A recent sculpture of Visvabasu on the site of a previous tree used for sculpting Jagannath statue, Machadigadia.
The “colonial archive” often remains an unconscious part of present imaginary and shared ideas. As a matter of fact, in India for example (but the same can be said about Europe or elsewhere, of course), many authors claim to rely on precolonial values, while they actually mix it with colonial inherited concepts or institutions. My aim here is to demonstrate, through an example from one of the State of the Indian federation, Odisha1, that the common contemporary notion of history often combines a modern2, progressist view of history and a pre-modern theological perspective. In order to highlight this synthetis, this article connects medieval and modern Sanskrit and vernacular texts, colonial reports, and present-day interviews. The connection between the first and the last sources was explicitely done by local people themselves, as the temple narratives are parts of the regional shared culture. As for the presentation here, the textual enquiries were based on the present ethnography, but it seemed easier to order the data chronologically. In between the older texts and the present-day enquiries, some colonial reports have been included in order to highlight their influence, often forgotten or concealed. With a focus on the relations between the urban inhabitants of Odisha, or Oriya, and the “tribes” or Adivasi “aborigines”, I would like to contribute to “decolonial” Adivasi studies (Rycroft and Dasgupta 2011), not only by emphasizing the relevance of colonial history to understand present observations, hidden power structures, but also by giving voices to subaltern and often “racialized” subjects within a postcolonial State.
To come to our central topic, the temple chronicles of Puri, in Odisha, reporting the legend of the god Jagannath and his royal patrons projected the idea of a continuous prenational history (despite the divisions and the Moghol domination) up to the colonial period (1803)3. Pritipushpa Mishra has provided an in-depth analysis of the use of language, geography, and history by regional nationalists, insisting on the “naturalization” of the territory they claimed4. I propose here to focus particularly on the inclusion of Adivasi within this nationalist history, in continuity with colonial perspective. I thus begin with Andrew Stirling, who clearly framed the temple tradition and the European conception of History, as well as a “conjectural prehistory” of the area with the tribes as the “aboriginal inhabitants”. Starting from this point, I will follow the parallel trajectories of the theories on the origins of the temple and the god Jagannath, and of the identification of an ancient category (śabara) mentioned in the legend with present-day tribal names (Sora and Sabar). I will then turn to three present-day vernacular versions relating the roots of Jagannath that can be connected to particular socio-political positions, before presenting the claims of two Adivasi groups (northern Sabars and southern Soras) on the same issue. I uphold that we can only fully understand the form of these claims (relying on archaeology and script) by returning to the “Colonial Archive” of the 1930s, in this instance the language politics and the debates on the Province boundaries. Finally, I examine the recent construction of a Jagannath temple (in the 1970s) in a southern district of Odisha (Koraput), and its subsequent association with an Adivasi group (the Sora), in order to discuss if it can be considered as a democratic synthesis or as a strategy of cultural assimilation.
Preamble: The three literary sources of Jagannath temple narrative
In Odisha, the common present-day narratives of the Puri temple and the god Jagannath are rooted in three written sources. The oldest and most authoritative for literati is the Puruṣottamakṣetra māhātmya or “narrative of the domain of the supreme being”, in Sanskrit, dated back to about 1300 a.c. (Kulke 1993: 24). A second version appeared in a free translation of the Mahābhārata Epic in Oriya vernacular by Sarala Das (XVth century). A third source is an Oriya poem entitled Deuḷa tola by Krishna Das (XVIth century).
In the three versions, the canevas of the story is briefly as follows: In the Perfect Age5, a King (Indradyumna) had heard about a dark blue divine stone statue of the god Vishnu. After a long time of prayers6, he sent a brahmin, Vidyāpati, to search for the statue. In the area of present-day Puri, near a hunter’s hamlet, the brahmin met a hunter, Viśvāvasu, who accepted to show him the statue. After this first worship, the god disappeared, but announced his return, by dream, in the new shape of a log from the Ocean. The king discovered a special trunk floating on the waters, in which he had sculpted the first statue of Vishnu as Jagannath (“Lord of the world”). The post-like shape of the statue was due to impatient king who prevented the divine sculptor from finishing it.
Now, to sum up the differences between the three versions, the first one offers a mythical account of the god’s origins, but also of the low status of the forest-hunters (śabara) and their redemption thanks to the grace of the god. The descendents of Viśvāvasu are only said to be temple servants in charge of the god’s wooden body and its disposal (Hardenberg 2011: 20, 27). Present in other temple legends in India, the reference to a hunter being at the origin of a sanctuary roots the temple in the locality and proves the devotional character of the god7. The second version (Sarala Das) gives a more important role to the hunters, while showing darker sides of princes and brahmins (greedy and violents). His story is definitely critical of the high castes8. The third version (Krishna Das) is consensual and still the more popular, probably due to the family issue involved with the key role played by the hunter’s daughter, Lalitā, between the hunters and the brahmins. She wishes to marry the young brahmin indeed, and pleads with her father to disclose the place of his god to her husband.
Stirling (1825): Temple chronicles into History, tribes as pre-history
The first important colonial report on this area is attributed to Andrew Stirling, Secretary of Commissioner of Cuttack. In his “An Account, Geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack” (Asiatic Researches, 1825, XV, p. 163-338), he distinguished between three different “races inhabiting the hilly region” whom he supposed to be the descendents of the “aboriginal inhabitants of the country”9: the Coles (Munda-speaking groups), Kands (Khond/Kond) and Sours. I shall focus here on the Sours, as their name soon connected them to the temple legends, even if Stirling had not yet made this link. He described them as living by “clearing the jungle and providing fuel” for others, refering to wood-collectors living in northern Odisha (“in the jungles of Khurda”), in forest areas or in special hamlets at the outskirt of caste villages.
