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Symbols of Empowerment: Possession, Ritual and Healers in Himachal Himalaya (North India)
Mahesh Sharma

Journal of Asian and African Studies 45(2) 196208 The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permission: sagepub. DOI: 10.1177/0021909609357413

Panjab University, Chandigarh, India

This article is an attempt to understand locality, where the issues of subversion, subordination and marginalization as well as the problematic notions of liminality and empowerment are more vibrant and real. We shall demonstrate that while the low castes and untouchables were engaged in economic conflict, at various levels, with the high-caste landowners, which resulted in occasional uprisings too, the popular belief system was used by the marginalized as an instrument of assertion of their power against social coercion. It is argued that the social and ritual protest aimed at diluting or subverting the local caste hierarchy in a stratified society is an efficacious threat to the power of the high castes; that the hope of social revision becomes an alternative to economic subordination. More important, the symbols of empowerment are not the ones controlled by the high castes, but those which are located in the specialized rituals of the marginalized dalits. This article is about these symbols, which are liminal in nature, and how they empower, if only for a brief while, the economically exploited and socially marginalized dalit practitioners.

caste, dalit, liminal, locality, oracle, shaman, sorcery, trance

In Godan (Donating a Cow), a Hindi novel that brings to the fore the dominant issues of north Indian agrarian society of the 1920s, a Brahmana, named Matadin, had a relationship with a ritually low-caste Chamar (a leatherworker girl) Siliya, who was also his farmhand. One day she took some grain from Matadins place without his permission to buy colour from the village shop. Matadin abused her and charged her with theft. On her asking him if she had no right over his grain as she was his mistress, he replied that they had only an ownerlabourer relationship; that, if she did not agree to this, she may work elsewhere, that there was no dearth of farmhands. This infuriated her and subsequently, the entire Chamar caste-community. When questioned by Matadins father and the Thakur-chieftain of the area, the father of Siliya threatened:

Corresponding author: Mahesh Sharma, E-I/115, Panjab University Campus, Sector 14, Chandigarh, India 160 014 Email:



Siliya is a girl and thus will go to one or another house [after marriage]. We have nothing to comment; but who-so-ever will keep her shall keep her as ours. You cannot make us Brahmanas but we can make you Chamar. Make us Brahmanas the entire community is ready for this. If this is not possible, become a Chamar. Dine with us, intermingle with us. If you take our bodies, then give us your religion. (Premchand, 1993: 244, emphasis added)1

Siliyas mother, contextualizing the protest and the aspirations of the socially and ritually dominated and economically exploited community echoed similar feelings:
Oh Pundit! If your girl eloped with a Chamar, would you still talk like this? Why, because we are Chamars and have no honour? We shall not take Siliya back alone. Matadin will accompany her, who has dishonoured her. You are such a religious man! You will sleep with her, but will not drink water from her hands. (Premchand, 1993: 245, emphasis added)

Then all the Chamars took hold of the Brahmana Matadin. Someone defiled and broke the sacred thread and two or three of them forced a bone and flesh (non-vegetarianism being symbolic of ritual pollution and low ritual status) in the mouth of Matadin, thus symbolically polluting him. The protest is given a further ironic twist in the person of Siliyas son who, on being questioned deliberately by the co-villagers, always replied that Matadin, the Brahmana, was his father (Premchand, 1993: 333). Surely, the boundaries of caste, lineage and inheritence, along with those of community segmentation and ritual exclusion are rendered meaningless in this protest. It also speaks of the weapons of protest available to the marginal that threaten to tear apart the brahmanic notion of social that distributes privileges and discriminates on the basis of birth. Also, how fragile the notion of social is becomes apparent in this conflict, which needs a ritualistwarrior (kingshipideological nexus) control to enforce it, as has been argued by the recent historiography on caste. Unlike Dumonts purity-power-hierarchy argument, the ritually-polluted are equally powerful as are the ritually-pure; the bottom of hierarchy is as potent as the top. Once the ritually low castes become conscious of the fact that they can pollute, they become powerful. Since purity segregates and therefore is exclusive, it is always threatened by being defiled. Such a threat is realistic as the dalit (the marginalized) sees himself not by the properties and attributes of his own social being but by a diminution, if not negation, of those of his superiors (Guha, 1983: 289). Guha thinks that it is due to this modality that the perceived symbols of power, ritual purity and hierarchy, as in this case, are attacked or appropriated in any peasant insurgency (Guha, 1983: 289). When the symbols of power are attacked, they are guarded by the high castes with more ardour. In such matters, the sanctification of the community becomes more significant than the religious sanctity. Hierarchy alone is not power, but the socially sanctified concept of purity or auspiciousness is. Thus, although Matadin could regain his ritual status as a Brahmana, after performing punitive and expensive rites at Kashi one of the most sacred Hindu centres the Brahmanas, as a community, refused to accept him as one of them. Matadin realized to his peril that:
The priests accepted his brahmanhood, but the people refused to accept water from his hands. Though people consulted him on the matters of religion, augury, and rites, also giving him dana [donations] on various festivities and celebrations, but did not allow him to touch their utensils. (Premchand, 1993: 334)

