Posted 08 May 2011, by Rajendra P Kerkar, Times of India, timesofindia.indiatimes.com
SHIRGAO: Sunday will transform Shirgao from a dusty village in Bicholim taluka to a bustling, colour-filled, devotional centre as worshippers turn up in lakhs for the Lairai dhondachi zatra.
Though the temple priest is a Brahman, goddess Lairai is the most popular deity of non-Brahman communities in Goa and the Konkan region and even Goan Catholics respect her as Saibinn Maim (mother of God).
The latter is because Lairai is regarded as the eldest of sat bhoinn (seven sisters) who are worshipped in various parts of Goa.
Mapusa’s Our Lady of Milagres, whose feast will be celebrated on Monday, is considered one of the sisters and is known to the Hindus as Mirabai.
But the religious sister act and the social bonhomie notwithstanding, the most prominent feature of Sunday’s zatra will be the dhonds walking barefoot through a 10 m-longbed of burning charcoal called the homkhan.
Devotees who adhere strictly to various rites and rituals, are vegetarian and follow abstinence for five days before the zatra are called dhonds.
“On the night of the zatra, over 20,000 dhonds both, men and women, from various castes and communities of Goa and the Konkan region walk through the homkhan,” says president of the Lairai temple committee Digamber Gaonkar.
He adds, “This year, we have requested the public works department in Bicholim to ensure that there’s constant water supply in Shirgao during the run-up to and on the day of the zatra.”
The reason for this request is that while Shirgao has about 350 houses with 70 wells and 32 springs, not a single well or spring has potable water.
Moreover, locals point out that most of their wells are dry, and the village survives on tankers for water.
Shirgao local Premdas Shamba Gaonkar, 45, says, “Our village, once blessed with rich water resources, is today facing extreme paucity of water due to rampant mining activities.”
Meanwhile, the village sees other provisions, apart from water supply, made for the dhonds to carry out their required practices prior to the zatra.
While they are provided temporary abode, a thatch-roofed shelter near the river/spring or in the temple’s precincts is specially built to enable them to cook for themselves for the five days prior to the zatra.
Shripad Mukund Joshi, whose family has been serving the Lairai temple as priests since 1817, will end the walk of the dhonds through the burning charcoal bed.
Says he, “After the dhonds complete their walk through the homkhan, I will carry a kollso bearing sacred water through the bed and then take the pot back to the temple.”
The water, taken from a sacred tank-devichi toli-in Shirgao, will be kept at the temple till the following year’s zatra.
Incidentally, Shirgao has the shrines dedicated to Santer, Mahamaya, Ravalnath, Mahadev, Grampurush, Kshetrapal, Aapevans, Kulkar, Brahman, Homkhandi, Purush, Lakhamo, Aairo and Mharingan.
However, goddess Lairai holds the throne of great reverence not only among devotees in Shirgao but worshippers across Goa and the Konkan region.
Sixty-two-year-old Ramchandra Gaonkar of Morlem-Sattari says, “It is a tradition for us to follow all the rituals prior to the zatra as well as on the day of the zatra every year because we have strong faith in goddess Lairai.
She has blessed us and continues to blesses us and our families with prosperity, good health and happiness.”
Meanwhile, various cultural and religious programmes are organised for the five days prior to the zatra in villages across Goa.
At the end of the day, the Lairai dhondachi zatra is the only cultural and religious event in Goa that attracts lakhs of devotees to Shirgao to seek the blessings of the deity Lairai, considered to be the incarnation of goddess Parvati.