Origin, Names and Forms
Each village has one or more deities and usually named after the village or a characteristic or some dreaded disease basing on the belief system of the people.
As varied are the names, so are the forms. From stones and spears to life-size human statues, the deity is worshipped in all kinds of idols. Whichever the form, the belief in it is so strong that it becomes a source of strength and hope for the villagers.
Indian villages are primarily agriculture based and agriculture across the world is usually associated to female element. Hence female deities are the usual norm as grama-devatha. Also the fickle and fiery temperaments of the village deity calls for feminine form for the deity.
Male village deities, when present, are often worshipped in the form of subordinate to the goddess, mostly for the protection of the village from outside forces.
The origins of different deities range from incarnations of the Brahman Gods to the regular human spirits from untimely deaths of a villager.
The more common stories of the deity with mortal origin is of injustice done to a woman whose wrath then unleashes her power and takes on a Goddess form. The worship then might serve a reminder to stick to ethical standards and strike the fear of being punished otherwise.
Classic examples for Brahman gods being worshipped as village deities can be found in the fishing villages of East Godavari District.
Deities in E.G.Dt: Sri Kalabhairava Swamy and Sri Mahalakshmi Ammavaru
At the meeting place of Gautami Godavari and Bay of Bengal, and near to the naturally formed Mada forests, there are a number of different fishing villages. In these delta villages, area spanning from places around Kakinada, Allavaram Mandal and Yanam, the resident fisherfolk(AgniKula Kshyatriyas) worship Sri Kalabhairava Swamy. There's also a famous temple for this deity in a Magasani Tippa village in Katrenikona mandal.
It's believed that the deity walks around the ocean shores, in the form of a boy, skyclad with trishul in hand and dog as his divine vehicle, to protect the villagers from natural calamities like typhoons and other possible dangers encountered during fishing. Hence they make it a point to keep the shores pure and clean in the name of the deity.
The fishermen think of Him and then go for fishing into the Ocean, with the faith that the deity will protect them from any danger and also their family in their absence.
Naming the kids after the deity is a general practice; names starting with 'Bhai' / 'Bhairava' being the common ones here. During festival times, they worship Him with strict discipline, refraining from meat and alcohol consumption and performing all night worship (jagaram). Sweet Rice Pudding(paramannam) is considered to be His favorite dish and kola sambharam one of His favorite festival activities. Fisherfolk from different villages cooperate and together celebrate the festivals and all the residents contribute for funding the celebrations. In the Swamy's temple, Brahmins or Yadavas function as priests.
In the same region, in villages Molletimoga and Kothapalem in Katrenikona mandal; Peda Valasala, China Valasala, Chinaboddu Venkatapalem, Pedaboddu Venkatapalem, Ramanapalem, Kothuru, etc. in Thallarevu mandal, the residents here worship Sri Mahalakshmi ammavaru as their grama-devatha. Considered to be a Brahman deity, meat offerings are a strict no-no and 'pachi chalividi', 'vadapappu', bananas, coconut are presented to the deity as naivedyam. Devotees usually present the deity with gold and sarees, as a thanks-giving gifts. The deity is believed to protect the villagers from contagious diseases and natural calamities. During festivals, the idol of the deity is bathed in river Godavari and villagers follow the customs involved and refrain from meat and alcohol consumption. In Her temples, the fishermen themselves play the role of priests.
When an epidemic breaks out or some calamity hits the village, there's a frenzy of activities done to appease the deity. The deity plays the apparently conflicting roles of being both the cause and cure of diseases and disasters. Perhaps symbolic of the fact that "good" and "evil" are dual aspects of one and same thing.
While there are people who think of the deity before doing anything of importance, village-wide worship is more or less confined to times of need.
The rituals for village deities does not involve Vedic chants nor has any mandates for higher caste priests. In practice, the priests for the shrine are usually from the backward castes. And in a country where the caste discrimination is the accepted way of life, the liberal approach to the worship of village deity is a welcome relief.
There are usually no permanent temples for the deity and even when established the shrines are smaller and simpler than the regular Hindu temples. During the festivals times, there are temporary makeshift shrines which are removed once the celebration is over.
India is a land of colorful festivals; every festival being celebration of life in one form or the other.
Village festivals celebrated in the name of the gramadevathas foster community bonding and a time to energise the otherwise mundane daily life with the festival activities.
They are action packed lively events with fireworks, music and processions around the village streets.
Villagers also involve in bold ceremonies in the name of the deity, activities like fire-walking, piercing body with sharp metal objects, whiplashing oneself to name a few.
Animal sacrifices are usually done to appease the deity. However in recent times and especially in places of Brahman influence, such bloodshed if present is kept to a minimum.
Also, there are festivals like bonala pandaga held during harvest time, specially meant to thank the deity for the village's well-being. And as the saying goes, the words 'Thank You' is the most powerful of all prayers and ensures the ongoing prosperity of the devotees.
There are always numerous advantages found behind every tradition and religious practice if one looks deep enough. Same way, the customs involved in worshipping village deities brings along quite a number of practical benefits .
During festivals, the activities like animal sacrifices, drumbeats and processions are done towards the outskirts of the village. The flags of village deities then installed marks the boundary of the village and avoid any territory fights with neighboring villages.
The festival time provides the much needed break to the villagers. In some places, dietary restrictions followed like refraining from meat and alcohol consumption for certain period has an obvious positive impact in the health and moral discipline on the followers.
Festival celebrations make the village presence felt across neighbouring villages too and open new avenues for community and business growth. Also, in the process of making the festival a grand success, the villagers get to bond and function in unity. Individual participation in these events gives a sense of recognition and being acknowledged as a belonged member of the village. Such occasions also provide a meeting place for discussing the current affairs and the scope for further development of the village as a whole. Also in the cases where village has been split, the original residents still come together for the festivals thereby retaining the older connections and remaining united in spirit.
Also, rigorous worship is done in times of epidemics or some calamity, seeking the deity's grace with intense devotion and faith. This helps keep up the villagers' morale by turning to God in times of need instead of lamenting their troubles and sinking into depression or inaction. And such immense faith tends to bring forth miracles in some way or the other.
While God is one and can be worshipped in any way, the individual deity forms the channel between the worshipper and the worshipped. So the more one can relate to specific deity the stronger the connection to God.
And at the end of the day, all that matters is doing the best one can do, with the comfort and calm of knowing a God closer to home and heart.