It is interesting to observe how all forms of resistance are reduced to mythological abstractions, where the battle to control the symbols takes centre stage rather than the reality on the ground the


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economic/social resistance and marginalization. The social and ritual aspects of the everyday resistance are, therefore, very different from the forms of resistance highlighted by Scott, who argues that the peasant, locked in class struggle, continues to pressurize the landowners effectively by foot dragging, dissimulation, false-compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage (Scott, 1985). The battle for ritual control and resistance is rather seeped in the language of faith as Walker also demonstrates in comprehending why tax avoidance and evasion is necessary for the existence of the Bidayuh people. Such is the strength of their belief that a man who protects the spirit of rice, which it is believed would die if it is given away in tax, and is deemed to possess miraculous powers, cannot enforce tax compliance (Walker, 1998). Such a belief becomes a weapon of resistance, which resonates through multiple symbols in different cultures and societies. In most of these protest movements, the voice of the ritually low is, significantly, legitimized by the spirit medium the shamans and oracles. Possession by malevolent or benevolent forces is a daily occurrence in the rural society, a phenomenon which is transcultural in language and idiom and cuts across religious and caste hierarchy. This phenomenon is a powerful site of resistance and protest, a ritual formulation that is significant for our comprehension of the dynamics of the rural society and its dominant belief and attitudes. This article argues that while the ritually low castes and untouchables, as a community, were engaged in economic conflict, at various levels, with the ritually high-caste landowners, which also resulted in occasional uprisings, the popular belief system was used as catharsis as well as instrument of assertion of their power against social coercion. It argues that the social and ritual protest aimed at diluting or subverting the local caste hierarchy in a stratified society is an efficacious threat to the power of the high castes; that the hope of social revision becomes an alternative to economic subordination. More importantly, the symbols of empowerment are not the ones controlled by the high castes, but are located in the specialized rituals of the marginalized dalits. This article is about these symbols, which are liminal in nature, and how they empower, if only for a brief while, the economically exploited and socially marginalized dalit practitioners.

The Ritual Protest

The economic and social protest was cemented by ritually negating the symbols of hierarchy and power. Ritual was used as a weapon of protest as well as to empower the low and untouchable castes.2 This protest is emphasized conspicuously against the background of local belief system. Locality may be defined, following Appadurai, as a cultural space that evolved through time, which is socialized through ritual activities. This space is linked to the larger cultural/political construct by invoking and linking it with the broader cosmological and moral orders, embedded in the social system and economic agency the organization of kinship and social interaction or stratification and the agricultural or shepherding cycle, for example (Appadurai, 1995: 2045; Luig, 1999: 12141). It is this cultural space that is sought to be ideologically controlled, accentuating the contest between economic marginalization and resistance thereof, and ritual negation and protest therein. We are of course assuming here that there is a multi-ritual space within the locality that becomes the site of identity-loaded protest. The sacred space of the village, a conglomeration of various occupational castes engaged in agricultural practices, embraced a simultaneous co-existence of the dominant pan-Indian classical religious tradition and the indigenous beliefs revolving around myriad area-specific myths, mythologies, gods and godlings. The indigenous beliefs were more accepted, as also observed by Carstairs (1983: 53) for a Rajasthan village, as the godlings were personal and emotive and were also



invoked to order daily life in times of sickness and other forms of trouble (Oberoi, 1987; Sharma, 1996a: 94, 103). In contrast the classical deities were perceived as remote and rarely involved in the villagers daily lives, but were worshipped to avoid their wrath. Yet in the process of acculturation, the dominant system accommodated indigenous beliefs such that they reflected the dominant worldview. For instance, Harcourt in 1871 observed that in Kullu:
The faith is Hinduism, but it is not the religion of the orthodox The religion of the majority of the Kooloo people is a sort of demon-worship, which may be deemed an offshoot of the Hindoo mythology, and reverence for the temples that contain statues of the noticeable gods; but their affections are more particularly concentrated in their own local deities, whose help they invoke in trouble, and by whom they swear when taking an oath. (Harcourt, 1871: 59, emphasis added)3

