At the ongoing Madhavpur mela at Gujarat, attended by a large number of ministers from the North East, BJP politicians Vijay Rupani and Mahesh Sharma remarked that the Hindu God Krishna’s wife Rukmini traces her roots to the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. In the process of retelling a popular Hindu mythological tale, they both were clearly attempting to create an important historical linkage between Gujarat and the North Eastern state. Soon After, #EkBharatShreshtaBharat (one India, ideal India) started trending across social media.
While we are yet to tell what the political motivation could be of the statement made by the two ministers, it might be useful to reflect upon whether at all there is any grain of truth in the remark. Popular knowledge of the Krishna-Rukmini mythology states that Krishna, who is believed to have established his kingdom at Dwarka in Gujarat, married Rukmini, believed to be an incarnation of Lakshmi and born to the king of Vidarbha kingdom that was located in what is now Central India. However, digging through academic work on the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and tribal folklore of the region would reveal that Rupani and Sharma are not wrong when they trace Rukmini’s roots to the state. Indeed, a mythological tale floats around the lands inhabited by the Idu Mishmi tribe that claims to be associated with the Krishna-Rukmini legend. However, to what extent it is rooted in Hindu mythological traditions is a far more complicated matter.
What is the myth of Krishna-Rukmini among the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh?
The Idu Mishmi are a tribal ethnic community located in Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. According to folktale specialist Praphulladutta Goswami, the Mishmis “trace their ancestry to Rukhmavir, elder brother of Rukmini, to carry off whom Krishna came all the way from Dwarka in Gujarat.” Goswami goes on to explain that among these people there exists a springtime love song in the local language that refers to Krishna and his abduction of Rukmini.
“Dear Remseiba, Srikrishna of Mathura carried off Rukmini;
I have not gone to carry you off. Even then you do not care for me.”
Reportedly, dances and plays of ‘Rukmini haran’ are common among the members of the tribal community. It is noteworthy that a local nomenclature applied to the Idu Mishmis is that of “chulikata” (chuli-hair, kata- cut). The name is derived from a mythological saying that Krishna asked them to cut their hair as a punishment for not allowing him to marry Rukmini.
“There is a myth and there is a fort and a town called Bhismaknagar associated with Rukmini. But all of these are myths and you can’t prove a myth. Maybe its part of earlier linkages with Assam which created this story or maybe it’s a creation of regional imagination,” Jumyir Basir, Professor of Tribal Studies in Rajiv Gandhi University at Itanagar, told indianexpress.com.
How should we read the myth’s presence in modern times?
Professor Basir explains that the myth of Krishna-Rukmini in Arunachal Pradesh needs to be read in the same way we read variants of the Mahabharata. “The Mahabharata also exists in different forms. There is a Tamil Mahabharata which is very different from the one in the north. There is an Assamese Mahabharata and a Bengali one and all of these bring their entire region with their entire story,” she says. Therefore, the Krishna-Rukmini legend among the Idu Mishmis also needs to be understood as a regional variant of a popular piece of mythological literature.
However, it is also interesting to note how a tribal community has absorbed a Hindu mythological tradition. Explaining the way different religious and cultural systems interact with each other in any social context, Professor of Tribal Studies M C Behera writes in his work that “syncretic traditions have been in existence in many communities of Andhra Pradesh”.
For instance, while most among the Khasi tribe in Shillong are Christians, they still believe in the snake God, U Thlen. In Western Assam, Hindus and tribes, alike worship the snake Goddess Manasa in the rainy season. Similarly, another tribal community of the North East, the Syntengs is believed to have been worshippers of the Hindu Goddess Shakti.
The Idu Mishmi tribe are followers of animism. In other words, they are believers in the religious system that worships plants, animals and inanimate objects. Professor Basir says there has not been much absorption of Hindu traditions among most of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh because they have their own form of animistic belief systems. However, most of these animistic belief systems can be associated with Hinduism. “For example, most of the communities believe that Banyan and peepal trees are the abode for spirits. So it’s very easy to link it with Hinduism because Hindus also revere the Banyan and Peepal trees but the belief system is different. We feel that most of these spirits are malevolent rather than benevolent and we don’t pray to these trees,” she says. She explains that over time with the institutionalisation of religious practices among the tribes, a mixed form of religion exists among most tribes.
The animistic Idu Mishmi tribe too has absorbed parts of Hindu mythological traditions, to an extent that they trace their origin to the Krishna-Rukmini legend. The myth in Arunachal Pradesh, therefore, needs to be read as a syncretism between local tribal tradition and a popular mythological telling.