Debating the deities

Someone please explain to me why illuminated red Devil’s Horns are a thing during Durga Puja. How is it that on a festival that literally celebrates the killing of a monster, the go-to symbol of evil has become the in thing to sport? Like, how?

The wearing of Devil’s Horns is just one of the several questions I have about Durga Puja and its celebrations in Arunachal Pradesh.

How is it that in a state in the far remote corner of India that is home to close to 30 indigenous tribes (a majority of who originally practiced animist faiths), Durga Puja is even a thing?

Let me put out a disclaimer and say that I hold absolutely nothing against the celebration of Durga Puja or any other festival regardless of its religious affiliation. I also realise that since the state actually does have a large non-tribal population for whom the festival holds great significance, Pujo time is a rather big deal.

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Make-shift stalls serving snacks pop-up everywhere in Itanagar during Pujo time.

The grandeur of the festival is no surprise either because obviously, people chip in to fund the beautiful pandals that abound the streets. Such a large population also translates into a possible vote bank and it makes sense to make sure for the powers that be that the people have fun at least once a year.

Still, I wonder how young and beautiful teens influenced by modern Korean culture who spend the majority of the year greeting each other with ‘annyeonghaseyo’ and ‘oppa’ can suddenly be so fascinated by the kirtan.

How do you go from watching surgically-enhanced K-pop stars to being transfixed by the neighbourhood mechanic as he performs to the beat of the dhol that we, for some reason, are all familiar with? Like, how?

One of the ‘must-do-things-during-Puja’ is to buy new clothes. I’m not exactly sure if that is a brilliant marketing ploy thought of in the office of an advertisement agency with pretentiously minimalist interiors or if the Goddess herself ordained it, but nevertheless, it’s a thing that is not restricted by communal lines.

Tribal, non-tribal, rich, poor, everyone is up for buying new clothes during Pujo.

In fact, my Adi colleague currently sitting on my left watching a YouTube series is wearing a newly-purchased patterned-dark blue shirt. I ask him if he buys new clothes during Solung and the answer is in the negative. He makes some lame argument about how he had to buy a new shirt anyway but I’m not convinced.

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A ‘band’ from Siliguri was invited to provide the beats for the kirtan and Pujo at one of the several pandals here. I asked them how they landed up here and the cheeky one in the group said, “by car”. Not Amused. Not. Amused.

It isn’t the celebrations of any festival that makes me question things but as a person with conflicting ideas of self-identity and lack of knowledge about my own community is what concerns.

Puja celebrations shouldn’t die down. Nor should the celebrations of any festival regardless of the religion it originates from or the community that it ‘belongs’ to. In fact, if there is great leveller and breaker of barriers between communities as us Arunachalese, it is Durga Puja.

All of us visit at least one pandal every year but when was the last time you joined in on the celebration of a ‘central’ festival celebration of any other tribe that you don’t belong to unless you were specifically invited by a friend.

Nahi, hum toh woh tribe ka nahi hain na, hum kyun (insert tribal festival name here) mein jaiga (No, I am not from that tribe, why should I visit the celebration of [insert tribal festival name here],” is something I’ve heard way too often.

As stated above, I hold nothing against the celebrations of any festival that offers people an opportunity to come together and revel in merry-making. I will also continue to hold questions about how Pujo got so ingrained in Arunachali culture.

While some will argue that its part of the greater identity of what makes us Indians, I will say its a form of unintended indoctrination. Others, as I learnt last year, are at the pandals for the kheechdi!

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Rewriting records and retelling history

A massive carnival concluded recently at Gujarat, seemingly to celebrate the ‘ancient’ link between mainland India and the country’s mostly-neglected Northeast region (a term that is more reflective of a region rather than a single cultural unit).

On March 25, on Ram Navami, the annual Madhavpur Mela kicked-off at Madhavpur (Ghed) in Gujarat’s Porbandar district and lasted till March 28. What caught most people’s attention, thanks partly due to the unending tweets by Arunachal West Lok Sabha MP and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, was that this year’s fair would ‘re-enact’ the ‘heroic kidnapping’ of princess Rukmini by Lord Krishna. While plays depicting legends and myths are a regular fare at religious carnivals, what made this year different is the ‘revelation’ that princess Rukmini was a member of the Idu-Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh!

The ‘legend’ of Rukmini being a member of the said tribe has been propagated since around the 80s, thanks mostly through schools in the state that later even managed to make its way into the official information brochures of the state government’s tourism department.