After a description of the land and its inhabitants, Stirling compiled what he calls the “annals” of the country, from discussions with “learned Natives”, Brahmin family chronicles and palm-leaf Records of the temple, that he connected with Persian accounts. According to this “native” perspective, History begins with the quest for the original statue of the god10. Afterwards, Stirling summed up the temple legend, and mentioned the king and the brahmin but disregarded the hunter in his rendering of the story. As for explaining the wooden divine statue (the temple statues are normally in stone), Stirling favored a current thesis, according to which it hides relics. Before and after Stirling, the strange shape of Jagannath provoked many speculations.
From an ancient category (śabara) to a present ethnic name (Sora/Sabar)
In 1871, the archaeologist Alexander Cunningham established that some ancient Sanskrit names, among which “Śabara” could be identified in Greco-latins sources (Pliny, Ptolemy). But as they were situated in different locations, he suggested that each one was “a single branch of a widely extended tribe”, whose remnants could be found in Eastern India11. Against this argument, more recent scholarship has shown that śabara was a generic term in Sanskrit, designating any “forest hunter”. Therefore, Cunningham changed a category into an ethnic name, a process which would be repeated until even today. Moreover, he gave grandeur to Jagannath origins by interpreting him as a Buddhist symbol turned into a statue. Following this thesis, W. W. Hunter celebrated the “religious syncreticism” of Jagannath. He reported an oral tradition of Puri’s legend, rather close to Krishna Das’s version. For him, the story recounts the encounter of the Aryan kingly races and the aboriginals of this place, although he noted that the latter were now excluded from entering the gates of the temple dedicated to their god12. He indeed considered that “the first human inhabitants” of Odisha were Hill tribes, whose “descendents still survive”: “the Savars and the Kandhs”13. The same argument is reiterated by successive authors, up to be styled the “Hindu method of Tribal Absorption”14, a classic in any Indian anthropology curriculum, and to be casted in the scenography of the Odisha State Museum. In support of this view, Hunter quoted the authors previously mentionned and added a new reference: D. F. Carmichael, an officer who mentioned the Sora of southern Odisha among the “The Wild Races”15.
A saora sculpture (Elwin 1955).
Let us continue to follow the identification of the legendary Śavara to the present Saora/Sora of Southern Odisha. The first ethnographic work on them is attributed to the Superintendent of Police Fred Fawcett (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, I/4, 1888) and Gidugu V. Ramamurti Pantulu, a Telugu lecturer (in the Gajapati Maharaja School in Parlakimedi), both of whose work was then subsequently used by the influential compilation by E. Thurston and Rangachary, Castes and Tribes of Madras Presidency (1909). Ramamurti was a staunch supporter of spoken languages and teaching in mother tongue16. Such publications allowed further comparisons by G. Ramadas17, Headmaster of Jeypore, who sought to show that the forest of exile in the Rāmāyana was located in Sora area, and that the Sora were mentionned as monkey people in the same Epic. Although far-fetched and criticized in the same journal, the thesis was – and still is – well received by local scholars, too content to identify their territory with such a famous place18. Later on, from 1944 to 51, the ethnographer V. Elwin conducted fieldwork among the Sora, reporting among many other things, a classical version of the Puri legend, that he collected from a literate Sora, which illustrated the diffusion of the story up to there. In a different vein, codirecting a grand Indo-German project on The Cult of Jagannath and the regional tradition of Orissa (1978), the historian of religion A.C. Eschmann attempted to draw comparisons between the making of the statue of Jagannath and the process of sculpting sacrificial wooden posts in Adivasi villages, without reaching a definite conclusion. Despite this uncertainty, the identification of the generic Savara with the actual present-day central/northern Sabars or southern Sora became a common-sense conclusion, and the basis for further regional interpretations.
Some vernacular versions on the Adivasi roots of Jagannath
Today, for most Oriya people, the Jagannath cult has a tribal or Adivasi component, and Eschmann (et al.)’s book is famous among all the intellectuals. Yet, while the temple narrative remains uncontested, the preferred legend and its interpretation may vary depending on a person’s religious and socio-political background. In this sense, the narratives of the past are never neutral, but instrumentalized for present use. We can begin with a group of Oriya authors who identify themselves with the “secular nationalism” of Nehru, even if the god Jagannath remains a key-reference for their identity. These scholars tend to be critical towards caste division and to favor the Buddhist component, or the Adivasi one, and the kin-based familiarity of the god with his worshippers19. One early local author who insisted upon the positively synthetic aspect of Jagannath was K.C. Mishra, echoing Hunter’s view with new data20. A similar “social” yet apologetic vision was recently diffused through a devotional serial Jai Jagannath (released in 2011). The scriptwriter of this serial, Bijoy Mishra is a retired engineer and a famous local writer for social dramas. He was contacted by the producers of the serial as he had written the script for the first movie on Jagannath in 1963. Although local scholars advised him to follow only the older Sanskrit version of the legend (see below), he turned towards the more popular one, by Krishna Das, for his inspiration. He considered that this latter scenario conveyed a simple and harmonious social message, compared to the two other texts. Born in a Brahmin family close to Bengal (where the tradition of social theater is strong), Bijoy Mishra describes himself as a Leftist but still devote of Jagannath. In his own words, “I don’t care from when or how he came - I have always been a Leftist -, but he is here”, and “Jagannath is like a common person, wearing a dhoti”, enjoying family ties, everybody can identify with him. He therefore tried to show that the history of the cult illustrates an issue of “social engineering”, “how civilisation grew with him [Jagannath]”. The serial indeed infuses the legend with references to mainstream history, like the Big Bang, and prehistoric animals, evoked just before the encounter between the hunters and the god. According to Bijoy Mishra, there was “a social necessity to choose a Sabara, in this time” and “they began to discover, not inventing, Jagannath”. It is in fact the god who calls Viśvāvasu and the “Śabaras [who] were Nomadic people” in a dream to his place21, leading “logically” to their sedentarisation in settled village, where they develop agriculture, “Sabara civilization”, kinship and political organization.
Three episodes from the Serial Jai Jagannath: Visvavasu in front of the blue statue; the nomadic Savara; and the trunk on the sea shore.
