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Ode to a Rajasthani Folk Legend: Tejaji

A typical village shrine dedicated to Tejaji

Today is celebrated as the Tejaji festival across rural Rajasthan, and everybody in the village where Savista is situated is looking forward to the procession this evening which will commemorate the life of this folk hero. Savista’s staff took off early from work. They will cook a festive dinner for their families which they will all eat after they return from the procession.

So who was Tejaji? And why does every village in Rajasthan have a simple altar with a canopy over it, enshrining the representation of a black hooded cobra snake where homage is paid to Tejaji?

The legend of Tejaji goes back several hundred years ago – pre-7th. century – to when pastoralism was the dominant way of life in the region where Rajasthan is situated. In its pristine form the legend exemplifies and transmits to successive generations several abiding values relating to human beings’ place in nature vis-à-vis other species, the role of trust in negotiations with others, and the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions. All these are values that have a continuing resonance in today’s world.

Tejaji was a cattle herder who belonged to the Gurjar community, the largest nomadic pastoral tribe that even today – albeit in different form – dominates both society and politics across the states of Rajasthan and Haryana. The owner of a large herd of cows, Tejaji was regarded as some kind of chieftain or leader of his tribe. Known to be a valiant fighter, he often found himself having to violently repel marauding Meenas who were brigands and cattle stealers (Meenas were the dominant tribe of the region, and made a living by stealing and violent assault on property holders; they pre-dated the arrival in the 7th century of the Rajputs, who succeeded in replacing them as the rulers in most parts of the region). Being a congenitally altruistic person, Tejaji was always ready to go to the aid of fellow Gurjars who sought his help when they were similarly attacked. Tejaji was reputed to have not a single spot on his body that did not bear the mark of combat wounds.

According to the legend, Tejaji had a sister in a distant village whose daughter was betrothed to be married. In keeping with common custom in Rajasthan, a girl’s marriage requires the presence of her mother’s brother who stands by her side when she is given away by her father to the groom. The maternal uncle is expected to make over gifts to the bride, groom and groom’s family befitting his status and, thereby, enhance the standing of his sister. Thus, well endowed uncles through this kind of show of support, raised the worth of the new bride in the eyes of her husband’s family.

Being a duty-conscious uncle with large herds in his possession and leadership status, Tejaji set out from home with a stack of gifts to perform his avuncular duty. His journey was long and arduous and, given the times, had to be done on foot. As he was passing through a dense forest and was on a narrow path hacked out of the undergrowth, he suddenly found his progress blocked by two enormous black cobras locked in total absorption in each other. Being the season of the rains which is also the most romantic period for all species to be engaged in mating, it was most likely a lovemaking session in progress.

Tejaji respectfully stood by in silence, waiting for the snakes to disengage themselves and clear the path. But there seemed no end to their obsession with each other. By now, dark clouds were gathering overhead and the sun was low on the horizon, and Tejaji knew that if he lingered too long he would not be able to reach his destination before the auspicious wedding hour. Desperate to be on his way to perform his duty and protect his sister’s honour, he killed one of the snakes so the other one would uncoil itself and move away into the undergrowth.

The surviving snake, however, did not move. Reproaching Tejaji for his crime of killing his partner, the snake declared his intention to kill Tejaji as punishment. You have killed my partner, said the snake, so I shall have to kill you. You are aware that I have as much right to pursue my life in this forest as you have to use it as a passageway. How, then, can you arrogate yours as a superior cause, to the point of killing another living being? Is there no such thing as accommodation? You will have to bear the consequences of your action, and I shall have to do my duty of achieving justice for my slain partner.

Tejaji bowed to the snake in apology. You speak the truth, fellow being, he said humbly. But I too have a duty to perform. I must reach my destination before nightfall if I am to keep my word given to my sister. You were oblivious of me and my need, and kept me standing on the pathway. What else could I do?

You need not have taken the extreme step, replied the snake. Now nothing that you say or do can bring my partner back to life. Since there is no escape to facing the consequences of your wrong action, be ready to die.

Allow me to go and perform my duty at the wedding, requested Tejaji. I promise that I shall return by this same path as soon as the wedding is over and you can take your revenge then.

Tejaji returned as promised, and the snake waited for him as agreed.

The snake searched the surface of Tejaji’s body for an unblemished spot on which to inflict his bite, but found the scars of wounds everywhere. Full of compassion, the snake asked the brave man if he could help find him a spot free of the signs of previous injuries. Tejaji offered him his tongue.

Impressed by Tejaji’s honourable character, the snake blessed him. You will become an icon for your people, he said, always holding out the lesson of the equal rights of all beings on the planet to pursue their lives without the subjugation of one species by another. You have dialogued with me and shown yourself to be an honourable being. Anyone who has mistakenly been bitten by a poisonous snake will find relief and succour by visiting the shrine to your memory.

Given the proximity to snakes and other wild animals that agriculturalists, pastoralists and others living in the lap of nature face on a daily basis, it is little wonder that every village in Rajasthan has traditionally had a little shrine to Tejaji’s memory. Today across rural Rajasthan, Tejaji’s memory will be celebrated as an ode to the finest qualities that lie dormant in the hearts of both humans and animals. What we need is to become aware of and develop them.

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