Remembering Five Indian Traditions This World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development

Remembering Five Indian Traditions This World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development
Jagannatha, Balbhadra and Subhadra idols decorated for Rath Yatra , Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Take a look at these five traditions from India that depict how cultural diversity can lead to dialogue and development through community bonding

Uttara Gangopadhyay
May 21 , 2020
07 Min Read

Culture has been a big balm to us all during the lockdown. But did you know that traditional artists have also been adapting their art to help in the fight against the deadly virus? Swarna Chitrakar, a veteran artist and storyteller from Pingla in Paschim Medinipur in West Bengal took to her traditional art to prepare material for spreading public awareness about the novel coronavirus. She belongs to the community of painters known as ‘chitrakar’ or ‘potua’ who specialise in making ‘jorano pat’, a kind of folding scroll. Traditionally, they paint tales from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Hindu texts, frame by frame, on a long scroll made of paper or coarse cloth. Even the colours used are nature friendly, made from flowers, herbs and natural products. They also compose songs to narrate the story. While the drawings are rustic, they are true to detail both in terms of content and style. The jorano pat prepared by Swarna shows how the virus originated in China, the role of doctors and nurses on the frontline, the importance of washing hands, social distancing, and following other health precautions.

Interestingly, the Chitrakar community from Paschim Medinipur in West Bengal are not only custodians of the traditional art form but also that of a legacy that speaks volumes about interreligious dialogue. Although they have been traditionally painting and narrating tales about Hindu gods and goddesses, they are followers of Islam. However, religion has never been a taboo either for them or their Hindu spectators. In the olden days, Hindu homes would invite them to listen to their narration of religious tales through painted scrolls, both as a part of merit making and for entertainment.

Swarna Chitrakar narrating the tale of the novel coronavirus through her painted scroll

On May 21 every year, the United Nation celebrates the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. The main idea is to spread awareness about harmony through cultural diversity. India, with its rich heritage, has many religious, social and cultural traditions, which speak volumes about dialogue between communities based on understanding, respect and dignity.

Well-known across the world as a grand celebration, the Rathayatra or Chariot Festival of Puri combines religious fervour and art. The festival marks the seven-day sojourn of Lord Jagannath and his siblings, who ride their gigantic chariots to their aunt’s home, returning on the eighth day, after which they are dressed in magnificent accessories made of gold, before finally returning to the divine pedestal inside the temple.

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Did you know that it was the gigantic chariot of Lord Jagannath which gave the English dictionary a new word, ‘juggernaut’? The making of the chariots, the drapes, and other decorative paraphernalia used during the festival are examples of traditional Odia art and craft. But did you know, unlike other Hindu festivals, the Rathayatra in Puri is conducted by a special class of servitors, the non-Brahmin Daitapati? Also, it is a rare religious festival that offers a practical lesson of the tenet that everyone is equal in the eyes of the gods, through the ritual of ‘chhera pahanra’. The Gajapati ruler of Puri sweeps the three chariots with a golden broom before offering prayers to the idols.

Little known outside the state, the chhera panhara conducted in Remunda (Remanda) village in Odisha takes on a distinct significance as the ritual is conducted by a Muslim. According to reports, the Rathayatra festival was introduced to the village about 120 years ago by the Muslim headman when he found that the local villagers could not start the festival on time owing to some logistical issue. The tradition is followed even today, and both Hindus and Muslims are said to pull the chariot together on its journey.

Down south, in Tamil Nadu, since the 16th century, sailors and people making a sea voyage have been known to seek the blessings of Nagore Andavar. Lying in the heart of the coastal town of Nagore is the Dargah dedicated to the 16th-century Sufi saint Syed Shahul Hameed or Nagore Andavar. He settled here with his followers after a king of Thanjavur donated a large parcel of land to him when the saint cured the ruler of an illness. The saint who breathed his last in Nagore was buried here and a mausoleum built over the grave, the money for which mainly came from his Hindu followers. Of the five minarets or towers adorning the Dargah, the tallest one is said to be built by an 18th-century Maratha ruler of Thanjavur after the realisation of a boon. Even today, people of both faiths believe in the healing powers of the saint and come here to offer prayers.

Did you know that in Kerala, a state which grabbed the headlines over a controversy regarding the entry of women of reproductive age into the Sabarimala Temple, the position of the head priest in the Mannarsala Sree Nagaraja temple is occupied by a woman? Lying within a sacred grove, the temple is dedicated to the King of the Snakes (Nagaraja). Although the beginning of the custom is rooted in legends, it is said the position goes to the eldest female member of the Brahmin family whose predecessor had given protection to some snakes distressed in a forest fire. The forest surrounding the temple is also protected as it is considered the abode of living snakes.

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Up in the Himalaya, in the twin villages of Saloor-Dungra (Uttarakhand), local people celebrate a festival called Rammam in honour of the presiding deity Bhumiyal Devta. Consisting of a complex set of rituals, including reciting from the Ramayana and holding masked dances, the participatory roles are divided among all the castes and occupational groups. For example, Brahmins lead the prayer; Bhandaris of the Kshatriya caste enjoy the right to wear the most sacred masks, including that of Narasimha; young and old alike join in the dancing. The multiform cultural event, which ‘reflects the environmental, spiritual and cultural concept of the community, recounting its founding myths and strengthening its sense of self-worth’, was inscribed on UNESCO’s  Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.


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