A second key episode is the meeting and alliance between the hunter and the brahmin. Despite a debate on this point, the scriptwriter once again followed Krishna Das story, as according to him, “the most logical way to reach amalgamation of the peoples was through the mariage of Lalitā”, as a “diplomatic” means to extend the web of the god.
A second current has developed with growing modern environmental concerns and supports a “pre-ecological” version of the god’s origins. In 2014, the front page of the Orissa Sunday Post featured a tree with Jagannath’s face and the following comment: “The sanctity of trees remains cosmopolitan and Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, in the form of ‘daru’ – the consecrated margosa or neem tree wood – is a living example of the highest form of dendrolatry” (Swati S. Suar, Sunday Post, June 29 – July 5, 2014).
“Tree of faith” illustration by D. Nilesh Rao in Orissa Sunday Post, 2014.
To support this assertion of perennial “tree-worship”, the article brought together ancient references and old evolutionist authors, before adding that “the Supreme Soul can spring out and manifest itself even from the insentient bark. Just as it did for the aborigine Śabaras, the earliest tribal inhabitants of the state.” The author praised one book for having made this connection: Dārudevatā or “the log god”22, by Beni Madhav Padhi. Born in a southern district (Gajapati, 1919-2008), Padhi was a writer who taught vernacular Litterature (at Berhampur university). His main argument was that these tribes lived in the deep forest and worshipped tree-deities (basing his view on partial colonial ethnography). At one point, they would have merely shifted their devotion from a tree to its stem with its upper part painted to imitate a head and two branches which represented the hands of the deity. To support this pure speculation, Padhi had only one argument: the reference by Sarala Das of a form of the god residing in a tree (Śabari-Nārāyan or “Vishnu of the hunteress”), worshipped by the hunter, before manifesting itself in the stone statue. This tree-worship hypothesis of an ecological proto-Jagannath found a renewed interest on the eve of the renewal of the god’s body, in 2015, and is now widespread. Many instances can be found in the Orissa Review, a Government magazine, whose authors are mainly local civil servants, and who praise B. M. Padhi and K. C. Mishra, for their demonstration of the synthetic dimension of the Lord.
Daru Brahma, Puri pilgrimage souvenir.
The last group of authors are the high caste traditionalists, supporters of Sanskrit references. For such authors, Jagannath cannot be explained by an external social history of the “cult”, but only through the internal knowledge of texts from within this tradition. One revealing example of this first current is Dr Gopinath Mohapatra, former Director of the Sanskrit Department of the main local university (Utkal University, Bhubaneswar). His book The Land of Visnu, a translation of the temple legend in Sanskrit, was an answer to both the “Western” (like Eschmann, Kulke) and Indian scholars (like Mishra and Padhi) who tended to reduce Jagannath to his original cult. A scholar and a brahmin devotee, Mohapatra aimed to show that the log reference is not tribal but rather a fully Hindu concept (from the Veda), and that the Aryans were the true worshippers, before “the worship of God fell into the hands of the forest dwellers, i.e. the Savaras”23. Such expression clearly conveys a vision of history as a decline, in which “image-worship was introduced to convince the mass of the people”24. This is a proper Hindu theological perspective on history25, aiming at “eternal” meaning, but here with racial and orientalist overtone (“Aryans” vs supposed “primitive” “forest-dwellers”).
An even more “orthodox”26 example of this milieu is represented by the local Heads of monasteries. In a pilgrimage guide edited by one of them, the author rejects the very term Adivasi (“original inhabitants”) for “Vanavasis (‘forest dwellers’) or tribal peoples”, whom he considers as “fallen from the original Vedic traditions” (vegetarianism, abstention from alcohol, initiation and caste rituals, study of the Vedas), into “unrefined or sinful habits”27. More radically here, Jagannath is said to have “appeared” in the forests to redeem its inhabitants, but was never a “tribal god”. On the contrary, the authors condemn both Adivasi traditions and the modern egalitarian society as well as “the mainstream academic idea of history” as degenerations from the Golden Vedic Age, in which social differentiation in castes and ‘spiritual’ enlightenment through the Veda were respected by all.
Although traditionalist, the position of the temple servants, including brahmins, is much more nuanced. Among them, the Daitā are a case in point as they are both said to be the descendants of Viśvāvasu himself and the closest to the god28. The young and elder Daitā servants that I interviewed, claim their ancestry and their interest in the “Adivasi” traditions, but recognize politely that they are too busy to engage in deeper learning about their supposed Sora or Sabar kin.
The reverted claims of northern Sabars and southern Soras on the “Jagannath civilization”, and the Colonial Archive of State building
We have seen that the Sour or Sabar of the “jungle of Khurda” were identified as the descendents of the legendary Śabara by the earliest English sources. In July 2019, while in this area, I had a discussion with a Sabar friend. Echoing the Sanskritic reference to prove his literacy, he related the origin of his group to the Rāmāyana Epic. But he quickly added that the Śabara were “men of the soil”: they earned their life from the soil and their hands directly, compared to other castes. But at that time, they were not literate, so they were dispossessed of their god and now, they no longer have any record for their claim, nor any connection with Puri. However, the Sabar can see their original statue without paying in the temple of Kantilo. I had previously heard that this temple was claimed as one of the origin sites of Jagannath, but this claim was opening new perspective. My friend took the occasion to take me there, where we met a brahmin priest (Bastya Mishra), who reported the following abbreviated story:
Viśvāvasu was actually living on the hill close to Kantilo, and started worshipping Vishnu in his blue stone shape there. As in Krishna Das and popular versions, the royal brahmin Vidyāpati met Viśvāvasu, married his daughter Lalitā, and insisted that she should convince her father to take him before the god. The hunter agreed on the condition that his eyes be covered. But the brahmin sewed mustard seeds along the road and, in the rainy season, they grew and unveiled the road to the god. One night, he tried to steal the statue, but a voice from the void prevented him from doing so, and told him that a log would be sent to Puri along the river Mahanadi... The story ends globally like the Sanskrit version, but clearly reframe it in the neighborhood.
