Our SUV passed scores of men, women, and children, often colorfully dressed, many barefoot, most carrying heavy burdens on their heads, hiking in the dirt at the edge of the narrow road, on their way to the Full Moon Harvest Festival. By this time, we’d spent a number of days exploring the villages and countryside of this remote tribal area of Eastern India.
When we reached the festival, the crowd had grown to several hundred. They surged and pushed between lanes of market stalls selling everything from vegetables and freshly made snacks to portraits and replicas of tribal and Hindu deities. Sometimes, a Hindu god and a tribal one had been united into one deity. Animal figures suggested the old animist-based religion long practiced here and still lingering in some areas. Toys, flags, and bright fabrics also had been set out to tempt a few rupees from the crowd. No one here, neither seller nor buyer, had much money. The merchandise was colorful, but mostly simple and inexpensive.
We’d left our SUV down the road, as we often did, to avoid calling attention to ourselves. Even so, people gawked at us, sometimes with expressions of amazement, other times with smiles. Whenever we hesitated, they gathered around us, ignoring everything else. We were the first foreigners – the first white people – they’d seen. The people of the local tribes here mostly were dark-skinned, with features more African than what we usually think of as Indian. In fact, historians tell us that these tribes did migrate here from Africa around five thousand years ago.
Working through waves of bright saris and bare-chested men in white dhotis and occasionally also a tee shirt or buttoned shirt, everyone in sandals or barefoot, eventually we reached a massive wide-armed tree worshipped by the local population for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Large furled banners on long poles leaned against the dark trunk: white for purification, red for perfection, black for knowledge.
Bare-chested priests, dhotis tucked up to their waists, took up the banners and, as other men beat drums and played long, curved horns, began marching through still growing crowds, pushing between vendor stalls and shops, stepping around piles of produce and baskets of fruit. My friends and I struggled to stay within sight of each other as we followed, along with hundreds of others. People were still staring and crowding us so that sometimes we could hardly move.
The men with the banners managed to circle several times through the densely packed market until, finally, they reached the ceremonial area, which already was crowded with spectators. By now, my friends and I had found positions at the front of the open space. As always, people pushed close to us, staring with amazed smiles.
A boy about twelve or thirteen came up and managed to ask, “What you name? Where you from?” Then he pointed to a woman next to me: “Wife?”
“No,” I said. “Friend.”
Nodding, he reached behind him and pulled forward another boy.
“My friend,” he said.
As drums beat louder and louder, one of the almost naked priests ran up, thrusting his banner into a bamboo framework near us. Then, moaning, he let himself flow into the rhythm of the drums, rocking his head back and forth, rolling it in circles, his body swaying and bending as he slid into what seemed to be a self-induced trance. As the drums and horns grew louder and more insistent, his agitation grew. His eyes rolled, his mouth opened and closed, and his body began spasming and convulsing on the hard-packed dirt.
Beating himself with a flail, thrashing his bare back furiously with the many small black whips of the flail, he fell to his knees. In his frenzy, he seemed to be trying to rid himself of his physical body – or, more likely, to drive evil spirits from it. Watching this thin brown-skinned man suffer such physical and mental agony a few feet from me, I wondered how far this self-exorcism and humiliation would take him. I couldn’t imagine how he could survive much more of it.
Then two men in spotless white dhotis tucked up around their loins stepped forward, took the flail from his hand, and – despite his struggling and writhing – led him away.
One by one, each of the ten or twelve priests who had carried the banners through the market reeled into the open area, thrust their banners into the bamboo structure, and hurled themselves into a series of trances that culminated in the frantic flailing of their flesh. Groaning with religious fervor and apparent physical and mental anguish, they scourged themselves, their almost naked bodies rolling in the dirt until they were dragged away.
Although the local people standing around us were watching the spectacle – how could they not? – to my amazement, they seemed almost equally fascinated by my friends and me. Even people on a platform farther away were staring down at us pale-skinned outlanders as much as they were at the frenzied priests.
According to an Indian friend, one definition of “culture” is the passing down of traditions from one generation to another. It’s impressive that these beliefs and rituals came with these tribes to the Indian subcontinent from Africa thousands of years ago. Still, it seems to me that human beings have evolved into creatures capable of reason and are better off if they use that reason. Whether or not that’s true, change is coming to these remote tribes – as I saw when that boy spoke to me in his halting, still-limited, school-learned English.
Some of the young people we saw at the market even had mobile phones and wore imitation jeans and tee shirts with fake American logos. They had never seen a European or American face to face, but they knew how we dressed and how we communicated. What will be next for these people, I wondered. How will increased exposure to the rest of the world through technology, the media, and the constant shrinking of distance, affect them? Will it be a potpourri of good and bad, or more one than the other?
Meanwhile, they still battle evil spirits -- brought, it seems, from another place and time.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and by order from your local bookstore.