Mundas: A product of Parashurama’s fury – III
by Jayasree Saranathan on 12 Apr 2014 2 Comments

Santals are a Mundari speaking group. They along with Mundas, Oraons and Hos form almost four-fifth of the total population of Mundari speakers. {1} The festivals and cultural traditions are almost similar among all these groups. However, the Santals follow a custom of their own, not found in others, which reminds us of a connection with Parashurama.


This custom pertains to a pilgrimage that Santals make to a place called “Rajrappa”, located at the confluence of rivers Damodar and Bhairavi {2}. Like Hindus who immerse the ashes of deceased ancestors in the Ganges in sacred spots like Kasi, Santals immerse the ashes of ancestors in the Damodar river near Rajrappa. They believe that this was their final resting place. They make annual visits to this place in December every year. Though the Ganges and its tributaries are flowing near the habitats of these tribes, they choose to do the ceremony at river Damodar. This shows their previous roots in this part of Jharkhand with a tradition of doing pitru ceremonies in Damodar river. The surprising feature found in this place is a temple for Goddess Chhinnamasta, “she whose head is severed”. {3}.


This Goddess with a severed head is standing on the body of Kama deva and Rati on a lotus bed. This reflects the life of Renuka, the mother of Parashurama. Renuka’s head was cut off by Parashurama under the order of his father. The reason for that was that she was distracted by the love-play of a couple in the water place where she had gone to fetch water. That is depicted by the body of Kama deva and Rati on a lotus bed. The Goddess standing on them with her head severed is depictive of what happened to Renuka on being distracted by the couples in love-play.  


This temple is a Shakti Peeth and this deity is regarded as a form of Shakti. But the iconography shows that she is Renuka Devi. Though the Shakti Sthals are related to the mythical story of Sati, the depiction of this deity resembling Renuka shows her as someone who lived and remained in memory and was identified as Shakti. Usually Renuka Devi is depicted only with the head. The place called Mahur in Maharashtra is supposed to be where her head had fallen. Only the head of Renuka Devi is the object of worship here {4}.


The head-alone image of the Devi is seen with various names throughout Peninsular India but less to the north of Vindhyas. Yellamma, Mari amma and the whole range of amman images found in Tamil Nadu have only the head as the main deity. Compared to this, the image of Chhinnamasta seems to be the oldest one before Renuka worship was formed as a cult.  Chhinnamasta depicts a scene of losing her head, even though it is shown as a self-inflicted one.


The presence of Chhinnamasta in the vicinity of a sacred place of Santals shows that Renuka worshipers or Parashurama-followers had a presence there. Something forced the Santals to leave this place and migrate to Chota Nagpur regions. Generally there were two causes for migration of people anywhere in ancient India in the past – one due to famine and another due to invasion by an unfriendly king. Rajrappa is on the banks of Damodar river and therefore there is no scope to believe that the Santals migrated in search of food. The only other cause seems to be some mortal threat – which seems to have come from Parashurama, as Santals were of kshatriya kind.


The Santals claim themselves to be kshatriyas and are known to be doing martial dances even now. They go for hunting which they celebrate as a festival by name “Disum Sendra” – a name that sounds like Tamil “Disai sendra” – which has an equivalent in Sanskrit “dik vijaya”. Parashurama’s agenda against warriors must have driven them out of the Damodar valley. But they came back to keep up with their tradition once the situation improved. By then Chhinnamasta worship had come to stay in the place which Parashurama had ‘cleansed’ of Kshatriyas.


This offers a logical explanation for why the Santals who make pilgrimage to this place for ancestral worship, are not known to have worshipped this Devi. A supportive proof comes from the company they keep in their new settlement. The Santals had joined Savaras who escaped from Parashurama. They had also joined Mundas whose first generation ancestors were known to have escaped from an enemy. All of them are known to have lived away from others in these settlements for ages. 


Parashurama and Renuka cult


Parashurama is considered as an avatar perhaps due to the reason that he virtually changed the demographic map of India and ushered in a new cult. The Renuka cult with the head-alone feature, wherever it is seen, is perhaps proof of the spread of Parashurama’s followers. The names vary, but the deity in worship is seen only with the head.


It is no coincidence that the tantric worship of Shakti has been attributed to Parashurama. Parashurama Kalpasutra, originally given by Parashurama, might have been the result of resurrecting the image of his mother and helping people to draw benefits by worshiping her in different forms and in different ways.  Even the nine day festival of Navaratri or Dussehra could have had its origins in Renuka cult from the times of Parashurama. The Shakti Puja and Navaratri puja come along with worship of the head of the Goddess mounted on a sacred pot.