Contingent to the belief system, the village worldview was fashioned by the categories of spirits, both benign and malevolent, which aided as well as threatened the daily life. These spirits were invoked or warded off with the help of various charms or magical potions; enforced by sorcery, witchcraft or the evil eye. Such belief necessitated expertise provided mainly by the ritually lowcaste and untouchable communities. It has been observed that the lower the hierarchy, the more potent the infliction. Thus, there was an ordering of the ritual categories of infliction dependent upon hierarchy. Three such categories existed, namely: the dareh medicine man; dagi evil eye; and chela or gur the shaman, oracle, exorcist, sorcerer, and witch/wizard. The medicine man always belonged to the low but clean peasant castes, the Ghirths or Kanets. The evil eye belonged to the clean castes as well, while the cure of evil eye mostly lay with those of the ritually lowservice castes, called dhaki. However, the chela or gur always belonged to the untouchable castes. The dareh were called upon to treat commonplace diseases like boils, measles, mumps, smallpox, and so on, among the humans, and foot-rot, colic and food poisoning afflicting the cattle. The cure was affected by preparing a potion of local herbs, over which the relevant mantra (incantations) were blown (Yogiraja, 1972: 11050). The ritual also entailed an agriculturists rite in which the symbols of earth, vegetation and sickle (implements) were invoked. Moreover, the disease occurred due to polluting influences caused by the non-observance of purity rites, or consuming the forbidden food, by the polluting touch, or by the non-propitiation of the concerned deity, such as Sitla for smallpox. Through this ritual, the dareh returned the pollution to earth through the agency of vegetation and threatened it with a sickle. As they ensured a pollution-free environment, the darehs were considered vital for the high castes, who were constantly threatened by the polluting agents. The high castes took care to keep them in good humour, by summoning them for social feasts, assigning them good plots as tenants, and by generous rewards for rendering small services.4 Socially they were respected and enjoyed a higher status than other cultivators. The evil eyes, the dagis, were feared because they induced the cow into not giving milk; or made the child sick or irritating beyond control, inflicted animal plague, or caused a general material loss. The dag was also a spirit inclined to filch the crops. Amulets and charms were used to keep them at bay.5 Some afflictions, however, were severe and required the services of the untouchable dhaki, who averted the evil eye ritually. Rose observed the ritual as follows:
He [dhaki] first cooks a loaf, which is placed on the patients head. Then the lamp of ghi [clarified butter] with four wicks is lighted and certain mantras recited thrice, the loaf being waved round the patients head meantime, and finally placed on the ground. A he-goat is then decapitated and the blood caught in a tumba [container], which, with the goats head, is also waved round the patients head. Lastly, the loaf, the lamp,


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and tumba with the blood and goats head are all placed by night at a spot where four roads meet. (Rose, 1919: I, 211)

Let us take a concrete example from the village of Saloh, which is located in the Palampur Subdivision of Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh, in north India. This is a multi-caste village, where the Tugnait Brahmanas and the Guleria Rajputs are the dominant castes, and are dependent upon the agriculturist caste the Ghirths for managing their lands. This dependence was more pronounced among the Tugnait Brahmanas. They however, had their own preferences. For instance, among the Bhata Ram, a dareh was respected and helped by the high castes on account of his expertise as well as his industry and compliance. Yet, Ghinu, a lazy, slimy character, was feared for he was considered an evil eye. No one refused him a tumbler of milk, lest he afflict the cow; or refused him grain lest he filch them with the help of the spirit, dag (Singh, 1907: 304). By culturally legitimizing filching, a form of protest against the injudicious division of grain share between the tenant and proprietor, the evil eyes not only threatened but also implicitly empowered themselves and the community. The intervention only of the dhaki laid open the conflict of ritual symbols. Cooked food, sacrifice and blood are anti-brahmanic ideals of purity, by which the highcaste victims were cured.6 The ritual explicitly challenged the purity symbols, questioning the rationale of pollution while effecting the cure.

