Guduta, India, Nov. 24: The ritual began with a thunderous roll of leather drums, its clamour echoing through the entire village. Women dressed in colourful saris broke into an Indigenous folk dance, tapping and moving their feet to its galloping rhythm.
At the climax, 12 worshippers — proudly practicing a faith not officially recognized by the government — emerged from a mud house and marched toward a sacred grove believed to be the home of the village goddess. Led by the village chieftain Gasia Maranda, they carried religious totems — among them an earthen pitcher, a bow and arrow, winnowing fan and a sacrificial axe.
Maranda and others in Guduta, a remote tribal village in India’s eastern Odisha state that rests in a seemingly endless forest landscape, are “Adivasis," or Indigenous tribespeople, who adhere to Sarna Dharma. It is a belief system that shares common threads with the world’s many ancient nature-worshipping religions.
On that day inside the grove, worshippers displayed their reverence for the natural world, making circles around a Sal plant and three sacred stones, one each for the malevolent spirits they believe need pleased. They knelt as Maranda smeared the stones with vermillion paste, bowed to the sacred plant and laid down fresh leaves covered in a cow dung paste.
“Our Gods are everywhere. We see more in nature than others,” said Maranda, as he led the men back to their homes.
But the government does not legally acknowledge their faith — a fact that is increasingly becoming a rallying point for change for some of the 5 million or so Indigenous tribes people in the country who follow Sarna Dharma. They say formal recognition would help preserve their culture and history in the wake of the slow erosion of Indigenous tribes people's rights in India.
Citizens are only allowed to align themselves with one of India's six officially recognized religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism and Sikhism. While they can select the “Others” category, many nature worshippers have felt compelled by the country's religious affiliation system to associate with one of the six named faiths.
Tribal groups have held protests in support of giving Sarna Dharma official religion status in the run-up to the upcoming national census, which has citizens state their religious affiliation.
The protests have gained momentum after the recent election of Droupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman to serve as India's president, raising hopes that her historic win will bring attention to the needs of the country's Indigenous population, which is about 110 million people as per the national census. They are scattered across various states and fragmented into hundreds of clans, with different legends, languages and words for their gods — many, but not all follow Sarna Dharma.
Salkhan Murmu, a former lawmaker and community activist who also adheres to Sarna Dharma, is at the center of the protests pushing for government recognition of his religion. His sit-in demonstrations in several Indian states have drawn crowds of thousands.
At a recent protest in Ranchi, the capital of eastern Jharkhand state, men and women sat cross-legged on a highway blocking traffic as Murmu spoke from a nearby stage. Dressed in a traditional cotton tunic and trousers, Murmu explained how anxieties over losing their religious identity and culture are driving the demand for formal recognition.
“This is a fight for our identity,” Murmu told the crowd, who held their fists in the air and shouted: “Victory to Sarna Dharma.” Thunderous applause washed over the venue. (AP)