Asurs of Chhota Nagpur

The fast-shrinking Asur community is a matter of great concern. At stake are the rights of an ancient people as mining companies dig up their land and push them further into the margins. But we were also witness to a defiant Asur culture

GROUND REPORT BY NAWAL KISHORE KUMAR

Chasing political stories day in, day out had turned me into a robot. That was what being the coordinating editor of a newspaper with limited resources entailed. I was working for Tarun Mitra in Patna. Then, one day, I received a call from Pramod Ranjan, the editor of Forward Press, Delhi. “Will you come along to meet the Asurs?”

At the most I could spare two days. But I needed to shed my robot-ness for a while. “When do we leave?”, I asked. On 1 November 2015, Pramod arrived in Ranchi from Delhi. I was supposed to reach Ranchi from Patna by train. But I worked till late in the night and missed the Patna-Ranchi Jan Shatabdi scheduled to leave early next morning. I ended up boarding a bus.

Pramod Ranjan talks to former chief minister Shibu Soren in Ranchi (Photo: FP on the Road, 2015)

During the journey, I kept thinking about Asurs – a tribal community on the verge of extinction. Mahishasur has a special place in the re-rendition of myths. Ranendra’s Global Gaon Ke Devta adds some new dimensions to the discourse on the re-rendition of myths and they include historical facts and evidence, especially regarding Lohardaga and Gumla districts, nestled in the plateau of Chhota Nagpur – now on course for a fast change. Ranendra brings forth the different aspects of these changes. From Ranchi, we were going to travel to the remote villages of Gumla.

Nawal Kishore Kumar with Anil Asur in Gumla (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

Bishunpur block of Gumla district is home to the primitive Asur tribe. Traditionally, Asurs have made a living by smelting iron. The area where they live is abundantly rich in iron ores (Hematite, Magnetite and Goethite), and the aluminium ore Bauxite, too.

River that throws up gold

On our way from Ranchi to Gumla we stopped at a village market just before Bishunpur. We had our breakfast (puris and a local vegetable curry, served in donas – receptacles – of sakhua). Having satiated our hunger, we began climbing the plateau. We saw the almost-dead version of what was the Swarnarekha River. There was a thin stream of water among the rocks dotting the riverbed. That was the lifeline of the entire region. When we stopped briefly to take in this sight, we could only wonder about the lives hanging by this thread of water. According to the Department of Water Resources, Government of Jharkhand, Swarnarekha, which flows for around 475 km, sustains life over an area of 28,982 square kilometres. It was on the banks of this river that Jamshedji Tata set up a steel plant and then an entire township, which is Jamshedpur today. What is the link between this river and the steel plant?

This sand of the river is said to contain gold particles and people have been sieving them out. How could a river without any current reduce rocks into particles? Swarnrekha perhaps once did bring gold particles with it as its name suggests when the farmers sowed and reaped in their fields. However, today, neither Swarnrekha nor the farmers exist. Swarnarekha reminded me of the Son, a tributary of the Ganga, which drains the Kaimur Mountain ranges. Although Son doesn’t bring gold, it does bring sand, which is of great economic and political importance. A festival called Jiyutia is celebrated in Aurangabad district, whose settlements have come up along the river. It is a festival of the indigenous inhabitants.

First they looted iron and are now eyeing aluminium

The road was in good condition, but soon it became chock-a-block with trucks carrying bauxite, an ore of aluminium. The government makes only a fleeting appearance in the area, only if its officials stand to benefit. It is the mining companies and their contractors who rule the roost. The government has installed a “Dharmakanta” (weighbridge), which is used to weigh the trucks loaded with Bauxite to work out the tax payable on the mined mineral. “Dharmakanta” seems to be a strange word. What does it have to do with “dharma” (religion)? What sort of religion is it? Is it the brahmanical religion which leans towards the powerful – a pro-corporate religion?

The road, which has been cut through the plateau, is often narrow. The frequent movement of bauxite-laden trucks in both directions with Bauxite was unsettling to say the least.