My Sabar friend, confirmed by the brahmin, also reported that a small temple was devoted to Lalitā in a nearby hillock. On the spot, we interviewed the priest (Devaraj Jena) in front of his small temple. According to him, the hill was truly the place where Viśvāvasu worshipped the blue stone statue under a Banyan tree. After having taken the log-form of Jagannath to Puri, the brahmins took the stone form to Kantilo (on the banks of the river Mahanadi) to worship him in a more auspicious place. The neighboring hamlet was formerly inhabited by Sabar, as in the legend. Then, when newer inhabitants built their houses, they came upon strange remains (small statues, stones looking like fossils – which are Vishnu signs –, stones supposed to be Neolithic tools, etc.). For the priest, these “archeological” remains prove the original Śabara occupations of this area and the reality of the legend. So, in 1998, the villagers erected a small temple dedicated to Lalitā-Nilamadhaba (“the blue god”). Since then, they have been trying to obtain official recognition for this temple, without success as yet.
Lalita, her father the hunter, and the brahmin her future husband, in Lalita Nilamadhaba temple.
Jagannath’s primeval legacy is also shared by other claimants to the Viśvāvasu lineage. Born at the border between southern Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, Mangey Gomang or S.P. Mangaya (1916-1980) was the son of a “pure” (Sarda) Sora village headman. His family’s relative wealth allowed him to go to the closest High School (Gunupur). Later, he was selected for a training course as a compounder in a pharmacy in the former capital city of Odisha (Cuttack), where he adopted urban habits. According to his brother, a key event in his life occurred when his father and father-in-law visited him (allegedly to go to Puri together). Some other trainees, coming from town, openly mocked their ear and nose rings and supposed that they were his servants. Mangey was struck by this lack of respect for his elders29. In 1934-35, he succeeded in his training but decided to devote himself to the education of his own society in order to gain respect from the urban Hindus and self-respect. Still according to his brother, Mangey began to spread his script (1952), created a Sora primary school (1967), and eventually succeeded in establishing a printing press (1972-1973), editing more than twenty booklets or books on primary education, Sora history, medicine, and religion. But that was not all, now revered as a “guru”, and influenced by his pro-Hindu father-in-law, he developped a Sora reformist religion, called the “religion of the Matar-hill/forest”. His followers report that he, or most probably his father-in-law, had a dream on the 18th of June 1936, in which Jagannath showed him the divine letters engraved on a heart-shaped stone at the top of the Matarbanam hill, just as the Veda was revealed to the “Aryan” seers30. He later erected a small temple to shelter the stone. His religion promotes the ban on animal sacrifices and alcohol consumption as per high caste norms, and a cult to his letters as “Divine principle of the Alphabet” superseding that of the “log” that is Jagannath. His son followed in his footsteps, and some schools spread in his area. Although his script would never be generalized for Sora education by any state, Mangey was recognized for his achievements by the Oriya literary Academy just before his death. The “alphabet worshippers” use the brahmin version of the Jagannath story to reverse the primitive depiction of themselves31. More exactly, they supersede the Puri temple version altogether, by referring to a second revelation to themselves, through a more “spiritual” mode of worship, using letters instead of sacrifices32. This is both a Christian and Hindu reformist (Neo-Vedantic) perspective applied to their own tradition. By the same token, this outlook of the “pure” Sora has allowed new connections with a local Jagannath temple as we shall soon see.
Beyond the religious reformist aspect, I would like to insist on the relevance of colonial and political history to understand the origins of Mangey movement. The official discovery of his script occurred only two months after the creation of the Province of Orissa in April 1936. This new territory was delimited on the basis of linguistic claims. Now, the two Kings ruling then over Sora territories were active supporters of the inclusion of their domains in the new province33, and one of them enrolled the Savara (and Khond) in his argumentation in the press34. The same point was made by a local oriya association to the colonial commission examining the claims, the “Simon Commission” (1928). A member of the Commission then pointed out that the Savara and Khond did have a language of their own, remark to which one of the deputees retorted: “they have no separate written language, and they have no distinct culture and civilization of their own. They are assimilating not only to the Oriya language, but also the Oriya civilisation and culture.”35 In these debates, to have a script appears as an essential criterium to language for defining “civilization” and hability for political representation. It is not by chance that “forgotten” scripts were discovered precisely on the Province boundaries. In this discussion, at that precise moment of time, to have a script was crucial to give a formal existence to the Adivasi languages and political autonomy36.
Jeypore maharaja Ramachandra Deva III receiving the Governor of Madras Presidency, towards 1928.
A tribal dance in Jeypore (gadaba).
Jagannath at the District level: The Śabara Śrīkṣetra as a seat of social synthesis, politico-ritual legitimation or assimilation?
In Koraput town, the administrative center of a southern district of Odisha, is located a Jagannath temple called the “hunters’ sanctuary”, Śabara Śrīkṣetra (as Puri temple is the “sanctuary” of Jagannath). The building seems recent, but the cult is vaguely presented as a much older tradition, in continuity with local Adivasi rituals. As a matter of fact, just outside the temple compound, a small park shelters an even smaller shrine, with a wallplaster indicating “Saora Deity Matarbannam”. A brahmin at the main temple gave me the number of a local writer who knew more about all this matter. The writer transposed the story of Viśvāvasu to Koraput, identified once again with the Rāmāyana forest, and repeated to me what he had written in a small book37. Everything began on April 24th, 1995, when the then Secretary of the Jagannath Management Committee in Koraput, K. C. Panigrahi, and few other officials went to see Mangey Gomang’s letters “revealed in dreams as Ôm”. There, they convinced the temple keeper to make a copy of the letters’ stone (by a local sculptor), for Koraput. Panigrahi promised to build only a shrine and to allow the cult to be officiated by the Sora only. Upon their agreement the new shrine was established on June 26th, 1995, in presence of Mangey’s brother (Rama), Mangey’s two sons (his successor War Naïbig, and Diganga), and a few others.
Matarbanam temple in Koraput.
Press photo from Paresh Rath.
