Rice Beer, Wedding & Other Tidings

Prior to my arrival at Sakhuapani, the  only sources of information about the Asur indigenous community of Netarhat that I could access were marginal mentions by British colonial surveyor-turned-anthropologists, Elwin’s (1942) seminal research on the the Agaria (another indigenous iron-smelting community of central India) and K.K. Leuva’s amateur work on the Asurs. Most of this literature take a purely Orientalist stance and depict the Asurs as a backward, illiterate, lazy, alcoholic community urgently needing emancipation through the Word of The Lord and modern education. A rapid decline of traditional iron-smelting and recent insurgency issues that I described earlier, had pushed the knowledge about this small community to the margins. They only survive as dreadful people in tribal myth, chastised by Singbonga, the Munda Sun God, and at the center of government’s suspicion for abetting Maoist insurgents.

All these reasons made me worried, and my university, family, and friends were petrified. They tried their best to dissuade me. But neither I nor they could be more off the mark. I received an overwhelming welcome at Sakhuapani, an Asur hamlet of 40 families, on the table top of Chhotanagpur Plateau in Jharkhand state of India. I was put up in Reshma’s house, in a mud hut adjacent to their cattle pen. Almost all of the villagers poured in the courtyard to meet and talk to me. They spoke Nagpuria creole of BanglaHindi and Maithili languages. I spoke the first two, so we understood each other fairly well. They asked who I was, where I was from and why I was visiting their remote village. It seemed to me that they have not encountered any outsider for a very long time,  saving the para-military patrols, occasional high-security visits by the bosses of Bauxite mining companies and an even rarer visit by politicians, all of whom had an air of being “unreachable” by an average villager. I was exhausted by a long trip from Ranchi, the state capital. It was getting dark and cold, my back ached from the journey and I badly needed a shower. Yet I did not mind this warmth of conviviality. Soon a fire was lit in the courtyard; we sat huddled around it to beat close to freezing February chill. An earthen pot full of Hariya or rice-beer was passed around to take a sip from. I took my first sip, everyone else looked on and laughed. I was suddenly a part of this gregarious community. Rice-beer is a very important aspect of Asur life. It is the life-giving drink, valued more than water. According to their myth, the first Asurs, a brother, and sister, were persuaded by the Creator to procreate after they were inebriated with adequate rice-beer. Hariya is at the very center of Asur identity. Sources of drinking water are rare and difficult to access in Asur villages. For Sakhuapani, Polpolpat, and Ramjharia, the villages I have visited during my stay, the nearest drinking water sources are located on an average of 5-mile trek through treacherous slopes downhill. Hariya is, therefore, a water substitute for the Asurs, and a compulsory ingredient in all social and religious festivals of the community.

Under a very clear star-studded sky, sitting around the fire that evening, and many similar evenings to follow, we talked about various aspects of Asur life. I heard stories about their Gods and their betrayal by the Gods from other tribal pantheons. Proud memories of smelting, handed down through generations poured out unabashed with a tingling sense of melancholy about the loss of Lohasur’s kingdom. They spoke about the time when life was simpler; they smelted and sold iron to the plains. When the forest was theirs and they could move unquestioned through it. When they were not caught in a sinister crossfire between the state and an almost phantom secessionist enemy. Now both parties are hunting them down, accusing them to be informers of the other side. I was amazed by their vivacity amidst a life which throws insurmountable challenges at them every day.

My visit to Sakhuapani coincided with Asur wedding season. I was invited to one on the night of my arrival. There was always a wedding or two going on in the villages that I trekked to as a part of fieldwork. I was warmly welcomed everywhere to meet the bride and the groom and offered a teak-leaf cup full of Hariya. Asur weddings take place in the evening and festivities continue overnight till next dawn. The villages are normally devoid of electricity, but during weddings, the family invests much of their fortune in hiring power generators to play loud music from massive sound boxes and fixing some high power bulbs to illuminate the house and the courtyard where the ceremony took place. It was same for the wedding I attended. Loud Nagpuri rock music tore the perpetual solitude of the plateau in pieces. The awning of green teak leaves on a teak wood (abundantly available in the surrounding forest) frame was set up in the front yard of the bride’s house. That was the only house in the village, brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs and the roar of a generator that powered it. Everyone from the village was invited. Each family contributed some rice and dal (lentils) to the family of the bride, for preparing a simple wedding meal for the guests. Wedding is a community responsibility for the Asurs. The groom’s party was coming from a village on the other side of the plateau, 30 miles away. They were walking the whole distance and were expected before midnight. No one seemed certain about this.

The guests, male and female split in separate groups huddled around patches of fire. They chatted loudly, got drunk with rice-beer and danced haphazardly to loud music. I moved easily in between groups. Got introduced to everyone, and forgot most of their names, heard more stories and took little sips of hariya from my teak leaf cup. At one point someone announced that groom’s party was waiting at the village horizon and had to be traditionally welcomed and escorted. Most guests, mostly drunk, rushed to the edge of the village, dancing with drum beats in enveloping darkness, while women showed the way with lanterns. The groom was quickly jostled into the house so that wedding ceremony could begin. Those who accompanied him had to break a bamboo barrier by force to enter the premises of the house. That was the tradition, a proof of strength, an assurance that the bride will be well protected by the groom’s family and village.

I was invited inside to meet the bride and the groom. The room was stuffed with drunk people, the stench of rice beer and the smoggy with smoke from the adjacent cooking area. The bride and the groom, both in their late twenties, were in the present occasion, smeared with mustard oil and turmeric. Then blessings were offered by both families and their relatives. Groom’s parents gave a bride price of Rs. 101 to the bride’s parents. The bride and the groom both had to apply vermilion paste on each other’s forehead (a sign of fertility and being married). Finally, they walked out in the front yard, and stood on a plough under the awning. An old woman, who also acted a village priest and lead dancer in ceremonies,  mumbled some spells followed by a sprinkle of rice beer on the couple, which solemnized the marriage. Finally, everyone was given a free license to splash each other with Hariya. I had to save my camera, so maintained a safe distance. Dripping wet in Hariya, stinking like rotten rice, the guests rushed inside the house to collect their simple meal of rice and lentils. The music, the drinking and the dancing continued all night. At one point I realized that I had lost track of time. I looked at my watch, it was well after 1am. Time does not follow our urban logic in Asur heartland. Feeling dizzy, completely drained and a little tipsy with rice-beer, I dragged myself back to my hut and slumped on the cot.

In the next few days that I stayed with the Asurs, I never felt any danger. They were always happy to interact, invite me in for some rice beer and corn chapattis (tortilla), accompany to other villages trekking through deep forests and protecting me from the Maoists, who, I was told later, had come a few times in the dark to ascertain that I was not an informer for the paramilitary. There are two ways you can perceive those people and culture those are not like us. We can evaluate them placing us and our culture in a hegemonic position, and classify them as backward and sinister. On the other hand, we can discount our sense of superiority and respect the logic that guides this other, vastly dissimilar culture, and show their cultural logic its due respect and acknowledge that that cultural logic may make perfect sense in that socio-cultural context. The inhabitants of Lohasur’s kingdom do not need socio-cultural and religious emancipation, what they need is acceptance of their cultural system.


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