The Tussle Between Tribal and Hindu Gods

The indigenous Kondh of Odisha face obstacles in continuing with their age-old worship rituals because they involve animal sacrifice.

In Bolangir district of Odisha, Matkhai is one of the deities of the indigenous Kondh people. On the day of the Matkhai festival, the Kondh people found their way to the shrine barred by police forces. The administration had imposed an edict (under the Indian Penal Code Section 144) preventing the assembly of more than four people. Finally, the administration relented and the Kondhs were allowed to conduct their rituals but with one important omission - they were banned from making animal sacrifices.

The beginning of disruption of the Kondh’s way of worship began with the construction of a Hindu temple in the Mathkai shrine. “Earlier our forefathers used to conduct the rituals of worship. Today that has been taken over by the non-Adivasis”, says Nimai Bhoi, priest of Mathkhai.The Hindus claim that Mathkai represents the Hindu gods Shiva and Durga. The day of the Kondh festival in October happened to coincide with the Hindu festival of Dashami. According to Nimai, the priest of Mathkai, the police said that the Kondhs could sacrifice animals on any other day but were not allowed to do so on this particular day in order to preserve the sanctity of the Hindu rituals. Platoons of police were posted to quell any untoward incident and they kept making announcements that the Adivasis maintain peace and respect the rights of the Hindu worshippers. Ironical, given that the Hindus were disrupting the Kondh worship. The Kondhs traditional weaponry, used in sacrifice and displayed as part of the festival procession were also not allowed on the pretext that it might be seen as a violent gesture. In fact, when Nimai entered the temple to make an offering of the ‘sukha’ (dry food offering as opposed to sacrifices), a police personnel carried his axe behind him.

The Kondhs are recognised as scheduled tribes, part of the 8.6% of the population in India who are indigenous and whose right to cultural and religious identity is under threat. This is despite constitutional safeguards under Article 25 and 29 that guarantee the freedom to practice any religion and protect the right of minorities to preserve their culture. Further, the Fifth Schedule lays down rules about land belonging to the adivasis. While a lot is written about land grabs in Adivasi (tribal) areas, the threat of cultural appropriation hardly ever makes headlines.

The appropriation of tribal deities has a long and inglorious history. Many of the popular Hindu deities and shrines are appropriated from tribal deities and thereby indigenous culture is forcibly subsumed within the hierarchical, caste-based narrative of Hinduism. Non-Adivasi appropriation of tribal culture is nothing new: the popular Hindu god Krishna first found his way into Hindu scriptures from tribal lore around the sixth century BCE. The celebrated Jagannatha deity in Odisha’s Puri district is a Hindu pilgrimage site of significance today. Jagannatha is supposedly an avatar of the Hindu god Krishna. Yet considerable research on the subject shows that Jagannatha is originally a god of the indigenous Sabar people. The conversion of an Adivasi deity into a Hindu god whose worship is entirely controlled by Brahmins is repeated everywhere from Nagaland to Chhatisgarh. Popular tribal cults are cannibalised by Hinduism not just for purely proselytising purposes - there are considerable financial gains involved from donations and the economy of religious tourism. As of 2010, the earnings of the Jagannath temple in Puri were to the tune of Rs 150 crores (USD 22 million).

Nabin Biswabandhu, a researcher of folklore, points out that tribal gods are community deities that have nothing to do with Hindu scriptures or mythology, and animal sacrifice is an essential part of indigenous religious beliefs. In fact, a lot of Hindu cults, like that of Kali, also practice ritual animal sacrifice. Yet when it comes to Adivasi's religious practices somehow this becomes a problem. The usurpation of the Adivasi cult of Mathkai is illustrative of a much larger problem. It is as if only dominant caste-class groups have a right to protect their cultural identity. In the recent controversy around the traditional practice of bull baiting (Jallikattu) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the dominant caste groups came out strongly to protest an attack on their cultural heritage. Marginalised groups who have traditionally not been allowed to take part in Jallikattu, such as Dalits, supported the ban. Bolangir also sees the Kondhs celebrating the Sulia festival where animals are sacrificed. The district administration had originally banned these but a Supreme Court order in 2015 allowed the adivasis to continue with their rituals. Despite this, the supposedly ‘objective’ mainstream media reportage paint these celebrations as backwards and morally wrong.

The Kondhs continue to worship Mathkai but without the animal sacrifice they believe is a part essential of the rituals. Although the police had given Nimai the verbal assurance that the Kondhs can perform the sacrifice on days that didn’t coincide with Hindu festivals but the administration has, as usual, gone back on their words. The blinding hypocrisy of banning animal sacrifice in tribal worship while not protesting those sacrificed to Hindu goddesses from Kamakhya to Kolkata must be recognised for what they are: as acts of cultural aggression on a minority community.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty


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