It stands on top of a hill and looks like a fort, until you notice the temple-like structures on top, and the lamp-pillars on the arches on the steps. Located about 50 km from Pune, this is Jejuri, the main centre of worship of Khandoba, also known as Malhari Martanda, clan deity of many warrior, farming, herding, and priest families of Maharashtra and the Deccan region.
For most of the English-speaking world, Jejuri is known through the poetry of the same name by one of India’s foremost English poets, Arun Kolatkar, who won the Commonwealth prize in 1977. He described his pilgrimage here:
What is God and what is stone the dividing line if it exists is very thin at Jejuri and every other stone is God or his cousin.
His lines capture the Hindu ability to transform an idea into a form, God into a stone, a river, or an icon, thus anchoring the abstract. As you watch the devotees walk up the stairs throwing turmeric (locally known as ‘bhandara’) in the air, you realise you step into the intersection of what is known as the classical (margi) and the local (desi) traditions (paramparas) of Hinduism. The former is abstract, not bound by geography; the latter is rooted in the land, its people, its culture.
Khandoba is the Maratha manifestation of Shiva, though he is also identified with Kartikeya (standing atop a hill with his consorts), and with Vishnu (Kalki-like with horse and sword) and with the sun (sun-yellow turmeric and the name Martanda). In Andhra regions, he is called Mallikarjuna and in Karnataka, he is Mallanna. Jains have identified him with Mallinath. Muslims—who have a long history in the Deccanni region—identify him as Mallu Khan. All this reveals his wide local base.