The Asurs’ remembrance of their ancestors: A ‘particularly vulnerable’ tribal group – Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh & West Bengal

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Chamru is an Asur, a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ that dominates Sakhuapani’s population of about 2,000 and lives in villages spread over a radius of 10 to 20 km. Besides Jharkhand, members of the tribe live in pockets of Bihar, West Bengal and a few other states. The 2011 Census put the number of Asurs at 22,459 in Jharkhand and 4,129 in Bihar.

The Asurs claim to be descendants of Mahishasur, the buffalo-demon whom Goddess Durga kills after a spirited fight lasting nine nights. It’s this mythology in mainstream Hinduism that’s celebrated in the form of the nine-day-long Durga Puja, but observed as ‘Mahishasur Dasain’ among the Asurs, who hold a period of mourning during which they largely stay indoors.

Chamru says that even when he was a child, though people had their beliefs and biases, nobody attacked them for it, they merely thought they were different. “Those were the days of zamindari. The zamindar of Bishunpur (now the local police station) would ask us to get wood and collect leaves for making pattals for the puja. We would go there, give the zamindar all this and also give him some of our tools. We would then return home before the celebrations began and offer prayers seeking protection from our own ancestors,” says Chamru.

Now as these cultures are seen as offending, Chamru says these are “just beliefs”. “I have heard we are descendants of Mahishasur. That’s all I can tell you. I can’t tell you how our descendants settled down in this part of the country and so on,” he says. […]

Asurs, she says, were once iron smelters, but now the village doesn’t have a smelting unit. Chamru says he used to make small weapons, “but I have forgotten all that now”. According to one of the theories, the Magadh Empire benefited a lot from the weapons the Asurs made. “Their iron does not catch rust. And we know there are many Ashokan-era edicts on iron that haven’t rusted,” says Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi.

Traditionally, Asurs don’t drink cow milk. “We want the calf to have all the milk and grow up strong so that it can be used in the fields,” says Anil Asur, Sushma’s brother. Villagers still don’t drink much milk or tea, happy instead to down a glass of rice beer. […]

Bargi belongs to a group of about 1,000 Asurs, who moved from Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh in the early 20th Century and work and live near the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri. “My father moved here in 1914 to work for a British tea planter. We have lived here ever since. It’s been more than a century now,” he says.

Jagannath Singh, 67, a social worker who used to work as a primary school teacher at the Carron tea estate school, says the story of the Asurs is like that of most other ‘particularly vulnerable tribal groups‘ of the country, but with a “cruel twist”. “Apart from abject poverty, they also have to deal with social stigma. The Asurs in Jalpaiguri were recognised as a Scheduled Tribe only in 2014, after years of struggle,” says Singh. […]

Source: “Meet the Asurs — a marginal tribe that describes Durga as a goddess who enticed Mahishasur” by Prashant Pandey & Premankur Biswas, Indian Express, December 8, 2016
Date Visited: 21 February 2021

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