Krishna Chandra Panigrahi (1940-2015) was definitely the spirit behind this enterprise. He was a former collector and the founder of the Śabara Shrikhetra38 in June 1972, a complex which contains a Jagannath temple, but that he also imagined as a:
“multipurpose centre of Jagannath Consciousness which harmonises the Tribal, Aryan and Dravidian Culture as well as other beliefs. Everybody has free access to this shrine which virtually demonstrates the very concept of Jagannath Consciousness having its tribal bias”
This quotation from the booklet presenting the complex conveys his view of an irenic harmony of the local inhabitants around the synthetic figure of Jagannath. A true admirer of the anthropologist Elwin, who advocated a development adapted to the tribes and “along the lines of their own genius”39, he added a Tribal Cultural Research Center with a small library to the temple in 1984, and later a Tribal Museum. In 2007, a Council of Analytical Tribal Studies (COATS) was also inaugurated which edits a journal and booklets. Under District administration, it is directed by the Jagannath Managing Committee, whose President is the District Collector and the Secretary the Superintendant of Police, but it actually relies on Temple funds.
The synthetic perspective is also supported – although far more nuanced – by some “assimilated” Sora. One of Mangey’s grandsons, Giridhar Gomang (1943-) entered politics (Parliament) in 1972 after having been a teacher. He coauthored some books on tribes in history with Kornel Das, a retired veterinarian from Jeypore and a local ethnographer. Gomang was also the sole author of a book on the Śabara, based on Cunningham’s postulate that they were a great ancient group now subdivided into many local ones like the Sora. Although a few ethnographic hints (from Elwin, Vitebsky, etc.) were provided, he focused mostly on literary Indian sources (the Epics and two versions of the temple legend) and inscriptions. His point was to show that the Śabara appear regularly throughout regional history as “civilized” allies of the main kingdom, and could have been successively Buddhists, Jain, and Hindus in the past. In this sense, according to him, the assimiliation process is less a religious issue or a dynamic of “hinduization”, but rather a sort of regional synthesis40. This position befits the secular position of Gomang’s own political affiliation, the Congress party, but also alludes to a Weberian analysis of the spread of Jagannath cult as a “legitimation” of Hindu kings in peripheric areas by a famous historian of medieval Odisha, H. Kulke41. In this perspective, the “hunter’s sanctuary” can be seen as a post-independance instance of this old strategy of building Jagannath temples in Adivasi areas and including few of these latter as ritual charge holders. As a matter of fact, Panigrahi also included a representative of the Adivasi inhabitants of Koraput town, in the local Jagannath festival, whose son is still performing today.
Dasi Naïk (jodia porja) distributing consecrated offerings (prasad) during Jagannath “chariot festival” in Koraput.
Although Panigrahi gave ample proof of his desire to recognize and empower Adivasis on a democratic ground, the institutions he initiated now celebrate a local culture which is largely folklorized. Koraput festivals sees “performances” of Adivasi music and dances included within a ‘spiritualized’ “Jagannath consciousness” promoted mostly by the local bourgeoisy who came from the main urban areas. Similarly, the present COATS Library offers references which seem to support more the “assimilation” of local population economically but also culturally to high castes ideals42.
Adivasi dance in front of the chariot, Koraput 2019.
A decolonized view of development?
The present versions of Odisha history tell us an “exemplary history” (Hartog 2003), whose foundation was laid by Stirling’s articulation of local temple records and European view of “national History”. In the different cases here, the global moral remains identical: the Adivasi are foundational (through the figure of the original hunter Viśvāvasu) but remain refered as “rude/country”, if not “savages/primitive”, while a superior step towards Jagannath consciousness requires “refinement”, purification or “civilization” (samskruti, a concept affiliated to the word Sanskrit itself), whose model is still brahmanic. In the same line, today, “development” is perceived as economic but also “spiritual” through Hindu reformist education.
For this reason, the Adivasi of Odisha who wish to be “modern”, often emulate urban reformist Hindu practices, literary references and values (rejection of material sacrifices, for “spiritual” devotion, purification, etc.). Now, as we have seen, the reconstructed “precolonial tradition” usually mixes old vernacular narratives and more recent perspectives from outdated colonial, orientalist, or anthropological sources. Moreover, in the case of orthodox milieu, supposed post-colonial rhetoric sometimes hides mere anti-modern values: anti-egalitarian (casteism) and anti-subjective autonomy (revealed “eternal tradition”), which are actually more Hindu nationalist than related to post-colonial theories (cf. Meera Nanda works). For this reason, historical works are instrumentalized in theologically-oriented perspectives. As Malinowski put it long ago, what we call myth is an authoritative narrative, explaining the origins, but also a “social chart” legitimating the positions of its authors. If it reflects past events (as most of local authors assume about the temple foundation story), the latter are always selected and recomposed in a scenario useful for the successive narrators, whatever may be their claimed “identity” (Rousseleau 2020).
The present State of Odisha (spelling introduced in 2011) was created as Province of Orissa in 1936. The data used here were collected particularly during three fieldworks in 2014 and 2015 in Puri, and then in 2019 in Koraput and Kantilo, respectively with my friends Francis Mobio and Kabiraj Behera. I warmly thanks Jessica Leigh Hackett for her thorough correction of the language.
See for instance Jacques Pouchepadass, “Pluralizing Reason. Reviewed Work: Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, par Dipesh Chakrabarty”, History and Theory, vol. 41, n° 3, 2002, p. 381-391.
Hermann Kulke, Kings and Cult, Delhi, Manohar, 1993, p. 189-90. See p.143-57 on Stirling’s sources.
See Pritipushpa Mishra, Language and the Making of Modern India. Nationalism and the Vernacular in Colonial Odisha (1802-1956), Cambridge University Press, 2020. Mishra remarked the inclusion of the Adivasi at a subordinate level in the State history, notably by an epigraphist, but did not focus on this topic in particular.
