The British theory of an Aryan Invasion to which India owned its culture and religious traditions was doubted by Indian scholars in the colonial era itself. Sukumar Dutt observed that the conception of India as a distinct entity existed in the minds of the people from primordial times (Problem of Indian Nationality, University of Calcutta, 1926). Tribal place-names mentioned in the Vedas leave a mark on all subsequent literature. The Vedas refer to the king as a non-territorial leader of the Jana or Vis, and allude to the Pancajanah. This, according to Yaska, the oldest Vedic lexicographer, refers to the four varnas with Nishads as the fifth.
Poets of the Vedic tribes expressed a deep love of the soil, linked with pride in the spread of a distinct (Arya, noble, exalted) culture. It was by the spread of this culture through spiritual-cultural linkages and a community of worship, rather than political conquest, that the idea of the nation rose in India. Geography was thus intrinsic to spirituality, and encompassed all tribes and groups, even outsiders, provided they embraced this spiritual unity, “for here culture and not race or language was the passport for admission”. A common dharma created a social unity and group consciousness.
Through the ages, this spiritual unity permeated all tribal and foreign groups, as also the Jaina, Baudha and other streams that flowed through the land. Caste arose as an agency of integration of diverse groups and a mechanism to resolve mutual conflicts. As ancient customs (Acara) spread, ethnic distinctions melted and tribes and other groups adjusted themselves round the nucleus of caste, which, as Sukumar Dutt noted, proved the sole and sufficient bond of Indian society.
The hereditary principles dominated in practice. Birth and the idea of heredity became important and an ancestry (gotra) became imperative for all Hindus, as the spirits of the ancestors must be invoked in all social sacraments (samskara) as the symbol of the individual’s worthiness for the sacrament.
Consciousness of spiritual-geographical unity spread through an elaborate network of shrines and pilgrimages, sanctification of rivers and places through Puranic literature, and wove the entire land into a cultural unity. Pilgrimages developed the geographical sense in the people, enabling them to think of India as a single living entity.
The concept of tirthas (places of pilgrimage) evolved over the ages. The early form of tirtha as found in Vedic texts attached sanctity to an area or to mountains and rivers in general. The Rig Veda (VIII. 47.49; x. 9.4), Taittriya Samhita (IV. 5.11.1-2; VI. I.I.-2) and Atharva Veda (VI. 24.1-3; XIX. 10-8) describe rivers such as Saraswati as deities to be worshipped. Waters have always been sacred in Indian tradition, as they are believed to wash away all sins. The mountains are also invoked as deities (Rig Veda I.122.3; VIII.6.28; X.9; X.30). By the time of the Dharmasutras and early Smrtis, tirtha involved pilgrimage to a particular place held sacred due to association with some natural phenomenon (confluence of two or more rivers, natural tanks, hot-water springs) or a saint.
Tirthas evolved as an institution in the era of the epics and Puranas and by the seventh century AD acquired a pan-India character with the assimilation of tribal and folk elements. The infinite diversity of dharmic practices (locacara, desacara, local custom and tradition) were sanctified and tirthas evolved as an alternative to Vedic yajnas. Puranic tradition laid emphasis on mass participation and integration. Salvation was accessible to all without reservations of caste or sex, simply through pilgrimage to holy tirthas.
Folk customs began to dominate tirtha practices. Tirthas once dominated by Smarta rites such as homa (fire oblations), mantra-snana, sandhya, tarpana (satiation of gods, sages, ancestors), pinda dana (offering funeral cakes), shraddha (ancestral rites), tapas (austerities), dana (religious gift-making), made way for popular rituals such as puja, kirtana, mahatmiya sravanam (listening to accounts of the religious merit accruing from various tirthas), and yatra (mass procession).
Festivals, a feature of tribal life since early Vedic times, became popular. The Brahma Purana (ch. 66) mentions the seven-day Gundicayatra festival, held on the banks of Indradyumna pool at Puri. Fairs (haats) helped tribals to barter forest produce and iron crafts made by them for other commodities. These interactions facilitated the spread of cultural and technological ideas, especially relating to agriculture. M.N. Srinivas held that tirthas helped in taking Sanskritic tradition to the peasants of the region.
