On my way to Kerpai village last time, I experienced something different. The schools were decorated with flowers and colourful papers. For a while, neither did I think much about it nor did any questions occur to me. After a long and tedious journey through a hilly terrain, we reached our clinic. Everyone there was wearing unusually vibrant clothes. It helped me recall that it was Ganesh Chaturthi here in this tribal village of Odisha. In Chennai (my hometown), we celebrate it a day earlier. Out of curiosity, a conversation happened.
Me: “Where are you all going?”
My colleagues from Kerpai: “To the Ganesh Pooja happening in the school”
Me: Shall I also come along?
Colleagues: Yes, please!
I quickly joined them and what awaited me at the school was astonishing. There were at least 100 children in a room wearing colourful dresses. The space was filled with flowers and rice on the floor. Each person was carrying a packet with two coconuts and an incense stick bundle. They wanted to offer it to the deity. To my surprise, some of them were also fasting. I assumed that people from tribal communities do not follow such traditions.
The moment a coconut broke open, they savoured its sweetness and tenderness. All this resembled a typical temple scene where devotees would take the prasadam (sacred food) after worshipping. At this moment, I wanted to ask a range of questions.
Why these nature worshippers from tribal communities, who had their own unique beliefs, were now worshipping a Hindu deity? Was it merely a cultural influence? And what about those two coconuts?
The coconut business must have had a good profit around this time of the year. It is evident that when there is a common belief, a market gets created around it. In this case, the business was of religion and faith.
I asked my colleagues all these questions in my head but they went unanswered. So, I went to the teachers and the head master of the school. They told me that they haven’t organized the celebration. Rather, the students themselves planned it and collected money for the event. This was intriguing.
Me: “How is it that these nature worshippers are now Lord Ganesha devotees?”
Head Master: “Give me a few minutes, we’ll have a detailed conversation.”
While observing the surroundings, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the children who were pushing each other. The older ones were hitting the younger ones and a small fight would erupt. It made me remember my own childhood for a moment. Soon after, the Head Master and I stepped out and he partially answered my questions. The conversation led us to talk about Cultural Hegemony.
It is a philosophical and social concept in which a dominant culture or social group influences the other social groups in a culturally diverse society. Though there are various factors, the ones influencing it the most are migration and education. Let’s look at them in more detail.
Migration and Outside Exposure
People from tribal villages of Odisha migrate in distress to meet their ends. It is not an out-of-choice migration like I have come here from Chennai. It is because here, they don’t have many opportunities and resources both in terms of their awareness and the availability.
The most common form of livelihood in this area is agriculture, predominantly slash and burn agriculture. It is the practice of clearing and burning areas of vegetation to replenish the soil and grow crops again. Most people cultivate in limited amounts on small patches of land, and the harvest is stored for self-consumption until the next cultivation cycle.
They trade any excess for other products. Yes, barter system is still followed here!
If anything is still left, they sell it in the market for small amount of money, more for the produce to not go waste rather than earning profits.
In that case, obviously, this meagre amount of money is not sufficient to meet other expenses such as healthcare, constructing a house, improving the yield, higher education and so on. The next available option then becomes to work in a job. Because of the limited opportunities at the local level, most of the men migrate to the southern states of India, mainly Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
When they go there, they get introduced to other religions, are influenced by it over a period of time, often start to believe in it, and practice it. This doesn’t end there. On returning, they wouldn’t just come with souvenirs but also with a different cultural understanding that they pass on to their families. What happens next? The family members either find this new culture fascinating and start following it, or they don’t. However, when they repeatedly hear about it from neighbours, relatives and acquaintances, they give in to follow it.
Education’s Influence On Cultural Values And Norms
While not as influential as migration, education still plays a role. One way it does so, is through holidays. Our education system gives holidays for only a few common festivals, not for tribal customs or as per the agricultural season. Even if one doesn’t know much about Holi, Diwali, Dussehra, Eid, Ram Navmi, Dola Purnima, Pahili Raja, and Christmas, because of the designated holidays, they are intrigued to ask questions and learn more. This is exactly how I learned about most of the festivals I celebrate today. The same is happening with the students here. This also leads to a broader understanding of different cultures and perspectives.
Another way in which education influences culture is through the curriculum. The educational content and syllabus talks about heritage, history, literature, and art. While I am not blaming it, I feel it’s important to point out the fact that education has the power to shift cultural values and norms by exposing young individuals to different ideologies and thought processes..
Of course, this does not mean that students will immediately adopt or change their value system. However, with exposure to something new, they will begin to blend different elements together, which can lead to a cultural shift over time.
Importance Of Retaining Their Tradition
Looking at history, one can clearly see that once a nation or a region following a particular culture is colonized and influenced by people and traditions from outside, this newly established environment tends to form its own culture. Thus, as time passes, the native population tends to forget its language, culture, beliefs, and festivals, which ultimately leads to loss of identity and heritage.
This amalgamation of culture and religion in this tribal village is unique, and I don’t know whether it is good or bad. But all I can pray for and hope is that they don’t lose their way of life, as has happened in the past.