India : about tribals and the worship of spirits

Tribal man climbing a tree during a festival. Rajasthan, India.

In India, the jungle is considered as a living universe built up by the 5 primordial elements ( water, fire, earth, air, space). The jungle is inhabited by animals and plants of course but also by spirits who move freely. When human beings entered this self-sufficient universe for the first time, they tried to adjust to it, to use what was around without changing its nature. They made their living by hunting and gathering. Gradually, they also tried to establish their own order, to keep the spirits in a place, to establish a friendly communication between the human world and the surrounding forces of life and death. That’s why there are special places where these forces are experienced and worshipped : mountains, trees, springs,… Be they “naga”, “gana” or “yaksha”, be they benevolent or malevolent, if one spirit chooses a tree or a pool as a residence, the nature of the place changes. This is why certain localities in nature are felt to have a stronger “personality” than others. It is not the tree ( or waterhole, or mountain) itself that is considered as divine, but the tree as an abode of an invisible being.

Another type of spirits are the ancestors of human beings. Such spirits are called “pitr”. Tribals remember their presence among the livings and they allocate them a dwelling place to get their protection. But “pitr” can also attack and punish if they feel offended, if they are not worshipped appropriately. If someone dies of an “untimely” death ( by accident, in childbirth,…), tribals feel wary and try to keep away the spirit who is believed to be responsible of the death. They propitiate it to pacify it. Because spirits are ambiguous ( some are benevolent, some are malevolent), they have to be treated with care and respect. By trying to find out their likes and dislikes, one attempts to turn them into friends and guardians, or at least to keep them in one place.  Abodes are marked with “sindoor” ( a red or orange powder used for tribal and hindu rituals) and people lay offerings. In these ancient forms of contact with the spirits and the tutelary deities, we find the beginnings of “bhakti”, the cult of a personal deity in hinduism.


About travelerreport

My blog is all about travelling and photography
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