See Romila Thapar, “Time Concepts, Social Identities and Historical Consciousness in Early India”, in Angelika Malinar (ed.), Time in India. Concepts and Practices, New Delhi, Manohar, 2007, p. 35; Velcheru N. Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Textures du temps, Paris, Le Seuil, 2004 .
During this period, takes place the death of the mortal Krishna who became a god afterwards. Puruṣottamakṣetra māhātmya VIII sl.4 et 73, Gopinath Mohapatra, The Land of Visnu (A study on Jagannâtha Cult), BR Publisher, Delhi, 1979, p. 264, 267.
See for ex. Gilles Tarabout, « Sacrifice et renoncement dans les mythes de fondation de temples au Kerala », in Marcel Détienne (dir.), Tracés de fondation, Louvain-Paris, Peeters-EPHE, [Sciences Religieuses, vol. XCIII], 1989, p. 211-232.
Debendra K. Dash and Dipti R. Pattanaik, “Translation and Social praxis in ancient and medieval India (with special reference to Orissa)”, in Paul St-Pierre and Prafulla C. Kar (eds.), In Translation. Reflections, Refractions, Transformations, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins Pulishing Co., 2007, p. 153-173.
Andrew Stirling, “An Account, Geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack”, Asiatic Researches, 1825, XV, p. 202. The identification of “aboriginals” was mentioned as early as the 1780s in Odisha, but was linguistically established only in the 1840s.
“[…] the annals of Orissa commence with the death of Krishna, the opening of the Cali [Kali] yuga or evil age, 3001 B.C.”, see Andrew Stirling, “An Account, Geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack”, Asiatic Researches, 1825, vol. XV, p. 256-257.
Alexander Cunningham, The Ancient Geography of India, London, Trubner, 1871, p. 510-11.
W. W. Hunter, Orissa or the Vicissitudes of an Indian Province under Native and British Rules, 2 vol. London, Smith, 1872, I, quotations respectively p. 89-93 and note 136.
W. W. Hunter, Orissa or the Vicissitudes of an Indian Province under Native and British Rules, 2 vol.; the 2nd and 3rd vol. of the Annals of Rural Bengal, London, Smith, 1872, p. 175. He himself relies on the archaeologist Rajendralal Mitra.
This expression was coined by the sociologist Nirmal Kumar Bose “The History of Orissa and its lessons”, The Calcutta Review, July 1927, republished in Culture and Society in India, London, Asia Publishing House, 1967, p. 26. For previous authors, see for example L. S. S. O’Malley, Bengal District Gazetteers, 1908. On the State Museum display, see Rousseleau 2009.
David F. Carmichael, A Manual of the District of Vizagapatam, in the Presidency of Madras, Madras, Government Press, 1869, p. 54, 84-87.
Ramamurti wrote a Manual of the So:ra (or Savara) Language (Madras 1931), and a dictionary (1938). See Verrier Elwin, The Religion of an Indian Tribe, London, Oxford University Press, 1955, p. xvi-xvii. On Ramamurti, see Rama S. Mantena, “Vernacular Publics and Political Modernity”, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 47/5, 2013, p. 1678-1705. His son, G.V. Sitapati Pantulu, also wrote articles, among which “The Saoras and Their Country”, Journal of the Andhra Historical Research Society, 1938.
G. Ramadas, “Aboriginal Names in the Ramayana”, Journal of Bihar and Orissa Research Society, vol. XI, 1925, p. 41-60.
Verrier Elwin, The Religion of an Indian Tribe, London, Oxford University Press, 1955:22-23. Some Sora attracted to Hindu nationalism, or Bisma Hindu follow today this Sanskritic narrative and claim that the monkey god Hanuman was a Sora (see Piers Vitebsky, Living without the Dead. Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2017, p. 274). Once again, these identifications are actually colonial (one of the first mentions being Colonel Dalton 1872, for the Bhuya), as in the Rāmāyana, monkey princes like Hanuman were sons of gods, and in both Epics, specific terms are used to designate forest-hunters (śavara, niṣāda, Pulindas). See Rousseleau 2006.
See for ex. Prasanna Kumar Nayak, “Jagannath and the Ādivāsis: Reconsidering the Cult and its Traditions”, in H. Kulke et B. Schnepel (eds.), Jagannath Revisited. Studying Society, Religion and the State in Orissa, New Delhi, Manohar, 2001, p. 25-48.
K. C. Mishra, The Cult of Jagannath, Calcutta, Mukhopadhyay, 1971.
This is what some informants call the “auto-manifestation” of the god (Sanskrit svarūpa). The hunters’s nomadism is also justified from two frames of references: Prehistory from the one hand, and the temple legend from the other hand. According to the Sanskrit version, the hunters were restless and outcasted indeed, because their ancestor (Jārā) killed accidentally the god Krishna. Grief-striken, the hunter kept wandering thereafter, as does Viśvāvasu after him.
Cuttack, 1964. The title draws inspiration from an epithet of Jagannath, Dārubrahmā, “log divine principle”.
Gopinath Mohapatra, The Land of Visnu. A study on Jagannâtha Cult, BR Publisher, Delhi, 1979, p. vii, 19-21.
Gopinath Mohapatra, The Land of Visnu. A study on Jagannâtha Cult, BR Publisher, Delhi, 1979, p. 4.
Gilles Tarabout, “Theology as History : Divine Images, Imagination, and Rituals in India”, in Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shimohara (eds.), Images in Asian Religions. Texts and Contexts, Vancouver-Toronto, UBC Press, 2004, p. 56-84.
If the complex that is called Hinduism focuses on orthopraxis, such milieu instill an orthodox view on the proper texts to believe as well: the Veda read in line with some later Vaishnavite purāṇa, as a single “eternal order” (sanatana dharma).
Puri. The Home of Lord Jagannatha. A comprehensive pilgrimage guide to Sri Purushottama Kshetra, compiled by Parama Karuna Devi (and Rahul Acharya), Jagannatha Vallabha Research Center, Piteipur 2008, p. 82, 441.
