In January of 2013, I took a Winter course called "Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion" taught by the Anthropology Department. This was a fun class and further developed my theological studies. The final assignment was a position paper that critically analyzes a preexisting anthropological description of religious practice and applies the hypotheses and definition from Steadman and Palmer, two well-known anthropologists.
Hinduism and the Indic people have always fascinated me (not having much contact with Eastern religions); therefore, I researched the various rites within India and I came upon the pig sacrificial rite practiced by the Gond people. The Gond or Gondi makes up the largest tribe in central India, and have spread over several states within the country making them the second-largest tribe overall. The Indic people practice a variety of rituals to honor the countless gods. One of these rituals is the La Ru Kaj or pig sacrifice. The pig sacrifice of the Gond people is practice honoring the god Narayan deo so that he removes sickness and misfortune from the family thereby securing their prosperity. From the outside, Narayan deo is seen as an inter-tribal deity, but from within the tribe, they refer to him as a sun god. This god is said to be the remover of sickness and the protector of the hearth (Bhagvat 30). This rite should be a proactive event, but often is said to happen because of sickness laid upon a family member. Depending on one’s wealth will affect how the ceremony is done and how often.
Normally the sacrifice should be conducted by the head of a family every nine to twelve years using a pig, but if a family is too poor they can use a cock or rooster instead that which should then be done every three to five years. This version of the ceremony is done with just the family members present. Like what is seen in the more elaborate ceremony; the cock is presented with food and, if taken, is shown to be acceptable to the god. If the cock does not willingly take to the food, then another one must be chosen. In his book, The Gond and Bhumia of Eastern Mandla, Stephen Fuchs states that once the cock takes to the food, its head is pushed into a hole in the floor just inside the threshold of the main entrance of the house which is then filled with mud to suffocate the animal. Once dead, the cock is taken out to the courtyard, its head cut-off, blood drained, and then cut up to be boiled for a meal to be eaten by the family with a dish of rice (427).
For those who can afford it, a pig is sacrificed. The pig sacrifice or, la ru kaj (the pig’s wedding), is much more elaborate and covers a longer period. A young male pig, usually around a month old, is chosen from either the herd or a captured wildling. A sanghi, or partner, is chosen to be dedicated to Suraj Narayan, the brother of Narayan deo, and can be another young pig or a white cock. There is a dedication ceremony that involves feeding the pig before any human and then cutting pieces from the tail as well as castrating the pigs which pieces are buried near the threshold (Fuchs 430). The actual sacrifice may not take place for some time after the dedication, often a year after. During this time the pig is kept somewhat isolated and is under the care of the mistress of the family (Fuchs 431). If all males in the family are dead, then the sacrifice is omitted as only men can perform the actual sacrifice.
The sacrifice can be done any time within a year of the dedication, but is preferred after the harvest is finished when food is plentiful. Many are invited to attend such family, tribesman, members of the same caste, and the village shaman or priest, but this does vary depending on one’s wealth and resources. Once all the guests have gathered on the first day, the ceremonies start with the sacrifice of the sanghi to Suraj Narayan, which is decapitated and taken before a gum tree to be burnt (Fuchs 432). Through this ceremony and others that follow chants, singing, and incantations are used to ask the gods to accept their offerings. The body is then cut up and boiled to be eaten with rice.
Once the sanghi is sacrificed, the la ru is chased until caught and then fed. Once fed, it is taken to the threshold of the house and suffocated by various methods (Fuchs 433). At the time of death, there is a master of ceremonies, or bhandari, which invokes the acceptance of the appropriate gods. The bhandari is usually the village priest or, in his absence, a prominent man from the area. Usually, the father-in-law of the head of the family acts as the bhandari’s assistant or sonwani (Fuchs 435).
After the pig is dead they singe the hair and skin then take it to a prepared pit called the narda where it is cleaned. It is taken to the house where it is decapitated, gutted, cut-up, and ceremonially cleaned. Any dirt stained with blood is thrown into the narda (Fuchs 437). A place is made with a chauk (looks like an ‘X’) of uncooked rice where the pig’s head is placed. Above the head, a phulera, made of reeds and cotton, hangs. Upon it sit five flat cakes wrapped in leaves. The phulera is the seat of the god to come and accept the offerings and sacrifice. For this reason, once hung, nobody is to touch the phulera because it is so sacred (Fuchs 438). The bhandari is bathed at the narda then led over a carpet of leaves to the house where his feet are washed and anointed. A boy is chosen to go with the bhandari and whose foot is treated in the same manner, and whose duty it is to guard the phulera. Later this boy takes on a role as a part of what would call the deception stage of the sacrifice (Fuchs 440). After some singing, the bhandari and all the male relatives offer rice and pieces of the pig’s liver by sprinkling it upon the chauk. The other guests offer up copper coins which will go to the bhandari (Fuchs 443).
