River, rituals and communities

Understanding indigenous worldview through the ritualistic performance of the Kopili river in Assam

Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.
Teaser Image Caption
Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.

Deification of river Kopili in Assam is one example of how reverence for nature is actuated by deification of elements by indigenous communities, which happens through a process of narrativisation in forms of myths, legends and rituals, and perpetuated in the society. Every year, ritualistic performance is carried out in honour of the Kopili river.  Though river worship is not unknown across cultures, worshipping of the Kopili finds significance in the fact that it is carried out by three different indigenous groups professing different culture and faith, speaking different languages. There are, however, formal variances in the rituals performed in these three different groups. This article wants to contribute towards understanding the implications of such perspectives in the contemporary extractive economic regime and territorialised identity politics in the Northeast region of India.

River worship is a phenomenon witnessed across cultures around the world, particularly among the indigenous communities. It is also witnessed among the practitioners of major religions. For example, in Hinduism one notices deification of rivers like the Ganges, Saraswati and Brahmaputra, which are conceived in anthropomorphic forms, and are part of the Hindu pantheon. All the major sects of Hinduism attach sacredness to these rivers. In that sense, animism forms the core of every religions as rightly claimed by E B Taylor. However, attribution of sacredness to such natural bodies like river, rocks and hills in major religions are not as similar to that of nature worshipping among the indigenous peoples. In organised religions, particularly the Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic religious tradition, human is placed in a unique position in relation to other living creatures and unanimated entities. This superiority of human over other beings is based on consciousness and rationality. The advent of evolution theory further strengthened this idea, which was applied in the structure and functioning of brains leading to its hierarchical classification of neo-cortical, cortical, reptilian and limbic. George E Tinker, an American Indian scholar aptly opines how understanding of consciousness is segmented and inadequate despite advances in modern science. This problem is rooted in the western-modern rationalist tradition of anthropocentric ideas of the world.

On the other hand, the indigenous worldview is contrary to the western-scientific tradition. The indigenous worldview emphasises relatedness of the world in equal terms between all beings – both animate and inanimate. In this sense, living beings are not separate from nature, but parts of the complete whole.  There is a sense of mutuality and interdependence in this. If language is a medium of cognitive construction of the world, it is a key to understanding such mutuality and relatedness. For instance, in Dimasa language, forest/ jungle is known as hagra, meaning ‘land that’s elderly’ (ha = land; gra = old/ elder/ aged). Thus forest/ jungle is not a wild space, but home to disparate members of floral and faunal families and a resourceful provider as the community of elders in knowledge and wisdom. Their symbiotic relationship with and knowledge on forest is manifested in its classification depending on its nature, i.e. hagrama, hagra, hagrasa and so on. For all the provisions accrued from the forest is returned in reverence.

The bio-cultural ethics of resource extraction of indigenous societies are the product of this reverence. One not only restricts over extraction, but also protect and nurture as is visible in case of sacred grooves across the indigenous societies. The Khasi-Jaintia sacred grooves is well known and there are several seminal works on it. It has remained a major point of tourist attraction for years in the state of Meghalaya. The Dimasa traditional religion and its institutionalisation through the system of daikhois also based on idea of sacred forest. Shrines of each daikho are located at areas rich in bio-diversity and extractive activities in such areas are restricted. Such perspectives towards forest and other natural beings brings forth the sense of mutuality that is missing in the western rationality that visualises the world in binary lens of human and animal, man and nature, and living and non-living. Whereas in non-western societies, one can go on adding in the list of revered beings from hills, forests, rocks, rivers, streams, falls to individual plant and animal species. This idea of reverence for nature is actuated by deification of elements, which happens through a process narrativisation in forms of myths, legends and rituals, and perpetuated in the society.

Deification of the Kopili river in Assam is one such example. Every year, ritualistic performance is carried out in its honour. As stated above, though river worship is not unknown across cultures, worshipping of the Kopili finds significance in the fact that it is carried out by three different indigenous groups professing different culture and faith, speaking different languages. There is, however, formal variances in the rituals performed in these three different groups, though it is outside the scope of this discussion, which will be directed mainly towards understanding the implications of such perspectives in the contemporary extractive economic regime and territorialised identity politics in the region.

The Kopili originates at the border of Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya flowing into Assam where it courses down through the districts of Dima Hasao, Karbi Anglong (West) in the hills section. In the plains it runs through Hojai, Nagaon and Morigaon districts before draining into the Brahmaputra. With a travelling distance of 290 km, it is the largest tributary of the Brahmaputra in the southern bank. In the hill districts, three major indigenous communities of Jaintia, Karbi and Dimasa inhabit the bank of the Kopili.

All these three communities worship the Kopili. According to Jaintia tradition, their ancestors crossed this river on their way to present habitat in the hills. They consider the river as mother Goddess and every year sacrificial rituals are performed for its propitiation. They do not dare to cross the river without performing certain sacrifices to the Goddess and strongly believe that any violation would incur curse from the Goddess. Similarly, the river is seen to be propitiated among the Dimasas and Karbis. The major difference in the ritualistic form of the Karbi-Dimasa to that of Jaintia is that in the former sacrificial ritual is not communal, but individual or familial. This does not mean that members in the community do not take part in ritual, and propitiation is carried out for wellbeing of particular individual or a family. Such propitiation takes place at two levels, i. voluntary and ii. curative. In the former any individual or head of a family may personally commit to carry out propitiation ritual at the end of the season for personal or familial wellbeing in the form of good harvest, general health and job or educational prospects. On the other hand, divination is involved in the curative form. For instance, divination for curing illness of a member in a family, caused by the wrath of the river deity for some ill action on behalf of the victim.

