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In The Land Of Asurs Where God Is Formless

The descendants of Mahishasura, found in the Gumla, Lohardaga, Palamu and Latehar districts of Jharkhand, do not know about Ram’s victory over Asurs

In The Land Of Asurs Where God Is Formless
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“Is there a photo of your god in the house?” “Our gods are formless,” she said as she lit the pyre. “They are the forests, the skies, the mountains. In none of the Asur homes, you will find photos of any gods. We follow the Sarna religion. We are not Hindus.”

Outside, big speakers were playing remixed Bhojpuri songs. Women and men were dancing, drinking. In this remote village Sakuapani in Jharkhand’s Netarhat where there’s no mobile signal, the rituals of Vishvakarma Puja had managed to reach. Sushma Asur, a poet, was inside.

“I was born in the Asur community, a tribe that descends from Mahishasura. We don’t know Ramayana. We are tribals. Our god is formless. We believe in nature and ancestors. Long ago, we would not step out of the house during Dussehra. Now, the people from our community go to see the festivities. It is all changing now. We are trying to save our culture, our beliefs. There were these stories we heard from our ancestors. They were orally transmitted to us. They told us Mahishasura was a brave fighter, a great king. We don’t know about Ram’s victory over Asurs. What we know is we are humans just like you. We are ancient metallurgists. We have the world’s iron. Now, we are disappearing.”

Mahishasura, the buffalo-tribal king, was killed by Durga because of a boon that no man could defeat him. After a fierce battle of nine days, the goddess defeated him. That’s what mythology says.

But in these parts, the Asur community assembles on a full-moon night of the Hindu calendar month Ashwin, the 10th day of Durga Puja, to mourn Mahishasura’s death. The Ashwin Puja or Asur Puja is observed during the month of Phagun (March) and again during the month of Ashwin. In March, they mourn the death of Ravan in some villages during the Holi celebrations. He was an ancestor, a king who was an Asur.

In 2016, Sushma had gone to Calcutta along with 10 members of her community to tell people their story. It was in the same year that Union minister Smriti Irani raised the Mahishasura martyrdom observance day in the Parliament after a controversy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

(The Asurs are a very small Austro-Asiatic ethnic group living primarily in the Indian state of Jharkhand, mostly in the Gumla, Lohardaga, Palamu and Latehar districts. Only around 2,000 people speak Asuri. As per the 2011 census, the tribe has a population of around 23,000.)

(This appeared in the print edition as "“Our god is formless. We believe in nature.”")

(As told to Chinki Sinha)

Sushma Asur is a poet from the asur community in Jharkhand

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