At around 1.30 pm, we were on the premises of the Bishunpur block office, about 240 km from Ranchi, the last outpost of the Indian bureaucracy. The place was teeming with people. We were told that the Panchayat elections were round the corner and nomination papers were being filed on that day. However, inside the offices, there was relative calm. We were sitting in the office of Ravindra Gupta, the Block Development Officer (BDO). There were around 8-10 people in the office. One was pleading for a ration card while another was complaining that he had not received his quota of food grains. Yet another had not got his old-age pension. Ravindra was listening to their grievances.

Hindalco’s bauxite mine in Amtipani (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

Once he had heard everyone out, he turned to us. During the conversation, he rued that many well off people in his area had usurped the ration cards meant for the poor. He said that he had appealed to such people to surrender their ration cards and that there had been a positive response.

When we told him that we wanted to meet members of the Asur community, Ravindra introduced us to a social worker. His name was Anil Asur. He is the first person from the Asur community to contest assembly elections. He did so on behalf of the Communist Party of India. Anil Asur was going to introduce us to Asur culture.

The BDO also introduced us to an Asur woman. Vasanti Asur said she had got a government job, courtesy of a decision taken by Jharkhand government, when Shibu Soren was chief minister. Soren had launched a programme under which members of the Asur community would be provided government jobs immediately after completing matriculation.

‘Madhumay’ Latehar

We thanked the BDO and continued our journey in the company of Anil Asur. As we drove on, Tribal culture and lifestyle began unfolding before us. Anil Asur acquainted us with the various issues facing the community. He was aware of the ongoing discourse on Mahishasur in the metros. He told us that he had received a pamphlet from Ranchi with a detailed dissection of the story of Mahishasur and Durga. He considered Mahishasur his ancestor and his pride, but he said that the Asur community was passing through a transitional phase, and the youth knew little about their ancestors. He noted the lack of education and explained how brahmanical institutions had succeeded in thrusting their educational policy on the entire region.

Our conversation went on till we reached the junction where one road led to Netarhat Vidyalaya, described as the “heaven of gods” by Ranendra in his Global Gaon Ke Devta, and the other to the village of the Asurs. Netarhat Vidyalaya was built in 1954 on land belonging to Asurs and now had become a renowned, prestigious government residential school. However, as Anil told us, over the last 60 years, not a single student from Asur community had been enrolled in the school. Further ahead, we saw a board that said “Arun yah madhumay Latehar hamara”. It was a parody on Jaishankar Prasad’s poem. The board had paintings of wild animals but none of Asurs, as if to suggest that only wild animals lived there. Paintings of people would not draw tourists, would they?

I again recalled the lines of Jaishankar Prasad:

Arun yah madhumay desh hamara,

Jahan pahunch anjaan kshitij ko milta ek sahara

(This is our sweet country, where even the unknown gets shelter)

It was around 3 in the afternoon. Now, we had two options: To drive to the guesthouse in Netarhat town, rest for a while. Or get down to business – head to the village of the Asurs and try to get as much information as possible. After all, that was what we were there for.

Asurs in Bauxite mines

That is what we did. Our next stop would be Anil Asur’s village, Sakhuapani. On the way, we saw huge pits created by the mining of Bauxite. The state government has issued specific instructions to the mining companies to fill up such pits after mining. Not all these companies pay heed. They leave the gashes to heal on their own.

Labourers ready Amtipani’s bauxite mine for Environment Day (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

We stopped near one of the mines in Amtipani. Most of the labourers were owners of the fields where the mining was taking place. They were forced to work as labourers on their own land.

Some Asur labourers were planting dry stems of Sakhua. Will the dry stems turn green again? We saw them wrap the stems in green leaves. Initially, we were at a loss to understand why they were doing so. Anil Asur then enlightened us on what was happening. Top officers of the company were visiting the area on World Environment Day, and they should not feel that they were in a desolate area. Having destroyed the natural wealth of the area, they themselves would celebrate Environment Day!

At the dhaba, we met Anil Asur’s namesake. He turned out to be the brother of Sushma Asur whose Hindi poems had drawn the world’s attention to the Asurs and their predicament. We had brought with us some copies of the Forward Press issue of October 2012, whose cover story was on Asurs. We gave a copy of the issue to Sushma’s brother. He peered at the photo of her sister on the cover for a long time. Later, he explained to us the economics of fields and mines in detail. For instance, he let a mining company dig up one and a half acres of his land and all he got was Rs 1.5 lakh. He now works as a labourer in the mine on his own land, for which he gets paid Rs 230 a day.

