May 22, 2016

The Chattisgarh of Shamans and trances

The beauty of Chattisgarh lies not only in its natural environs and its rich dense forest cover, but it also offers you a fascinating study of anthropology, ancient customs and traditions.

Thanks to technology seeping into even the remotest part of the country and with the increasing adaptation of new-fangled modern ideas, the tribals of Chattisgarh have become greatly urbanized. But  they still follow a lot of their ancient customs and we were lucky to experience a few of them first hand.  

The first were the Shamans. A village near the Kanker palace was celebrating a  festival that included worshiping the local deity and this is where we came face to face with the Shamans. 

Most of the Chattisgarh tribes worship either animals or nature in some form or the other. Religion here is basic and non- complicated.

The Shamanas are supposed to be men of God chosen in their childhood due to their unusual behavior and actions. Spirits, sometimes malevolent but mostly benevolent are supposed to dwell in them and the villagers believe that they are worshiping God through them. Their actions when they are in a trance are not the actions one would expect from a normal human being.

I went to see the shamans with a lot of trepidation. The practical side of me didn’t want to believe in any of this but then on the other hand I was very curious. 

The village was just off the main road and was almost a part of the main town.  It had a very urban look to it, although a lot of houses still had mud walls and thatched roofs and small vegetable gardens attached to them. With the chicks and piglets running all around, it seemed that the villagers were self-sufficient at least in their supply of vegetables and meat.

 But there were a quite a few concrete houses also and a lot of local youths zipped up and down on bikes.

I particularly liked the artistic manner in which the house nos were written on the front wall.

We could see a huge gathering in the center of the village and as we neared the spot we could hear the sound of drums and pipes. We barely had time to take out our cameras after reaching the spot when we saw the Shamans coming towards us. About 5-6 men, swaying from one side to the other, wearing yellow or Black Dhotis, a heap of marigold garlands around their necks. Their hair was disheveled, falling across their foreheads and their eyes rolled in their heads.  

They had bells tied to their feet and some of them carried the ‘Ang Dev’ on their shoulders.  Ang Dev is a long wooden staff with prayer flags hanging from it that represents the local deity.

The shamans as was very obvious from their disjointed steps and zig zag way of walking were in a trance and some of the villagers were supporting them stay upright. They walked without purpose, first going in one direction then another as if their bodies were not in their control and their feet were being directed by an unseen force. The Ang Devs wobbled erratically on their shoulders and people stepped nimbly out of the way to avoid getting hit from the staffs. They danced or rather swayed their way from one house to another dragging along the people who supported them. As they approached a house, the people in the house came out to worship them by washing their feet with water and garlanding them. 

This particular worship was in gratitude for a good harvest. The Shamans went round the village stopping at each house and eventually gathered in the village square where the dancing and festivities continued. 

The crowds had swelled by now, and the swaying shamans,  the strong smell of liquor, the smell of flowers, the drums and the pipes was like an assault on the senses and at least for me it did not make for a very  pleasant experience.
Everyone was trying to look over the wall to see what the shamans were doing, while this young lady deigned to give us a teeny weeny smile.

The villagers might conceive the shamans to be divine and the swaying and dancing and stumbling all a part of being in a trance but then we could also smell  a very strong and distinct smell of the local liquor so we had our reservations about how authentic the shamans actually were. 

The faces around me were a mixture of awe and devotion and only mine seemed to have skepticism written over it. The tribal beliefs, unlike ours are uncomplicated, simpler and non-judgmental. Honestly, If this gets them closer to their god why not. It is better than a 100 complicated rituals.
Perhaps this is a better way to live than us city dwellers who tend to analyze, over think and pass judgment on everything.

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