While most sources state that Rukmini was the daughter of king Bhishmaka of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), a myth has persisted in Arunachal Pradesh that she was, in fact, an Idu-Mishmi, probably sporting the traditional bowl haircut that was prevalent amongst community members earlier.

Where did this myth originate? No one within the community is quite sure or willing to go on record. The basis of the myth, however, is the ruins of the Bhismaknagar Fort, located near the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary around 25 kilometres from the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarter of Roing.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the Guwahati circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the fort is believed to have been built by the Bhismaka dynasty of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom that had a stronghold in the Sadiya region of present-day Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. The kingdom is said to have existed from around the 12th to the 16thcentury.

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PC: Guwahati Circle of Archaeological Survey of India website.

D Dutta, deputy director of the state directorate of research (archaeology), said that the remains of the fort have not been carbon-dated and could date back to the 9th century. Archaeological evidence too, he said, suggests that there is no connection between the style of that found in the Arunachal Pradesh site to that of those in Vidarbha.

“Perhaps there was another king by the name of Bhismaka and perhaps his daughter’s name was also Rukmini,” Dutta said.

Ginko Linggi, president of the Idu-Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, informed that he and his friends began hearing about the myth when they were in school in the eighties.

Linggi said that there are no records or mentions of such a myth as per the traditional oral history of the indigenous tribal community.

Like many others from and outside the community, Linggi said that proper scientific research is required before any conclusion can be made on the veracity of the myth. One of those was Vijay Swami.

Swami has been a long-time resident in Arunachal Pradesh, having previously worked with the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya for 15 years and is now the executive director of the Roing-based Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage. More importantly, Swami acted as a liaison between the state government and organisers of the Madhavpur Mela and was in attendance at the carnival.

Having reached Guwahati from Gujarat, Swami informed that a team of 22 people, including 15 members of the cultural troupe, five tribal shamans called igu, and two community elders, had attended the event.

While admitting that the myth does not match the archaeological evidence (considering that Lord Krishna was supposed to have ‘left’ Earth somewhere around 3100 before current era (BCE) and that the fort ruins are from a much later period), Swami said that stories of the myth are a recent trend.  Detailed studies, he said, are required and that the fair is an attempt at ‘national integration’.

And therein lays the crux of the matter.

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Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu rocking a pagri (turban) at the fair.

Myth or fact, the idea of ‘re-enacting’ the ‘heroic kidnapping was clearly driven with the motive to promote ‘national integration’ which would help cement Northeast’s ‘ancient link’ with the rest of the country and thereby somehow defy China’s constant claims over much Arunachal Pradesh’s territory.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, is reported to have said that the fair is a way for people “in far-off frontiers will have a sense of belonging and relate to rest of the states”.

One news report quoted Khandu as such: We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.

As the mela concluded, a letter arrived from the ASI stating that the Bhismaknagar Fort is not demarcated and that the ASI does not have a revenue map of the site. The letter, erroneously addressed to the deputy commissioner of Dibang Valley district instead of Lower Dibang Valley which was created in 2001, sought “information regarding the demarcation of boundary, revenue map, and land records”. The letter further noted that it had “on many occasions earlier faced difficulties in taking up developmental works at the monument/sites” and directed the government to schedule a joint-inspection.

As myth and history were being inter-woven in Gujarat, the foundation on which the legend is based on suffers from a lack of attention.

Growing pains: How the growth of a music fest is fuelling economy and angst

Tam and Yamyang Narang come off as a couple that has been in love since the first time they laid their eyes on each other decades ago. There are no overt displays of affection (as is usually the case with tribal marriages) or any grand verbal declarations of love. But as you sit with them in their kitchen sipping on the rice brew, O, from bamboo mugs as the fire from the hearth burns slowly, warming the cool summer night at their home-stay in Hong village at Ziro in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one feels the same kind of love emanating from the wooden walls with which it must have been erected.

Bespectacled and sporting a ‘semi-French beard’, Mr Narang says that he doesn’t remember when exactly they had opened their homes to let strangers in and live with them.

“It was in November 2002,” interjects Mrs Narang as she sits on a moora by the fire preparing rice in a large steel pot for fermentation that would be used to make some more beer.

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My hosts, Tam and Yamyang Narang.

