Symbolic of a lineage from a faraway reality,
The names on the stone,
were once one of us,
Shared the same space,
where we lived,
Breathed the same air,
that we did.
When you visit Jharkhand, you are bound to come across clusters of large rocks arranged in indefinite patterns in the forests, the villages, and even alongside highways that connect its numerous districts. Almost all of Chotanagpur, for this matter, renders a similar sight.
Veiled in the wilderness of the plateau region of Chotanagpur are living symbols of immortal cultural reverence. The customary practice of Pathal Gadi has been a part of the Munda indigenous community for as long as our forefathers can recall.
Innate but not exclusive to the Munda tribe, this custom of erecting large stones to commemorate happenings of the community not only connects the generations that have passed and those who revere them, but also binds to this channel the generation that is yet to come.
The traditional belief system of the Mundas entails the worship of nature spirits or Bonga(s) (in Mundari). Needless to say, the ceremonial custom is carried out in the name of the main deity of the tribe- Singbonga (The Sun Spirit) and the ancestral spirits that are revered as guardian spirits. Though Pathal Gadi is organized to mark the various phases during the lifetime of an individual, its notions are numerous.
Laced with the memories of their elders, the stones erected during Pathal Gadi serve as memorial stones. Etched on these stones are ancestral names that trace the genealogy of the clans. Each clan designates an area to establish their ancestors (usually near their family grave). However, if the gravesite and the site of Pathal Gadi are different, the separated spirit is united with their ancestors through a ceremonial procession called Umbul Ader.
For this purpose, two unmarried women, clad in white bring the soil from the grave of the deceased in a chukka (small earthen pot) to the site where Pathal Gadi would ensue. This homecoming ceremony is headed by a Pahan (the community priest) carrying a lighted torch. The soil in the chukka symbolizes the spirit of the person and the moving flames of the torch indicates the movement of the spirit. Following this, the ceremony of Pathal Gadi begins.
What about the Christians in the tribe? How do they manage this whole custom of Pathal Gadi with the parallel yet coinciding custom of Christian gravestones?
To answer this one needs to understand and acknowledge the two different realms brought together by the people who profess them. The Mundas vowing to both these realms comprehend and express both the customs.
While the Christian burial and the practice of erecting gravestones is the domain of the church which commands the concept of heaven and hell, Pathal Gadi is officiated by the Pahan of the community who offers prayers to Singbonga to weave the belief that the spirit of the deceased unites with their ancestors.
Apart from the ceremonial notion of this practice, Pathal Gadi is also done to secure and mark the boundaries of tribal land.
The prevailing perils presented by the one-sided developmental projects have had staggering consequences on the structural relevance of the custom and the sovereignty of the tribal lands. Developmental and commercial projects require clearing the ancestral land which also means the inevitable riddance of the memories of their ancestors.
The Pathal Gadi Movement of 2016, which has had its fair share of glorification and demonization, saw the esteemed cultural slabs transition from symbols of lineage to symbols of resistance. With tussle tainting the Khunti district of Jharkhand, the movement peaked against the two ordinances that sought government acquisition of the tribal lands.
It is worth noting that the cultural custom of establishing memorial stones bears a remarkable similarity to the traits of the ancient megalithic cultures.
Contrary to what one may assume, it is proper to draw parallels between the two cultures owing to the understanding of the underlying concept of the relics of the two cultures.
The established megaliths are not only symbols of reverence or insignia of clan genealogy but also echo the pride of the Munda community.
About the author: Monica N. Lugun belongs to the Munda tribe of Jharkhand. She is a history graduate with a knack for storytelling and public speaking. At the moment she is collecting and retelling folklores on her podcast: My Dainty Memoir.