A large meal is made composed of rice and the butchered pig. All attendees are to eat it undercover and all portions of the la ru is to be eaten. After the meal is finished, liquor is served, and they celebrate throughout the night (Fuchs 444). On the 2nd day, there are no ceremonies, but they do partake of further food. When done eating all participants wash over the pit. The third day starts the finale of the sacrifice and is what I would call the deceptive stage.
In a strange fashion, the boy guardian’s foot is caused to touch the pig’s head lying upon the chauk. The boy is then taken from the house, the pig’s head is taken apart, and contents poured into a pot along with the chauk (Fuchs 446). The meal served is called the memorial meal which only men can eat. Portions of the la ru were saved to be given to the bhandari who is waiting with strips of the pig’s skin. The bhandari chases and beats the boy guardian with the strips. According to Fuchs, this act is to symbolize the boy being the scapegoat and being blamed for the death of the pig and hide the true identity of the slayer from the gods. Further deception is made by the guests who rush out of one entrance and reenter in another (447). Ending the festivities comes when the bhandari takes down the phulera, gathers the la ru’s skull bones, and throws them all into the narda. The pit is then quickly filled with mud and the ground leveled off. The bhandari then engages the mistress in a ceremony of alms (Fuchs 448); the value of the gift varies with the wealth of the family.
Stephen Fuchs produced his findings primarily from interviews with a few locals and never actually saw the ceremony occur. This may be due to the fact that this practice isn’t as popular as it once was. Fuchs asserts that many don’t practice as they are afraid of making a mistake during the practice and angering the gods (428). The recall of events that occur comes to us emic viewpoint, but the few points of analysis come from his opinion and thus we see an etic point of view. While he doesn’t directly state, one can see that this has group benefits as the family is affected not just by their hopes of prosperity granted by the gods, but also the display of generosity and status among the village. Stephen Fuchs approaches this sacrificial rite from the psychological approach. This is supported as he states the following “It is not celebrated primarily to effect a cure from sickness, but to secure the prosperity of the family through the intervention of Narayan deo” (427). The people try to quiet their fears of human weakness such as disease or misfortunes that may be out of their control.
This sacrificial practice does support the definition of religion by Steadman and Palmer as we cannot verify the supernatural claims that sacrificing this pig will oblige Narayan deo to remove sickness and ensure the prosperity of the family. Other such unverifiable claims can be seen with the phulera which is to act as the seat of the god or that the gods will be deceived by the hazing of the boy guardian.
One can see, however, the functionality of such a sacrifice. Such an act shows that the family, or at least the head of the family, is willing to sacrifice an animal that would normally be used to procreate and for later harvesting at a more convenient time. The ceremony is elaborate, costly, and the guests may include not just local villagers and thus we see a fostering of social relationships. There is also some sacrifice on the part of the guests attending as during a part of the ceremony the male guests offer up coins which will later be given to the bhandari. Such an act shows their willingness to sacrifice their own finances for the benefit of another’s family and prosperity. This acceptance of voluntary suffering will influence not just the descendants of the family to continue this sacrifice, but also, we would see the influence of caste-fellows and villagers since one has shown he is willing to suffer for others that they should reciprocate (Steadman and Palmer 154).
Approaching this from the interpretation of Steadman and Palmer, I would say that it furthers Fuchs’ viewpoint of this ceremony. Fuchs demonstrates the group and individual benefit while Steadman and Palmer do the same thing, but shows a stronger conclusion of the results of the behavior.
The ritual is complicated and lengthy, but Stephen Fuchs doesn’t seem to make many direct statements as to the benefits or school of thought one may approach this with, but from reading one can draw some intelligent conclusions as to who prospers and how this ritual developed. This combined with the viewpoints of Steadman and Palmer on voluntary sacrifice will lead the reader to a stronger conclusion to such religious behavior.
1. Fuchs, Stephen. The Gond and Bhumia of eastern Mandla. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1960. 427-449.
2. Bhagvat, Durga. “Tribal Gods and Festivals in Central India.” Asian Folklore Studies 27 (1968): 30
3. Steadman, Lyle B. and Palmer, Craig T. The Supernatural and Natulra Selection: The Evolution of Religion. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008. 154.