Popular myths linked remote tribes with important gods. The Soligas in Biligiri Rangana hill range of Mysore regard the Vaishnava deity Rangaswamy as their brother-in-law. The story states that a headman, Bomme Gouda, had seven daughters. The youngest, Kusumale, was very beautiful. Rangaswamy saw her while wandering in the forest and fell in love with her.
As Soligas collect roots and tubers from the forest, the god created an illusion, making the night appear as daybreak. That day Kusumale collected an unusually large quantity of roots and could not even carry them. She sought help from an emaciated old man, the god in disguise, who agreed to help her on condition that she married him. She agreed reluctantly and returned home with her roots, where her father berated her for accepting someone outside the community as a husband. The god took the girl away, and when followed by the girl’s father, paid him a heap of gold coins and disappeared.
The Soligas perform ritual functions at the Biligiri Rangana temple, such as pulling the temple car (rathotsava) and float (teppa), carrying the utsava murthi of Rangaswamy and his consorts, decorating the thoroughfares where the rath passes during processions, and performing all work outside the temple. In return, they receive ragi, salt, oil and pulses from the temple. They are respected by the Brahmin priest and enjoy free access to the temple at all times. They fast on Saturday in honour of the god.
Chenchus of Srisailam (Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh) revere Shiva as Mallikarjuna, as mentioned in the Mahabharata (Vana Parva) and Linga Purana. The temple legend states that Shiva once visited Srisailam on a hunting expedition, where he fell in love with and married a beautiful Chenchu woman. She began to accompany the lord on his hunting expeditions in neighbouring forests and the god came to be known as “Chenchu Malliah.”
The temple commemorates this legend in a beautiful bas-relief which shows Shiva killing a tiger with his trident, followed by Parvati dressed as a forest woman carrying arrows and accompanied by four dogs. The Chenchus have the right to freely enter the temple, including the garba griha. They pull the Lord’s ratha during the annual Shivaratri festival and perform minor services within the temple. The temple is principally managed by a Jangam priest with the help of local Chenchus, but during the main festivals from February to May it is managed by the Pushpagiri Math of Cuddapahh district.
Chenchus in the Nallamali hills first considered Shiva of Srisailam as their brother-in-law, but when the Vaishnava sampradaya became dominant in Andhra Pradesh, they began to regard Narasimha as their brother-in-law. A story narrates that Vishnu in his incarnation as Narasimha met a Chenchu girl whom he mistook for his consort Lakshmi. Though he later realized his mistake, he nevertheless married the tribal girl (Chenchu Laxmi-Narasimha) and took her to his heavenly abode.
Tribal deities such as Kalikadevi, Pipaladev, Alika Mata, Harsat Mata were linked with the major gods of the Hindu pantheon and tribal shrines grew into important tirthas. Goddess Danteshwari in Bastar is worshipped as Mauli, chief deity of the tribes, but identified with the Puranic Kali and Mahadurga. Similarly, Ganesh and Kartikeya/Skanda evolved from tribal deities into major Puranic gods. Jagannath of Puri is possibly the most famous of India’s tribal divinities.
Temples in tribal areas helped to integrate tribes into the mainstream from ancient times. The Surpaneshvara temple on the banks of the Narmada attracts tribals, especially Tadvis and Bhils, from neighbouring areas, besides pilgrims from Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Scholars observe that the Puranas reveal the tribalization of the Smarta tradition. The intake of liquor which is integral to tribal societies is not disdained in the Markandeya Purana, and meat and strong drink are considered acceptable offerings to Lord Dattareya (Markandeya Purana XIX, 4; 10). The tribal custom of collective singing and dancing entered Puranic tradition and is part of tirtha festivals; moreover, professional musicians and dancers are attached to major temples. Kirtan (religious singing) is performed with folk instruments like khol and kartal. In due course, several Puranic gods came to be associated with specific dance-forms, such as Krishna with Rasalila and Shiva with Tandava.
Tribals thus contributed to the geographical roots of Indian spirituality and dharma.
BJYM Magazine, October 2022 issue