Mr Narang says that the couple hadn’t initially intended to turn their home into a home-stay and that their intention was to spread awareness about cleanliness in the area and promote their Apatani culture.

He says that for the first five years they did not even charge their “clients” and served three meals a day. That has now been reduced to two to allow tourists to take in the sights and they now charge Rs 1000 per night per person.

Mrs Narang says that the first batch of foreigners slept by the fire and that their tour guide was the one who bought quilts for them. The Tam Yamyang Home Stay now has quilts, beds and two rooms to house four people with the additional option of sleeping by the fire in the main house.

She tells me that she’s seen a rise in the number of Indian tourists visiting the valley after the Ziro Festival of Music began a few years back.

Indeed, ever since the festival began, Ziro has shot into most travellers’ checklist globally. At least over three thousand people make the annual pilgrimage to watch independent acts perform even if they have never heard of them ever before and most likely won’t after. But that doesn’t stop the festival faithful from flocking (this writer included), come rain or shine. And while the festival organisers appear to be doing well each year, the most obvious beneficiaries have been those in the hospitality sector.

The hearty hearth

The hearty hearth. There’s a cat there.

Every hotel in the valley has almost full occupancy during the festival week and the increased visibility of Ziro has encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in the sector. New hotels are being built all across the valley, each promising patrons the best view Ziro has to offer.

Over the years, home-stays too have increased significantly as more and more tourists seek out the Apatani way of life wishing to live with, and as, the locals.

There are currently 24 home-stays registered in the valley and more are likely to come up. Each of them offers their own unique experiences but the Narangs’ are probably the most authentic.

Hum loka local style home-stay hain,” Mrs Narang had told me unapologetically when I had arrived in a form of pidgin Hindi used as a language of communication in the state.

The humble home

The humble home.

Unlike many of the newer home-stays that resemble fancy lodges, the Narang home-stay is more rustic, authentic even. But that is not to say that the others are any less good. Some visitors will invariably want certain luxuries like running water and comfortable couches to watch TV from and will prefer the newer options. And those options have grown exponentially over the years, much thanks to the Festival. However, as much as a success Ziro Festival of Music has been, it still has its critics in the Valley.

I was to meet one of those critics who runs one of the newer homes-stay but had to skip as I had to rush back. We did cross paths on the road and exchanged pleasantries but I did not get the opportunity to see his place. I was also told that he is one of the most vocal critics of the Festival and the apparent culture it promotes.

The common (mis)conception surrounding the Festival is that patrons indulge in all nature of nefarious activities ranging from debauchery to narcotics in all forms.

Having visited the festival for the past three editions, that isn’t exactly a misconception. However, anyone familiar with the festival circuit knows that such things do happen. (Not that it makes it right in any manner.)

Even Mr Narang (who has never visited the festival because he is “against these rock acts that have no discipline”) holds the view that there is perhaps too much happening at the festival.

“Arunachal and our youth are in transition and we do have a problem of alcohol and bhaang (opium, but I suspect he meant marijuana),” he says, looking genuinely concerned.

In recent years the organisers have tried to address these issues by putting up signs and making announcements asking patrons to refrain from indulging in drugs. (In all honesty, though, anyone who has ever attended a festival knows that such signs are really a mere formality.) But to maintain a constant vigil in a large open field is no mean task. If drug consumption during the festival is an issue, it will need the co-operation from local residents.

Until then, of course, many more doors of the people are likely to open up once the Festival fever kicks in.

The Ziro Festival of Music will be held this year from September 28 to October 1. Check the official website for information relating to the Fest. ZFM Facebook page.

Remember that even Indian citizens from other states require special permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Permits can be applied for online here.

Disclosure: A version of this article was first published in the 2017 Souvenir published on the occasion of Golden Jubilee Dree Festival. The trip was paid for by the Dree Festival Committee.

Catfights over cattle: Tasting India’s (in)tolerance

Last month, as the numbers of the Bihar election results poured in, television news channels began attributing the success of the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav mahagatbandhan to many factors and reasons. The one that gained the most prominence was that the victory was a defeat of the Hindu right and a growing environment of intolerance in the country. In my humble opinion, that is too much of a simplification of the Indian polity and certainly of the Indian electoral politics.

In the run-up to the elections, various incidents of violence arising out of outdated ideas of what being an Indian means were reported from across the country. At no time in modern Indian history has cattle dominated discussion as much as in the last 18 months. From Mizoram to Dadri, beef was on everyone’s tongue, but ironically, not allowed on anyone’s plate. Until recently, that people in India ate beef was an accepted truth. When it came to this touchy subject, most people followed a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Recently, though, that has changed.

