If there was a common refrain in our textbooks while we were growing up it was “unity in diversity”.
So today, when there are attempts to homogenise all Indians into following one culture, this unity in diversity is threatened.
According to a popular proverb, in India, dialect changes every 50 miles. People of one region, whichever religion they belong to, have more in common — they speak a common language. It’s language, region and customs that bind people and become the region’s culture.
Today, there are attempts to deny this immense plurality when we talk of one culture, one nation. We are too big and diverse a country to homogenise everyone into clones of each other.
What then is culture?
According to Kim Ann Zimmermann, “Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.”
The Oxford dictionary defines it as “The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”.
This diversity is so beautifully showcased at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, popularly known as Museum of Man, in Madhya Pradesh’s capital city Bhopal.
It’s such a glorious celebration of our tribal cultures and customs that I was left mesmerised. I have been on many historical trails, but this was my first trail exploring mythology, set out in the open. On a glorious sunny winter day, I immersed myself in tales of India’s tribes and some of their mythological beliefs.
“A myth may be defined as a story that serves to connect individuals to their cultures and to explain natural and supernatural phenomena, including the creation of the world and the origin of humans” according to Ivy Hansdak.
Each tribe had a unique and distinct culture.
There are around 645 distinct tribes in India and the total population of Scheduled Tribes is 84,326,240 as per the Census 2001, which accounts for 8.2 per cent of India’s population. The Gond of India were once very powerful empire. In the 14th century, they ruled several parts of central India and the Gondwana kingdom survived till late 16th century.
The trail started with a tour to a mud hut that has a mural depicting the creation of the world as per Gond beliefs: Bara Dev, “the creator”, rubbed himself and created a crow. He then ordered the crow to fetch some mud so that he could create the earth. The crow, after flying for sometime, rested on a twig and a voice called out to him.
The voice belonged to Kakramal, a crab, on whose claw it was resting. The crow explained its mission. Kakramal said that only Kichakmal, an earthworm, had soil. But it refused to part with it as that was its food. The crab pressed its neck and the earthworm had to spit the mud out. When the mud was taken back to Bara Dev, it was so little that it would not hold. So then the spider was called to spin a web over the aquatic surface that would hold the soil to create the earth.
Bara Dev’s fallen hair became trees and in turn ploughs, the earth gave forth grains and a granary sprang up.
On the same trail, a charming story of the potters’ myth from Kutch, Gujarat was illustrated in a cross section of another hut.
Myths surrounding another tribe, the Bhils, centre on the offering of beautiful terracotta horses (which they believe are real) to their gods. Hence, the trail had many such exquisite horses.
In parts of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, snakes are worshipped on Nagapanchami and one grove on the trail was dedicated to four-, sixteen- and twenty four-knot snakes. I learnt that snake figures on terracotta plates are worshipped in Rajasthan.
The myth of King Sailesh, who remained celibate to let his brother have the throne, was painted on one wall along with colourful terracotta figurines. He is worshipped as an ancestor in Darbhanga, Bihar.
Another myth surrounds goddesses Durga and Ganga; it comes from West Bengal’s Midnapore. It is the story of Durga telling Ganga to stop perching Shiva’s head — here, Ganga’s retort is painted on four terracotta plates called Sora. She, in turn, accuses Durga of marrying her son as she’s the primordial Shakti and the mother of the universe.
Because the figures are shown as smiling, one knows they depict a friendly banter — both accepting each other’s seniority and superiority.
Yet another story of creation, sacred to Santhals, comes from Midnapore. Marang Birung, the primordial God, summoned creatures such as crab, tortoise and snake and asked them to rescue the submerged earth. Thereafter, he created two cows — Ain-Gaya and Bain-Gaya. From their saliva, two birds were born and from the eggs of the birds the first humans: Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Burhi.
The most fascinating myth was from Thane, Maharashtra. Once there was a twelve-year long famine. People survived on mokha leaves, wild honey and roots. They decided to please Goddesses Gavsari, Kansari, Dhartari and God Narayan with the Kambri dance. As they were very weak, they had to put their hands around each other’s waists for support. All they could manage to do was nod their heads and clap. The gods were pleased and rain fell. Like ants, they decided to store food for adverse weather. The painting on a mud wall depicts this process ending on a dance with gay abandon as the tribe gained strength after the rains fell.
After feasting our eyes with more such paintings, murals and terracotta figurines, we made our way to the indoor museum where the theory of creation was explained scientifically. I, for one, didn’t want to come down to earth so quickly and go back to believing in Darwin’s theory of evolution, so I proceeded to see the Open Air museum of tribal and Himalayan houses.
Each house was unique, made up of different materials as per region and necessity. Each beautiful in its own right. We can unite in diversity, but forcing a sameness would be fatal to our glorious ancient civilisations.
The Bastar section at the Museum of Tribal Art was stunning. I would never want their civilisation to change. However, as Adity Singh of IISER, Bhopal says, multiculturalism doesn’t mean we don’t evolve. Each one of us evolves at our own pace and based on our aspirations. We should neither force changes on anyone nor stop progress and expect tribals to stay frozen in time.
Our policy of tribal protection should work in favour of the protection of indigenous cultures, along with enabling them to grow.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote: “There is no point in trying to make them a second rate copy of ourselves… they are people who sing and dance and try to enjoy life; not people who sit in stock exchanges, shout at each other, and think themselves civilised.”
“Multiculturalism” isn’t just the blending of cultures leading to a “composite culture” as some people believe, but the facilitation to preserve each one’s distinctiveness, to preserve people who belong to different cultures and to ensure equality.
Let’s unite with our diversities.
Published on DailyO.in