Meeting with Anil No 3

We began talking to the labourers working in the Amtipani area. To most of them, our questions sounded strange, but they could understand that we were talking about them. All of them introduced themselves by using the surname Asur. When we asked them about the traditions of the Asur Tribe, they either were too shy to answer or just remained silent. When the conversation turned to the acquisition of land by the mining companies, we were told that it is for the farmer to decide whether he wanted to sell his land to the mining companies and that the companies didn’t use force. Meanwhile, we met the third Anil Asur. Like Anil Asur, our guide, he was also from Sakhuapani. His attire and his physique stood out. When we got talking, he said that a battle took place between Mahishasur and the outsiders and one of the two sides won. But, he said, Asurs believe that Mahishasur was killed by deceit. Mahishasur never attacked animals and women. Anil said that they do not celebrate “Mahishasur Martyrdom Day” but they do remember Mahishasur. When asked whether Durga Puja should be stopped, he said that irrespective of whether it is stopped, at least the Asurs should not take part in it. He told us that Durga Puja is celebrated in the neighbouring village of Jobhipat.

The bitter truths about mining companies

We wanted to see how Bauxite was extracted. Our guide Anil Asur, some mining labourers and we boarded a ramshackle jeep and proceeded towards Amtipani mines. On the way, the labourers told us about their wages and their problems. When we arrived at the mines, huge earthmoving machines were at work. The machines struck hard at the ground and tore open the plateau, a bauxite chest. The labourers told us that the mining companies did not spare even a small piece of land. That is how rich the plateau was in bauxite. The loading of the excavated mineral was fully mechanized. Within a few minutes, a dumper was full up to the brim and another took its place. The mechanization keeps the number of manual labourers at a bare minimum. A sprawling mine needed just four-five labourers. And all were sitting atop machines. Many of them drive dumpers.

The sun had completed its daily stroll across the skies and was about to call it a day. We wanted to reach Sakhupani before dark. Everything in the area was tailor-made for the mining companies. The roads were not wide but excellently maintained. In any case, there are so few Asurs here. We saw a few people taking their cattle home. The sun was setting. But it seemed it had already set on the Asur culture.

Ranendra’s potatoes

Anil Asur, our guide, told us that when Ranendra was posted as BDO in Bishunpur, he ensured that the mining companies adhered to all government directives. He made them fill up the pits. But once he was transferred, things were back to square one. Ranendra, who hails from a peasant family, appears to be an excellent administrator. The agricultural fields on the plateau cannot hold water due to the undulating terrain and hence the farmers are unable to grow water-intensive crops. Ranendra got the soil of the fields tested and was told that it was ideal for growing potatoes in the rainy season. He first launched potato farming as a pilot project in the area. It was successful and soon became very popular. This enhanced the financial status of the farmers of Asur and other tribes.

In Gumla, mining has rendered the soil infertile (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

We ran into an elderly farmer tilling his land. A brief conversation laid bare his pain and misery. The craters left behind by the mining companies, even when filled up, are not suitable for growing crops, because the soil is rendered infertile. While tilling, the ploughshare gets stuck in stones. The rainwater seeps into the pits, leaving the soil dry. This makes it impossible to grow traditional crops like paddy and maize. That is why farmers grow potatoes. It needs less labour and less water.

Asurs consume meat. Apart from vegetables and grains, chicken and mutton are part of their diet. Beef is reserved for special occasions. We found Asurs raising cows, buffaloes, goats and hens in large numbers. Interestingly, Asurs don’t consume cow’s milk.

Names of villages rooted in nature

As we entered Sakhuapani village, the colour of the road changed from black to red. The road passing through the village was paved with red mud, the residue of bauxite mining. Walking on stony paths, we reached our companion Anil Asur’s village. We saw Sushma Asur’s house and a school. A group of young men were in the middle of some drunken revelry. It was a while before they could recover from the shock of suddenly finding outsiders in their midst. They later told us that they no longer drink “hadiya” (rice beer), which has been replaced by country liquor made from spirit.

