PRIMAL ELEMENTS : THE ORAL TRADITION
Bhuiyan Primal Elements
The presence of key words for the five natural elements forms an intrinsic part of the linguistic repertoire of any cultural group. This is essentially a means to cull together the fundamental and holistic articulation of that group with the multifarious expressions of nature. Language is the culling together of these expressions for communication. It may therefore be permissible to conclude that expressions for the five elements must be found in all languages of the world.
The presence of five elements as part of the worldview is known from time immemorial in the Indian tradition, more particularly in textual-based ones. The occurrence of the five elements in non-textual based traditions, such as tribal traditions, is less known. This chapter traces the presence of the five elements in the tradition of the Bhuiyans of Orissa which form an integral part of their socio-economic and magico-religious lives.
Of the various aboriginal tribes inhabiting the State of Orissa, the Bhuiyans of Keonjhar are anthropologically the most interesting. They are one of the few tribes whose different branches represent various stages of cultural evolution from the more or less primitive cultures of hill or Pauri Bhuiyans to the Hinduized Bhuiyans of the plains. The Bhuiyans are extensively distributed over the States of Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Orissa, with vastly varying populations.
In Orissa, they are found chiefly in two different stages of cultural development, i.e., the most primitive hill or Pauri Bhuiyans of Keonjhar, Sundergarh and Dhenkanal, and the more advanced Bhuiyans of the plains of Bamara and Gangapur. This chapter is based on the fieldwork carried out among the Pauri Bhuiyans of the Keonjhar district.
The Five Elements
The word bhuiyan seems to have been derived from the Sanskrit term bhumi meaning land. Hence the Bhuiyans designate themselves either as the autochthones or owners of the land. They have a legend supporting their association with land. This legend recounts how the Bhuiyans took one of the jars presented to them by the Dharam Devta (sun god) at the time of the creation of the earth and opening the jar how they found it was full of earth. So they treated earth to be their wealth and called themselves Bhuiyans. They thus developed strong ties with the land, which was considered to be the most sacred and revered, more than even the mother. The oath taken in trials is only by touching the earth and it is believed that if one utters falsehoods while holding soil in his hand, he will soon die.
Earth is associated in almost all the Bhuiyan rites, rituals and festivals. Basumata, one of their chief goddesses, is believed to live under the earth. She is the first deity to be worshipped first in all the festivals. Many of the Bhuiyan gods and goddeses are made of terracotta. Every year before the start of shifting cultivation, one of the main components of the Bhuiyan economy, the earth goddess is worshipped with a sacrifice to ensure good crops.
When a Bhuiyan marriage is fixed, at the time of the betrothal ceremony, the bridegroom’s close relatives visit the bride’s house for a celebration. After the celebration, the bride’s parents present a terracotta figurine of the bride to the bridegroom’s parents, which symbolizes that they are taking the bride with them. This also means that their relationship will never break as the bride’s figurine is made of earth — one of the most revered elements of the Bhuiyan culture.
The Bhuiyans attitude to fire is one of great reverence. The sacred fire in the village dormitory is never extinguished. It is believed that if the fire is allowed to go out, it may bring disaster on the village. In many villages the dormitory fire is used to light the felled trees for forest clearing. Fire is worshipped at all festivals. It plays a vital role in the Bhuiyan life-cycle of birth, marriage and death.
In every Bhuiyan household a sacred fire is kindled at the time of the establishment of the household. This fire is never used for cooking and other mundane purposes. It is fuelled with certain kinds of wood and is kindled in a special manner — by rubbing the sticks — and is never allowed to burn out. In this fire the householder makes offerings to the gods and the ancestors.
Fire also epitomizes the principle of cosmic order. It is considered fundamental to the whole universe — all that lives has fire in it. Hence fire is regarded as an epitome of the fundamental principle of life which implies an ordered relation of all the things in the universe with one another and with the ultimate source of life.
Water plays a very important role in the magico-religious life of Bhuiyans. In all major festivals, the ancestors are worshipped with water near the river bank. When a child is born he is given a ceremonial bath, and so also after a person dies. Guests and visitors are seen off up to the bank of the river. A person possessed by ghosts or by any evil being is taken to the river bank to relieve him of the evil spirit. This indicates the power of water to eradicate and destroy the evil. The cause of this attribution of power to water lies in the belief that water has a close affinity to these evil. Some evil beings are said to reside in water. It is believed that some real and mythical creatures dwell in water, some of which are good and others bad.
Water is believed to possess the power of anti-evil. This power of water is utilized by the Bhuiyan sorcerers against the evil beings. It is also considered to be one of the mediums for transference of sin or impurity to the enemies, and, accordingly, used for such purposes.
The Bhuiyans regard Dharam Devta (sun god) to be one of their supreme deities. For the Bhuiyans the sky and the sun are synonymous. It is regarded as a genial creative power which fosters the growth of plants and the development of all that makes for happiness. It is also seen as a fierce destructive power that blasts and consumes all the noxious elements — spiritual or material — that are a menace in the life of humans, animals and plants.
Many Bhuiyans believe that Dharam Devta and Basumata, two of their most important deities, are husband and wife. Almost in every religious ceremony, Dharam Devta is compulsorily saluted, and without this no religious act is regarded as complete. Whenever liquor is taken, a few drops are first poured on the ground with the prayer Upere Dharam Devta Tale Basumata as a common incantation expressing reverence to the supreme deities. While taking a vow either the name of the sun god is uttered or a fistful of earth is held. It is believed that nothing can be kept hidden from the sun god who keeps a watch over all beings and so any lie or falsehood in his name is certain to bring trouble to the offender. The sun god and the earth goddess are always viewed as benevolent deities.
The use of the term 'air' in the Bhuiyan culture is confined only to the healing practices. The Bhuiyans have their own indigenous ways of curing diseases. Whenever a person falls sick, he is taken to the dehuri (religious head) of the village. The dehuri, by the act of blowing air, heals the person from the disease.
Thus the oral tradition plays a crucial role in non-textual based ones, such as tribal traditions. From the above discussion it is clear that the five elements — earth, fire, water, sky and air — form an integral part in the socio-economic and magico-religious lives of the Bhuiyans of Orissa.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi