The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In a day from now, when goddess Durga, resplendent in all her martial glory, comes astride her lion to slay the demon king, Mahishasura, her arrival is going to be interpreted somewhat differently in an infant state of the country. A cross-section of intellectuals from Jharkhand, cutting across party lines, have an interesting theory to offer. According to them, the festival of Durga Puja celebrates the victory of the Aryan invaders from the north over the indigenous inhabitants of the region, signalling the dawn of the Vedic age in wilderness.

Legend has it that Mahishasura, the ebony-skinned tyrant, challenges the writ of the gods on earth and almost has his way when the deities pit their wits to create the warrior goddess, Durga. Armed with ten lethal weapons, she sets about her task and kills the asura (demon) — traditionally symbolizing the dark forces of the underworld — in a prolonged battle of strength and will.

But as Jharkhand sheds its cultural baggage inherited from Bihar in a surge of ethnic pride, Mahishasura has acquired a new identity — that of a patriot.

Ethnographers argue that the mythical Mahishasura is no demon, but a symbolic alliance of two ruling indigenous tribes— the Kols (the forest dwellers) and the Koibartyas (the fishing community inhabiting the coasts and the riverine areas) — who resisted the invaders from the northern plains. The demon king takes his name from the Kol chieftains — Asur — and the headman of the fisher-folks — Mahamandaleshwar, popularly known as Mahish. The festival according to them is a ritualistic celebration of alien victory over the local tribal warlords. The theory has sparked off a debate, with the indigenous think-tank advocating a “soul-search” and if possible a restructuring of historical perceptions in the context of ethnic folklore, “lost in the jumble of events nearly 600 years ago”.

Over 50 tribal scholars from Jamshedpur, Ranchi, Hazaribagh, Dumka, Godda and the greater Jharkhand areas of Purulia, Midnapore and parts of Mayurbhanj (Orissa), who met in Ranchi recently, demanded re-interpretation of the mythological origins of the festival to “inform posterity about its actual relevance in the social milieu of Jharkhand”.

Citing studies published by eminent historians in various journals, they insisted that certain tenets of the festival be “modified” in Jharkhand to appease the sentiments of the local inhabitants as the “very essence of the Durgotsav in its present form goes against the ethnic ethos”.

Adikanda Mahato, secretary of the north Orissa (Mayurbhanj) chapter of the Jharkhand Buddhijeevi Manch, feels that the “history of the indigenous people should be rewritten. You cannot make our children believe in a Durga that kills a demon of indigenous origin. It hurts popular sentiments.”

A study by ethnographer Sarat Chandra Roy, Mundas and Their Country, takes off from a 16th century Sanskrit text, saying that the way Lord Indra killed the Mundas was similar to the manner in which the Kols were slain by the goddess Durga. For the 24-member Manch, it is the clinching evidence that the Kols, Kurmi, Kora (modern-day Oraon tribals) were beyond the realms of the Vedic shastra.

“Or else, why should the Puranas single out Kol and Munda as the enemies'” asks an indignant P. Mahto, principal of Patamda College.

Logical though it may seem, the theory has one major flaw. Whom exactly did the Vedic text refer to as the Kols and Mundas' There is no historical evidence to prove that the Kols and the Mundas of Vedic India were the same as those inhabiting Jharkhand today.

But reason, as always, loses its way in sentiments. If the Manch is to be believed, Durga Puja was brought to the region in the 16th century by the Brahmins from Kanauj who came to the East as sevaits of Lord Jagannath in ancient Kalinga and subsequently made inroads into the court of the kings of the Mayurbhanj, Ramgarh (ancient Paduma), Dhalbhum (present day East Singhbhum), Ratu (Ranchi) and Panchakot (Purulia).

According to studies by Roy in the Asiatic Society journals and the Bihar-Orissa research journals, the kings, originally tribal chieftains, gradually became isolated from the masses as the priests introduced Vedic rituals in the court and granted them “Kshatriya” status. In return, they were favoured with generous grants of land.

As the ritual found favour with the royalty, people were forced to take part in it. The neo-converts, says J.C. Jha, a historian from Bihar, became shadow Rajputs and soon disassociated themselves from their tribal brethren.

Manch member P.P. Mahto, also a senior anthropologist, goes a step further. In his yet unpublished book on the ethnic diaspora, he argues that the concept of Mahishasura arises from the “collective consciousness of the hor-mitan (tribal fraternity) groups which rises time and again in protest against oppression”. “Every tribal movement, be it the Kol rebellion or the Santhal uprising, is marked by the refrain — Mahishasur uthe auole re (Mahishasur has risen),” says Mahto.

The issue, however, is not new. It was first raised by Ram Dayal, former Ranchi University vice-chancellor, and Mahto at the Indian Council of Indigenous Tribal People conference in New Delhi in 1992.

But Ayodhya seems to have breathed new life into the 600-year-old tribal folklore. According to observers, if archaeological research confirms the existence of an ancient temple beneath the mosque, then “Mahishasura can always trace its origin to the indigenous groups, vanquished by the pan-Hindu forces.” This analogy seems to be the invisible cornerstone on which the Manch arguments rest.

Since the formation of Jharkhand in 2000, the tribal groups, especially those in the opposition and the Mahto-Kudmi lobby, had been trying to push forth the cultural agenda in a bid to assert their ethnic identity. But a ruling pro-Hindu coalition — the National Democratic Alliance — has succeeded in relegating ethnicity to the background, much to the chagrin of these groups.

The official language or the rajbhasa, Hindi, according to tribal opposition leaders in Ranchi, is a case in point. The predominance of the language both at the primary and the higher education level has imposed in its wake the mainstream Hindi heartland’s cultural and religious code, which is inherently alien to the region. Preservation of tribal art, craft, heritage and religious practices has become cosmetic measures primarily to attract Central funds meant for ethnic welfare.

Hence, this new theory seems to be another attempt by the cultural minority to make its voice heard. The intellectual think-tank’s demands from time to time only serves to highlight their identity problems.

Some time back, they demanded an ethnic studies academy for the development of tribal arts. It was followed by the demand for the inclusion of the Kudmi-Mahto groups, comprising 26 per cent of the ethnic populace, on the scheduled tribes list. Then came the burning domicile and reservation controversies, which almost resulted in a civil war between the tribals and the non-tribals.

Now, as the earlier issues are gradually losing steam, Mahishasura, whom the majority loves to denounce, bludgeons his way into the scene as the “symbol of ethnic pride”. It is perhaps an act of desperation, and therein lies the tragedy. A race which aspired for more than four decades to have a home and identity of its own, is forced to seek recourse to “intangibles” to justify its existence in its own land.

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