This festival seems to have a basis in the Soma sacrifices done for nine nights in the Vedic culture. It is stated in the 4th anuvaka of the 2nd prashna of 7th kanda of the Taittriya samhita that Prajapati created the 9-night Soma sacrifices for the sake of progeny and to relieve people from illnesses {5}. The nine nights are divided into 3 parts of 3 nights each dedicated to terrestrial, atmospheric and celestial derivations (Bhu- Bhuvah- Sva as Jyotis, Go and Ayus). The end result was to attain freedom from sickness and attain immortality.


Usually there are two navaratrisvasantha and sharad navaratri. The Sharad navaratri coming in Kanya month is dedicated to Devi worship, since it is the time of Dakshinayana. The Sharad navaratri homa seems to have given way for Shakti worship, with leanings on Renuka cult. The various forms of Shakti or Renuka Devi were worshiped throughout India cutting across rural, tribal or urban differences mostly in times of epidemics, diseases like chicken pox, drought conditions and hardships.


Pre-Renuka culture of Mundas


Absence of Renuka-cult worship of head-alone is a striking feature among Mundas. Their cultural practices and specific festivals that seem to be indigenous and age-old resemble a cultural set-up of Renuka’s times or before. For example the regular feature in Renuka’s life was to go to the river (water source) everyday, make a pot freshly and carry water back home. It is difficult to believe that a freshly made pot gets dried so soon that it can carry water. Leaving aside the mythical part, it can be interpreted that Renuka was skilful in making mud pots from river sand. Her very name Renuka signifies that she is known for something to do with fine particles of sand. Perhaps this name was related to her skill in making pots from river sand.


On a particular day she did not return home in time. And when she returned she did not bring water too. That infuriated her husband, Jamadagni who had actually suspected her fidelity. He did not hesitate for a moment to deliver the punishment. In a surprising parallel we find similar ideas among Mundas.


The pond (in the absence of a river near the Mundari settlements) plays an integral part in the life of the Munda people. It is called Pukur – a word which is similar to “Pukar” in Tamil which refers to the estuary of a river. Pumpukar in Tamil Nadu is also known as Pukar. Pukur is considered sacred for the Mundas. For every celebration, the water from this sacred pond is collected in ceremonial ways.


During all these occasions, the Mundas have traditional songs to be sung. One of the themes of these songs is surprisingly similar to what Jamadagni could have thought!! It says, ‘many wives have gone to bring drinking water, but they have not come back quickly; the morning, the afternoon and the evening came but they have not returned. So the husbands ask very anxiously to the people ‘have you seen my wife’?”


This is reflective of a mindset of a community having insecure feelings about the wife. The only occasion she goes out without the company of the male folk is when she goes to the water source to fetch water for household purposes. The suspicion on her fidelity is manifest at one of the ceremonies at the time of marriage in the Munda community. This is called “cutting the water” in which the sisters of the bride and brothers of the groom go to Pukur, cut the water with a sickle and collect the water (as though water is cut and collected). This water is used to bath the bride and the groom, after which they enter into a blood bonding ceremony of taking blood from the little finger. This blood is collected in a mango leaf and at the end of the marriage ceremony thrown into Pukur. For them this water (pukur) is the witness to the bonding of the couple and also the fidelity of the bride.


The Munda practice of ‘cutting the water’ at marriage and ceremonial songs exhibiting worries over the wife not returning from the water source recall the times of Renuka. The water-cutting ceremony reflects a very ancient practice that “symbolises the right of the injured husband to kill the unfaithful wife or her paramour. {5} These traits in the practice of the Mundas are same as how they existed in Renuka’s times. This could have existed in any community where women had to go out alone to fetch water. Jamadagni’s anger was reflective of the reaction of a male in such a setup. But Renuka’s episode could have helped in churning the conscience of the people of that time. However such suspicions would continue to persist as it is to do with human nature but not necessarily or not only with water-related practice as Mundas do. Mundas seem to have frozen in time with the ideas of the period of Jamadagni. It seems they were cut off in Time once they had entered into seclusion.


Next to Karam Puja, the most important puja of the Mundas is Monsa Puja. The deity for this puja is just a pot filled with water and is comparable to kalash puja during Navaratri. The kalash puja done on any occasion of Devi puja has the head of the Devi kept on the mouth of the water-pot. This feature is absent in the Monsa Puja of Mundas. They seem to be continuing with an age old custom of worshiping the water-pot alone. After Renuka-episode, the head has been added in the puja of the water pot which continues till today.


The head-alone worship of the Goddess in the water-pot is found in household worship and it is found in almost all amman temples of Tamil Nadu. Whatever is the description or posture of the Goddess in the temple, the main deity is a head-alone female. This is the result of tantric mode of worship that had come up with or after Parashurama and after the episode involving Renuka. Looking for places where head-alone feature is seen, they are present in places outside India, as we shall see in the next part.


To be continued ...




{1} “History, Religion and Culture of India” Vol 4, edited by Gajram




{5} Ponette (1978:132) “Social water management among Munda people in the Sundarban” Vol 3

The author is an independent scholar; she blogs at Non-Random Thoughts

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top