Forward Press

Bir, Birajiya and Agariya Asurs and their pasts

Asurs are one of the oldest tribes of India. They mainly live in Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, though pockets of West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh are also home to them. In Jharkhand, the Asur population is confined to Gumla, Lohardaga, Palamu and Latehar districts. Asurs are a primitive tribe that taught the world how to smelt iron. This led to the production of steel and enabled the human race to take a big leap in its material progress. Asurs are not idol worshippers. Nature is the mainstay of their philosophy of life. The Asurs are divided into three groups – Bir Asur, Birajia Asur and Agaria Asur.

Bir Asurs (also simply Asurs) of the Sakhuwapani village in Jharkhand’s Gumla district (Photo courtesy: Suresh Jagannatham)

Bir Asur

Generally, only the Bir Asurs are considered Asurs, though Birajia and Agaria Asurs are also part of this tribe. The word “Bir” means “powerful inhabitants of the forests” in Asuri and Mundari languages. The Bir Asurs are divided into 12 “gotras”, which are named after different animals and birds like Ayind (fish), Toppo (bird), Darode (tadpole), Khusar (owl), Kirkitiya (a particular bird), Mahto Rothe (big frog), Sinduria Rothe (a frog with a line on its back), Chhote Ayind (small fish), Chhote Toppo (small bird), Chhote Kirkitiya (a type of bird) and Koybarwa (a wild animal which has a black spot on its face). Bir Asurs are exogamous. They keep away from the animal or living organisms after which their gotra is named. It is believed that violating this rule may make luck turn against them. After the gotra, the family is the most important social unit of Bir Asurs[1]. The Bir Asurs also called Solka, Yuthra, Kol, etc. Their main language is Asuri, which belongs to the Mundari group of languages. They also speak Saadri, Nagpuri and Hindi languages.

The Asurs used to have homes for young, unmarried boys and girls where they would be provided traditional education. These homes were called “Giti Oda”. However, this tradition has almost disappeared amid the onrush of modernity. A Bir Asur is considered youth on attaining the age of 10-12. According to IAS officer Dr Manish Ranjan, Giti Odas were basically centres that provided all-round education to the children. They were told about the beliefs and folktales of the community and also about their ancestors. They were also taught how to hunt and work in groups. Training in dance and music and solving riddles helped in their mental development and developed an appreciation of the art in them. They were also taught how to handle chores and were introduced to the importance of discipline and labour. They were also trained in the occupation they would inherit from parents. If they indulged in indiscipline, they were punished. The girls and boys would lose the membership of Giti Oda once they got married.[2] Giti Odas had all but disappeared by the 1960s.

Asur Siring (collection of poems, 2016) is the only published work of Asur literature. Sushma Asur and Vandana Tete edited the book, which has a compilation of traditional as well as new songs of the Asurs. It was published from Ranchi.

According to the 1991 Census, the total population of Bir Asurs in the country was 10,712 and 7,783 of them lived in Jharkhand.

Birajia Asur

Birajia Asurs have been notified as a distinct primitive tribe. They are mainly found in Jharkhand. They used to be iron smelters, too. However, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957 deprived them of their right to produce iron. It is said that they had come from Madhya Pradesh and settled in Jharkhand. They are further sub-divided into two groups – Telia and Sinduria. Birajia is the name of their language. Polygamy is prevalent among them. The profession and festivals of Birajia Asurs are almost the same as those of Bir Asurs.[3] Currently, they are mainly engaged in making plates and bowls out of leaves plucked from the forest. This tribe is on the verge of extinction. Birajia Asurs consider themselves descendants of Ravana and Mahishasur. So, they do not burn Ravana’s effigy. Instead they worship Ravana and Mahishasur on the Dussehra.[4]

A painting of Birajia Asurs (Photo courtesy: Tribal Museum, Ranchi)

According to the Census 2001, the total population of Birajia Asurs is 5,356.[5]

Agaria Asurs

Agaria Asurs are mainly found in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Among them, the Agarias who live in the Mirzapur and Sonbhadra districts of Uttar Pradesh and its surrounding areas have mined and smelted iron ore since the British rule. Some members of the tribe also reside in Agra and Mathura districts. In Shahdol and Mandla districts of Madhya Pradesh, the Agarias are still engaged in smelting iron. They are also known as the ironsmiths of Gonds. Besides the Agaria language, they also speak Chhattisgarhi and Hindi. “The chief deity of the Agarias is Lohasur who, the Agaria believe, lives in fired kilns. They offer black hen to their deity. They worship the equipment used for smelting iron on the day of Dussehra in the months of Margasheersh and Phalgun. Their diet includes coarse grains and meat of many different animals. They have a special liking for pork. They get tattoos etched on their bodies. The system of bride price prevails among them and widow remarriage is acceptable. They consider urad dal [a lentil variety] sacred and its use is considered auspicious in marriages.”[6]

Verrier Elwin’s ‘The Agaria’

The Agarias also found in Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur district. Well-known anthropologist Verrier Elwin has written a book titled The Agaria on the worldview of the Agarias. Elwin writes that the Agarias and Asurs are the descendants of that tribal group referred to as Asurs in Sanskrit scriptures.[7] Elwin adds that Agarias (Asurs) are known with different names in different places but basically they are the same people; they share a common mythology and a common primitive god, and their apotropaic rituals are the same.[8]

Agaria Asurs attend a meeting in Chhattisgarh’s Balrampur district on 27 August 2012 (Photo courtesy: Ravi Shekhar, Lokvidya Ashram, Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh)

Some villages in the Mahrauni tehsil of Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh, like Aghodi, Agauri, Aagra, etc, are named after the Agaria tribe.[9] It is worth mentioning that in Uttar Pradesh, Agarias have been given the status of a tribe only in Sonbhadra district. In the other areas of the state they are listed as SCs. Madhya Pradesh too has categorized them as SC. According to the 2001 Census, the total population of Agarias in the country is 72,000[10].

A tribe called Agaria is also found in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Their livelihood is salt production. However, no clear evidence to available to link this tribe with the Asurs.

 

[1] Asur: Jeevan Se Maran Tak, Suresh Jagannatham, Forward Press (monthly), New Delhi, April 2016, p 57-72

[2] Dr Manish Ranjan, Jharkhand Samanya Gyan, (2016), Prabhat Prakashan, New Delhi.

[3] Dr Manish Ranjan, Jharkhand Samanya Gyan (2016), Prabhat Prakashan, New Delhi.

[4] http://hindi.eenaduindia.com/States/East/JharKhand/RanchiCity/2016/10/11122801/worships-raavana-on-vijyadashmi-in-ranchi.vpf

[5] http://pib.nic.in/archieve/others/2008/Dec/r2008121914.pdf

[6] http://bharatdiscovery.org/india/%E0%A4%85%E0%A4%97%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%AF%E0%A4E

[7] Verrier Elwin, The Agaria (2007), trans Prakash Parihar, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi

[8] Verrier Elwin, The Agaria (2007), trans Prakash Parihar, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi

[9] Dr Rakesh Narayan Dwivedi, Sthan-Naam Samay ke Sakshi: Lalitpur Ke Sambandh Main (2012), Janki Prakashan, Lalitpur Uttar Pradesh.

[10] https://www.ethnologue.com/language/agi


For more information on Mahishasur, see Mahishasur: A People’s Hero. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (Phone: 9968527911).

Or, find the book on Amazon:  Mahishasur: A People’s Hero  (English edition),  Mahishasur: Ek Jan Nayak (Hindi edition)

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Mahishasur: A People’s Hero (English edition), Mahishasur: Ek Jan Nayak (Hindi edition)