Any one person being killed for apparently consuming something surely cannot be palatable to anyone. And even some in the ruling party came out to condone the act (albeit it was a delayed reaction). But do this and other such incidents suddenly make India an intolerant nation? I am not so sure.

It can be said with a certain amount of certainty that since May 2014, some Hindu right groups have shown the ugly side of India. Whether news channel anchors or right-leaning individuals want to call them ‘fringe groups’ or by any other name is redundant. A lot of today’s discussion is dominated by the argument that such incidents are the workings of fringe groups and do not reflect the nature of a country or community.

Fair.

Now can we apply the same argument to Naga, Kuki, Bodo insurgents or Kashmiri militants? Can we simply call them fringe elements of Naga, Kuki, Bodo or Kashmiri communities? Why can’t ‘fringe groups’ of a majority who terrorize people also be called terrorists? Or is it a term over which ethnic and religious minorities alone have ownership? Can it also be denied that these ‘fringies’ have become emboldened enough to act with such impunity in the last 18 months?

My argument is simple: those who kill and terrorize other people are terrorists, regardless of their faith/ethnicity/sovereign aspirations. So let’s call them that – terrorists.

Now back to the Bihar elections.

Attributing the RJD-JD(U) victory as a rejection of fundamentalism is an oversimplification. In all fairness, that may well have been one reason, but any sound-minded individual must admit that an election is not won or lost on one agenda. Not in a vibrant democracy as ours. The BJP went into damage control mode soon after the elections and offered many reasons for its defeat. While all of those plus the ‘tolerance-intolerance’ issue surely played an important role, the best reason for the BJP’s defeat was offered by the party elders.

From Shatrughan Sinha to LK Advani, the old guard has said that consensus within the party was not taken to plan the election strategy. While I am not privy to the BJP’s meetings, surely such stalwarts making such statements has to be given some miniscule amount of credence, no?

But why speak about this now?

You see, the Bihar election and the reasons affecting its result are of the least interest to me; just in the same way that election results in the Northeast hold absolutely no interest to the rest of the country. The reason I write this is because I am a shallow and a hollow individual who feels it is time to write this because Aamir Khan is under attack for his comments on the issue. The perfect time to write about this would have been soon after Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and his son were killed in Dadri. But I didn’t and I am sorry. But here we are.

So, was the actor or his wife, director Kiran Rao, right? Who knows? I am the least bit qualified to judge the merit/demerit of Mr Khan’s comments. But because I am a cynical and judgmental person, I am going to do it anyways.

In my very personal and humble opinion, I think the actor was wrong because the country was always filled with such intolerance. It is not a new phenomenon.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the retaliatory bomb blasts in present-day Mumbai were acts of intolerance. Fatwas issued against writers? Intolerance. Banning Valentine’s Day celebrations? Intolerance. In fact, our television and newspaper space has been filled with people who somehow seem to find themselves unable to take an intelligent stance on the issue: that extremist groups of all communities have always existed in this country and that doesn’t necessarily make India an intolerant country. But it doesn’t make it a tolerant one as well.

Detractors of Mr Khan’s statements (and others who find themselves in such situations) are often told that if India was not tolerant then they will not be able to make such statements in the first place. You see, herein lies the rump.

India is a democracy that guarantees its citizens the freedom of speech. It is enshrined in the Constitution of the nation. For me to be able to practice (or not practice) a faith or speak my mind freely is my birthright. It is not and should not be seen as something that the majority has chosen to bestow upon me that I should feel indebted and grateful for. While asserting my rights, I must say that it is incorrect to say that my views should be the be all and end all of every argument. I am not the alpha and the omega and this is where the beauty of our democracy lies.

Mr Khan may have been right or wrong or left in his statements. In fact, he was merely recalling a conversation with his wife and stating his opinion on an issue. Is he not entitled to his opinions? Surely he is, just as much as those who are criticizing him. So feel free. Voice your opinions. Just don’t tell anyone what’s for dinner.

PS: While the country was busy debating India’s tolerance levels, 26 November passed us by quietly. The day of the terrible Mumbai terror attacks. Although many people on Facebook (rightly) expressed their solidarity with the French, how many remembered the 167 victims of Mumbai?