The black four-horned khadu (ram) stood somewhat lost in the crowd. Bedecked in red and saffron with garlands around its neck and bags full of jewellery tied to its back, it seemed totally oblivious of its significant role. A role it has been playing for about 900 years now.
A year before the commencement of the ‘Raj Jat’ or the Himalayan Kumbh, priests from Nauti, a village in the Garhwal hills, assemble and plead the gods for the birth of this four-horned ram. And if such a ram isn’t born, the ‘yatra’ doesn’t take off. Not every four-horned ram fits the bill; preferably black in colour, it should be born around Basant Panchami (a festival that falls in January-February). Explains Bhuwan Nautiyal of the ancient Raj Guru family, who is the head priest of the Raj Jat, "It is meant to be Nanda Devi’s escort as she returns to her husband Shiva’s abode after a brief visit to her mait (parent’s house)." The ram in fact leads the procession as it makes its way through the rough hill terrain for 19 days. During this period, this ‘sheep’ is fed on bread alone. "This is a holy meal also offered to the gods. The ram gives up on the usual frugal feed of grass and leaves," clarifies the priest. The two extra horns, believe the hill people, help the ram choose the right and ideal path as it carries the Goddess back to her husband’s house. At the end of the journey, this six-month-old sheep is left all to itself. The ram walks off into the wilderness and the procession returns after the last halt at Homkund. And after its trek of glory, this ceremonial four-legged creature is never seen again.