This is the launch of a new series – the photographic documentation of the ancient Vetal idols of Goa. A few images have been included in earlier posts; those and the ones to follow are now consolidated at this link.
In the village of Amona, the idol is fitted with a gleaming shell and wrapped in colourful vestments.
The ancient deity of Vetal, its iconography and associated rituals, are important elements of, and unique to, Goa‘s Hindu tradition. The deity was most likely worshipped by the Austric Gauda tribe, Goa‘s earliest settlers, and later embraced by the Nath Panthis between the 10th & 13th C. Eventually it came to be absorbed into the larger Hindu pantheon. Details of the Vetal mythos are here.
A mere 50 or so out of the hundreds of ancient Vetal sites in Goa survived the iconoclasm by the Portuguese. Every single site in the Bardez and Tiswadi talukas was destroyed. For instance, before the foreign invasion, the village of Taleigao was a strong centre of Vetal worship, but I doubt you will find a single current resident of the area with any memory of this past.
The Vetal praxis serves to define the circumference of Goa‘s cultural influence which extends beyond its current geographic borders. Vetal worship is prevalent in the Sindhudurg district of southern Maharashthra and unsurprisingly, the people there have strong emotional and cultural bonds to Goa.
Traditionally the images of Vetal were cast out in the open with provision for a simple roof overhead. After all, as the village protector, he was expected to be out on his nightly patrol. To this day, offerings of footwear are made at his temples. Buffalo sacrifice was once common but is now far less so. Fowl and goat are still routinely offered (but don’t tell that to the malcontents from PETA).
The evolution of the depiction of the Vetal image itself is interesting. Traditionally, he preferred to go au naturel, and so the idols were displayed that way. But nowadays the ‘naked truth’ makes people somewhat uncomfortable, and therefore in several temples he has reluctantly taken to wearing the dhoti. (Reminds me of Bertrand Russell who wrote that whoever coined the phrase “the naked truth” must have perceived the connection that nakedness is shocking to most people, and so is truth.)
During the years 2006-2008, I set off on Vetal‘s spoor and checked off 45 of the surviving old sites in Goa (around 5 still to go). At every shrine, faced with the fierce image of Vetal, I remember chuckling at the thought of the televangelist Pat Robertson and his rant that we Hindus are worshippers of the devil.