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Arunachal to save animist sect

The largely animist state is fighting to preserve its identity from the rising influence of other religions.

india Updated: May 16, 2005 18:25 IST
Alpana Sarma (Reuters)
Alpana Sarma (Reuters)

Tamo Mindo, a slight man with creased eyes, stares intently at the liver of a chicken he has just killed.

Mindo, a 58-year-old shaman belonging to the animist Donyi Polo religion, is looking for clues to help him tell which spirit has possessed a woman he has been asked to cure.

Mindo is among the few people trying to preserve his religion from the increasing influence of Hinduism and Christianity in the remote northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Donyi Polo, one of a few surviving centuries-old animist religions in the hilly state home to about 20 major tribes, means sun and moon. The tribes believe the sun and moon are the eyes of god and nothing can ever be hidden from god.

While Arunachal Pradesh, or land of the rising sun, is still largely animist unlike India's other northeastern states which have become heavily Christianised, the number of Christian converts has increased over the years.

The number of Christians had increased to about 18 per cent of the sparsely populated state of a little over 1 million in 2001 from 10.3 per cent in 1991. Christians account for barely 2 per cent of India's total population of more than a billion.

"What is alarming is not how many Christians there are, but the pace at which conversions have taken place from the 1990s," said filmmaker Moji Riba, who has been documenting changes among tribes in Arunachal Pradesh.

In the mid-1980s, Arunachal, long isolated from the rest of India to protect the faith of tribes from Christian missionaries, saw a movement to convert Donyi Polo into an organised religion and make it more palatable to the masses.

In an effort to combat the threat from Christianity, temples were built, Saturday was set aside as a day for worship and ritual sacrifice was curbed.


Still, Christianity has become a sensitive issue in this hilly state today.

Tony Koyu, a 43-year-old radio artist who has been developing a script to preserve the oral traditions of tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, said "alien religions and alien cultures have very badly affected our traditional faith".

Some Hindu groups in India accuse Christian missionaries of using inducements such as schooling to lure poor people to the faith, and have also launched a movement to reconvert many tribal Christians back to Hinduism.

Several states have passed anti-conversion bills aimed primarily at preventing people from converting to Christianity. Arunachal passed such a bill in 1978.

Gujarat, which was torn by India's worst religious riots in India in a decade in 2002, passed an anti-conversion bill in 2003.

Rajasthan, which is ruled by the  Bharatiya Janata Party, also plans to introduce a similar bill.

The move has met with considerable opposition with the state where Christians form just about 0.1 per cent of the population.

"We would bring an anti-conversion bill aimed at containing 'forceful religious conversion' by any organisation in the state," said Rajasthan's social welfare minister, Madan Dilwar.

Last month the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, converted some 3,200 Muslims to Hinduism in a huge ceremony in Rajasthan.

"When we have religious freedom in the constitution, I don't think there is any necessity to bring this bill," Emmanuel Mission International Chairman M.N. Thomas told Reuters.


But Arunachal's animistic traditions are under threat not only from Christianity, but also Hinduism. Although the number of Hindus in the state dropped to 34.6 per cent in 2001 from 37.0 per cent a decade ago, Hinduism does pose a threat to the traditional practices and beliefs of the tribes.

"Hindu missionaries are going ahead with the reinvention of the traditional faith with temples being built, the tying of holy thread and even the ringing of bells," said filmmaker Riba.

As the two identities clash in this isolated state flanked by China, Bhutan and Myanmar, Mindo finds himself straddling the diverse worlds of animism and Hinduism.

Not only does he head an association of shamans, or nyibos, in the state capital, Itanagar, he is also a member of the  Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

But for Mindo, there is no conflict between the two offices he holds. He believes that Hinduism and Donyi Polo are closely aligned in their basic faith and practices.

And Mindo's house reflects the duality of his religious beliefs. He worships not only Yapom, the Donyi Polo god of the mountains, but also Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. Both jostle for space in his home and both are worshipped with equal devotion.

"People tell me to not join the Hindus. Even though they don't know what it's about, they say the VHP is bad," Mindo said. 

First Published: May 16, 2005 16:08 IST

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