The women were lighting up their chulhas. Smoke was billowing out of most of the houses. Anil explained to us the meaning of the name of his village. Sakhua is the most important tree in Asur culture and is revered as sarna sthal (the place of worship). Sakhuapani means a stream of water flowing beside a Sakhua tree. Several other villages have been similarly named. For instance, Kathopani, which means wood and water. Amti is a tree, the fruits of which taste sweet and sour, like tamarind, hence Amtipani. Another village is called Aaondhapatha – “patha” means a village located in an elevated place and Aaonla is, of course, a gooseberry tree. Gora Pahad does not mean a bright or whitish hillock; it refers to mahua (which is brewed to make liquor) in Asuri language. Other village names like Polpolpat, Sujam, Khairipat, Herodeeh, Aambakona (Aamba means mango) also have similar etymologies.

Anil Asur and a friend in Sekhuapani village (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

Nature is the fulcrum of Asur life. Sakhuapani falls under the Gurdari Panchayat. Gurberi, he said, is a distortion of Gurdari (door to Guru). The Asurs initially lived in Gurdari. The village still has a five-foot-high rock, with a slender crack in between, through which a mug tied to a string is lowered down to fill water. It is said that this reservoir never runs out of water. There are many springs around the village and it is believed that bathing in their water can cure many diseases.

Sansikutasi’: The iron-smelting ritual

We met an elderly resident of the village. He told us in some detail about the culture of the Asurs, including the art of smelting iron. Some of the residents still smelt iron using an ancient technology. Asurs perform a ritual before smelting iron, which is called “Sansikutasi”. The ritual involves praying to ancestors for high-quality iron yield that can fetch a good price in the market. The importance of this invention can hardly be underestimated. After all, it is the iron frames on which gargantuan structures all over the world stand.

Why haven’t the Asurs been given the credit for this invention? They were the first people to extract iron from its ore and make weapons and equipment with it. We talked until dusk. It was time to leave Sakhuapani. We spent the night at the famous Dak Bungalow, in Netarhat, which is now a government rest house.

Night envelopes plateaus very fast. As evening approached, the roads became deserted and people retired to their homes. Back at the Dak Bungalow, our conversation with Anil Asur on various aspcts of Asur life and culture continued.

Secret lies in the name

Like other communities, Asurs have their own customs for every occasion. Asurs still follow the old traditions laid down for marking all events in life – from birth to death. The ritual of “Sauri Leepna” (sprucing up the house, traditionally using a mixture of mud and cow-dung) is conducted on the fifth day after the birth of a child. It is believed that the mother is impure in the first five days after giving birth to a child. (A similar belief is prevalent in the plains of Bihar, too, though there “Sauri” may extend up to 20 days.) Then there is the naming ceremony.

On the sixth day of the birth, the child is tonsured and the naming ceremony follows. The same name is given to children generation after generation. For instance, Anil Asur was named “Ghura”. “Anil” is his functional name, his name in the school’s register, given by “dikkus” (outsiders). “Ghura” was the name of one of his ancestors, who lived a couple of generations ago. The ancestor “agreed” to give this descendant his name during the naming ceremony.

Anil Asur related the entire process of naming a child to us. “First, a dona is made of Sakhua leaf. It is called puddu. Some use a brass vessel instead. Clean water is poured into it. Paddy sheaves are rubbed with hands to extract rice grains. These grains are called ‘arwa chawal’. The grains are dropped into the dona one by one, taking the name of ancestors. If the child is a boy, first the name of his father (if not alive) is taken, then his grandfather’s, then his great grandfather’s and so on. If it is a girl, the grains are dropped while uttering the names of grandmother, great grandmother and so on. For instance, if I have to give a name to my child, I will first take the name of my father – Lakhan Asur, who is no more – then his father Bhonta Asur, then my great grandfather Ganjera Asur. If the grain dropped after taking the name of an ancestor settles at the base of the dona, it is believed that the ancestor does not want to give his name to the child. It is regarded as inauspicious. The grains that float in water represent the ancestors who have agreed to let the child be named after them. At the end, a grain is dropped for the newborn. As it drifts in the water, it is watched carefully. The moment it touches another grain, representing any of the ancestors, the name of that particular ancestor is given to the child.”