Chela or Gur: Reordering the Society

Parry, in his study of kinship relations in Kangra, refers to a case in which a tenant invoked the Chamars (leatherworkers) deity, the Chano Sidh (vernacular form of Siddha, or those who have attained supernatural powers) to get even with the proprietor. He relates that:
When Ratan Singh [a Rajput] quarrelled with, and assaulted, one of his tenants (of low caste [a dalit]), the tenant is said to have invoked the leather-workers deity, the Chano Sidh. Chano did not punish Ratan directly, however, but first attacked his sons wife and then his fathers brothers sons son Chano Sidh may then take retribution (khot) on the offenders household by causing illness or death in the family. There is only one possible way of placating the deity, and that is through the intercession of a leatherworker [Chamar]. (Parry, 1979: 143, 235, emphasis added)

This case provides an insight into the power commanded by the untouchable castes in reordering the symbols of justice, in abetting the protest against the powerful high-caste communities. It implicitly inverses the hierarchy and power nexus and rather reformulates it as a complementary binary the Brahmanas enjoying the social and ritual power, with the untouchables being the lords of the diabolic. The diabolical provided the untouchables with a hope of social revision, by threatening and negating the symbols of hierarchy, the sphere of sacred. As Parry informs us, an individual considering him to be wronged, irrespective of the caste he belonged to, could invoke the Chamars deity to seek retribution (Parry, 1979: 100). It was the consciousness of the diabolic that provided a sense of power to the untouchable communities. This is evident from the brahmanic variant of the Chamar origin myth. The Chamars could capture the powerful sun god, therefore threatening the world, and received a customary tribute for not doing so. Their association with magic, in myriad forms, was dreaded, as is also noted by Cohn in Madhopur, where it was restricted to revenge slights, cure diseases, and to recover stolen or lost property (Cohn, 1987: 285).



People believed the untouchables to be exorcist-magicians, in whose attendance the ghosts served. People visited them for divination; to disclose some secret or to make a person receive some gain or injury. It was also believed that they inflicted ghosts on their enemies. A ghost inflicted by them was considered unholy (Singh, 1907: 309). It tore apart friendship and made friends out of the sworn enemies; it caused accidents with grievous injuries; it materially ruined the house by pilfering; it caused grave illness; it caused amorality, loss of status, loss of power, and so on (Yogiraja, 1972: 106). As shaman, they cured people of their maladies. However, it was believed that a ghost inflicted by the lowest in the hierarchy could not be cured by the castes higher than the inflicting agency, that is, if a ghost was inflicted by a Chura (scavenging caste) it could not be cured even by a Chamar (leatherworker), while Churas couldnt exorcise the ghosts inflicted by the Chandals (those serving in the crematoriums). Thus, the power of magic (tuna) increased in direct proportion to the lowering caste hierarchy. The more ritually polluted a person was, the more powerful a chela (shaman) he could be. The untouchable castes were also empowered because of the belief that they could control death. They could kill their enemies ritually. Thus, when a Brahmana named Chainu Ram of the Tugnait clan, in Saloh village, died in the 1970s, it was generally believed that he was assassinated by muth, that is, he was killed by invoking the ritual of death.7 Such a belief is not peculiar to the Kangra hills, but is prevalent throughout the Indian subcontinent in one form or another, as reported also by Carstairs in Rajasthan:
Some individuals are known to be the possessors of harmful, even death dealing magic, which can only be undone by the employment of a stronger, protective spell. Black magic of this kind can be applied without the victim being aware of it, but when he or she falls sick, a priest or a magical healer can interpret the cause of the illness (1983: 57)

The muth was a lethal weapon because it could be operated on a person about whom little personal knowledge existed. Few of his personal belongings were required to invoke the ritual effectively. Mian Durga Singh (1907) identified five such objects popularly used to victimize a person in the Simla Hill states: (1) by the nails or hair cut from the body, or the dust over which he has trodden; (2) by driving a nail in a tree bearing the same name as the victim; (3) by making the image of a person and wounding it with a nail, in his name; (4) by making the image and burying or burning it; and finally, (5) by putting the flour on a corpse, or some pepper or mustard, in the name of the victim, on a sacrificial fire (Singh, 1907: 310). There was some unanimity about these beliefs as illustrated in a particular case related by Rose in his reports compiled in 1919:8
Sorcerers and witches act on their victim by making a figure of him and torturing the figure by inserting a needle into it. The torture reaches the person who is personated. Nails and hair are carried away to be subjected to pain that the original owners may be tormented. (Rose, 1919: II, 205)

The death ritual empowered the chela (sorcerer, witch or exorcist), so much so that Mian Durga Singh, presenting the native view, considered them conceited and vain (1907: 309). It was not only the cultivators or the high-caste proprietors who feared their ritual power, but also the powerful Raja or the Zamindar. Moorcroft and Trebeck, as early as 1841, reported that when a Zamindar lost his son and a favourite cow, he accused an old woman of the village of having destroyed them magically eating their lives (Moorcroft and Trebeck, 1841: I, 75). Such beliefs, when adhered to by the state functionaries debunked the notion of power, thus destabilizing the agrarian society. This necessitated punitive action by the high castes to re-establish order in the society.


