Bhubaneswar: Human history is replete with stories of human sacrifice in some form or other.
Ritualized killings in the name of religion in ancient cultures date back at least 5,000 years, known from remains of human sacrifices buried near Egyptian emperors’ tombs.
It was widely practised in ancient societies that were highly stratified — with wide gulfs between the lower classes and the privileged. Sacrifices were generally performed by people in an elevated class, such as a chief or high priest.
Banapur is one such place in Odisha where humans were sacrificed at the Maa Bhagabati Peeth during the ‘sodasaupachara puja’-the 16-day puja (worship) of the deity which concludes with Dussehra.
However, the practice is now limited to tokenism where a man enacts the role of a sacrificial offering during this period.
As the legend goes, mighty Asura (demon) king Banasura was a great devotee of Goddess Bhagabati and he used to sacrifice humans to appease her. As time elapsed the deity of Goddess Bhagabati got buried under the earth.
“This is an old tradition which has been in practice from the days of Banasura. Banasura was a great devotee of Maa Bhagabati. He used to sacrifice humans to appease the deity. However, that was discontinued after the temple got ruined and the idol got buried under the earth,” said Baban Chandra Dash, chief priest of Maa Bhagabati temple.
In the 14th century CE, the kingdom of Banapur was ruled by King Jagannath Harichandan. He was issueless.
One day the king met a saint who had come all the way from Kamakshya Peeth in modern-day Assam.
The saint through his divine intuition could know why the king was unhappy despite having all the riches. He asked the king to worship Maa Bhagabati.
The king had a dream in which Goddess Bhagabati told him that her idol was lying buried and he should recover it and construct a temple dedicated to her. He dug out the idol from where it was lying buried and later installed in the temple that exists today.
As the king’s wishes got fulfilled, he went for all kind of sacrifices including human sacrifice to appease Maa Bhagabati.
However, to get a man for the sacrifice was a difficult job. The king announced to offer a jagir (gifting of tax-free land) to any family that came forward to offer a male person for sacrifice.
The Bali Jena family of Mingeswar village near Balugaon being very poor, agreed to take the ‘jagir’ and offer one male person every year for the sacrifice before Maa Bhagabati during the ‘sodasaupachara puja’ which starts exactly 16 days ahead of Dussehra.
A time came when the Bali Jena family had only one male boy left. Scared that her lineage will end with the lone male in the family getting sacrificed, the mother along with her child decided to leave the village undercover.
While the woman was moving with her son through the forest at Chhattragarh she was accosted by an old woman who claimed that she was having a headache and asked her to give her head a massage.
The mother of the child while massaging the old woman’s head found to her surprise that she had a thousand eyes on her head. The old woman told her not to get scared as she was Maa Bhagabati.
The child’s mother pleaded for her son’s life, Maa Bhagabati in the guise of the old woman said so that be but set a condition that a male member from the family has to enact the role of a sacrificial human during the ‘sodasaupachara puja’ every year.
Accordingly, every year 16 days before Dussehra, a male member of the Bali Jena family of Mingeswar leaves his home only to return on the night of Kumar Purnima (Laxmi Puja).
During this intervening period, the male representative from Bali Jena family maintains an austere life and undergoes the sacrifice ritual after getting the angya mala from Maa Bhagabati to the sound of ‘ghantas’ (gongs) and ‘kahali’(a wind instrument similar to horn).
“I fast on the day I enact the sacrifice ritual. I accompany Maa Bhagabati’s vijaya pratima (representative deity) – Kathi Thakurani from the Dakshya Prajapati temple to Maa Bhagabati’s temple. After Maa’s ‘angya mala’ (a garland of flower from the deity symbolizing her authorisation for the sacrifice to be undertaken) is put on my neck I get unconscious. Then they throw me out of the temple,” said Rabindra Jena, the man from Bali Jena family who is enacting the sacrifice this year.
“A dancing Bali Jena accompanies Maa Kathi Thakurani, the vijaya pratima from the ‘parba ghara’ to the main temple. Here human sacrifice and animal sacrifice used to take place,” informed Nursingha Mishra, an academician and research scholar of Banapur.
Mishra said that now Bali Jena enacts the role of a sacrificial man, he becomes unconscious after ‘angya mala’ is put on his neck.
“As Bali Jena loses his sense he is thrown out of the temple, only to regain consciousness after holy water is sprinkled on his face. The sacrifice ritual takes place every alternate day during the 16 days before Dussehra,” he added.
As per tradition, Bali Jena’s wife undergoes through rites and rituals prescribed in scriptures for a Hindu widow during this period.