This past week, as Hindus everywhere celebrated Durga Puja or Navratri to mark the victory of the goddess Durga over Mahishasura, a small community of tribals living in Jharkhand and the tea-growing belt of Jalpaiguri district in north Bengal was in mourning. These are the Asurs, a scheduled tribe of less than 8,000 members, who claim descendence from Mahishasura, the mythical demon king. Hence the name “Asur” which, in ancient Sanskrit religious texts, refers to the evil, wicked demons, who fight the good, wise devas.
The Asurs believe that the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana, which describes the birth of Durga and her nine-day long battle with Mahishasura, is biased. According to the Asurs, the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a “crooked conspiracy” hatched because their king Mahishasura was blessed with a boon by Brahma that no man or god could kill him. “The devas are the culprits. Our king was a true warrior from the earth who defeated Indra, the king of the devas, and drove them out of heaven. They were jealous of our dynasty and our forefathers,” says Dahru Asur, a worker in the Majher Dabri tea estate in Alipurduar and a staunch believer of the ancestral myth.
“The devas are the invaders who came to the earth and killed our ancestors. We don’t like to see the Durga Puja. We have a separate puja ceremony remembering and mourning our forefathers on Mahalaya, Sashthi, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami [the six days of Durga Puja],” says Pandra Asur, his neighbour.
Of course, this belief is part of oral tradition; the Asurs do not have any scriptures to validate the myth of their origin. “Hindus have religious books like the Puranas and Vedas, we have nothing,” says Dahru Asur who has a broad moustache, much like the one seen on the idol of Mahishasura.
According to S M Chakraborty, former head of Cultural Research Institute of West Bengal who has studied the Asurs, the tribe is of Austric origin. The word “Asur”, he says, is a combination of Sanskrit and Austric — “Asu” meaning power and “hur” meaning man. Commenting on the Asurs’ originary myths, he says, “In the Rig and Sama vedas, the word Asur was used to glorify a person for his powers. But in the other two, Yajur and Sama, it was portrayed as a negative force and a derogatory word, in order to glorify Indra.”
* * *
From Kolkata, where Durga Puja is celebrated with great fervour and fanfare, it takes almost a day to reach New Alipurduar, the railway junction. “Asur line”, where the tribals live, is a short auto ride from the station, along the road to the Majher Dabri tea estate. You need to walk the last stretch through muddy roads to reach the hamlet with its row of mud houses.
Around 1,000 Asurs work in and live near the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri such as Majher Dabri, Keron Bagan, Tulsi Pada and Phalakata; the rest live across the border in Jharkhand. According to Chakraborty, the tribals are originally from the Chotanagpur plateau and iron smelters by profession. The British took them to north Bengal to work on tea plantations. The Asurs have their own traditional methods of extracting ore and are hence well built and strong. The tribe has three sub-divisions — Bir Asur, Birjia Asur and Agaria Asur — and is listed as a scheduled tribe in states like West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa.
In many ways, the Asurs are distinct from the rest of the population in the tea gardens. For one, the community does not worship idols. The offering to their gods and forefathers comprise chicken, rice, sindoor and haria, a local wine that they make. “We don’t use haria or kill the chicken on the day of the puja ceremony. The chicken are left free till Holi and only after that are they killed,” says Pandra Asur. During Durga Puja, the elders of the Asur community go into complete isolation so that not even a word about Durga reaches them.
But such isolation is difficult to achieve. As the world and modern technology encroach on their lives and traditions, the Asurs today face a danger far greater than the calumny on their ancestor by the myth of Durga — a crisis of their ethnic identity.
* * *
Few Asurs, especially among the younger generations, follow their ancestral traditions today. Many young Asurs don’t even know who Mahishasura was and what he means to their community. When asked about the warrior king, nine-year-old Manjit Asur says, “I don’t know. Sometimes my father talks about him.” Manjit is aware of all the Hindu gods but does not know even a single name of his mythical forefathers. “My children pester me to take them to Puja pandals and I go with them...There is nobody to teach our culture to the new generation,” says Montu Asur. “I am worried that we are losing out. Our youngsters rubbish our beliefs and go to worship Hindu gods. Some people have even converted to Christianity,” says Dahru Asur.
Over time, social structures are changing too. Asur matrimonial tradition, say Asur community elders, was that a girl who had attained puberty had to go and live with the boy chosen for her for 8-10 years before he was considered capable of running a family. It is only after this that the nuptial ceremony was held. Now, these practices are on the wane as love marriages have become popular.
The lack of education and awareness that they need to pass their cultural beliefs to the next generation has been a big handicap for the tribe. “Who has the time to teach these things to the kids,” asks Dahru Asur. Even the government has not done much to preserve their ethnic identity; in fact, government educational institutions do harm by reinforcing the Durga version of the story. Given the vacuum, individuals such as Chinmay Dhar, assistant manager, Majher Dabri estate, are doing what they can. “I have been working closely with the Asurs for several years,” says Dhar.