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The diabolic power of the untouchables was perceived to be such that they could wreak havoc even in death, being more vindictive dead than in their lifetimes. A dead Chamar or Chura was considered more malignant than the live one, as he could trouble as a ghost. This ghost was very powerful as he rendered women barren and destroyed crops, or pilfered from the granary or a locker (Rose, 1919: I, 204, 207). To escape from the fury of such a ghost, the high castes ensured that these untouchables were buried or burnt face downwards to prevent the spirit escaping. Such was the paranoia, as Rose reports in 1919 that, riots have taken place and the magistrates have been appealed to to prevent a Chura being buried face upwards (Rose, 1919: I, 204).

Witchcraft and Trance:The Politics of Accusation

The ritually high castes, in order to assert their control, used accusation as the weapon of dominance and sought the intervention of the state, serving the high-castes interests, which willingly obliged. As has been argued by Mair (1969) and Evans-Pritchard (1937) in the case of the Azandes, the witchcraft accusations served the interests of the powerful, being an effective means of social control. Thus, Rose in the 1883 ethnographic Glossary (which was compiled in 1919) of the area reports that:
Formerly when witchcraft was suspected the relatives of the person affected complained to a court or to the Raja. An order was then issued to a chela that was reputed to have the power of detecting witches. Accompanied by a musician and a drummer he went to the place. A pot of water (kumbha) was first set over some grain sprinkled on the ground and on this was put a lighted lamp. Ropes were also laid besides the kumbha. The musicians played, and when the chela had worked himself into a State of afflatus, he asked the people standing by if they wished the witch to be caught, warning them that she might be one of their own relatives. They, would however, assent. This went on for three days, and on the third the chela standing by the kumbha would call out the witchs name and order his attendants to seize her. Picking up the ropes, they would at once execute his order and she would be seized and bound. (Rose, 1919: I, 213)

After catching the witch or wizard, they were cruelly tortured to get confessions of guilt. They were tested by ordeal, for instance, by dipping in a pool. This ordeal rested in the belief that if guilty, she would rise to the surface, but would sink if innocent. Guilt being proved, she was banished from the state, and sometimes her nose was cut off (Rose, 1919: I, 211, 213). Interestingly, water was used for the ordeal where one is dipped in a pool as well as in the detection, where the kumbha-waterpot plays a major role in the ritual. Water, as a carrier of ritual pollution, was guarded by stringent social customs and throughout the hills was strongly associated with the diabolical.9 In other words, the pollution or polluting agency was always associated with ghastliness or the diabolical. Symbolically, the untouchables acquired power from their status as pollutants or polluting. While the high castes invoked the power of the state to accuse, the untouchable caste groups sought the support of ritual to legitimize their accusations. This is very similar to what has been argued by Rodman for the Creole-speaking Ambaes. He contends that sorcery accusations are a form of protest against the persistence of old forms of inequality and are used as a strategy for levelling the powerful (Rodman, 1993). In a similar instance, when the daughter of the headman, in Saloh village, went into a violent trance, a chela (shaman) was pressed into service. She, as possessed by the demonic spirit, accused her aunt of inflicting her with a demonic spirit using the help of a sorcerer. The hamlet, though scandalized, considered this affliction as a vendetta for not giving the share of property to the aunt that she deserved. The social division and recriminations



following this were so sharp that the powerful headman (of 30 years standing) of the village could not even win his constitutional ward in 1986, which was dominated not only by his caste but also by his kin.1 0 His rival, a dalit, had questioned the morality of his ritual and political dominance, and in the process asserted the political dominance of the low caste. How does the dalit medium manipulate the trance as an instrument through which the members of high castes are accused? The answer also determines the strategy employed by the lowcaste chela in undermining the power-base of the high castes. The language of trance therefore becomes significant. Rose observed one such ritual involving a faqir (mendicant), who can be interchanged with the untouchable chela, as both employ the same ritual language. The possessed was cured as follows:
The faqir takes a drum, a thali or platter and a ghara or earthen jar. The platter is placed over the jar, and the whole is called gharial (lit. a gong). The faqir beats the drum, another person beats the gharial, and another sing [sic]. The sick person shakes his head, and when the music ceases they ask him questions: Who are you? I am so and so, he replies. How did you come into this state? Such and such a one put me into this state. Who bewitched you? So and so. What did he get for doing it? So many rupees. For how long are you sick? I have to be sick for so many days, and then die. They play and sing again. After some time the sick man perspires and recovers. The evil spirit goes with the perspiration. (Rose, 1919: II, 207, emphasis added)

In case after case, the same formula is used. The inflicted is navigated to reveal two types of names. The first is the person who commissioned the affliction, usually some kin as in the case of the headmans daughter. The second is the agent, invariably of the untouchable caste. Such a revelation underpinned the power of the low castes, both as an inflicting as well as curative agency. Moreover, by implicating the high castes, such allegations questioned directly the moral bases of authority. This is similar to the case implicating the Ambae chief, as noted by Rodman, accused of killing a kin by sorcery. The hearing was conducted to systematically undermine his political power, before he was forced to relinquish his office. The sorcery accusation was only a strategy to question his honour, his reputation for honesty, and his right to continue to act as a leader, just like it happened to the powerful headman of the village Saloh (Rodman, 1993: 228).

