Updated: Oct 6, 2022
When I first came to live in the house in Saligão, I was warned never to raise the height of the compound wall to more than 3 feet. “Our rakhandaar needs to pass through. This is his pathway. Don’t block the route or grave mishaps will befall you.”
I’ve been fascinated with the concept of the guardian deities and guardian spirits of Goa ever since. Here’s a piece that I wrote recently for a project proposed in support of the work of the Khazan Society of Goa. It is a word sketch, just scratches the surface of this vast and engaging topic.
By their very definition, guardian spirits or rakhnos (Konkani, Marathi) are physical spaces that are delegated to a fixed spot bordering a field, an open space, grazing ground, a sluice gate or manos, town or village boundary or a local water body. This rakhno is also sometimes referred to, formally, as a rakhandaar. The word, by its definition, implies a male person entrusted with the duty of guarding these designated space or spaces with their persons or bodies. The term rakhno, is therefore a term of endearment. Rakhnos vary from a designated formless space under a sacred tree such as a banyan (ficus benghalensis) or a peepal (ficus religiosa) tree to a larger-than-life human form with exaggerated facial characteristics such as sharp incisors, bulging eyes, sunken cheeks and a flat, heavy-set torso. In this humanoid form, he is referred to as Betal.
Veneration of the rakhno is local in nature and often purely coincidental. Very few people will actually go on a pilgrimage to the guardian spirit. Veneration of the rakhnos varies from location to location. There are no written rules of how a rakhno is to be venerated or worshipped. Yet, everyone who pays their respects to a particular rakhno knows what offerings he desires. There are, therefore, rakhnos who are offered soro or alcohol; beedies; green-coloured fabric; oversized leather chappals; in addition to the usual votive offerings of betel leaves, betel nuts, flowers, incense and coconuts. Rooster and animal sacrifices were also offered to rakhnos in the past but it is a practice that does not find favour currently.
On the other hand, there are rakhnos that do not expect any offerings but for a namaste and a genuflection, a silent moment. These gestures are both supplicatory and thanksgiving in nature. It is generally believed that a rakhno guards the space delegated to him but can also grant boons or help you find lost cattle. There are rakhnos that take the name of the area they have been entrusted with. There are some, on the other hand, that give the area its name. Rakhnos have hierarchies. The lowest and simplest form of a rakhno is simply a designated space under a tree. The highest form is the image of an extremely well-built tall, dark man with a silver earring in one ear, a white turban on his head, a rough blanket over his shoulder, a large silver anklet and clad in a short white dhoti and thick leather Kolhapur-style chappals. It is believed that this is the rakhno who will help you find your way if you are lost. And that drunken behaviour angers him. If you are under the influence and curse him, you’ve had it.
It may be noted that there is a current trend to Aryanise these rakhnos for political reasons. Although that is not the subject of this paper, one noteworthy example of such an Aryanization or Sanskritization is the Shri Bodkeshwar temple at Mapusa, Bardez, Goa where the rakhno Bodkya or the Bald One is being venerated as Shri Bodke Ishwar or Lord Bodke.
While most rakhnos are male, there are some exceptions. In the Sattari taluka (sub-district) of Goa there are guardian spirits that are humanoid (carved in stone and stunted in physical human forms) and are known as the Mataro-Matari or, the Old Man and Old Lady. They are assumed to be a married couple. There are a few female guardian spirits in the region as well but these are exceptions rather than the norm. Some rakhnos are also referred to as Ajoba or simply, Grandfather, like the one in Siolim.
For the purpose of this paper, however, only the guardian spirits located at the manos or sluice gates in Goa will be discussed. All the rakhnos seen at the manos so far are formless. A small shrine almost always houses these spirits. The shrine varies in construction from a simple four metal poles with a tin sheet slung over it, to a cement and concrete built structure. Most structures over these formless spirits or spaces are not over 4 feet in height. The cement structures often have a high-pitched roof. What is interesting is that there are no decorative motifs or elements on these shrines.
Although they are located at the sluice gates and are placed there at a strategic location to protect land and water; although they are venerated by agriculturists engaged in both farming and fishing, no motifs depicting marine flora or fauna are rendered on the shrines. However, most are painted in orange or saffron coloured enamel paint that indicate that they are sacred structures and spaces. Unlike the formless spirits under sacred trees that are often festooned with saffron flags, these rakhnos at the manos do not have any flags on them.
A Christian or Roman Cross is often seen alongside the rakhno shrine. These Crosses are most often 5-10 feet tall and are either painted white or are covered in 6”x6” glazed white tiles. This is indicative of the presence of a Catholic community in the area and indicative of the community involved in both fishing and farming in the khazans. The placement of the shrines and their geographical locations do not follow any pattern. They seem to be located at points considered to be vantage points from the point of view of guardianship of the area. In other words, the shrine or Cross is placed from where the rakhno can see the area under his custodianship. The veneration at these shrines do not follow any predetermined dates or days otherwise considered auspicious by the Gregorian Calendar or by the lunar calendar sometimes referred to as the kaal nirnay or the Hindu Calendar.
In conclusion, it can be said that the veneration at these shrines does not follow a set pattern. The practice is local, individual and personal. As there is no door or gate to the shrine, veneration is open 24 hours a day and in all seasons. Although the khazan system is unique to Goa, rakhandaars or rakhnos are not unique to Goa. The practice of honouring a guardian spirit, entrusted with the custodianship of a particular village or town border is universal to India. This author believes that the practice transcends all religious beliefs, and goes beyond the limitations of caste and community divisiveness.
Google Bullet Baba, a rakhno in Rajasthan near Jodhpur. Again, there’s a sign saying NO ALCOHOL. And also, Ghadiyali Baba on the Baroda-Amdavad Expressway in Gujarat who only accepts clocks as votive offerings. Gujarat, of course, is where alcohol is prohibited anyway, so there’s no signage. My friend Nina Sabnani has made a charming film on the Ghadiyali Baba shrine. Do check it out.
Our rakhno in Saligão apparently goes on a horse and there are my fellow villagers who swear they can hear the clip-clopping of horse hoofs on a quiet night.