It’s true that we have never celebrated Durga Puja,” says Chamru Asur. “It is also true that we remain inactive during those nine days and, at the end of it, make offerings to our ancestors so that we are all safe,” says the 70-year-old at his home in Sakhuapani, a village 500 metres from the Hindalco Group’s Gurdari bauxite mine in Gumla district of Jharkhand.
On February 24, after reading from a pamphlet purportedly distributed in Jawaharlal Nehru University, which, the minister said, had depicted Durga in poor light and Mahishasur as the victim, Irani had said, “What is this depraved mentality? I have no answers for it.”
As he speaks about his traditions and way of life, Chamru is almost passive — not apologetic, not defensive, not angry, not seeking answers.
Chamru is an Asur, a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ that dominates Sakhuapani’s population of about 2,000 and lives in villages spread over a radius of 10 to 20 km. Besides Jharkhand, members of the tribe live in pockets of Bihar, West Bengal and a few other states. The 2011 Census put the number of Asurs at 22,459 in Jharkhand and 4,129 in Bihar.
The Asurs claim to be descendants of Mahishasur, the buffalo-demon whom Goddess Durga kills after a spirited fight lasting nine nights. It’s this mythology in mainstream Hinduism that’s celebrated in the form of the nine-day-long Durga Puja, but observed as ‘Mahishasur Dasain’ among the Asurs, who hold a period of mourning during which they largely stay indoors.
Chamru says that even when he was a child, though people had their beliefs and biases, nobody attacked them for it, they merely thought they were different. “Those were the days of zamindari. The zamindar of Bishunpur (now the local police station) would ask us to get wood and collect leaves for making pattals for the puja. We would go there, give the zamindar all this and also give him some of our tools. We would then return home before the celebrations began and offer prayers seeking protection from our own ancestors,” says Chamru.
Now as these cultures are seen as offending, Chamru says these are “just beliefs”. “I have heard we are descendants of Mahishasur. That’s all I can tell you. I can’t tell you how our descendants settled down in this part of the country and so on,” he says.
He would rather talk about “my life now”. He retired a few years ago as peon at the ayurveda hospital in the village. He now takes his goats out to graze and tends to his plants on his land, which is barely an acre. His three sons and their families live with him in the village.
Metres away from Chamru’s home, at the bauxite mine, heavy earthmovers excavate, load, and transport red earth to be used in aluminium production.
Anil Asur, a labourer at the mining site, says he gets Rs 10,000 a month from the company. But that is not enough to feed his four children. So he has helped a friend lease out his tractor to the mining company at a rate of Rs 36,000 a month, of which he gets a commission.
“When I was young, I loved going to Jobhi Path (a village nearly 10 km from Sakhuapani), where they would have a Durga Puja pandal. Once, my father objected to my going there. I asked him why and he then told me about our ancestor Mahishasur and how he was killed on that day. He asked me that if my brother or sister or any relative was killed, would I celebrate? No. But that’s all I know. You can ask more about the tradition from the elders in my village,” he says, as he rides away on his motorcycle — a relative has attempted suicide in Ranchi and he has to get there fast.
Nearly a kilometre away from Sakhuapani village is the Government Scheduled Tribes Residential High School, home to nearly 250 students from various ‘vulnerable tribal groups’ such as Asurs and Korwa, besides others.
Shibu Asur, a Class IX student, is listening to Hindi songs on his mobile phone and is in no mood to talk about Mahishasur. “Why don’t you ask the village elders about these stories?” he says, plugging back his earphone.
Sushma Asur, a tribal activist in Sakhuapani, says the community also celebrates Sohrai, which coincides with Diwali, by applying koronj (or karanja in Hindi) oil on their navel, chest and nose, and eat cucumber. “The symbolism here is that when our ancestor Mahishasur was killed, he had blood oozing from his navel, nose and chest. Applying oil on those parts depicts the same. Eating cucumber is a symbol that we are avenging his death by eating the ‘kaleja (liver)’ of the killer,” Sushma explains.
In her 20s, Sushma says she has studied up to Class XII and is working with tribal activists to “revive our lost traditions, songs and skills”. Over the years, she says, there are several of these traditions that have given way to modern practices of the “outsiders”.
Asurs, she says, were once iron smelters, but now the village doesn’t have a smelting unit. Chamru says he used to make small weapons, “but I have forgotten all that now”. According to one of the theories, the Magadh Empire benefited a lot from the weapons the Asurs made. “Their iron does not catch rust. And we know there are many Ashokan-era edicts on iron that haven’t rusted,” says Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi.
Traditionally, Asurs don’t drink cow milk. “We want the calf to have all the milk and grow up strong so that it can be used in the fields,” says Anil Asur, Sushma’s brother. Villagers still don’t drink much milk or tea, happy instead to down a glass of rice beer.
Sushma says that while these are inevitable changes, modernity took away a bit of their identity too. “Hindi is the medium of instruction in schools and that has almost made me forget my own language. Our traditional names were changed for school — I was called Maghi, but became Sushma. Other friends became Basanti and so on,” she says.
Vandana Tete of the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra, an organisation that works to revive tribal history and the tribal way of life, says the legend of Mahishasur finds its echoes even in the folklore of the Santhals, numerically the biggest tribal group and spread across Jharkhand and West Bengal. “When others celebrate Navratri, the Santhals look for their missing chief, whom they call Hudur Durga. When they cannot find him, they pretend to dismantle a clay model. This is presented through a dance form,” she says. Many academics have interpreted this as the Santhals seeking Mahishasur, who, they believe, was killed by deceit.
Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi, says, “While Asurs may be the only one to have taken on that surname, the Mahishasur story has its parallel in different tribal languages.”
For instance, says Pankaj, in Mundari folk language, there is a story that goes thus: A wild buffalo spots a newborn baby girl in the jungle and adopts her. The girl grows up into a beautiful woman and the king lusts for her. He sends his force, but the buffalo defeats all of them. One day, by deceit, the king manages to get inside the buffalo’s house and bolts the door. The buffalo repeatedly bangs his head on the door in an unsuccessful attempt to break it. The buffalo dies and the king takes away the girl. “Now, that indicates an alternative interpretation of the famous Mahishasur mardana (slaying of Mahishasur) story,” says Pankaj.
Carron tea estate in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district is hundreds of kilometres away from Jharkhand’s Sakhuapani village. It’s here, down a hillock carpeted with emerald-green tea bushes, that Bargi Asur, 83, lives with his family. Reading a Hindi newspaper in the courtyard of his house, Bargi introduces himself as the “oldest resident” of ‘Asur Line’, a colony of about 100 mud and bamboo huts in the tea estate. Bargi says he isn’t surprised that the minister said what she did in Parliament. “She is not the first person to say our beliefs are wrong. For centuries, we have been afraid to talk about them openly. Now we carry out our rituals almost apologetically,” says Bargi, whose son and grandchildren converted to Christianity a few years ago.
Bargi himself chose not to convert because he “wouldn’t be able to adjust to a new way of life”. “My two sons and my grandchildren work as tea pickers at the estate. That’s what I have done all my life too. I couldn’t give them a better life, maybe a new faith will bring some light in their lives,” he says.
When Bargi was a child, his mother wouldn’t let him leave their hut during the nine days of Durga Puja, he says. “I would be bored to death. She would insist that something bad will happen to us but we would sneak away anyway. I never asked why I couldn’t go — children don’t bother with all this. As I grew up, my friends started teasing me about my surname. That’s when I realised that the reason we couldn’t participate in the puja was because it was about celebrating the slaying of people like us,” says Bargi, helping out his granddaughter Pratima Asur, 27, with the household chores. Well past his retirement age, Bargi still contributes to his 15-member family’s Rs 500 a day income by doing odd chores.
Bargi belongs to a group of about 1,000 Asurs, who moved from Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh in the early 20th Century and work and live near the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri. “My father moved here in 1914 to work for a British tea planter. We have lived here ever since. It’s been more than a century now,” he says.
Krishnopriyo Bhattacharya, who has worked with the tribals of North Bengal for decades and has written Silent Departures: A Study of Contemporary Tribal Predicament in Bengal Duar, says that modern Asurs are least bothered about the mythology of their ancestors; they are more concerned about issues that plague their day-to-day life. “First of all, there is no evidence to suggest that they are descendants of Mahishasur. If you ask the present generation of Asurs, you will realise they have very little idea why people treat them with disdain,” says Bhattacharya.
Bargi’s grandson Amar Asur, 21, says he wants to leave these “stories” behind. “Our identity has given us nothing but shame. People make fun of us, taunt us and ask us if we have big teeth like demons,” says Amar, who visits the Roman Catholic chapel in the estate every Sunday.
Jagannath Singh, 67, a social worker who used to work as a primary school teacher at the Carron tea estate school, says the story of the Asurs is like that of most other ‘particularly vulnerable tribal groups’ of the country, but with a “cruel twist”. “Apart from abject poverty, they also have to deal with social stigma. The Asurs in Jalpaiguri were recognised as a Scheduled Tribe only in 2014, after years of struggle,” says Singh.
He says that of the 101 Asur families living in Carron tea estate, more than 90 have converted to Christianity. “They have little choice. They feel this new identity will give them a better life,” he says.
Yet, some find ways to keep both their new and old identities. “We observe Asur puja twice a year, once during the month of Phagun (March-April) and once during Dusshera. The puja can be performed only by men, and women later participate in a traditional asura dance,” says Etwari Asur, 75.
Lalita Asur, 38, who works in the estate and had converted to Christianity about five years ago, says life has taught her to be careful about revealing her true identity. “Why should I claim to be Mahishasur’s descendant? Am I mad?” she laughs. “A lot of us have taken on different surnames such as Topo and Kajur,” says Lalita.
Last year, when Sudha Asur sent her daughter Pushpa, 15, for higher studies to Chennai, she was interrogated by the college authorities about her surname. “I asked her not to lie and be brave about her identity, though I was worried for her,” says Sudha. Luckily, Pushpa didn’t face further discrimination in her high school, but Sangita Asur, 27, wasn’t as lucky. “I left school after Class 7 because I would be constantly teased about my surname. I just couldn’t take it anymore and decided not to go back to school,” says Sangita.
Over the years, the Asurs, both of Jalpaiguri and of Sakhuapani in Jharkhand, have migrated to cities in search of jobs, most youngsters don’t speak the Asuri language any more and their worries are as ‘mainstream’ as any other. The only thing they hold on to are memories — of stories told by their parents, of childhood fears and anxieties.
Back in Sakhuapani village of Jharkhand, Sushma recalls how over the years she began getting acutely aware of the fact that the asurs or demons were always depicted as ugly and were primarily painted black. “All demons are dark-skinned, ugly and evil. Now, we trace our lineage to them. Tell me, do we look like anything like that?” she asks.