As Anil Asur described this naming ceremony, Pramod Ranjan was reminded of the characters in Hindu mythology. He said, “In ancient Indian literature, there are many who seem to have lived in different eras but shared same names. Different periods seem to have had their own Krishnas, Ganpatis, Mahishasurs and other non-Aryan heroes described as Rakshas in Hindu mythology. They shared a tradition of thoughts and beliefs but they were different people. This naming custom of Asurs seems to offer an explanation for this puzzle. The ancient languages probably did not have many words that could have been used as names. The same names were repeated generation after generation.” Even today, in some communities, people use the names of their fathers or grandfathers as their surnames. But in the case of Asurs, it is different. A person’s full name matches that of one of his ancestors. There is no surname added to it. The names are usually just one word. For instance, Dhondha, Bidhni, Bihani, Ghura and Raga.

Women’s wish reigns supreme

The Hindu scriptures refer to “Asur Vivah” as a wedding where the bride is offered for a price. Actually this is a misnomer. An Asur couple can live together without getting married and even give birth to children. Their children are not considered illegitimate. If an Asur woman becomes a victim of rape and a child is born to her, even that child is not stigmatized. He or she gets as much recognition and respect as other children.

Sushma Asur with her relatives in Bishunpur (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

Ordinarily, the consent of both the girl and boy are mandatory for marriage. Marriages consummated with the consent of the boy and girl alone enjoys complete social acceptability. A seven-day fair called Dhol Jatra is held in the first month of the Hindi calendar. (In Bihar’s Mithila region too, Saurath Sabha is held in which the unmarried girls and boys select their partners publicly. The event enjoys social acceptability. However, this tradition is dying.)

Dhol Jatra: The Swayamvar of Asurs

For Dhol Jatra, women wear white saris with red borders. They also wear ornaments in their feet, waist, ears and neck. Asurs don’t have a nose-piercing tradition. Earlier, these ornaments were made of the costly “ashtadhatu”. There were ornaments for men, too. They were in the shape of broad belts worn around the neck and waist and had small bells attached to them. The sleeves of their dress were frilled. The headgear comprised a “saafa” with peacock feathers stuck to it.

During Dhol Jatra, if a boy falls for a girl, without asking her, he puts vermillion into the parting of her hair. If the girl is on the same page, both go to the Panch and the society accepts their union. The boy can take the girl to his home right away.

However, if the girl does not want to be married to the boy in question, she approaches the elders of her village, who weigh whether the union will be suitable. If they conclude that the union won’t be suitable, the two are separated immediately.

The girls have a decisive say in matrimony. If a girl develops a liking for a boy and wants to marry him, she can tell her family about it. They then approach the family of the boy and the marriage is finalized.

Children witness to parents’ marriage

Besides Dhol Jatra, marriages are also arranged through social contacts. Interestingly, it is not the girl’s family that approaches the boy’s, but vice versa. After initial talks, the girl’s family visits the home of the boy. Once all concerned approve the relationship, the girl starts living with the boy’s family and manages his household. The couple marry after birth of their children. In this tradition, there is no time limit set for marriage. However, they cannot marry off their children till they themselves are married. Thus, among the Asurs, the parents often end up marrying along with their children.

According to Sushma Asur, who is a vigilant keeper of Asur literature and culture, there is yet another way to get married. This is called ghar-dhuku. The flag-bearers of women’s identity and empowerment in the country will be surprised to know that among Asurs, if a girl likes a boy, she can forcibly enter his home. The consent of family members is not required. This is a unique facet of the Asur culture. “Honour killing” is an alien concept here. In fact, there is no link between a woman’s body and honour.

Gotra compatibility important, not mandatory

Asurs too have gotras, and marriages hinge on them to some extent. Beng, Induar, Toppo and Kerketta are among the gotras. If it turns out that the girl and the boy belong to the same gotra, then a solution is worked out by taking the “bada gotra” and “chhota gotra” into consideration. For instance, if the gotra of both the Asur man and Asur woman is “Beng” (frog), then the gotra of one is designated “Bada Beng” and of the other, “Chhota Beng”.