Krishna Das distinguishes three lines of temple servants born from the mythical characters : -the Daitā, closer to Jagannath, are said to descend from Viśvāvasu himself; -the temple cooks (Suāra) are said to be Lalitā’s descendents; -the Brahmins are said to belong to a “purer” Vidhyāpati line (see also Hardenberg 2011: 20, 23). The first ones are the only ones allowed to touch the statue at the time of the cart festival and to manipulate the “soul” of the statue during the periodic “renewal of the divine body”. One of them also plays the role of Viśvāvasu during the selection of trees for the new statue.
Ashok Kumar Dasbabu, Guru Mangey Gomang, Adibasi Bhasa o Samskruti Akademi, Bhubaneswar, 1996 (in oriya language): 6-7 (from interviews of the author with Rama Gomang, Mangey’s brother in 1991). For an ethnography of the movement and rituals among the Sora of Andhra Pradesh, see Cécile Guillaume-Pey, Du sang à l’écriture. Pratiques rituelles des Sora, une tribu du centre-est de l’Inde, Thèse d’anthropologie (sous la direction de Marine Carrin), Université de Toulouse, 2011, chap. V.
Ashok Kumar Dasbabu, Guru Mangey Gomang, Adibasi Bhasa o Samskruti Akademi, Bhubaneswar, 1996, p. 17-18. Vitebsky remarks the parallel also made by Christian Sora with Moses. See Piers Vitebsky, Living without the Dead. Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2017, p. 281.
Piers Vitebsky, Living without the Dead. Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2017, p. 267-88. Cécile Guillaume-Pey, Du sang à l’écriture. Pratiques rituelles des Sora, une tribu du centre-est de l’Inde, Thèse d’anthropologie (sous la direction de Marine Carrin), Université de Toulouse, 2011, chap. V.
The three statues (Jagannath, his brother and sister) are sometimes compared to the three sounds AUM (Ôm). For an old reference to this reading, see Rajendralal Mishra, Antiquities of Orissa, vol. I, 1875, II, 1880, p. 62-63.
Parlakimedi, future Gajapati district and Jeypore, future Koraput district. On the first one, see Georg Berkermer, “The King’s Two Kingdoms or How the Maharaja of Parlakimedi Finally Became the Ruler of Orissa”, in G. Pfeffer (ed.), Periphery and Centre, Studies in Orissan History, Religion and Anthropology, New Delhi, 2007, p. 341-359.
Articles in the East Cost and Dailies of Madras newspapers, quoted in Paresh Rath, Vikram Dev, Maharaja of Jeypore, Communication Publications, Jeypore, 2017, p. 42. The enrollment of these two groups within regional “culture”, but “side by side” with the high castes for S. N. Rajguru, has been noted by Pritipushpa Mishra, Language and the Making of Modern India. Nationalism and the Vernacular in Colonial Odisha (1802-1956), Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 188-195. She nonetheless did not trace the genealogy of this reference.
Reports of the Indian Statutory Commission, vol. 17, “Deputation of the Madras Presidency Oriya Association, Berhampore, Ganjam” (23rd February 1929), 1930, p. 248.
For the political context of similar script-discoveries and movements (the Santal Ragunath Murmu, and the Ho Lakho Bodra), see K. S. Singh (ed.), Tribal Movements in India, Delhi, Manohar, 2006 (1982), vol. 2, and Barbara Lotz, “Casting a Glorious Past: Loss and Retrieval of the Ol Chiki Script”, in Angelika Malinar (ed.), Time in India. Concepts and Practices, New Delhi, Manohar, 2007, p. 235-264.
Neeladri Patnaik, Sabara Srikhetra Itihas, Sri Jagannath Mandir, Koraput, 2017, p. 142-143.
In 1969, there was the renewal of the god’s wooden body (Nabakalebara) in Puri, and Pandit Sadashiva Rathasharma asked remains of the sacred cutted trees for Koraput. After having collected funds, K.C. Panigrahi brought back a log from Puri, which was ritually established as a statue of Jagannath in June 1972, in a tin-roof house, in order to organize a first cart festival in Koraput town the 12 July. The same day, in Puri, “the Lord” did not climb the cart before the intervention of the king (a well-known event in Odisha). So, Koraput people say that the god went first back to his original place (Patnaik 2017: 16). The temple construction lasted from 1973 to 1988 due to lack of funds.
See his compilation: K. C. Panigrahi, Fundamentals of an Approach to the Tribes, Koraput, 1996, p. 25-58, reproducing the chapter 3 of the “Report on Special Multipurpose Tribal Blocks” (1960), then headed by Verrier Elwin.
Giridhar Gomang, The Sabara Tribes in Indian History, New Delhi, 2008, p. 73.
See Hermann Kulke, Kings and Cults. State Formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia, New Delhi, Manohar, 1993: 105-112 in particular.
At the entrance, this library displays Vivekananda Hindu reformist writings as well as Vanyajati, the journal of an association dedicated to the development of the ‘tribes’ through a fully assimilationist and mainstream Hindu perspective. On the same note, the local newsletter entitled Parab (2008: 8-14) edited by the Koraput District Council of Culture, celebrates the local culture, but also gives voice to a local brahmin and Hindu nationalist, G. Nanda, who launch an enraged attack against the term Adivasi as supported by intellectuals and “slaves of foreign imperialism”, successors of the British “divide and rule” policy, while, according to him, the word “vanbasi” places the tribals in their right place: the forest.
Georg Berkermer, “The King’s Two Kingdoms or How the Maharaja of Parlakimedi Finally Became the Ruler of Orissa”, in G. Pfeffer (ed.), Periphery and Centre, Studies in Orissan History, Religion and Anthropology, New Delhi, Manohar, 2007, p. 341-359.
David Freemantle Carmichael, A Manual of the district of Vizagapatam, in the Presidency of Madras, Madras, Government Press, 1869.
Alexander Cunningham, The Ancient Geography of India, London, Trubner, 1871.
Ashok Kumar Dasbabu, Guru Mangey Gomang, Adibasi Bhasa o Samskruti Akademi, Bhubaneswar, 1996 (in oriya).
