Protection and Identity
The Bir shrines of the city of Banaras are in one sense a transposition of a rural deity onto the urban environment; in the role of Dih[*] Baba the Birs[*] are a projection of the idea of the bounded, guarded microcosm of the village onto the city neighborhood. This is not to say that Kashi—the ancient name of Banaras—is lacking in guardian deities, but that the Bir Babas are an additional set of these. Diana Eck has ably described the classical mandala of protective deities of the city of Banaras—the Ganeshas, Bhairavas, Devis, Yakshas, and so forth, which guard the borders and regions of the sacred city (1982:146 ff.). The Birs complete this complex mandala of guardianship; they are the protectors of even more minutely divided and subdivided bits of inhabited territory—the most personal, immediate, and responsive among the guardians of the microcosm. The establishment, worship, and celebration of Bir shrines is eloquently expressive of the need of people in the growing and ever more densely crowded city environment to continue to remap and redefine the boundaries of where they live, carve an or-
dered space out of the city's chaos, and protect that intimate space through the worship of a boundary deity.
Some of the urban shrines are clearly the foci of identity for specific social groups, if not of attempts to establish an alternate power base or resistance to traditional authority. When a neighborhood Bir[*] shrine is relatively old, it is more likely to be viewed with fondness and respect by all of the local residents, regardless of caste. These deities might be viewed by the upper castes as legitimate, albeit minor gods: the "watchmen" or "servants" (chaukidar, chaprasi[*] ) of the major deities. Yet a large portion of the shrines surveyed in Banarsi neighborhoods in 1980–1982 were established or reclaimed within the last twenty to thirty years. These relatively recent shrines are more likely to be identified with narrower segments of the population; this is especially true in the new neighborhoods that are forming on the outskirts of the city.
As has been suggested, this vision of the neighborhood Bir/Dih[*] Babas and their consecutive domains is strongest and clearest among the lower classes. Many of these new shrines are found in low-caste neighborhoods or by low-caste people in mixed neighborhoods. Some of the shrines are the only sanctified areas in the entire neighborhood, places of worship and congregation for groups of people who may have no such location to call their own. Not infrequently a Bir temple is championed as the patron deity of a coalition of low castes, hoping to exercise their collective power to save or develop a cherished bit of ground. The Daitra Bir shrine in a small Harijan neighborhood near Nawab Ganj is one example of this process. In 1981 the Raidas caretaker told how he and other neighbors cleared the area and established the small shrine of the Bir in an effort to improve their neighborhood and resist the ownership claims of a local landlord. In a similar way a local group may attempt to enhance its prestige or foster its political interests by sponsoring the building of a new neighborhood Bir temple, or an occupational group will patronize a temple near the workplace. Many of these newer shrines are the objects of ongoing litigation by way of determining land rights and ownership. These sorts of tensions are typical of the politics of newly constructed or activated shrines, a frequent occurrence in this rapidly growing city. The Birs[*] are not the only personalized neighborhood deities around which a sense of neighborhood solidarity may be built, yet the Bir Babas as territorial guardians are the natural candidates for this role.
Because they originate as the honored or powerful dead of particular communities, Birs are easily enshrined without help from the orthodoxy. Individual shrines have been ritually installed and worshipped by Brahmin priests, but this is clearly not the norm. The Birs are discov-
ered by or revealed to "small people" (chote log ) in a vision or a dream and may be enshrined by them with the simplest of ceremony. The stories of the Birs[*] themselves are of low-caste heroes and martyrs: champions of the castes from which they spring and to whom they belong. The stories of some Birs reveal the tensions between these castes and the orthodox and powerful. The Bir[*] cult displays in many respects a self-consciousness and even rebelliousness vis-à-vis Brahminical modes of worship and ritual. The participants in this tradition are proud of the fact that anyone may directly worship the Birs—even an untouchable—without the necessity of a priest or other intermediary.
The political use of these temples, as well as the challenge they represent to traditional authority, does not go unnoticed. Some point to the recent increase in wealth and political clout of members of the Ahir caste as reason for the growth of many shrines. One Brahmin pandit spoke about the proliferation of city Bir shrines as a degeneration of Dharma. He said that it was the traditional responsibility of the Raja (and now the "government," sarkar[*] ), to use his authority (danda[*] , lit., "staff") to protect Dharma. But this is no longer done. He explained that any "hoodlum" (gunda[*] ) can now establish a temple for his own purposes. One need only witness the annual procession through the city of the devotees of Ravi Das—the patron saint of the untouchables—to know that there is reason for anxiety over the potential power of the organized lower classes (see Juergensmeyer 1982). Yet formal opposition to the building of a temple—a sanctified and holy place and the seat of a deity—is not offered lightly. Disputes over these small temples and shrines tend to be carried on as ostentatiously as possible in the public eye, and it is not easy for a Hindu to put himself on record in opposition to a place of worship, whether or not he concedes the stature of the resident deity. Yet in another sense, the Bir cult—associated as it is with the lower classes—may possess inherent limitations to upward mobility, something perhaps more easily accomplished outside the orthodox stronghold of Banaras. I saw no evidence of Bir Baba shrines in the process of identification with a "Sanskritic" and pan-Indian deity such as Shiva—a reasonable option considering the aniconic representations of both deities and the "vira[*] " aspect of Bhairava in the Shaivite pantheon.