Religious Beliefs. The Banyan Hill Magar's pantheon includes a great many deities, or spirit beings, most of whom a family at one time or another will try to influence. The most numerous deities are those who are pleased, or at least placated, by an offering of a live sacrifice.
Deities are usually thought to be invisible. The class of deities named jhankri (male) and jahkreini (female) are notable exceptions. They are often seen, and it is said that two Humans from Kihun Thum were forced to live with them for a time in their underground home. Jhankris are hunters, requiring gifts that generally include a miniature bow and arrow for the male, and for his wife, miniature combs, baskets, tump lines (loops of cloth, about 2 meters long, placed over the head and used to carry a load on one's back), and the kind of bow used to shoot clay pellets at birds. Some Banyan Hill Persons say that after dark they sometimes hear Jhankri hunting dogs and the bells they wear.
Some deities are the exclusive concern of a single family or, at most, of a few closely related families. Other deities may affect any family, or collectively a hamlet or a whole neighborhood, including its different caste groups. Sansari Mai, a female deity who causes cattle diseases, is generally placated with a communal sacrifice. Once, when an epidemic of cattle disease struck the cattle of one of Banyan Hill's neighboring hamlets, its thirty-two households combined to offer Sansari Mai a sacrifice.
Deities have varying degrees of power. Although all of them attract "promises" of gifts for granting specific boons, those with the reputation for exceptional power naturally attract the most. "Grandmother Satiwanti" is an example of a powerful hamlet deity. Following a common pattern, one soldier who was leaving Kihun Thum to complete his tour of duty promised her a sacrifice of five chickens, plus a carved pole to be set beside the shrine and a bell to be hung inside it. When the soldier returned safely from the Burma campaign, he promptly fulfilled the promise.
Two shrines, each a few hours' walk from Banyan Hill, are considered to be the most powerful in the vicinity. One to the west commands a sweeping vista from the top of a very high hill; the other, about the same distance away to the east, is a hot spring with a periodic flow. Both frequently attract soldiers seeking to protect their lives as well as others with a variety of requests—for a son, for a wife, for recovery from illness, for good crops, or for defeat of an enemy in a court case.
Some deities are believed to have originated in Banyan Hill itself as transformed humans. One of these, belonging to the class of deities called mari, is worshiped by two Magar families together with two neighboring metalworker families. This particular deity came into existence when a woman died in childbirth. In fact, most persons, male or female, who die violent deaths become mari, although soldiers who die in Battle are an exception. They are said to go directly to Heaven.
The pantheon worshiped in Banyan Hill with live Sacrifices is dynamic, with some deities being added as others are forgotten. More than anyone else, shamans keep people informed of the pantheon's changing and locally relevant dimensions. Very frequently a shaman learns of a new and troublesome deity in a dream.
Three especially important Banyan Hill deities began their existence long ago as Magars. Two are believed to have become fearsome witches, so threatening that people avoid mention of them after dark. Called "Grandfather-Grandmother," they are conceived of as one, and once a year in the lunar month of Mangsir (November-December), the two are worshiped communally, often with the slaughter of two pigs. The sacrifice to Grandfather-Grandmother does not follow the pattern described earlier. Appropriately, it is more like the sacrifice to ancestors made by Magars without the help of a Brahman. Except for the autumn festival of Dasain, the day of annual offering to Grandfather-Grandmother is when relatives do the most visiting.
The third transformed Magar deity is Mandale. While still a human, he changed himself into a tiger, and thereafter he never reverted to human form. Many say that Grandfather-Grandmother are his maternal uncle and aunt. The major sacrifice to Mandale is a cooperative effort carried out by several neighborhoods, including Banyan Hill, in the month of Mangsir. The pig is considered the most appropriate live sacrifice. It is believed that tigers, all of whom are manifestations of this spirit, will not attack villagers or their cattle when Mandale is correctly propitiated.
Each Magar household has a male deity who comes to reside in the kitchen room whenever a new house is built. This deity's effects are limited to the family alone and it is the only deity to be propitiated by live sacrifice within the house. He looks to the well-being of family members and their cattle and crops, and he is regularly propitiated in the month of Jeth (May-June). The usual sacrifice is a cock promised during the ritual of the previous year. Besides the promised sacrifice of the "old cock," the central feature of the kitchen ritual is the offering of nine leaf plates containing rice and a piece of yeast used for making beer. A Magar's prayer during the ritual is the following: "I am remembering you every year. Please take care of my family."
Religious Practitioners. Most men in Banyan Hill follow a pattern of worshiping pitri (spirits of dead ancestors) that does not require a Brahman. Once a year on the first day of the month of Magh (January-February) they go to a spring and make an offering there. This puja's major component is nine leaf plates containing hulled rice, black pulse, turmeric, barley, and sesame. The offerings are made to the ancestors generally, with the exact relationship remaining unspecified. A tenth plate with the same contents is set aside for the spirit porter who accompanies the ancestors. The ritual is repeated in the fall. Either or both rituals may be carried out in the house, in the place where the sacrifice to the "old cock" is made. When performed in the house, cooked food such as fish, crab, and chicken often are included.
