Indal as Indra – Hinduising Tribal Gods

Images by Alex M. George

Even though we are into the last weeks of December many villages in Barwani district of MP still have not celebrated Diwali. Unlike the Diwali of upper castes which has a­ fixed date based on the Hindu calendar, the Barela villages have their own ways to fix dates for Diwali. The people living in the village collectively ‘decide’, often through a meeting held at the mukhya’s compound an appropriate date and time for its celebration. They make sure that there are no events of sorrow or distress amongst members of the village which would stop a household from being part of its festivities.  Apart from pooja, distributing goat meat for every household is a significant part of the celebration. It is not just Diwali that is celebrated differently, so is the celebration of Holi amongst Barela villages. Festivals like Indal can be celebrated only after the celebration of gaon ki Diwali/village Diwali.

Traditional indal : Teak wood pillars on a farm hedge, indicator that the family had conducted Indal festival some years ago.
Traditional indal : Teak wood pillars on a farm hedge, indicator that the family had conducted Indal festival some years ago.

It is into this context that the recent protests in Sendhwa Tehsil around the installation of a god named Indal / Indra become significant. It is alleged by the activists that the cultural department of Madhya Pradesh government sponsored parts of the expenditure for a temple and for its installation in Matali village between 23rd and 25th of December. It was to be inaugurated by the Chief Minister. There were announcements across villages on his plans to visit, this small village about 30Km from tehsil headquarter, and finally the chief minster did not join the inauguration. The nameplate declares the presence of the Chief Minister even though he did not come. The protest is cultural resistance against the co-option of Tribal beliefs and practices.

The Indian Constitution has provisions for the Adivasi culture to be protected.  In the recent decades the right wing forces have appropriated not merely tribal historical figures like Rani Gaidinliu in Nagaland/Manipur but also many such tribal icons across the country. There have also been reports on how gods of the tribals like the Sarana in Jharkhand have been appropriated. A similar story emerges within the context of the Indal offerings associated with the Barela and Bhil tribal communities of Western Madhya Pradesh.

The word Indal is used to refer to the event itself as well as to the God. Indal could be celebrated either by an individual family or by the whole village (gharelu Indal and gaon Indal). A person in distress could offer up a “festival” if their problems were resolved. Or a village could wait for a time of peace, prosperity and harmony and once that has been fulfilled,initiate the celebrations. It may happen in an interval of 3, 5 or 9 years in a village. The entire village or neighbourhood is invited to participate.

Poojara leads the prayers that involves nature worship of Kalm (Kadamb) and Sal (teak) pillars as well as the grains. There are also numerous songs that are sung overnight as part of the celebration of the Indal festival. One of them declares that ‘Indal is hungry for goat meat’. Like in the context of Diwali or Holi where sharing food and mutton across the community is part of the tradition. There are no fixed dates or compulsion that every village needs to do this. There is no concept of a statue (moorthy) or an installation to which the worship is done. There are no fixed structures or spaces like temple where the worship is conducted. It could be done at any person’s household or a field adjoining it. The ceremony or pooja for Indal is done only if someone’s mannath has been gratified. It is a return or offering to the god for fulfilling the wishes or ‘mannath’. If mannath has not been fulfilled and the harvest is not bountiful the person or village does prolong making of the offering. There is nothing that could be called a festival like in the context of Holi or Diwali etc with periodical / repeated memories and events around it.

To begin the festivities, first the Kalam tree is invited. The Poojara from the community marks the branches that would be used for the pooja. The number of branches would be in proportion to the number of years in which the ceremony is done like 3,5,7,9 etc. Once this offering is done the person or the village that celebrates would invite other members of the community for the festival.  The day before the festival, in the evening, the marked branches need to be cut in one single strike by the ‘kuware’ (unmarried boy and girl). After cutting the branches it is ensured that each branch is carried by individuals, boys or girls without allowing it to touch the earth. Kalam is not necessarily a tree found in every village and may be some distance away. However people avoid cutting down this tree in general. These days the forest in many parts of Barwani is a few kilometres away from villages. A myth about Indal tells us how he was unable to get enough sleep and it was only when he went under the Kalam tree that he was able to sleep well. Nature worship is at the core of Barela practices.

