The Banaras City Neighborhood Guardian
The urban counterpart of the village guardian is the Banaras neighborhood Bir/Dih[*] . This urban Dih[*] , often but not necessarily paired with a goddess, is conceived in almost identical terms as the village guardian except that its territory is the considerably smaller and more intimate unit of the city neighborhood. This deity is described as "the god" or "protector of the neighborhood" (mahal ka[*]devata[*] , muhalla[*]ka rakwari[*] ) rather than of the village. There are hundreds of Bir/Dih shrines in the city of Banaras. Every section or minutely divided subsection of the city seems to boast its own "Bir/Dih Baba" or Dih pair, integral to that neighborhood's conception of itself as a discrete and bounded unit within the larger and sometimes intersecting official and historical divisions of the city.
Like the village deities, the urban Bir/Dihs[*] control the boundaries of their domains, especially with regard to the exit and entry of the intangible agents of illness, misfortune, and disease. They are approached for blessings as part of any major undertaking—ritual or otherwise—and are propitiated when trouble occurs. The Birs[*] are the appropriate deities to seek out if one feels harmed by the "evil eye" (bura[*]take[*] ), they are plied with the "heart's desires" (manokamana[*], manauti[*] ) of local people, and they are important to the work of ojhai[*] : exorcism and divination. People will boast of their own Bir[*] as the most powerful among the neighboring Birs with whom they are familiar. Some of the neighborhood Birs are known to all of the city residents or are seen to specialize in certain kinds of rituals or cures. Both Tar Bir of Lanka and Daitra Bir of Chait Ganj are said to cure a disease that causes the hands to shake, and the Siha Bir shrine—across the river in Ramnagar—is famous among the villages and neighborhoods on the south side of Banaras as a place where ojha s[*] perform tantric ritual.
These guardians are often conceived in very personal terms. The neighbors of Nangan Bir in Bhadaini refer to the deity as their "son-in-law" (damad[*] ). Many Birs are said to have a special fondness for children. Neighbors talk of their guardian's love of children, and the shrines are often a place where children as well as adults congregate. An elderly neighbor of the Anjan Bir shrine in Assi related how he, as a frightened child, was guided home safely by the Bir Baba. If one merely invokes the name of the guardian deity, it is said, he will dispel all fear and see to the safety of the traveler. It is told how a neighborhood Bir would help laborers carry their heavy loads when they stopped to rest near the shrine. The Bir is especially active at night. He patrols the boundaries of his district, wrapped in a black blanket, visiting and smoking ganja with neighboring Bir friends and brothers. If
one listens carefully, one may hear the hollow sound of his wooden sandals (kharau[*] ) on the cobbled alleyways of the city. The Bir[*] shrines of the city are often associated with a large shade tree under which people may congregate. Many shrines in open areas of the city have a water tap and a small wrestling or exercise ground.