Subverting the Symbols of Purity

The chela combined both the curative as well as afflicting roles. The cure was effected by the use of various types of charms, amulets and magical practices. The magical practices consisted of tantric mantras (ritual formulaic incantations) and sacrifices. These practices subtly, but significantly, challenged and subverted the symbols of purity and hierarchy. At the time of performing the curative ritual, the chela acquired liminality by appropriating the brahmanical symbols of asceticism and purity. It involved the purifying rites, both of the body and the spirit. The chelas symbolically asserted their celibate state by isolating themselves from the women of their household the previous night. Early in the morning of the service day, they took the ritual bath and vowed to fast throughout the day. They offered oblations to their respective deity, as Chamars to Chano Sidh. The deity possessed them and they went into a state of trance after which they acted as oracles, shamans and healers. During the service day, the chela underwent a cyclic liminal metamorphosis, from an untouchable householder to a priest-chela, an ascetic, a godhead that cures; and finally, back to his caste, kinship and family. In the process, the chelas manifested authority over the privileged while the high castes, seeking a redress, acquired the


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transient attributes of the weak (see Turner [1969: 10] for a similar discussion). The ritual process consolidated the liminal symbols. The amulets prepared by the untouchable chelas consisted of ash tied within a paper pallet and enclosed in a miniature box to be tied around the neck. They also gave charmed water (pyasa) to be consumed daily until the recovery of the victim. By these amulets, specific possession-spirits, evil eye, depression, cases of sterility and sorcery were controlled or cured. Underlying the ritual of the amulet was the concept of the transgression of taboos of touch, and food or the merging of the puritypollution opposition. Rendering the victim impure healed, as it was believed that the possessing spirits were not above the caste stratification and would not live in the ritually impure bodies. Thus, the touch of the untouchable and the polluting water prepared by them rendered the victim impure along with the possessing spirit. Since the spirit also desired liberation to merge with the pure the heaven or godhead it, therefore, decamped the ritually polluted body, thus effecting the cure. The complete subversion of purity symbols was manifested in the magical practices. Most of these practices involved sacrifices an anti-brahmanical custom. Further, some of the rituals were performed in the cremation ground, considered highly impure. In addition, some of the rituals involved entering the household of the high-caste victim, thereby rendering it impure. During this time, the chela could visit any part of the household, including the kitchen or hearth.11 Hence, when one of the girls in the Tugnait hamlet was possessed it was said by the chela that the ailment lay in a charmed thread that was buried within the house by a vindictive relation. The chela visited the entire house and dug at a few places, finally excavating a black thread from one of the bedrooms (obri). Later he performed a ritual of immunity in which the hearth was also included. In the brahmanic ritual syntax of purity, the entire house was defiled. Although the Chamar chela exhibited and acquired a liminal status and functioned as a priest, the caste offence did not go unnoticed. After he left, the purifying water of the River Ganga was sprinkled all over the house to cleanse it and for quite some time the neighbours taunted and reminded them of their temporary fall of status. How potent is the impact of the low-caste chelas on society? This can be gleaned from the diary of one Mast Chand Katoch of Rajput warrior-caste who served the colonial British army during the First World War. He has provided us with some interesting excerpts about his experience of healing.1 2 His account is about some psychic-ailment that he suffered from and which was attributed to the possession of paharia (the devilish hill spirit). He visited the seat of Kathaki Sidh at Sakari where the chela, a Julaha or weaver, endeavoured to cure him. He describes his experience as follows:
I felt his hands although he did not touch me. My eyes were closed but I felt it coming close to my head. It was a sensational feeling, sending a kind of cold feeling right through me. I cannot describe it because it was like the lightening shock. I was sinking and began to shiver. The shivering, in a short while, broke through everywhere and I found myself talking to the Sidh Kathaki Baba. The chela, Mangat Ram, certainly has amazing powers. After all, he has cured people 13