Debendra K. Dash and Dipti R Pattanaik, “Translation and Social praxis in ancient and medieval India (with special reference to Orissa)”, in Paul St-Pierre and Prafulla C. Kar (eds.), In Translation. Reflections, Refractions, Transformations, Amsterdam-Philadelphia, John Benjamins, 2007, p. 153-173.
Verrier Elwin, The Religion of an Indian Tribe, London, Oxford University Press, 1955.
Ann-Charlotte Eschmann, “Prototypes of the Nabakalebara Ritual and their Relation to the Jagannâtha Cult”, in A.-C. Eschmann, H. Kulke and G. C. Tripathi, The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa, New Delhi-Heidelberg, Manohar, 1978, p. 265-283.
Ann-Charlott Eschmann, Hermann Kulke and Tripathi Gaya Charan (eds.), The Cult of Jagannath and the regional tradition of Orissa, Orissa Research Project, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg-Delhi, Manohar, 1978.
Giridhar Gomang, The Sabara Tribes in Indian History, New Delhi, 2008.
Cécile Guillaume-Pey, Du sang à l’écriture. Pratiques rituelles des Sora, une tribu du centre-est de l’Inde, PhD thesis in anthropology (sous la direction de Marine Carrin), University of Toulouse, 2011.
Roland Hardenberg, The Renewal of Jaganath’s Body. Ritual and Society in Orissa, New Delhi, Manak Publications, 2011.
François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et expérience du temps, Paris, Le Seuil, 2003.
W. W. Hunter, Orissa or the Vicissitudes of an Indian Province under native and British Rules, 2 vol. London, Smith, 1872, vol. I.
Parama Karuna Devi (compiled by, and Rahul Acharya), Puri. The Home of Lord Jagannatha. A comprehensive pilgrimage guide to Sri Purushottama Kshetra, Piteipur, Jagannatha Vallabha Research Center, 2008.
Hermann Kulke, “Reflections on the Sources of the Temple Chronicles of the Mādaḷā Pānji of Puri” , Kings and Cults. State Formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia, New Delhi, Manohar, 1993, p. 159-191.
Barbara Lotz, “Casting a Glorious Past: Loss and Retrieval of the Ol Chiki Script”, in Angelika Malinar (ed.), Time in India. Concepts and Practices, New Delhi, Manohar, 2007, p. 235-264.
Rama S. Mantena, “Vernacular Publics and Political Modernity”, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 47/5, 2013, p. 1678-1705.
Gopinath Mohapatra, The Land of Visnu (A study on Jagannâtha Cult), Delhi, BR Publisher, 1979.
K. C. Mishra, The Cult of Jagannath, Calcutta, Mukhopadhyay, 1971.
Rajendralal Mishra, Antiquities of Orissa, Calcutta, vol. I, 1875, vol. II, 1880.
Pritipushpa Mishra, Language and the Making of Modern India. Nationalism and the Vernacular in Colonial Odisha (1802-1956), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Prasanna Kumar Nayak, “Jagannath and the Ādivāsis: Reconsidering the Cult and its Traditions”, in H. Kulke et B. Schnepel (eds.), Jagannath Revisited, Studying Society, Religion and the State in Orissa, New Delhi, Manohar, 2001, p. 25-48.
Beni Madhav Padhi, Dārudevatā, Cuttack, 1964.
Krishna Chandra Panigrahi, Fundamentals of an Approach to the Tribes, Koraput, 1996.
Neeladri Patnaik, Sabara Srikhetra Itihas, Koraput, Sri Jagannath Mandir, 2017.
Jacques Pouchepadass, “Les Subaltern Studies, ou la critique postcoloniale de la modernité”, L’Homme, n° 156, 2000, p. 161-186.
G. Ramadas, “The Aboriginal Names in the Ramayana”, Journal of Bihar and Orissa Research Society, vol. XI, 1925, p. 41-60.
Velcheru N. Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Textures du temps, Paris, Le Seuil, 2004 .
Paresh Rath, Vikram Dev, Maharaja of Jeypore, Jeypore, Communication Publications, 2017.
Daniel Rycroft and Sangeeta Dasgupta, The Politics of Belonging in India. Becoming Adivasi, London & New York, Routledge, 2011.
Raphaël Rousseleau, “L’empire du Vent. La figure du chasseur forestier entre ethnologie et littérature épique”, Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, vol. 93, 2006, p. 27-57.
Raphaël Rousseleau, “Entre préhistoire, romantisme et récits de fondation : les tribus dans l’histoire locale et la muséographie de l’Orissa (Inde)”, in Gisèle Krauskopff (ed.), Les Faiseurs d’histoire. Politique de l’origine et écrits sur le passé, Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie, 2009, p. 87-112.
Raphaël Rousseleau, “Kshatriyaisation et cours locales : pour une historicisation des institutions tribales”, in R. Rousseleau and E. Francis (eds.), Le Modèle royal en Asie du sud, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 2020, p. 273-298.
K. S. Singh (ed.), Tribal Movements in India, Delhi, Manohar reprint, 2006 , vol.2.
Andrew Sterling [Stirling], “An Account, Geographical, Statistical and Historical of Orissa Proper, or Cuttack”, Asiatic Researches, vol. XV, 1825, p. 163-338.
Romila Thapar, “Time Concepts, Social Identities and Historical Consciousness in Early India”, in Angelika Malinar (ed.), Time in India. Concepts and Practices, New Delhi, Manohar, 2007, p. 23-38.
Gilles Tarabout, “Sacrifice et renoncement dans les mythes de fondation de temples au Kerala”, in Marcel Détienne (ed.), Tracés de fondation, Louvain-Paris, Peeters-EPHE, 1989, p. 211-232.
Gilles Tarabout, “Theology as History: Divine Images, Imagination, and Rituals in India”, in Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shimohara (eds.), Images in Asian Religions. Texts and Contexts, Vancouver-Toronto, UBC Press, 2004, p. 56-84.
Piers Vitebsky, Living without the Dead. Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2017.