Such beliefs as illness caused by the wrath of a river and propitiations through sacrificial performance for pleasing/ appeasing it, seem superstitious in Western rationalist epistemology which is premised on empirical evidence and scientific validation of the same. But it is seldom realised that traditional knowledge is derived from observations that involves variables of time and matters often more than the modern science. Modern science laboratory represents the Western reductionism the best in this context – the natural space reduced to a smaller and controlled space.

However, the common sense knowledge holds rivers as the life line of societies, civilisations, other floral and faunal species, and what is broadly termed natural ecosystem. River carries nutrients with silts and nourishes vegetations of its valleys – domesticated or wild. With their intimate knowledge over local ecosystems, human societies have tapped river waters and build social institutions. The Ahom system of hydraulic management, traditional dong irrigation system among the Dimasa and Bodos are a few examples of many from this region. Such local interventions are totally different from the modern mega structures that disturbs the natural flow of the river and inundates large areas destroying biomes with unfathomable ecological reactions. Traditionally, still at the end of the harvests, rituals as promised is performed in return of the generosity showed by the river. Material replenishments by the river, thus also serves as occasion of reaffirming community bonding with the ceremonial feasts that follows the rituals.

The Karbi-Dimasa ritual provide some interesting pointers. Among the Dimasas, language used in chanting of hymns during propitiation is optional. The hymns are chanted either in Dimasa language with last few chants in Karbi language or completely in Karbi language depending on the language skill of the priest concerned. The reason for this being that the ritual for the Kopili river God was borrowed from the Karbis. There are also instances of priests from one community performing the ritual in the other. It may be noted here that the Kopili as a river God does not form a part of Dimasa pantheon in general. It is propitiated only by the section of Dimasas inhabiting the river valley.

Another point of interest is the river name itself that unfolds a history of ethnic relationship. The present river name Kopili derives from the Jaintia term of Ka Kupli who is worshipped as the mother goddess. Kopili is the commonly known name across the state. This river, however, has a different name among the Karbi-Dimasa community as Langklang. Lang is a Karbi word for water. The Dimasa word for water is di, which is prefixed in most of the river names in Assam, i.e. Dihing, Dibang, Dikhou and Dibru. This indicate that Dimasas inhabited these river banks once upon a time. Similarly, the river name Langklang, as prefixed by lang indicates that Karbis must have inhabited the valley before the Dimasas. But the Karbis nowadays are seen to be widely using the name Kopili, as mentioned above, which is a corruption of Kupli. On the other hand, Langklang which is a Karbi name, is generally used by the Dimasas.

The above discussion brings forth certain elements for understanding the past with contemporary implications. The indigenous communities are mostly pre-literate and therefore oral in social transactions. Social memories of these oral communities are, therefore, mainly a ritualised memory. The changing nomenclature of the river and prevalence of the ritual practices amongst the three communities, though different in forms, thus provide us with keys to understanding peopling of the region and subsequent cultural interactions. The Karbis might have come under the political influence of the Jaintias and thereby adopting the Jaintia name of the river by giving up their own. Alternatively, the Jaintia name might have been adopted by the Ahoms, which later percolated to the Karbis. In any case, the Dimasas continued with the Karbi name. Similarly, worshipping of the river by the three different communities indicate cultural fluidity of the time. This fluidity changed with the colonialism. The colonial governmentality solidified the fluid ethnic boundary. In the post-colonial times the ethnic identities increasingly sharpened leading to the violent clashes in some cases. In October, 2005, two buses were burnt down and 38 passengers belonging to the Karbi community were hacked allegedly by a group of Dimasa militants. Sadly,it happened over a competing/ contested claim on territory at the bank of this same river.

The reverential submission of these three riparian indigenous communities to the river and its nomenclature laced with the history of migration, settlement and cultural exchange also directs one towards alternatives from the existing and dominant political discourse of territorialised identity and resource extractive regime. In lieu of the existing propensity for ethnicisation of spaces, ecological zoning of spaces would accrue larger benefit in multiple ways. The existing riparian cultural fluidity among these three ethnic communities is conditioned by ecology. This fluidity may be extended towards creating of an economy of sustainable niche market of local natural product. There is an immense scope of extending such local ecologically niche natural markets over this entire north eastern region.

The ritual performance of the river Kopili stands for the reverence for natural entities in the indigenous worldview. Such reverence emanates from the idea of inter-relatedness of beings with a sense of mutuality. This is on the contrary to anthropocentric perspectives of the western-scientific epistemology that places human kind above all beings, including nature, and paying the price for the same. The developmental paradigm rooted in this anthropocentricism, however, is routing the local ecological knowledges along with its concomitant ritualistic memories. Rapid urbanisation and modern education system are the vanguard of this epistemicide of traditional knowledge, which is dismissed as irrational and superstitious. The universalisation of western rational science has either marginalised or routed other forms of knowledge. The dominance of western scientific tradition over the forms of traditional knowledge comes from its self-proclaimed superiority based on its centuries of political and economic dominance. Thus, practice of science is not value neutral as the science itself.

Ills brought about by the river, believed by the three indigenes as discussed in this article, are manifestation of disturbed nature’s fury. Increase in transmission of zoonotic vectors in recent times only reaffirm that humankind has trespassed and violated forbidden hinterland of nature, the habitat of spirits as the indigenous communities believe.  Decolonisation of western epistemology is the only course reversal in this regard.


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This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.