That is not all. Marriages within the family are also permissible among the Asurs. “Suppose, I bring a girl home and we have children,” says Anil Asur. “My children can marry the children of my wife’s brother. However, not all intra-family marriages are allowed. For instance, children of brothers cannot inter-marry.”

Marriages: Rituals and gifts

Every community celebrates marriages. Asurs are no different. They also observe many customs. There is a lot of dancing and singing. Dowry system does exist but it is not a one-sided affair. The bride’s family gives gifts to the groom’s family but so does the groom’s to the bride’s. In recent times, small changes have taken place in this practice. For instance, the bride’s family gives a small sum of money and maybe a cow or a goat to the newlyweds to start their life. In addition, the bride’s family also gifts clothes and other items to the mother and sisters of the groom and to other women members of his family. But this is strictly in keeping with their economic status and no compulsion is involved. All of it is part of the “neg” (ritual) of the wedding ceremony.

Similar rituals are practised by non-Asurs in other states, too. The groom’s family reaches the bride’s home with a baraat (procession). A “madwa” (mandap) is built at the bride’s home and rituals in keeping with the Asur culture are performed. The rituals begin with the sacrifice of cocks and hens to invoke the ancestors and pray for peace to their souls.

Another important marriage ritual is application of oil and turmeric. Family members apply a mixture of oil (2-3 litres) and turmeric (little) to both the bride and the groom and the women start singing wedding songs.

A ritual called “mitti kodna” follows. Both the families take part in it. The family members go to their fields and bring saplings of a plant called Kalyani and soil from there. Kalyani is planted in the courtyard of the home. Simultaneously, nine small pegs are driven into the ground and the soil from the fields is used to plaster the mandap. After this, marriage rituals begin. All rituals involve the use of paddy and rice.

Liberty: The foundation of family

Mutual understanding and consent are the cornerstones of the functioning of Asur society. That is true of marital life, too. However, these are not mandatory. In case a couple do not have a child or a serious situation arises, the husband or the wife is free to separate, though this is considered inauspicious. There is no specific provision for divorce in this community, though efforts are made by the society to save the marriage. If a woman wants to leave her husband and marry another man, she can do so easily. There is no hurdle in it – so much so that she can start living with another man in the same village. Similarly, men can also remarry after separating from their wives.

Burial, not cremation

Asurs see death their own way. In case a person dies of natural causes, they believe that he lived for as long as he was ordained to live. If someone dies of a disease, they believe that he had more time left on this Earth but some witch consumed him.

The Asurs do not cremate dead bodies; they bury them. While covering the dead body with soil, the elders of the family take the lead, followed by other family members, and finally the entire village joins in. They say they not only bury the body but also the soul. “Burying the soul” involves sacrificing a cock at the border of the village and the family members picking up small stones of their choice and burying them.

There is no difference in the burial ritual for men and women. However, if a woman dies during childbirth, it is believed that her soul will not rest in peace, and she is buried at a separate place.

The place of burial and the way the burial takes place depends on the reason for death. If the death is natural, or the result of an ordinary disease, it is taken to be god’s will and the body is buried at a sacred spot. But if someone dies of a serious ailment like malaria or cholera, then he is buried outside the village limits. If someone is murdered, a separate place is earmarked for their burial and no post-death ceremonies are held.

Asurs have the tradition of holding a feast after death. All people who took part in the funeral are specially invited for the feast. They are served hadiya. Those who carried the bier are given special treatment and served better-quality hadiya. The three people who dug the pit for burying the body are also treated as special guests. They get more hadiya than the others. The rest are served rice, vegetables and so on. The guests bring hadiya from their homes and share it with each other. Whether it is marriage or death, hadiya is an important part of all feasts. The guests drink it and make merry. Meat is not served in the post-death rituals.

While I was listening to Anil Asur and noting down these details, a question cropped up in my mind. Do the Asurs have their own language? Yes, they have a language, which is called Malota. But as Malota lacks a script, they use Nagri. No book has ever been written in Malota. They sing Malota songs but the songs don’t exist in written form.

Pioneering democracy

The Asurs do not have any written law. Traditions keep them disciplined. There is no religious guru, only social gurus. As in the case of other tribal communities, these gurus are called Baiga, Pujar, Pahaan and so on. The Asurs democratically elect their social gurus. The Baigas have a term of three years.