Shamans are an important link between the people of Kihun Thum and the world of deities and spirits. During one of the studies done in the 1960s, there were three shamans in the Thum—two Magars and a Brahman. One of the two Magars was an ex-soldier living in a hamlet near Banyan Hill, and he was the one turned to most often by the people of Banyan Hill. He called himself a lama—implying that he was a Tibetan priest, though he was not—and he was most often referred to by that term. He would tell his clients the cause of a present trouble (for example, a sick buffalo) and would advise them on the steps to take to remedy the problem. But his practice was more than remedial. It was also prescient: he would foretell what misfortunes the future held and how to forestall them.
This shaman's special powers derived from his ability to enter a trance state. To do this he did not don any special Costume other than an empowering necklace. While seated, he clasped a number of leafy branches in both hands and held them before his face while muttering a series of spells. When he became possessed by the spirit he had summoned, the branches shook violently, and he began speaking in the spirit's voice. The spirit would answer questions from the afflicted family and also those of any in the larger audience that usually assembled when it was known that the shaman would be holding a seance. His techniques were not limited to his ability to enter a trance state. When he deemed it appropriate, he provided medicines concocted from items he carried in an old army rucksack. His pharmacopoeia included the following: some Ayurvedic treatments available in the local or more distant bazaars; a bull's tooth; a human legbone; the navel of a musk deer; a shred of a leopard's tongue; a porcupine's jawbone, plus its stomach, still stuffed with the dried contents; a tortoise shell; a piece of red brick; a black stone; and numerous bits of leaf and bark. Often the patient was required to drink a concoction of selected ground-up bits from this array. Ground-up brick was a frequently used component. Harder, nongrindable items such as a bull's tooth were merely touched to the medicine.
Ceremonies. Disregarding small variations, the method of sacrifice generally follows a predictable pattern. The ritual takes place at a locality where the deity is thought to be Present. It is carried out by a young unmarried boy who has bathed and dressed himself in a clean white loincloth. After sanctifying the ground with cow dung and water and constructing a small open-ended room from flat stones, he selects a small stone to represent the deity and provides it with new clothing by wrapping white string around it. He then sets the newly dressed deity in the stone room and fashions a cowdung platform with a number of depressions in it. This he places before the deity to hold food offerings. Such offerings include rice flour fried in ghee, puffed rice, rice mixed with water and sage, and cow's milk. The deity is honored further by decorating the shrine with turmeric, bits of colored cloth, and flowers and by the presence of fire in the form of a mustard-oil lamp in a copper container.
Just before the sacrifice, the sacrificer makes an incense of ghee and sage and prays for whatever boon he wishes the deity to give. The animal to be offered is readied by sprinkling water, rice, and sage on its head until it shakes it, thus showing its willingness to be sacrificed. If the animal is small enough, it is then waved over the incense container. Otherwise the incense burner is waved under it. Next the animal is beheaded, and the blood that spurts from the carcass is Directed toward the shrine and the image inside. The head is then placed in front of the image. The sacrificer then gives tika to all who are present by pressing a small amount of rice mixed with blood onto their foreheads. One of the worshipers does the same for him. As a gift for his services, the sacrificer receives the head and whatever food is not needed for offering in the shrine. Sometimes the sacrificed animal is cooked near the shrine and everyone eats the food sanctified by its having been shared with a deity.
Death and Afterlife. A Magar who dies does not cease being a member of the family. He or she continues to be aware of descendants and can affect them. The descendants, in turn, continue to be aware of him or her and realize that what they do controls, at least partially, the way he or she treats them. There are two kinds of deceased ancestor. One kind, called bai, is a spirit being who wanders about on Earth and likes sacrificial blood. The other, called pitri, is in heaven and does not like sacrificial blood.
A deceased family member may become a bai for a number of reasons. Bai include those who performed no Religiously sanctioned good deed during the course of their lives; those whose dead bodies were touched by some polluting animal, such as a dog; and those who were witches or shamans. In addition, those who in the ordinary course would not become bai may be intercepted on their way to Heaven by a witch or shaman and be made to return to Earth and trouble their family. Bai are somewhat like mari, the main difference being that mari trouble a wider range of persons than their own descendants.
Bai are honored once each year, and most families offer the sacrifice—generally a cock for a man and a hen for a woman—on the full-moon day in the month of Baisakh (April-May). To eliminate the necessity for making this annual sacrifice, a lineage member can go to Banaras (Varanasi, in India) where with a single offering he can placate the bai forever.
Bai can either cause trouble or refrain from doing so; pitri too can trouble their descendants or bring them good fortune, more frequently the latter. Pitri are honored in either of two ways. One way is through the ancient Hindu ceremony of sraddha. A Banyan Hill man who honors his mother and father in this way calls a Brahman to assist him and performs the rites on the anniversaries of their deaths. In the fall he repeats the ceremony on the appropriate day arrived at by calculations based on the Hindu calendar.