Asia’s biggest biennial tribal fair – the Medaram Jathara in Telangana – that begins on Wednesday and concludes on February 4, has brought under the spotlight the grim battle of tribals for assertion of their unique cultural identity. The Medaram Jathara, also known as Sarakka-Saralamma Jathara held in the Jayashankar Bhupalapalli district is poised to showcase, the rare lifestyles, religious practices and cultural ethos of Koyas with Dhimsa dance and kolatam.
Around 1 crore people are expected to descend over this sleepy forest area during the festival. The Medaram Jathara will be graced by Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and Governor ESL Narasimhan.
‘Govt promoting party culture’
However, Adivasis, who have been celebrating the festival since time immemorial in the dense forests, are not ready to welcome the Telangana government’s move to develop Medaram into a tourist spot. The move by the ruling BJP at the Centre and the TRS at the state to declare the ritual a national festival has evoked a lukewarm response from Adivasis. The K Chandrasekhar Rao government’s grand development plans to lay roads, improve road connectivity by building bridges across the streams, cottages and hotels fuelled fears among tribal groups over an impending threat to their cultural identity from an onslaught of the so-called modern world.
But with thousands descending for the festival, there is a threat to the forest cover. Preparations have witnessed huge trees being felled in the name of arrangements, bamboo shoots being chopped off to pitch tents by vendors and pilgrims. This apart, concrete structures dot the area in the name of development.
Moreover, the arrival of a large number of non-tribals for the participation in the festival hardly brings cheer to the tribal groups. According to a local journalist, non-tribals represent 80% of the congregation, with the event gaining popularity in the 1990s.
The constitution of the Medaram temple trust board with members from Lambada-Banjara sub-tribe has also hurt the sentiments of Koyas since the jaatha is considered to be part of the Koyas’ religious practices. Koyas make up the largest sub-group of 750-odd forest-dwelling ethnic groups listed as Scheduled Tribes. Those belonging to the Gondwana Koya tribe, which are widely present in the forest tracts of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand converge at Medaram to take part in the rituals performed in honour of deities Sarakka and Saralamma. The tribal lore goes, “Sarakka and her daughter Saralamma fought the Kakatiya kings against the heavy land taxes levied on the forest communities and laid down their lives. Their sacrifice is believed to have made them the deities for Adivasis.”
The story is glorified by some sections as a strong case pointing to the independent way of life of tribals without submitting to the kings of the plains. Historian D Satyanarayana from Hyderabad, however, contradicted this belief, saying there is no historical evidence to substantiate this view.
“For non-tribal people, our jathara means just eating, drinking and gambling. The government’s tourism plans will only promote this alien ‘party-culture’ at the expense of our religious practices,” fears Komaram Prasad, secretary of the Telangana unit of Adivasi Hakkula Porata Samithi-Thudum Debba. He also expresses anguish over the government’s plans to view the religious practices of tribals as a source of revenue.
Cultural practices shouldn’t be used for political mobilisation
Bathukamma, a Hindu festival celebrated by women from the plains had its identity as a religious symbol of Telangana reinforced by the separate statehood movement. It became a powerful medium of social mobilization during the movement spearheaded by the TRS.
It is interesting to note that the Medaram Jathara is celebrated in a striking departure from the Brahminical set of practices. Jathara is celebrated by tribal priests by carrying the casket of the deities from their native village of Kannepalli to their makeshift abode built for the Jathara in Medaram, 4 kilometres away. The priests tend to follow the custom of walking through the Jampannavagu with the casket, avoiding a couple of bridges built across it.
According to Kudimitha Chukkayya, a retired professor from Sri Kakatiya University in Warangal and a Koya tribal himself, the rituals at Medaram are strikingly different from those practiced by the mainstream Hindus. Generally, Hindu festivals tend to be vegetarian feasts where as those of tribals will be accompanied by animal sacrifices and non-vegetarian community lunches. “We have our own village deity, our own festivals and village elder with a set of social norms to govern ourselves. They all should be retained as part of protecting our identity,” he stated.
As per the rituals, the deities will be installed at an altar under a huge fig tree which perished over a period of time. Sammakka and Saralamma were believed to have gone up the Chilkalagutta hillocks. The priests conduct rituals there and bring a red saree, symbolising the deities during the jathara.
Sadly, the once-lush green hillocks are now stripped off green cover. “The tribals prefer to celebrate the jathara in a natural setting with a make-shift temple, tents and dried grass for them to lie on under the sun. We need to protect such practices without any extraneous interference,” says Gollapudi Srinivasa Rao, a senior reporter with The Hindu who has been reporting the event for over a decade. He asserted that the cultural practices of tribals should not be used as a medium for political mobilization by any party.
Pictures by special arrangement