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Changes and Continuities in the Religious Landscape of Northeast India: Defining uniqueness by Redefining Indigenous Religion (1/2)

Panel Chair: Claire Scheid | Monday, August 24, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

This panel explores new forms of indigenous religious expression in Northeast India. Movements such as Donyi-Polo and Rangfraism (Arunachal Pradesh), Heraka (Nagaland and Manipur), Bathouism (Assam), and Seng Khasi (Meghalaya) stand as examples of what might be called 'religious restructuring' by indigenous peoples as they adapt their practices in response to increasing globalization and conversion initiatives. Seeking to understand the processes involved in these emerging movements, papers will examine the structures that these reformations have taken, the new symbols and meanings they have created, and the politics and poetics that define the revivals. The panel aims to throw light on the motivations behind such efforts and their effects on practitioners' daily lives, to discover the linkages between the movements, and to address the impacts these changes might have on the new identity formulations of these ethnic communities.

Rekha Konsam

Revivalism and its Aftermath: Religion as Ethnic Identity

The paper proposes to examine how religion becomes the key point of reference in the articulation of an ‘authentic’ indigenous ethnic identity among the Meiteis of Manipur (India). Identity, in this case, is shaped by the dynamics of the valley-dwelling Meitei community and its hill-dwelling neighbouring communities, which plays a significant role in the politics of the state. This separation between the two can be seen on the religious plane as a juxtapositioning of Hinduism and Christianity. The reclamation of the indigenous folk religion by the Sanamahi revivalist movement since the mid-1940s and, correspondingly, the wave of cultural revivalism that began in the 1970s, have been instrumental in the articulation of the Meitei ethnic identity. The paper seeks to explore how religion and culture are intertwined in such a way that the religious experience remains pivotal in defining and negotiating what it means to be a Meitei.

Sharmila Ghosh

Underlining Traditions: the Seng Khasi of Meghalaya

This paper charts the development of the Seng Khasi, a cultural and socio-religious organization that aims to preserve the indigenous heritage and traditional religious beliefs of the Khasi people, one of the few surviving matrilineal groups of India. The Khasi identity came into focus when there was a felt threat of British colonialism and Christianity. Prior to this, the identity markers of the Khasis were not structured, as there was no differentiation within the group and only intermittent interaction with outsiders. The perception of a threat ensured that the elements of Khasi culture that were considered to be unique be classified and then protected. This classification attempted to structure, enumerate, and create a more concrete and visible worldview out of the inchoate elements of Khasi life as it was practiced. The Seng Khasi coalesced around this attempt, becoming the reference group around which the elements of a distinct Khasi identity began to be organized. It is today a significant platform for the preservation of historical Khasi religion (belief in U Blei as supreme creator).

Claire Scheid

Donyi-Polo’s Roots and Routes: Tracing ‘Sun-Moon’ Formalization among the Tani Groups of Arunachal Pradesh, India

Donyi-Polo (‘Sun-Moon’) is the ‘common but flexible sacred frame’ (Mibang & Chaudhuri, 2005) of the varieties of indigenous religion practiced among the Tani groups in Arunachal Pradesh, India (such as the Adi, the Apatani, the Nyishi). Since the mid-1980s, these ethnic communities have been restructuring their faith to fit the model of more mainstream religions via ‘institutionalisation’ processes. This paper explores the origins and transmissions of these changes in religious articulation through examining: 1) the participation of Adi community leaders in international ‘religious freedom’ conferences in India and Germany, events that influenced the practical aspects of reformation; 2) the unifying nature of these movements among the Tani groups, encouraged by Adi emphasis on 'shared mythological heritage'; and 3) the manner in which this 'new religious blueprint' has sparked dialogue with other Northeast Indian indigenous religious organizations and has led to secular, state-wide expressions of 'indigeneity'.

Faguna Barmahalia

Continuity and Change of Bathouism

Bathouism is the religion of the Bodos, practiced in Northeast India. It follows a traditional system – sacrificing animals and fowls, offering and drinking rice beer in the name of deities – and certain people are still practicing this system now. However, over the course of time and due to the rapid changes in society, this religion has faced some new challenges. The historical nature of worship of this religion is considered today to be ‘crude and unfit’ in the eyes of certain sections of the people. Gradually, some have started to move away from these processes and methods of worship. Therefore, a section of the Bodos have converted to different sects of Hinduism and Christianity – and a subset of educated and conscious Bodos have taken the initiative to modify and restructure their religious practices. This paper examines why and how modern-day Bodos are taking a vital role in the modification and adaptation of new practices in Bathouism.

Arkotong Longkumer

Bleeding Divinity – Can a woman be truly divine? The transcripts of Rani Gaidinliu

The story of a woman claiming divinity presents many challenges. The life of Rani Gaidinliu – a prophetess of an indigenous Zeliangrong movement, the Heraka – provides a space for dissent from the norms of society – being a woman, tribal, anti-Christian, and divine. This terrorises our imagination because it destabilises customary and traditional ways of thinking. In this paper I will interrogate two modalities - the "public" and "hidden" - as an attempt to "read" the enigma of Rani Gaidinliu's life. The "public" side of Rani Gaidinliu has been documented – her resistance against the forces of British colonialism as a young girl; her imprisonment through post-Indian independence; her participation in the armed struggle against the Naga National Council (NNC); and her place as an icon of pan-Indian national unity appropriated both by the Indian state and the Hindu right. However, it is the "hidden transcript" (Scott 1990) that sheds light on the "real" personality of Rani Gaidinliu, underpinned by the tempestuous landscape of gender, leadership conflicts and claims to divinity. The life of Rani Gaidinliu, I will suggest, demands new rules about belonging in India, if not more globally.


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