The people put their heads together and draw up a list of people who have knowledge of social norms, practices and traditions, as well as about the ancestors of the village residents. Small lumps of soil, each representing one of the shortlisted people, are placed on the ground. A “lodha” (a piece of stone used to grind spices) and a winnowing basket are used in the process. When this is done, Asurs believe that some divine power comes into play.

Baigas lead the people during festivals while Pujars are Baigas’ assistants. The Pahan tells the people about religious events. Baigas also serve as judges. If any dispute arises in the village, the Baigas adjudicate the issue and everyone accepts their decision. Asurs use “sarna sthal” as the place for religious worship. It is an old, big tree under which the deities are installed and worshipped. All the other tribal communities of Jharkhand, be it the Mundas or Oraons, use “sarna sthal” as the place of worship.

Festivals

The life of Asurs is a mosaic of nature-based festivals. Their new year begins from the Chaitra month of the Hindi calendar. Holi is celebrated for seven days at the beginning of the year and Dhol Jatra is also held at the same time. During Holi celebrations, the Asurs till their fields, bathe their cattle and serve them rich fodder. They do not play with colours on Holi. Anil Asur says that initially Holika Dahan was not part of the Asur tradition but now it is.

Bhainsasur puja most important

Deepawali is a major festival of the Asurs and Bhainsasur Puja is its most important part. The celebrations last three days. During the festival, they bathe their cattle and apply oil to their bodies. Bhainsasur Puja is held on the day after Deepawali. It is mainly the men who celebrate the festival; the women play a secondary role. Cattle are fed corn and are allowed to eat as much of it as they want. The grazers of the village gather in an open space. Hadiya is served to them in bronze plates. Some money is also placed in the plates. However, they cannot use their hands to drink. They have to kneel and sip hadiya. The grazer who manages to drink all of the hadiya served to him and lift the money using his mouth is declared the winner. Parents, brothers and sisters drink the remaining the hadiya.

About 105 kilometres from Netarhat, Tanginath, in Dumri block of Gumla district, is a pilgrimage site of Asurs. In the newly built temple premises of the site, there are remains of the ancient building and a trident-like weapon made from iron, believed to be the weapon of Bhainsasur (Mahishasur). The centuries-old huge trident has still not corroded. We were unable to visit this site, but thankfully we could get a glimpse of it from Anil Asur’s photo album. Several Asur Tribals in and around Netarhat, including Anil Asur, believe that someone from the Lohra tribe cut off a portion of the trident, following which several people from the Lohra community died. Asurs say the Lohra tribe incurred the wrath of Bhainsasur. Due to this superstition, people from the Lohra community do not reside within 15 km of Tanginath. While Asurs are traditionally engaged in iron smelting, Lohra Tribals (like the Lohar caste) have been making tools from iron.

The school in Netarhat (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

Today, the Brahmins have occupied “Tanginath”, the most important pilgrimage site of the Asurs. We found that they have been telling the world through the internet over the past few years that Tanginath is the temple of Parashuram and the trident as his weapon. But the idols placed near the temple premises and pictures of the relics appear to point to the Asur culture.

What do the Asurs of Jharkhand think about this? Anil Asur says that Mahishasur was their ancestor and Durga deceitfully killed her. When Mahishasur realized that he had reposed faith in a wrong woman, he established his “shakti” in Tanginath.

Durga Puja is ‘Sarkari’

After spending the night at the Netarhat guesthouse, we visited Jobhipat, the village of Asurs. The journey to the village was smooth. Hindalco, the aluminium and copper manufacturer, has built an excellent road for its vehicles that frequent this area. We stopped at an open space in the centre of the village, where we saw a newly built temple of Durga. There was a tube well beside the temple. Do the Asurs here really participate in Durga Puja? The youngsters were evasive. But the reply of an elderly Gola Asur laid bare the struggle that has been going on for centuries.

“Do you participate in Durga Puja?”

“No. A Brahmin comes. It is a ‘Sarkari’ puja. We Asurs do not go there.”

There was no fear of exclusion by the Brahmins; instead there was a strong feeling of aversion towards them.

