(Note: This post is adapted from a piece that I wrote for the now-defunct Traveler’s India magazine, which published it in a shorter form, with only three of the many photos submitted. The following photos were taken a number of years ago, so some of the shrines may have changed since.)
A major advantage of traveling in rural areas of India with your own car and driver is being able to stop whenever you see an interesting site such as a shrine or temple or an event such as a festival (and that can happen often!). If you’re fortunate enough to have a driver or a guide who can speak your own language, he can usually tell you what is going on, or in the case of a shrine, which deity is being honored.
On our last few trips to India, I was especially on the lookout for the small roadside shrines that can be prevalent in areas such as Rajasthan. I personally find these shrines fascinating, and more often than not, they are colorful and attractive.
Each locality in India has its own deities who are specific to that area. These are usually worshiped in addition to honoring the more major gods and goddesses that are known nationally such as Shiva, Vishnu, and the Mother Goddess, and their various incarnations.
One of the charms of traveling in an area can be visiting the small shrines to local neighborhood deities. Often, in many parts of Rajasthan, these shrines can be seen near the road’s edge while traveling on the highways. Others can only be discovered by walking around a neighborhood in a town or city or village, or walking on paths bordering the fields.
Although all are different, the shrines may begin as a simple rock or the base of a tree, daubed with dye and worshiped with burning incense and offerings of flowers or food.
As the deity gains a reputation for answering prayers or granting miracles, more elaborate, carved images may be added, and perhaps a roof or a small masonry platform. The shrine may be “adopted” by an attendant who cares for it.
Other shrines are to spirits that may reside only in that one site and are totally unknown elsewhere, or they may be memorials to departed ancestors in the form of steles, carved stone slabs.
Over the years, as monetary offerings accumulate, and especially if the site acquires the patronage of a wealthy person, the shrine may grow into a small temple, and maybe even a large one.
Some of the shrines honor folk heroes who are widely known in the region. One such hero is Baba Ram Devji, immensely popular among the common people of Rajasthan. A 15th century Rajput, he rode from village to village championing the rights of the lower castes, so his shrines often have a painting or sculpture of him on his horse.
Another Rajasthani folk deity is Tejaji, who is believed to provide cures for snake bites; consequently, snakes are painted at the entrances to his shrines, as shown in a couple of the accompanying photos.