Mast Chand Katoch, by his own account, was cured after two years. During the time of his agony, he had immense faith in the chela, as he wrote in the initial pages of his diary (3 May, 1925).
I know I was a conceited man. I lived fighting against myself and against God who was simply beyond my imagination. Now I have faith in the Sidh Kathaki Baba and the chela. The chela certainly has great powers (siddhis), but he cannot cure people against their will. He needs confidence and faith. Faith in the Sidh Kathaki Baba is the test of all cures.1 4



The grateful Mast Chand Katoch donated about two acres of land to the deity, for the personal use of the chela and his successors. Later a shrine was built for the deity and the villagers donated more land, as the successor, Jethu Ram, acquired fame as an oracle. In a way, such donations empowered the members of the low castes. The economic struggle that they were involved in was resolved through these donations. They also resolved the protest with the high castes, providing them with a respectable social space and symbolically redistributing or sharing resources and property.

The ritually low-caste protest movement was aimed at reordering the symbols of justice, by attacking the symbols of purity and hierarchy. This was done in the 1920s by attempting to climb up the ladder as a caste, through appropriating the symbols of hierarchy, as well as by doing away with the non-brahmanical practices and replacing them with the brahmanical rituals and norms. Since the purity at the apex of the hierarchy was also dependent upon the respective ritual pollution and the distance down the social ladder, such attempts that aimed to move up the social ladder rendered meaningless the conception of purity, which was implicit in hierarchy. The Brahmana consequently felt not so pure and high when the Kolhis appropriated the Kshatriya status. Yet at the same time, it explicated the fragility of hierarchy in terms of purity, because they could always be defiled and lowered in status (such Brahmanas were ridiculed as Sudra-Brahmanas by their cognates as well). Yet, such movements, throughout the subcontinent, failed to structurally change the social landscape as they aimed at positional inversion instead of an alternative community or society. While they registered a powerful protest, and a successful one too, they were ultimately co-opted into the system they were protesting against. Thus, the shamans who successfully orchestrated a protest against the Parsi moneylenders, became the instruments of the Gandhian civil disobedience, while Gandhi patronized them as Harijans (Hardiman, 1987: 16676).1 5 Similarly, the protesting Kolhis in Kangra acquiesced when they were accommodated as clean castes, equivalent to the cultivating castes. In the process, the peasant protest was also robbed of its bargaining power. The strength of the high castes was derived also from the denial of the political space to the low-caste peasants and untouchables in the subcontinent, both by the colonial state as well as the Congress ministry in 1937 and thereafter. The Congress not only refused to recognize peasant activities, it rather classified them as criminal, and also disowned such activists. So much so that Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru described peasants as naked, bewildered, down-trodden, utterly miserable, crushed and starving, while resorting to police action to intervene in favour of the landed classes and to maintain law and order (Pandey, 1984: 17, 16). The low-caste nationalists were not even accorded the status of political prisoners, which entitled some privileges and comforts in jail as opposed to the rigorous punishment meted out to the ordinary prisoners, as was accorded to the nationalists during the 192040 phase of the Indian freedom movement.1 6 It is against this background that the localized protest and symbols of ritual resistance acquire significance. Thus, when the son of a prominent Tugnait Brahmana taunted his tenants son by calling his caste-name (for example, calling him Chamar), the low-caste boy retorted by calling him a maku one who earns his living by begging, particularly at the funeral feast. The Brahmana boy was incensed as he was used to being given the traditional honorific. To be dubbed a beggar or a dealer in death was an unthinkable insult. The low-caste boy had found a perfect irritant, a subtle but effective way of protest. Never again was he called by a derogatory caste name, but always by his personal name. The boy had realized the power vested in symbols and used it not only to lodge the protest, but, in a limited way, also to empower him.