Pramod Ranjan strikes up a conversation with Gola and Sumitra Asur in Jobhipat village (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

In the Jobhipat village, Gola Asur, along with his wife Phulo Asur, was working his field near their house. They were in their sixties. Gola Asur said that most of the participants in Durga Puja are outsiders who work in the mines or government employees and a Brahmin performs the puja. Gola Asur said Mahishasur is their ancestor and the Asurs keep away from Durga Puja, while adding that young Asur boys and girls had started participating in Durga Puja along with their friends from other tribes. Kaya Munda says Durga Puja began in the village about 10 years ago. He insisted that it was a wrong practice, as Durga was the killer of Mahishasur.

Jobhipat is an Asur-dominated village. There are nine Munda families and an Oraon family, too. According to Kaya Munda, a resident of the village, apart from some festivals like Sarhul and Karm, which are celebrated by all tribal communities, Mundas and Asurs have their own festivals.

Teachers change names of students

An elderly resident, Dhora Asur, told us that the teachers of Jobhipat School change the names of their Asur students. That is how Anil Asur became Ghura Asur, renamed by the non-Asur headmaster.

When the conversation turned to Asur songs, Anil Asur introduced us to Raga Asur. We were told that both Raga Asur and Dhora Asur sang well. As they sang, they explained the meanings of the songs to us in Hindi. It occurred to us – the residents of Delhi and Patna – that we mostly like the songs about joy and gloom, union and separation, and romance, and they are about us – yes, human beings – whereas Asur songs are also about birds and animals, their constant companions.

Durga temple in Jobhipat (Photo: FP on the Road 2015)

We were on our way back – moving away from the trees, the plateaus and the Asurs. We were going back richer – with newfound knowledge about the community, numerous photographs and videos. We could claim that we knew something about the Asurs – who did not exist for the residents of the metros. But Asurs are poorer, thanks to the indiscriminate Bauxite mining and migration, and they may never get back what they have lost. What will happen once the stocks of Bauxite are exhausted? How will they arrange two square meals a day? We didn’t know. But Sushma Asur’s poem Hum Zaroor Jiyengein, Tumhari Tarah (We will definitely live on, like you) offered some answers:

You gave birth to us,

In this plateau,

But did not tell us how to survive,

In this plateau,

You made us work like labourers,

But did not give us money to go to schools,

Did not show us the way to march forward,

Now, we have no language,

Now, we have no culture,

How do we beseech you?

How do we remember you?

O’ ancestors of this Earth

O’ ancestors of the skies

O’ our fathers and mothers, O’ all Asur old men and women,

Forest gave you food,

Fields gave you work,

The plateau extending from this end to that was your school,

Hills and springs showed you the way.

O’ ancestors of this Earth

O’ ancestors of the skies

O’ our fathers and mothers, O’ all Asur old men and women,

You did not know anything about money,

You did not know how to be a parasite,

We do not blame you,

We do not approach the courts,

To make you help us

But when the company comes marching,

When the government seeks to stifle us,

Whom should we call?

Where should we look for shelter?

O’ ancestors of this Earth

O’ ancestors of the skies

O’ our fathers and mothers, O’ all Asur old men and women,

We will learn to talk like you,

We will learn to dance like you,

We will hunt, like you do,

We will hunt all the animals, which are hollowing the homes of Asurs,

Which are luring our springs,

Which are addicted to eating the Earth and the humans,

We will live on, just like you,

Guileless and worriless like this plateau,

In this Asur world created by you.

We were in Gumla from 2-3 November 2015. On the way back, we met Shibu Soren, tribal leader and former chief minister of Jharkhand, in Ranchi on 4 November. Old and frail, Soren was not keeping well at the time. But he still welcomed us and talked with us with great affection. He appreciated our idea of visiting the Asur villages and gave his good wishes for the Mahishasur movement that was launched in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and other universities. He said Mahishasur, Ravan and other heroes are the ancestors and gurus of the Tribals and that the Bahujan youth should not forget their martyrdom.

Translation: Amrish Herdenia; additional translation: Devina Auchoybur; copy-editing: Anil


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The Case for Bahujan Literature

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The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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