On the day of the festival, three small pillars of teak wood are erected at the site of worship which are later permanently fixed along the borders of the field. There are also ceremonies done inside the house. One can find these teak wood markings in the farm many decades later. There are also prayers and offerings to different other gods and goddesses inside and outside the house along with the offering of goats. Songs are sung during the entire night to celebrate the festivals, along with beating of Mandals (or drums).

There are risks involved in celebrating this tribal festival. Alf Nilsen records “…Indal is a major festival … In order for the police to let the festival be carried out in peace, the villagers would go to the police station in Sondwa and pay a bribe of 500–1,000 rupees. If a person was found intoxicated during the festivals, the person would be bashed up, and a bribe would be demanded both from this person, and from the family that hosted him or her.” (Page 51 (2010) Dispossession and resistance in India : the River and the Rage, Routledge, London) Thus the state machinery has an uncomfortable relationship with tribal identity and is often violent against such events. It is along this line today that we find the government sponsoring a temple violating traditional practices.

The ‘sanskritised’ understanding of the Hindu religion equates Indal with Indra – or claims Indal as a corruption of Indra. The presence or invention of a statue of Indal, as well as state sponsorship to build temples emerges in this context. It is well documented how public installation of various gods and goddess was adopted to mobilise people in a state like Maharashtra. There are probably not many temples in the name of Indra within Hinduism. Nor do the upper caste dominated Hindu groups currently consider the Rain God Indra as politically significant. The space of political imagination has usually been with King Ram the avatar of Vishnu. Yet ironically such an image is now being imposed upon the tribal people who are farmers. It is here interesting to note the Barelas themselves do not consider rain as contributing to their farming, but as helping the animals. This again is in contrast to the mainstream view and the construct of India as a rain dependent farming society. In the Barela context just as probably amongst the Bhils of southern Rajashtan and Western MP rain is awaited for the survival of ‘janwar’ (animals).

Further the platform in Matli was used by the government to ponder the possibility of changing the village name to Indra Nagar and of organising “Kumbh Mela” like events in the village in future. Half the villagers have currently rejected the offers. Many Adivasi groups too are opposing such imposition. As a rule the village should not have held a ‘gaon ka Indal’ as they had not yet celebrated the ‘gaon ka diwali’ (end of December). It is not customary to hold ‘goan ki Indal’ during the months of ‘posh’ but people wait for the month ‘uttarayan’. Villages do not have fixed years in which Indal needs to be celebrated yet a government sponsorship for a Kumbh would mean these events will become episodic like the large Kumbhs held in Ujjain, Nasik, Allahabad etc. Hence, in many ways the tribal traditions are expected to be replaced.

Indal Temple
Indal Temple

Even more interesting is the imposition of Brahmin priests into the events at Matli. Elsewhere in the country like Tamil Nadu when non-Brahmins were appointed as priests, this imposition too has been opposed. However for a community that traditionally did not use Brahmins and had their own ‘poojara’ why this imposition? Is this because of assumptions of hierarchy made about the community? Or it is just a fact that they cannot hide, that it is just another Vedic god Indira who can only be invoked by the Brahmin priests? It is not that the Barela community itself does not practice features of exclusion, but is it a question of dignity. Are these the ways in which tribals are to be adopted into the larger social hierarchy of the hated caste system?

In the events at Matli there was a separation of the tribal and non-tribal priests doing two separate events. The pandit brought in from Rajasthan performed upon the installations of the statue. According to some people in the village the poojara performed the Indal ceremony separately. Activists cite numerous deviations with regard to the nature of worship and ceremonies performed on that day. The people in the temple premises whom we met claim both the ceremonies were done with accuracy. In the roadside shops we did hear someone claiming “if mantras are recited wrongly there will be ill impact on the society” and “how can we allow a poojara to do such things”.

