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The all-male garba traditions in Gujarat

Last year, I watched a movie that blew my mind – Hellaro. I am almost a year late talking about it, but well, the movie is so beautiful that even a year later, every scene, every frame is fresh in my mind. It was probably the first time Garba (Both the song and dance) has been used to represent women’s liberty and subversion of patriarchy in a film. It is the first time a Gujarati movie has won the national award for the best feature film. Hellaro showcases the story of crushed women in a backward village in the middle of the Kutch dessert and how they revolt against the male authority and patriarchy. It pits female expression against male suppression. It shows how the men in the underdeveloped Samarpura are unimaginably boorish, lusty, and violent towards women, expecting unquestioned surrender and obedience from the women. Even their jokes come at the cost of a woman’s pain. Women in this village are forbidden by the men to dance garba. I n a state like Gujarat, where garba is a mode of joy for men and women alike, such a rule is crushing. It is believed that if the women dance, the Goddess will take offence and punish the village. It hasn’t rained in the village for two years now now, and the men dance around the Goddess brandishing swords while the women watch from the small windows of their bhungda, in the hope that this would appease the Goddess and it would rain. I related to the protagonist Manjhri, a newly wed bride in the village when she says, “Isn’t it weird that when it does not rain, the men dance and the women fast?”

Well, this isn’t a movie review or a summary. The movie is inspired by an actual folk tale. When I found out about this after seeing the movie, it piqued my curiosity. Are there really such places where women are not allowed to dance – in the name of traditions or beliefs or any other reason? I was hoping this would be false, that it wouldn’t be for real, everybody has an equal right to celebrate a festival and enjoy the garba. I was quite wrong. I found two places in Gujarat which are all-male garba venues, and women are not allowed to dance there.

The Harsiddhi Garba, Vadodara

The Harsiddhi Garba, Ghadiyali Pol, Mandvi, Vadodara

While Ahmedabad is known for being the walled city, with beautiful old residential establishments called as pol. However, pols are not limited to Ahmedabad alone. There are many pols in Vadodara too, with beautiful artwork and lots of heritage value. One such pol is the Ghadiyali pol near the Mandvi Gate. In one of the lanes of this pol is the age-old Amba Mata Temple. This temple is believed to be centuries old, and the traditional garba is being organized at this temple for at least the past 150 years. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Harsiddhi. The temple was built by the Gaekwads. According to the legend, the King had gone to Ujjain to bring the Goddess with him back to his kingdom. The goddess asked him to start walking and she will follow, but she asked the King to not look back. However, the King lost patience, and out of eagerness turned around to look back. The Goddess stopped right there and refused to move ahead. This is where the King then built a temple for her.

What is unique about the garba played here, compared to other venues is that only men participate in this garba. This has been so for as long as anyone can remember. Children – both boys and girls, below 15 years of age are also allowed to dance, but women of any age are not allowed.

While Vadodara is known for lavishly decorated garba venues with the loudest sound systems, renowned singers, big-ticket sponsors, and lots of other frills, the Harsiddhi Garba has managed to maintain its simplicity through the centuries. Everyday during Navratri, men dressed in simple attire gather at this Ambe Mata temple and dance. The songs are also sung by men, and the dance is also by men. On some days, there are over 300 men who come to dance here.

Ask anybody why women are not allowed, and the only answer you will get is – its a tradition. No one questions it beyond that, and this is the accepted answer. The men who dance here will tell you that women are strictly not allowed to dance here, but sometimes, they do come to watch. Sometimes, they even sing along with men, but they don’t dance and don’t try to break the tradition. The priest will also tell you about how it is a tradition for only men to dance here. There’s a spiritual air about the temple, and a lot of photographers and enthusiasts come from far and wide to visit this temple and dance here.

The Ishwar Vivah celebration at Jalanijar, Jamnagar

Jalanijar Garba, Jamnagar

The Jalanijar Garba is another all male garba in Gujarat. This tradition has been around for over 325 years. On the seventh day, the Saptami the ceremony of ‘Ishwar Vivaha’ is celebrated here, at the Janaijar Garba. The celebration goes on for at least 3.5 hours, and during this time, men dance the Garba non-stop. The Ishwar-Vivaha song written by the poet Devidas is sung, and the devotees dance the garba to this song. A lot of devotees from far and wide come down to Jamnagar on the Saptami to participate in the Ishwar-Vivaha celebration.

On this day, men wear a dhoti-kurta, and don a crown for the celebration. All men apply a tilak on their foreheads with sandal (chandan) before beginning the garba. The garba is accompanied by many percussion instruments which creates a divine energy.

According to the stories from the Puranas, there used to be a hamlet called Bajariya Faliyu. A man called Chatrabhuj Trivedi used to live there. One night, he woke up and went out to relieve himself. When he was passing by the Jalanijar Chowk, he heard the sound of nagadas. When he looked in the direction of the sound, he saw young girls dancing garba there. He saw it all, then went back home and slept. Then the Goddess appeared in his dreams. She inspired him to set up the garbi there and organize the garba festivities there. The next year, Trivediji invited the local men and began the tradition of dancing garba here. There were no loud speakers or DJs then, so the men used to sing the songs themselves. This tradition has been going on since then. Even today, this Garba is danced with only the nagada as an accompaniment and no other music or musical instrument our loud speaker or mic is used.

Ishwar Vivaha is the celebration of the wedding of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. It generally begins close to midnight, and goes on to 4 am in the morning. After the celebration ends, prasad is distributed which includes dry fruits and saffron milk.

Again, nobody really knows why women are now allowed in these festivities, except that it is tradition.

The Mashal Raas performed by men

Apart from these, there are quite a few Garba traditions that are performed only by men, such as the mashaal raas. There would be few other traditions that would be performed only by women too. The purpose of this post is to just spread awareness about these traditions, not to question them. I would really like to know more about these, so if any of my readers can share any information about these or any other traditions that are gender-specific for any reason or unique in any way, please do share, I am always keen to learn something new.

You can drop me a line in the comments below, or find me on Instagram @banjaranfoodie.

Banner image courtesy: ‘Hellaro’ movie

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