The Koches are generally theist of pluralist deities. They worship nature with profound devotion. Their deities are known as wai (God or Goddess) according to their Koch language. Religion and belief system of the Koches can be broadly divided into two categories- one form which encourages ‘growth’ of positive elements and the other form which reflects ‘restriction’ of negative elements from the society. In the prior we see religious practices like Hudum, Ranthok, Madam Kam, Kartika, etc which essentially celebrate fertility cult and in the latter we see worship of demigods like Desphura, Raja Thakur, Walk Rabai (Bishohori Devi in Kamatapuri/Koch Deshi), Mashan, etc which are basically worshipped for the wellbeing of community members and protection from any harm or misfortune. Hindus see the belief system of these Mongoloid tribes as continuity with their own ancient pre-Hindu worship in the form of Shaivism and Shaktism. Worship of Hira Devi basically falls under the second category of religious beliefs among the Koches.
Hira Devi is one of the most important deity amongst the plethora of deities worshipped by the Koches and can be found in every Koch household. One can also get a glimpse and seek blessing of the Koch Goddesses at the famous Charantala Temple in Meghalaya. This temple located in the interiors of the state, is one of the most visited religious sites in North East India today. The temple is located at Babedpara village in Selsella block, about 55 kms from Tura in West Garo Hills and about 30 kms from Hatsingimari, district-headquarter of South Salmara Mankachar district, Assam. According to local history, the temple dates back to 1965 when there was a major outbreak of cholera disease. According to folklore, a nearby village which had lost 17 people to the epidemic and another neighbouring village had the same kind of losses, a Goddess is said to have appeared in a dream to one woman wherein she called upon the villagers to venture the Goddess which she would wipe out the suffering. After the end of the outbreak, the women created a small temple in her honour and offered prayers. This spread far and wide leading to a huge number of devotees queuing up to offer prayers. Thus over the years the temple has become an important pilgrimage for not only the Koches but thousands of Hindu devotees around the world.
At the Charantala temple one can see a plethora of deities- Hira Devi, Hawa Devi (Walk Rabai), Chitala and Kali. Also, other than these deities a sculpture of a Koch Man and Women in their traditional attire also finds a place inside the temple premises. The most striking feature among these deities is the portrayal of Hira Devi itself. It is surprising to see how Hira Devi, wife of Hariya Mandal and mother of Koch King Biswa Singha, the founder of 16th century Koch kingdom, has been portrayed by the Koch tribals and worshipped with immense devotion. The image of Hira Devi resembles that of Khorlo Dechok in Vajrayana Buddhism and that of Kali in Hinduism, naked and consuming her own flesh. This may be in relation to the popular mythological belief among the Koches that Lord Shiva, in guise of Hariya Mandal had one day sexual intercourse with Hira, and in due course she gave birth to Bisu (Biswa Singha), giving the king a divine origin. As, Hira Devi is considered to be wife of Shiva, this may be the reason that Hira Devi is imagined as manifestation of Kali, Shiva’s ‘other wife’. However, the reason why she is portrayed as consuming her own flesh is still unknown, but the rationale might be that, as she has the power to protect and even take away lives, the creator must have visualized that instead of taking lives of others, she should take her own life.
A three day grand ritual at the Charantala temple takes place on Tuesday, sometime in the month of April every year. It attracts over 10-15 lakh devotees from the length and breadth of the country every year. Devotees from as far as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh flock to the remote Koch village of Babedpara in the month of April to worship the Goddesses. Devotees basically offer sacrifices of animals and birds to please the Goddesses, the belief being sacrificing a life to protect another (human) life. Devotees also stay in make-shift tents, staying awake at night to make their offerings. The holy site also gets festive with the fair (mela) alongside, which is another attraction in itelf.
As Meghalaya being a Christian dominated state, a temple in the interiors of the state has caught the attention of many outsiders. Huge donations have also poured in for the expansion of the temple. Hindu assimilation in the indigenous religious affairs of the Koch tribes is not new. The professional Brahmin priest has also appeared in the scenario though he has yet to dominate the decay of indigenous deities. The Hindu architectural design of the temple that we see today is not very old, the earlier structure was dismantled and given a facelift in 2016. The new temple has been designed by an architect from Mumbai and idols have been brought from places as far as Rajasthan.
Thus, what we get to see today, that religious practices observed by the Koches are influenced by two different trends of religious rites and social usages. While some of their observances and festivals have been influenced by the neighbouring Hindu Bengali or the Assamese, others are the reflection of their own traditional beliefs and customs. Even though contact with caste Hindu society brought many religious changes in the Koch community but its influence could not altogether transform the tribal society. In fact the adoption and adaptation of the religious practices influenced by Hinduism can be viewed as an extra addition to the Koches already existing traditional practices.