When we reached the festival, the crowd had grown to several hundred, surging and pushing between stalls selling everything from vegetables and snacks to replicas of tribal and Hindu deities. Often, a Hindu god and a tribal one had been united into one deity. Animal figures suggested the animist-based religion long practiced here. Toys, flags, and bright fabrics had been set out to tempt a few rupees from the crowd.
We’d left our SUV down the road to avoid calling attention to ourselves. Even so, people gawked at us. Whenever we hesitated, they gathered around. We were the first foreigners they’d seen. The people of the local tribes here were dark-skinned, with features more African than what we usually think of as Indian. Historians tell us that these tribes migrated here from Africa five thousand years ago.
Working through waves of bright saris and bare-chested men in white dhotis and occasionally also some kind of shirt, everyone in sandals or barefoot, eventually we reached a massive wide-armed tree worshipped by the local population for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Large furled banners on long poles leaned against the dark trunk: white for purification, red for perfection, black for knowledge.
Bare-chested priests, dhotis tucked up to their waists, took up the banners and, as other men beat drums and played long, curved horns, marched through the growing crowds, pushing between vendor stalls, stepping around piles of produce and baskets of fruit. My friends and I struggled to stay within sight of each other as we followed, along with hundreds of others. People still crowded us so that often we could hardly move.
The men with the banners finally reached the ceremonial area, which was crowded with spectators. My friends and I found places at the front. As always, people stared at us with amazed smiles.
A boy about twelve or thirteen came up: “What you name? Where you from?” Then he pointed to a woman next to me: “Wife?”
“No,” I said. “Friend.”
Nodding, he reached behind him and pulled forward another boy.
“My friend,” he said.
Drums beat faster and louder. One of the almost naked priests ran up, thrusting his banner into a bamboo framework near us. Moaning, he flowed into the rhythm of the drums, head rocking back and forth, body swaying and bending as he slid into a self-induced trance. As the drums and horns grew more insistent, his eyes rolled, his mouth opened and closed, and his body began spasming and convulsing on the hard-packed dirt.
Beating himself with a flail, thrashing his bare back with the small black whips of the flail, he fell to his knees. In his frenzy, he seemed to be trying to rid himself of his physical body – or to drive evil spirits from it. Watching this thin brown-skinned man, I wondered how far self-exorcism and humiliation would take him.
Then two men in white dhotis tucked up around their loins stepped forward, took the flail from his hand, and – despite his struggling and writhing – led him away.
One by one, the ten priests who had carried the banners through the market reeled into the open area, thrust the banners into the bamboo structure, and hurled themselves into a series of trances that culminated in frantic flailing of their flesh. Groaning with religious fervor, they scourged themselves, almost naked bodies rolling in the dirt until they were dragged away.
The local people around us seemed almost as fascinated by my friends and me as were by the spectacle. Even those watching from a platform farther away stared over at us pale-skinned outlanders as often as they did toward the frenzied priests. It’s impressive that these beliefs and rituals came with these tribes to the Indian subcontinent from Africa thousands of years ago. Nevertheless, change is coming even to these remote tribes – as I saw when that boy spoke to me in his halting, limited, school-learned English.
Some of the young people we saw at the market even carried mobile phones and wore imitation jeans and tee shirts with fake American logos. They had never seen a European or American face to face, but they knew how we dressed and communicated. What will be next for them, I wondered. How will exposure to the rest of the world through technology, the media, and the constant shrinking of distance, affect them?
Meanwhile, they still battle evil spirits.