On our day 2 at Lanjia Saura Hills
After a sumptuous breakfast at Gunupur, we headed towards Lanjia Saura hills again through the mountain zigzag road. Our destination for the morning was Rebingtal, a large village of about 500 people in 8 lineages facing the broad expanse of paddy terraces stepping downwards from the village. Rebingtal was my second visit in a span of one year. In 2018 during March I had come here to meet Laksmi Sabara, a woman Shaman. Through her, I had learned about Sauras’ dialogues with the dead, the most unique aspect of Saura belief and culture.
Only a couple of decades before the spread of modernization and the digital revolution it used to be a daily scene – living people conducting dialogues with dead, who would speak to them through the mouth of a Shaman in trance.
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According to Saura belief, a person who dies becomes a Sonum. Various kinds of illness and even deaths are caused in some ways by Sonums. By attacking the living people the dead transfers some experiences to them which they themselves underwent at the time of deaths. They do this by ‘eating the soul’ of the living victim in order to absorb him/her thereby causing him/her a kind of illness or death. However, the dead do not only attack the living and harm them. They also nourish and protect them. It is the interplay of these two contradicts attitudes, respectively aggressive and nurturing which lie at the core of Sauras’ relationship with their deceased.
Puttasing, the largest Saora village is located at a distance of 25 km from the nearest town Gunupur. The entire stretch is picturesque with rolling mountains of the Eastern Ghats, verdant valleys, paddy fields, dense forest and mountain streams. These are no bus services, however public jeep services available hopping between Saora villages and Gunupur. At Puttasing is located the head office of Lanjia Saora Development Agency, which has a small guesthouse which can be booked with prior information. Otherwise Gunupur, the nearest town or Rayagada, the district headquarter, 70 km away and Paralakhemindi, 60 km away are better options. Gunupur is connected by rail and road from Bhubaneswar, while Rayagada has better rail links with most parts of India. The nearest airport is at Visakhapatnam, 215 km away. Bhubaneswar, the other nearest airport is 333 km away.
According to their beliefs, the Shaman, mostly a woman, in this case, Lakshmi Sabara, who communicates with the dead. Her soul leaves her body and goes to separate domestic life, with husband and children in the underworld. While she is in a dissociated state of trance, the body is available for a succession of the dead who speak one at a time through her mouth. A sequence of dialogue can last up to several hours and range from causal gossip to extremes of emotions. They also include moments of good humor amidst hullabaloo laughter.
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As soon as someone dies, whatever the hour of the day or night, the women of the family start preparation for the mourning. Guns are fired. An orchestra of drums and oboes is assembled to play the death beat. All the men of the lineage abandon their jobs and gather together to chop down a tree and build a pyre on the lineage’s cremation ground. Meanwhile, the Ancestor Woman strips the body of the dead, wash it in cooling turmeric powder and dress it in good, clean cloths. A man from the village’s pyre – lighter lineage lights and tends the pyre.
The following morning, the Ancestor Woman pours water on the ashes ‘to cool the soul’. Then they bury the ashes on the cremation site while the funeral shaman leads the dead person’s soul into that person’s house. There she enters a trance and his soul passes into her body and is interrogated by bystanders about the circumstances and cause of his death. After some weeks or months of the death, his/her heir carryout the main step in the funeral sequence. They sacrifice buffaloes for the deceased to eat and plough with it in the underworld. They also plant an upright memorial stone at the lineage’s stone planting site, to join the many stones stacked up there, leaning against each other, from previous funerals. During the following three years the deceased is commemorated collectively at certain seasons along with other recently dead people.
We did not get a chance to witness the death ritual but satisfied looking at the menhir cluster near Sagada Village. The site has been carefully restored by the local administration to upkeep the Saura heritage.
The religious world view of Hill Saoras is strongly reflected in their mural heritage. The icon painted in walls of the dark interiors is called Idital or Itaalan, which means writing or painting. Until recently the wall facing the door in all most all the Lanjia Saora houses used to have a sacred and ritual icon. Today, only a few have survived.
Idital is the home of the spirits and deities. The mural depicts images of ancestors and gods in different levels and according to the hierarchy of positions. The objects and images drawn in the Idital are Sonums in the form of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, trees, guns, archers, gunmen, even vehicles such as bicycles, cars, buses, and trains having the mythical and religious linkages with the tradition of Lanjia Saouras. Peacock (maaraa) is frequently seen in this ritual art. There is also a sacred pot called daanki hanging before the icon is used for keeping rice, pulses and other crops with the meaning to give food for the ancestors and gods.
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The pot is called Sonumdung which means food pot of the Sonums. Many in-house rituals are performed near the icon out of which first harvesting festivals of Raganabdar (red gram) and udaanabdar (mango) are compulsory to perform near the Idital. The art is regarded as sacred in Saora religion which represents the house of deities and spirits.
Saoras are fun loving people. Drinking tadi (a local wine) in groups is part of their life. The wine drips out overnight from toddy trees into suspended pots. The sap of the alin keeps flowing by incisions made at the inflorescences of the tree. It is fermented by airborne yeasts to produce foaming toddy which is rich in vitamins and mildly alcoholic.
It is usually the evening after finishing the day’s chores, the Saura men and women get-together for the drinking party. They spend hours at leisure with friends and relatives to celebrate their evenings with tadi in hands. However it was morning hours, we were welcome to the drinking site on a hill slope surrounded by wooded forests. The drinking site was a circle of flat stones set up as seats around a hearth. The first man who arrived at the site lit the fire. In a few moments, space was filled by his companions, all in their traditional clothing. They poured their tadi into a large pot set over the fire. When the drink was at right lukewarm temperature, one of the men dipped in a gourd ladle and passed it to his neighbour on right, who drank it, refilled it and passed it on again. I also had my term.
For recreations, Lanjia Saoras are always ready. All around the year as Saoras say, work keep continue and does not leave them completely free. They are always busy with some work. But whenever they get breaks while in the fields or in the forest, they enjoy the dance and singing. When you drive through their hills in dark night hours you would be enthralled listening to their enchanting music coming from the hilltops accompanied with songs and dances. Their musical instruments include drums, gagerai, tretepe, and jambugrai. During a performance, the surrounding environment of forest and fields get enthralled and romanticized. It is the women folk who sing and dance but the music is led by men only.
But for us it was before the tadi party they performed their dance wearing their traditional costumes and attires, for women, a waistcloth with gray borders hardly touching up to their knees and blouse. A major draw of these women were their traditional pieces of jewelry, necklaces of beads, round wooden plugs pierced through their ears, spiral metal rings as ear lobes, hairpins of bell metal, brass rings around their necks and metal anklets and finger rings. The male dancers were marked with their long ended loincloths and had decorated their heads with white fowl feathers and peacock plumes. While dancing they carried swords, sticks, umbrellas and other implements and blew whistles and made peculiar sounds.
We also participated in their dance from time to time.
Our trip to Saura heartland came to an end after a traditional meal of country chicken curry, rice, and cabbage.
Author: Jitu Mishra
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