It can only happen in India: temples to certified villains. In the epic Mahabharat, Duryodhan is the villain who tries killing the Pandavas, who tricks them of their kingdom, who publicly humiliates their wife, Draupadi, and finally refuses to keep his end of the agreement leading to a horrible fratricidal war on the plains of Kurukshetra.
While modern storytellers have tried to paint Duryodhan as one who deserves to be killed, traditional storytelling prefers viewing him as a child of a blind father and blindfolded mother, who lost a control of his better judgement. Since in Indian thought, nothing is evil, Duryodhan is not evil. He is merely a victim of fear and ignorance, and like everyone else had redeeming qualities, more visible to those who were his friends. And these friends, and allies, built shrines to this hero.
So in Uttaranchal, in the valley of Har-ki-Doon, are wooded shrines dedicated to the guardian village god of the region: Duryodhan Maharaj. The people here belong to the Jaunsar-Banwar community, culturally distinct from Kumaon and Garhwal people, known for their polyandrous marriage practices (many brothers marry a single woman) indicating a close association with the epic.
They believe Duryodhan visited this valley and fell in love with its beauty and settled here. One of the villages is named after the house of wax built by Duryodhan in which he tried to burn the Pandavas down. The ancestors of the local people fought by his side in the war and when he died wept so much that their tears turned into the local river. Duryodhan watches over the valley even today.
They offer him milk and ghee, and beat drums in his honor. There are no idols in the temple. The only icon, in keeping with local tradition, is taken from village to village in grand annual processions Then far away in South Kerala is another temple dedicated to Duryodhan, locally known as Duryodhanan, in Malanada. Malanada means temple on the hill. The temple has no image but the deity is imagined, a process known as sankalpan, and offering made to him.
The only icon is a golden flag, presented to public only on special days, indicator of the royal and divine power bestowed to this place on account of its epic association. The belief is that Duryodhan came down south in search of the Pandavas in exile and rested on this hill where he was given toddy to drink by a local woman of the Kurava community, generally considered lower castes.
Grateful for this act of kindness, Duryodhan worshipped Shiva and declared this place as his home and a home for his mother, his sister, and his friend, Karna. The temple is famous for its annual festival held in March when gigantic towers are paraded on the street.
This ability to assimilate and include the villain, see him as human too, provide him with a place in our temples and our minds, is what made India a tolerant land. Sadly, we are losing this side of our culture, as we become increasingly intolerant with those who disagree with us, and reject them in the name of ‘righteousness’.
The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.