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While the high castes could deflate the organized protest movements, they could do little against the weapons of popular ritual. The ritually low and untouchables castes could always inflict harm at the altar of the low-caste deity, as Chano Sidh did for the Chamars. They controlled the ghosts that filched, possessed, diseased, and fragmented the social. More significantly, the low castes could become malignant ghosts after death and afflict the high castes. Such beliefs, which formed the collective psyche of the rural world, the high castes included, necessitated the expertise provided mainly by the ritually low and the untouchable castes. The belief that the affliction and cure was more potent with the lowering hierarchies in a certain sense empowered the lowest the most. Moreover, they controlled the rituals that caused death. Even as the high castes tried to reorder the system by accusing them as witch or sorcerer, also invoking the hierarchy and state against them, it only underlines the dread and fear that such specialists invoked. These specialists, as chelas, acquired temporary liminality, a complete inversion of positional hierarchy, when they could defile by touch, food, entering homes and performing sacrifice appropriating the priestly domain. The process of liminality and the ritualized powers at the command of chela provides an insight into the power wielded by the individual members in reordering the symbols of justice, in abetting the protest against the powerful high caste communities. The answer also determines the strategy employed by the low caste chela in impairing, in a way eroding, the power base of the high castes. Yet, such experts usually benefited economically, some even receiving land grants. These donations empowered them as individuals and not the low castes as a community, and they, like the high castes, formed the extractive relations with other caste members. In a way, a new class configuration begins to emerge. Notes
1. Premchands Godan (in Hindi) is a novel on the values, urban and rural attitudes, and the problems of the peasant societies in India of 1920s. All the translations from Godan in this article are by the author. 2. Similarly, while working with the Ndembus, Turner (1969: 10) observed that there is a close connection between social conflict and ritual at the levels of village and vicinage. He noticed a multiplicity of conflict situations correlated to a high frequency of ritual performance. 3. Understandably this cut across the religious divide as he observed for Buddhism that it not only emerged from indigenous practices but also contains them which, is contrary to the spirit of Buddhism (Harcourt, 1871: 65). 4. Charity, as Firth (1946: 295) observes, is expected from the rich, in this case high castes, and results in the absence of any marked feeling of resentment towards the wealthy on the part of the poorer elements of the community. 5. By charms or by performing the business out of the sight of the man suspected to possess it (Singh, 1907: 309). 6. The symbols were used for conflicting purposes, as blood and milk in the local shrine of Balakrupi, symbolizing the vegetarian and non-vegetarian divide, and to reflect the pilgrim composition, as indigenous against the Brahmanical (Sharma, 1996b: 7880). 7. From interviews with the members of the Tugnait clan, Village Saloh, Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, in December 1993. 8. Every culture had its own set of such beliefs. Their comparison may provide some insight into the working of such categories and also offer a better understanding of contemporaneous society. For an early nineteenth-century Western comparison see Hueffer (1908), and for the symbols of the occult, Farrar (1971). 9. Thus, the low castes had separate water reservoirs or wells. Even when the clean low castes washed utensils they were taken back to the kitchen only when they had dried in the heat of sun the belief being that



the heat took away any pollution. Moreover, the Brahmanas did not accept cooked food because it contained water, germinating pollution. Therefore, they only accepted uncooked grains from the castes below them in the hierarchy. 10. The daughter of a Brahmana, the village headman for past 30 years, went into trance in 1982. She was cured by a Chura (scavenger chela) that gave her charmed water to drink as well as ash from his hearth to eat along with an amulet to wear. The headman lost in the panchayat (local village-body) election of 1986 in his ward, defeated by his Ghirth, the numerical minority, opponent. 11. The hearth is the most sacred part of a brahmanical household. From here the oblations are made to various deities, as fire symbolizes the primeval sacrifice. The lord of the house, a patriarch, is the priest and after preparation of every meal, but before partaking it, sacrificial oblations are made to gods and ancestors; fire is propitiated. No outsider, other than of the same or higher caste or clan is allowed near the hearth. The constructed boundary for such a distance is called chauka, literally the sitting area. 12. Noted in a diary which is written in Hindi and Pahari dialect. There are seven such diaries which are in the possession of his son, the secretary of the Balak Nath temple complex, Sakari, Tehsil Baijnath, Himachal Pradesh. All translations in this article are by the author. 13. Diary, IV, Folio 63, date: September 4, 1927. 14. Diary, II, Folio 9. 15. Though in this particular case the majority people were adivasis (tribals), yet Gandhi was very conscious of the high-caste dominance and in a way was instrumental in perpetuating the pervasive brahmanic ideology. He, thus, provided a new rationale by calling all the untouchables Harijans, the children of God, which recently the dalit leader, Mayavati, questioned very tellingly (if we are the children of god, what are the high-caste Hindus, the children of devil?). This in itself became the segregating and distinctive category, replacing the colonial category of depressed classes. That Gandhi was conscious of the symbols he was using is clear from his address to the high-caste Hindus highlighting how close they were to losing one-fifth of their members, after the trauma of the communal award, and the political consequence of such a cleavage. He also made cryptic references to the dangers posed by a possible alliance of the alienated minorities and warned the Hindus that they might become a minority in their own land if they followed the non-appeasement policy and pursued practices against the depressed classes or the Harijans (Dwivedi, 1989: 657). 16. Even peasant leaders, like Rahul Sankrityayana, were denied such an acknowledgement. Singh (1998: 151) discusses in detail the classification and protests within the prison and the consequent concessions which were made, keeping in perspective the class and caste distinctions (Singh, 1998: 13757).

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