaguely defined supernatural forces that influence the health and wellbeing of villagers. The Dih's partner may also be a more benevolent village goddess—a Sati or a related figure—sometimes said to be his wife. With either type of goddess, however, the Dih Baba appears to retain ultimate control; even Sitala must have permission before her anger (devi[*]ka[ *]kop ) may be loosed upon errant villagers.
Thus "Dih Baba" nicely expresses the guardian's identity with its village, as well as with its origin as mound deity—the enshrined remains of an ancestor, defender, or even human sacrifice ritually compelled to protect the village and thereby actualizing its existence as a sacred entity. What is suggested by the dictionary meanings of dih[*] corresponds perfectly with the statements made by residents about their village guardians: these deities were once living members of their community, now valorized as ancient heroes associated with a village's dim beginnings. The village Dih is said to be an "ancient" (pracin[*] ) deity whose shrine was established when the village itself was founded. What helps define a village as such is the existence of its guardian deity or deities, who control the ingress and egress of all supernatural forces and influences across village boundaries. Village people use the following expressions to describe the Dih Baba's function as guardian: he is the "village protector" (gaon karaksa[*]karne[*]wala[*] , raksak[*] or rakwari[*] ), the "head" of the village (malik[*], mukhiya[*] ), the village "police chief" (kotwal), or—by those familiar with the Sanskrit term—the "area or regional guardian" (ksetrapal[*] ). The Dih, as "head" of a village, performs similar functions to those of the human official, except that his realm of authority extends to minor village deities, ghosts, other more vaguely defined magical energies, and—by extension—those humans who would wish to manipulate these beings and forces. Any human act that attempts to propitiate, exorcise, or otherwise control the supernatural must begin with the Dih's permission and blessing, or the "work" cannot succeed.
Yet because the deity is ambivalent in character, one is not always assured of the desired results. One individual explained the Dih's authority in the following way:
Before any work begins, one must worship the village Dih. Every village has one Dih. The Dih must first give permission. A ghost must also ask the Dih's permission to enter the village. If the Dih is happy with you, he will not allow the ghost to enter the village. But sometimes the Dih will "eat" the offerings and still allow the ghost to enter the village.
Likewise, when the installation of another deity is to take place in the village or the home, it must be accomplished with permission from the Dih[*] Baba. At the time of a village wedding, part of the worship of all important family and village deities by the couple includes offering the ceremonial thread (kangan ) or the groom's headdress (maur ) at the shrine of the Dih. At the birth of a child—especially a son—offerings will be made at the shrine. Similar rituals are performed when a special desire has been fulfilled by the guardian deity (see also Planalp 1956:190–91). The Dih is ideally worshipped by the entire village once or twice a year, but human nature and village politics may make this difficult to accomplish. If this neglect results in misfortune, disease, or disaster for all or part of the village, special ceremonies must be conducted to correct this lapse in ritual responsibility. In 1982 the village of Kojawa, immediately flanking Banaras, collectively worshipped its Dih when great hardship was caused by monsoon floods.
In India it is not uncommon for vira[*] types of deities, including pan-Indian mythological figures and deified local or quasi-historical martial heroes, to function as village guardians. Local manifestations of the "Monkey God" Hanuman, Bhairava, or the powerful Pandava Bhima or Bhimsen are examples of the first; martyred Muslim generals, warriors of a bona fide Hindu martial caste, tribal chieftains, or other local figures who attained the status of "hero" before or after their deaths are examples of the latter. As deities, the once-living vira s[*] continue their rightful occupation after death; those who ruled and protected while living are expected to continue this service in exchange for the honor and worship of the local population. The hero is empowered as a deity through martyrdom and sacrifice; this abundance of power is then channeled by worship to serve the living.
Consistent with this, in many of the villages immediately surrounding the city of Banaras, a Bir[*] fulfills the function of male guardian deity, or Dih Baba. These Birs[*] are valorized by believers as courageous leaders and fighters, as individuals who championed the powerless. But even without these overtly martial overtones, the Birs clearly fall within the tradition of the "mound deity" described earlier, the original ancestor or martyr ritually enjoined to the protection of the living. There are also rural Birs that do not function as Dihs[*] but remain family, lineage, clan, or caste deities, still identified with those groups who originally established the shrines. Others are village deities of more specialized function, such as protectors of fields and livestock. By contrast, in the city of Banaras, the identification of Dih and Bir is almost complete: every Dih this writer surveyed was a Bir, and almost every Bir was reported to be a Dih of some area, however small.