AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 275

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Session 275: Belief, Belonging and Generic Practices: Vernacular Religion in India

Organizer: Ulo Valk, Independent Scholar, Estonia

Chair: Desmond L. Kharmawphlang, Independent Scholar, India

Discussants: Frank J. Korom, Boston University, USA; Sufia Uddin, Connecticut College, USA

Vernacular religion is a concept, coined by Leonard N. Primiano, to refer to the individual and subjective aspects of religion as they are experienced and expressed in everyday life. It offers insightful approaches to study the formation, articulation and transmission of beliefs as social constructs. In contrast to conceptualizing religion as a hegemonic tradition, prescribed by institutionalized authorities, viewing religion through the paradigm of the vernacular sheds light on its multiform creative expressions at grassroots level. Rituals, customs and oral genres are strong identity markers, drawing and negotiating social, ethnic, religious and gender borders. These traditional practices express belonging to certain families, clans, castes and other groups; they also tie tradition carriers with certain neighborhoods, regions and places. In contemporary folkloristics genre is conceptualized as an “orienting framework for the production and reception of discourse” (R. Baumann). As genres blend the voice of tradition and voices of individual performers, they are not univocal, but ambivalent, dialogic and polyphonic. If single performances are studied from intertextual and inter-generic angles, they reveal the textual spaces of oral traditions, belief systems and world views, leading us from the individual to the collective level. The interdisciplinary panel links folkloristics, anthropology and religious studies and offers an opportunity to discuss the religious life of individuals and groups not as ‘popular’ forms of the ‘great’ tradition of Hinduism but as vernacular expressions of beliefs and social belonging. All the papers from the panel are based on recent fieldwork.

Between Beliefs and Narratives: Ka Lukhmi Cult and the Construction of Social and Cultural Identities among the Bhoi Khasis of Meghalaya
Desmond L. Kharmawphlang, Independent Scholar, India

The oral discourse of the Bhois or Northern Khasis is replete with references to Ka Lukhmi, which is, overtly, the name of the spirit of the paddy but which implies a whole range of belief systems. The preponderance of the Lukhmi cult among the Bhois has diffused to place names, clans, dance forms and festivals. While there are many places where Lukhmi is a prefix or suffix, the Lyngdoh Lukhmi is one of the oldest clans in the area. Ka Shad Lukhmi or the Lukhmi dance is performed in many villages and Ka Knia Lukhmi or Lukhmi festivals are celebrated in many places. My first encounter with Lukhmi was after a long trek through dense jungle in the winter of 1992. The local guides took me to a hill top with a massive rock with a groove running through it. They pointed to a section of the groove in which wild paddy grew saying that this was the boat in which ka Lukhmi was brought by the rat. There is, in the repertoire of the community’s narratives, an elaborate myth which talks about the coming of Lukhmi to those places. There is also an elaborate ceremony performed in connection with a festival called Ka Kroh Lukhmi or the fetching of Lukhmi. The cult of Ka Lukhmi opens up interesting issues of folk apotheosis, the percolation of the cult to social systems and practice, the dynamics of the matrilineal system inherent in the cult, and its influence on artistic thought construction.

Ancestor Worship among the Khasis: an Intertextual Approach to the Knia Lyngdoh and the Pynhir Myndhan Rituals alongside the Weretiger Legends
Margaret Lyngdoh, Independent Scholar, Estonia

The Khasis are an ethnic community in Meghalaya, North Eastern India. Their society is matrilineal with descent traced through the clan ancestress. The majority of the Khasis are Christian converts, yet a small percentage of people who adhere to the indigenous faith still exists. The indigenous religion of the Khasis is monotheistic and strongly related with the clan and kinship systems. The propitiation and veneration of ancestors is a practice that is followed among the Christians as well as the people belonging to the traditional faith. This paper explores the three most important clan and family observances among the Bhois – a Khasi sub-tribe in northern Meghalaya. Firstly, the ritual of Knia Lyngdoh is dedicated to the veneration of ancestors, eight generations of whome are named; during the ritual one particular ancestor is appointed through divination to protect the clan for one year. Secondly, Pynhir Myndhan is an annual ritual, performed before sowing paddy, which ensures the success of the harvest and the well-being of families. Thirdly, legends and the related traditions about weretigers are discussed. These three traditions are tied together by strong intertextual links which give evidence of the high status of ancestors (syrngi) who protect and aid the clan. Not everyone who dies is included among the syrngi and it is the greatest honour to belong to this pantheon. According to the Khasi worldview, ancestors are not distant and dead ideas, but active participants in social life, aiding the clan and its efforts to follow the precepts and principles of the traditional faith.

Tangible Storyworlds: Textualised Places in the Vernacular Religion of Assam
Ulo Valk, Independent Scholar, Estonia

Blending supernatural beliefs with social and physical reality, referring to reliable witnesses or talking about one’s own experience are practices that efficiently enhance the credibility of oral narratives. Linking plots with real locations, well known to the storyteller and their audience, is another traditional strategy for making true stories. Places thus become textualised as constitutive parts of oral genres and tangible proofs of the intangible realities of storyworlds. Places are charged with dramatic plots, they become arenas of action for gods and heroes. Assamese oral traditions are rich in myths about the war between Krishna and Shiva (the Hari-Hara war). Thus, Tejpur (‘city of blood’) has acquired its name from the fierce battles for the city, once ruled by the mythic king Banasura. Near Tejpur there is a temple where Krishna landed in his heavenly chariot. Another web of narratives links temples dedicated to Shiva and goddess. These places build up scenery for stories about Shiva, goddess Sati (Kamakhya), her self-immolation, and Shiva’s later marriage to Parvati. These myths build up the sacred geography of Assam, invisible for the outsider but well-known for the local people, whose contact with the supernatural can also occur on personal level. Their memories about encounters with ghosts and spirits (bhut, bak, etc.) fill the landscape with another, autonomous layer of belief narrative. The paper discusses how social and physical realities are blended with the storyworld and how these narrative traditions tie people to certain social groups and to their home environment.

The End of Brahminhood? Oral Performance and “Elite” Religious Culture in Urban Maharashtra
Adheesh Sathaye, University of British Columbia, Canada

Today, anthropologists and textual scholars of South Asia have appeared to reach a kind of shaky consensus about “caste” as a social practice: while we may acknowledge that caste, as we know it, is a direct result of colonial encounter (Dirks 2001), and that, on the ground, social status is the result of complex economic and political negotiations (Raheja 1988, Quigley 1996, Srinivas 2002), one also cannot deny that the system of four classes or varnas has been an all-pervasive, hegemonic concept within Hindu religious texts since the time of the Vedas (Smith 1994). The Brahmin, in particular, has always seemingly been placed at the symbolic head of the Hindu body politic, the great cosmic Purusha. But how, on the ground, is this “elite” cultural identity of Brahmins actualized and negotiated? And what roles do the non-elite, “folk” practices of Brahmin communities play in interpreting what this Brahminhood means, especially within progressive, urban, and upwardly-mobile Indian contexts? This paper investigates the construction of Brahminhood within the devotional storytelling tradition known as naradiya kirtan in Maharashtra, with a particular interest in the stories of the sage Visvamitra, the legendary king who became a Brahmin. After examining how storytellers reconcile this caste-transformation with modern, liberal understandings of social mobility and equality, I would like to draw some tentative conclusions about how oral performance and fixed, literary texts work together in the formation of Brahmin cultural identity.