In spite of being worshippers of Lord Shiva and Shakti, the people of Kumaon have a rich tradition of folk deity worship. The heroes of some long – forgotten age have later on become folk gods and they give expression to the popular beliefs of the people. Each folk god has a separate story attached to his name and each one is remembered through some peak, temple or jagar (a form of ritual folk poem). It is believed that Kumaon once had a tradition of Yaksha worship. The presence of ‘Naga’ or snake worship is an indication of the reverence’ given to the brave. Besides worshipping the usual gods and goddesses associated with Hinduism, the people of Kumaon have also worshipped Kul Devatas (family gods), Gram Devatas (village gods), Naga Devatas (snake gods), Bhumi Devatas (land gods) and Veers (the brave heroes). The following are the important folk gods & goddesses of Kumaon:
Naina Devi is a name for the Goddess Parvati. According to the Jagars Naina Devi was established in Kumaon by the Katyuri queen Jiya Rani. On the other hand there is a myth which talks of Sati’s committing suicide by jumping into a sacrificial fire, when she and Lord Shiva were insulted by her father Dakshaprajapati during a Yajnya, to which Shiva and Sati had not been invited in the first place. The myth goes on to say that while Shiva was taking Sati’s body away, her eye fell down at a spot near the temple of Pashan Devi in Nainital. Therefore, according to myth Naina Devi is none other than the goddess Parvati. (It is the story that Sati was reborn as Parvati).
Nanda Devi is the Greek Goddess ‘Nana’, who came to the Himalaya with the Indo – Greeks and Kushan Kings. However, the fact remains that Nanda Devi is typically a Kumaoni goddess and most popular in the region. Referring to the rich religious myths and lores associated with Uttaranchal, E.T.Atkinson has said: ‘To the beliefs of the great majority of Hindus, the Kumaon (Himalaya) is what Palestine is to the Christian.’
Bholanath is the most popular and revered folk god of Kumaon. He is said to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva. According to legend, the Chand King, Udai Chand, disinherited his elder son because of his bad habits and gave the Kingdom to his younger son. After wandering for a long time the elder son came with his pregnant wife and settled down near Almora. The King had both of them executed. The son, his wife and their unborn child became ghosts and people started worshipping them. The original temple of Bholanath is at Champawat.
Gwalla is also called Gorilla or Golla or Golu. Banners and flags are hung up over many temples in honour of Gwalla. There are Gwalla temples at Champawat, Chitai and Ghorakhal, although the temple at Chitai is the most famous of them. The story about Gwalla talks of a local king who, while hunting, sent his servants to look for water. The servants disturbed a woman who was praying. The woman, in a fit of anger, taunted the king that he could not separate two fighting bulls and proceeded to do so herself. The king was very impressed by this deed and he married the lady. When this queen got a son, the other queens, who were jealous of her, placed a pumpkin in its place and the child in a cage and put the cage into the river. The child was brought up by a fisherman. When the boy grew up he took a wooden horse to the river and on being questioned by the queens he replied that if women can give birth to pumpkins then wooden horses can drink water. When the king heard about this, he punished the guilty queens and crowned the boy, who went on to be known as Gwalla devata.
Gangnath’s story is like the story of Bholanath. Gangnath was the son of king Vaibhav Chand of Doti (Western Nepal). He fought with his father and left his house when he fell in love with a Joshi Brahmin lady Bhana. Bhana’s father/husband got Gangnath murdered by a blacksmith. When Gangnath took to harming people, they started worshipping him and Bhana. The jagar singers of Kumaon often tell tales about the love affair of Gangnath and Bhana. Gangnath temples are spread all over Kumaon.
Airy, whose eyes are said to be on the top of his head, is worshipped like the God Shani. His attendants, “Sau” and “Bhau” ride on dogs. Airy is said to take care of animals and it is in this form that he is worshipped. There are numerous temples of Airy in Kumaon but the main temple is at Byandhura.
Kail Bisht is said to be a generous folk god. The temple of this flute playing God is near Binsar. The story goes that Shrikrishna Pandey was given false reports about a love affair between his wife and a brave Rajput shepherd Kallu (Kail Bisht). The matter was brought before the king, who refused to have Kail Bisht executed when he saw the impression of a trident on Kail Bisht’s forehead and that of a Kadamb flower on his feet. However, later on Kallu was murdered by deception.
This god is worshipped as a protector of animals particularly in the Jhulaghat-Pancheswar region. There is a story about a man who was going to Champawat with a Shivlinga in his turban. When he stopped to drink water he placed his turban on the road, but he could not pick it up again. Later on people started worshipping this spot. Bells and milk are offered in the temples of Chaumu at Chaupakhia (Wadda, Pithoragarh), Chamdeval (Pulla, Champawat), Pancheswar, Thathgaon (Almora), Dhamkuri, Surar and Santola (all in Nepal). These are basically the seats of seven brothers. Chamdeval is the principal seat of Chaumu.
Harish Chandra was a famous king of Champawat, who after his death was worshipped as the folk god Haru. Haru’s mother’s name was Kainar and he is said to be Gwall’ s maternal uncle. The temples of Haru and Saim, the god of boundaries, are generally together.
Besides these, many other folk gods are worshipped in Kumaon e.g. Bhumia, Balchan, Nagnath, Bhandari Golla, Badhan, Narsingh, Lataul, Gabla, Chhurmal etc. Anyari and Ujyali are the popular goddesses. Garh Devis are to be found in cremation grounds and are worshipped on the night of Amavasya. Although Bafaul, Ramol, Sangram Karki are also mentioned as folk heroes, they are not treated like gods.