The Cult of Sona Ray in the Koch-Rajbanshi Community
By Preetinicha Barman Prodhani
Religion can be perceived as the product of the geo-social realities that had been controlling human life since its origin. Man’s constant dependence on the physical environment was the initial steps towards religion. Their fears and desires transformed into divine figures with the capacity to reward and retribution. Animism, the most primitive form of religion, can be traced in human history as the epitome of this epistemological truth. The divine figures or totems were invented during this phase when man needed deities not only for positive grants in the forms of wishes but also for the security from intimidation. In some religions, the positive power was represented by certain deities who were worshiped for the attainment of bounties. Nevertheless, the negative forces were also worshiped so that they could keep away their malice from the community that worshiped them. The deities, thus, could be both benevolent and malevolent, depending upon the natural attributes that they represented. In both the cases, they reflect how community beliefs depended on the eco-system where man was completely at the mercy of the nature.
As religion evolved out of this synchronic relationship between man and nature to gradually take the form of established institutions, worship of the malevolent gods and goddesses were frequently abandoned on the ground that they did not conform to the positive ideals of religion. But traces of these early pieties, by which man had once tried to appease the deities, remained in the rituals which were often the defining factors of different religious creeds. In the Koch-Rajbanshi community, some ritualistic practices related to malevolent deities still continue in the rural and peripheral regions. They draw almost equal importance as the benevolent deities, most of which have been included within the broader margin of Hinduism. The malevolent lot, however, are neither included nor excluded within Hinduism. But they are still practised within the community which has assimilated Hinduism. The host of these malevolent deities reflects the intrinsic worldview of the Koch-Rajbanshi community, which is intimately connected to the surrounding environment.
The Koch-Rajbanshis are a major ethnic community living in Assam and North Bengal, some parts of Bihar, Nepal, and Bangladesh. According to their belief system, the spirit-world forms a part of the totality of being, where man, animals, plants, spirits, and deities remain inseparable parts of the whole. Nature, which is the phenomenal form of this belief, is approached through rituals intimate and specific to this community. There are malevolent deities such as Jaka, Mashan, Ajankar, Sona Ray, etc., who insinuate the existence of the spirit-world within the human world. This world is believed to be a parallel existence, rather than a contrary domain. Certain rites like the rites of the tiger deity, Sona Ray, reflect the co-existence of the man and animal.
The god, Sona Ray, is the tiger deity, who protects the faithful from the tiger. The Koch-Rajbanshis were rich with their agricultural lands and herds of cattle. But the threat of the tiger always haunted the farmers and the herdsmen. This threat of an unknown fate haunted them when they went to their fields. The worship of Sona Ray could assure them protection from this impending fear. Traditionally, this ritual was carried out by a group of young herdsmen. This practice still exists within the community, though the fear of tiger has gradually subsided as tigers no longer abound following the destruction of the deep forests. At present, the worship may be carried out by any group of men, coming from any profession.
The ritual is arranged normally in the month of Push (mid-January). The Koch-Rajbanshis celebrate Pushna, one of their harvest festivals, on the last day of the same month. The participants of Sona Ray Puja start collecting donations a week ahead. They make all the necessary arrangements before the Puja. Offerings to the clay or sholapith idols of Sona Ray, mounted on a tiger and occasionally to Rupa Ray (Sona Ray’s brother), mounted on a goat, are made by these men, who serve as the priests. The cult is carried out without any Brahminical ritual. After the Puja, the participants celebrate by singing and dancing. They also arrange for a community feast where the non-participants may be invited.
The myths of the tiger deity are very common to certain other communities of the North-East. The Bodos believe that the tiger was the ancestor of one of their clans. In the Bodo belief system, the tiger is known as Musa while his descendants are known as Musahari or Baglari (see Mihir Kanta Das). The tiger also holds an important position in the Khasi myths. It is regarded as one of the incarnations of U Basa. In the Naga folktales, the tiger is considered as the brother of man. It is believed that both these brothers have divided the lands between them. The habitations were owned by man, while the tiger ruled over the forests. So the tiger is equally responsible for protecting the wild life as man is responsible for the nurturing of human society and its environment. Tiger’s predatory nature, no doubt, threatens the herbivorous, but at the same time maintains the ecological balance. The threat of the tiger, thus, includes the implications of safe-guarding the fragile ecological balance, keeping man at bay, and preventing him from arbitrating over the wild life.
In the Koch-Rajbanshi life-world, however, the position of the tiger deity is slightly more inclined towards human society. In this tradition, while collecting the donations for the ritual of Sona Ray, the participants carry a bamboo or some reeds knotted together, that serve as a totem. The totem is painted with various colours and decorated with flowers, leaves, and jute fibres, hung vertically. The lead boy (sometimes a man) carries it from house to house. While they sing, the totem is held horizontally in front of the household totems that are established in the yard-platforms of the houses. The head boy of the Sona Ray group would face the platform and start his song, while the company would join in a chorus. Some would be playing musical instruments, like, drums, cymbals, etc. They sing in every yard either praising or satirising the house owners. So, the ritual serves as a social criticism that promotes virtue and lampoons eccentricities. This can be taken as the call of nature to check human behaviour and re-orient people to the values of the traditional culture. The following songs well illustrate this feature of Sona Ray songs:
The old lady is too dirty,
She never puts oil on her head,
That’s why the grand son-in-law
Had pinched her cheek
And she became wrinkle-faced. (Folk rendition, translations mine)
Here is another song:
The midday sun is high up,
But, look at the landlord’s wife,
She is too late to take bath. (Folk rendition, translations mine)
But, the householders, who are free from these foibles and who pay due respect to the donation collectors, are praised and blessed. For them the group showers songs of appraisal:
This is a big family,
Full of large-hearted people,
They pay us respect
And are respected by all
For their generosity. (Folk rendition, translations mine)
The invocation of the tiger deity and socialisation of his image into the fabric of human society are an indication of the belief that man’s world is not outside the world of fauna. It is rather another dimension of the same world. This profound closeness of man and nature, where the animated forms of nature control human subsistence, approximates the philosophy of pantheism.
The rise of modernity, however, defies this knowledge, with modern science becoming the determinant of knowledge. In Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, Raymond Pierotti relates indigenous knowledge to ecological science. Ecology, according to Pierotti, can be best understood in terms of certain traditions followed by the indigenous community. He highlights the inseparable relationship of the natural world with the spiritual realm that the indigenous people believe in. As he argues, “Spiritual/religious aspects of TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) emerge from attempts to comprehend the nature of a variable and somewhat unpredictable environment and efforts to establish covenants with the natural world that were designed to reduce the negative impact of human actions. These are a form of science, sort of the equivalent of “resource management” but among “relatives,” rather than between “exploiters” and “resources.” The ceremonies and rituals are linked to knowledge and science in the same way that research protocols are designed to minimize negative impacts on study populations” (Pierotti 17). In this regard, the age-old worship of the indigenous malevolent deities possibly serves to protect the natural world, a philosophy re-incarnated in the doctrines of the eco-critics, who justify and sanctify the proverb, ‘back to nature’.
Dr. Preetinicha Barman Prodhani (1982) teaches English at Women’s College, Shillong. She has published her poems in Assamese, Rajbanshi, Bengali, and English in various journals and periodicals, apart from several papers in research journals. She has also published Assamese translations of Pakistani short stories. Girish Karnad and Orhan Pamuk were her areas of research in M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees respectively.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.