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

Symbols of Empowerment: Possession, Ritual and Healers in Himachal Himalaya (North India)
Journal of Asian and African Studies
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This paper 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 paper 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 Matadin’s 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 owner–labourer 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

Matadin’s father and the Thakur-chieftain of the area, the father of Siliya threatened:

2 Journal of Asian and African Studies XX(X)

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

Siliya’s 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 Siliya’s 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

(kingship–ideological nexus) control to enforce it, as has been argued by the recent historiography

on caste.

Unlike Dumont’s 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: 28–9). 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: 28–9). 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

Sharma 3

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 paper 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 paper 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: 204–5; Luig,

1999: 121–41). 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

4 Journal of Asian and African Studies XX(X)

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,

etc. 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: 110–50). The ritual also entailed an agriculturist’s 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 patient’s head. Then the lamp of ghi [clarified butter]

with four wicks is lighted and certain mantras recited thrice, the loaf being waved round the patient’s 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 goat’s head, is also waved round the patient’s head. Lastly, the loaf, the lamp,

Sharma 5

and tumba with the blood and goat’s 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 (Mian Durga, 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

Chamar’s (leatherworker’s) 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-worker’s deity, the Chano Sidh. Chano did not punish Ratan

directly, however, but first attacked his son’s wife and then his father’s brother’s son’s 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 Chamar’s 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).

6 Journal of Asian and African Studies XX(X)

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, etc.

(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 couldn’t 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.

Sharma 7

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 witch’s 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

8 Journal of Asian and African Studies XX(X)

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

headman’s 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

Sharma 9

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 purity–pollution 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 (May 3, 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

10 Journal of Asian and African Studies XX(X)

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: 166–76).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: 1–7, 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 1920–40 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 tenant’s 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.

Sharma 11

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.


1. Premchand’s 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 paper are by the


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


5. By charms or ‘by performing the business out of the sight of the man suspected to possess it’ Mian Durga

(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: 78–80).

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

12 Journal of Asian and African Studies XX(X)

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 paper 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: 65–7).

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: 137–57).


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Mahesh Sharma is Associate Professor in History at Panjab University, Chandigarh. He was a Fellow at the

Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (Simla, 1993–95) and Fulbright Senior Research Fellow at the Center

for India and South Asia (UCLA, 2007). He is the author of Western Himalayan Temple Records: State,

Pilgrimage, Ritual and Legality in Chamba (Brill, 2009) and, The Realm of Faith: Subversion, Appropriation

and Dominance in the Western Himalaya (IIAS, 2001).

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