The white marble Indal statue shown as riding an elephant at the ‘Temple’ at Matli village
The white marble Indal statue shown as riding an elephant at the ‘Temple’ at Matli village

One denied any sorts of prayers being said at the installation of the white marble elephant-riding Indal statue, it is obvious that they have invented – Indal chalisa, Indal Bhajan, and Indal ghoshana. It is not as if there are no prayers and songs around Indal – as mentioned earlier the ‘gayana’ (songs sung) can go on for an entire night. Thus there are oral traditions in which the worship is recorded. Yet in its place sanskritised Hindi verses have found place at the installation.

mechanised drum-bell which replaces Maandal
mechanised drum-bell which replaces Maandal

One person whom we met at the temple also said there were arathi done in the mornings and evenings. It was also obvious from the mechanised drum/bell machine inside the temple that there are intentions to have an arathi. Here too the traditional drum beaters have been replaced. There are also offering boxes (dhan peti). These are clearly against the traditional practices of an Indal worship. As the initial days have just began there were not many people at the temple site.

Tiger of Eastern NimarFlex portraying images of Tantiya mama and Bhima Naik
Tiger of Eastern NimarFlex portraying images of Tantiya mama and Bhima Naik

The political message is more than visible right at the entrance wall of the temple, behind the lion statues. There are two large portraits – under the title Poorvi Nimar ki Veer (of Tantiya Mama) and Paschimi Nimar ki Veer (of Bhima Naik). These are two tribal heroes who fought against the British, much like Birsa Muna or Rani Gaidinliu from elsewhere. It is true there are temples in the name of Jayalalita, Sonia Gandhi, Narendra Modi or Mahatma Gandhi etc. However it may be the first time that two tribals – one of them not even a worshiper of Indal – are expected to guard it. Bhima Naik who belonged to the Naik tribal community which was a predominantly hunting gathering group during the British time unlike the Bhils and Barelas clearly had no land to lose under the colonisation. They resisted colonisation. By adopting such political symbolism into religious spaces the message is more than obvious.

Tiger of Western Nimar : Flex portraying images of Tantiya mama and Bhima Naik
Tiger of Western Nimar : Flex portraying images of Tantiya mama and Bhima Naik

In the past two decades it has become more common to find, in smaller towns, announcements being made regarding pravachan (discourse) by various god-men and god-women. There have also been free dispensation of Hanuman statues in the villages. One does notice mobile dispensaries like those of Asaram Bappu selling ayurvedic medicines. Giving up meat is being preached and adopted by large number of families. Spaces once available to traditional tribal sects to conduct different events are now being appropriated to symbolise dominant motifs of the dominant Hindu castes. In such meetings tribals are often addressed as ‘vanvaasi’;  sometimes as ‘vanaresna’ who had helped Ram triumph over Ravan. There is an imposition of values and perspectives that were alien to the nature worshiping / animism world-views of the tribals which are now being displaced by statues and arathis.

Indal is a god that is capable of granting the wishes you ask for. In the stories around his birth and childhood, he was thrown in the river to be eaten by the crocodiles, thrown at the feet of cattle to be trampled, and so on. The cattle and crocodiles could not end his life, but how long will tribal traditions resist the onslaught and reinventions of certain right wing Brahminical understandings of the world?

Flex boards with Indal chalisa, Indal Bhajan, and Indal ghoshana - hymns to Indal
Flex boards with Indal chalisa, Indal Bhajan, and Indal ghoshana – hymns to Indal



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Rajesh Kannoje is an activist from Adivasi Mukthi Sanghatan in Barwani district Alex M. George is a Researcher in Nimar and Malwa

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