Let's not fight, Jharkhand tribals say, as they pray to Mahishasur
Over the last two days, HRD Minister Smriti Irani had angrily objected in Parliament to the alleged depiction of Mahishasur by “some students of JNU” as a “martyr” who was lured to his death by Durga.
But amid all the rhetoric over the JNU sedition controversy, the fact remains that there are tribal groups across the country that believe in the counter-narrative and want “the truth to be presented in an unbiased manner”.
“We are all born from the womb of the same mother earth. There is nothing to fight over. But we believe that Mahishasur was our king and he was killed dishonestly by Durga. Why should a biased picture be presented? As it is, we do not have any idol of Mahishasur. We invoke him in our hearts,” said Sushma Asur from Sakhuapani village in Latehar’s Netarhat.
Sushma is a member of Asur, classified officially as a Primitive Tribe Group (PTG) and who number less than 10,000 in Jharkhand. And according to experts, the counter-narrative of so-called demon kings being worshipped and their slaying mourned exist among tribal groups across Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
“We believe we are the descendants of Mahishasur. We do not celebrate Durga Puja. Our rituals that have been passed on to us through generations tell us that we should take protective measures on the night Mahishasur was killed,” said Sushma.
She added that members of her group “apply oil on their navels, ears and nose, the spots from where blood is seen oozing out of Mahishasur in the popular depiction of Durga piercing her trishul into his body”.
“According to our beliefs, the killing took place in the dark. We don’t want negative energies to overtake us,” said Sushma.
She added that members of her group mourn those nine days when the battle between Mahishasur and Durga is believed to have lasted.
“Not only among Asurs, the narrative exists in Santhals, one of the largest tribal groups. They mourn the deaths of Mahishasur and Ravan,” said Vandana Tete, an activist who has been working on conserving the heritage, history and literature of tribals over the past decade.
Asked whether tribal folklore shows Durga in poor light, Tete said, “We have come across some references in West Bengal, where many tribal groups exist. There are elements in their folk songs indicating the same. But we have to conduct more studies before making a declaration.”
Said Ajit Prasad Hembram from Purulia in West Bengal, who has been organising events to observe Mahishasur Martyrdom Day since 2014, “I don’t understand why it is such an issue with the present government. They have their minds fixed on only one depiction. The tribal people are very much sons of this soil. Their tradition has been handed down through generations.”
Said Ashwini Pankaj of Jharkhand Bhasha Sanskriti Sahitya Akhra, “The problem is that nobody is interested in knowing or conserving the heritage of tribals, which we are losing fast. Their traditions, rituals are part of folklore. We need to record and identify those narratives.”
He said the Akhra, or a meeting place, was trying to come up with a grammar of tribal languages, including the ones spoken by Asurs.