Parth Varshney, a 27-year-old graphic designer who lives in Mumbai, first encountered the Bison-Horn Maria tribe in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh when he was eight. It’s been decades since, but he remembers those days well.
“My father was a government officer who was posted in that region,” he told VICE. “It seemed like I’d stepped into a different world altogether. Bare-breasted women and men would sexually tease each other while performing their ritual dance, and there were no inhibitions whatsoever. No one was conscious about anything, and there was no question of anyone taking offence.”
The Bison-Horn Maria have long occupied the lowlands of southern Chhattisgarh, where they have easy access to local trade routes and livestock. They are part of the Gond tribal group spread across multiple states of central and south-central India.
The name of the tribe is derived from a distinctive headgear known as the “tallagulla,” which originally would be adorned with the Indian bison’s horns and peacock feathers. Considering the vulnerable status of the bison today, the tribe has now resorted to alternatives such as the horns of wild buffalo, the long beaks of hornbills, and occasionally, antlers of spotted deer.
“All Gonds share the belief that they are children of earth,” said Roohani Sawhney, a Ladakh-based researcher of traditional practices of various tribes across India. “And it dictates everything they do, from marriages to other social customs.”
As part of her broader research project on understanding and preserving the traditional practices of tribal groups, Sawhney visited large tracts of the central Indian district of Bastar to document the social fabric of the Bison-Horn Maria three years ago. She interacted with the tribe for almost a month.
While with them she noticed that the conservative perception that “civilised” urban travellers have of all things sex-related had started to affect members of the Bison-Horn Maria, too.
“We have spoiled it for them,” she told VICE. “If we, as outsiders, would ask them about their progressive customs related to everything from premarital sex to infidelity, and the freedom that they have in peacefully leaving their spouses if they love someone else, they’d initially deny everything for the fear of getting judged by our rigid, polite-society ideas of love and sex.”
A British civil servant, WV Grigson, wrote a book on the tribe that came out back in 1938. Anthropologists consider The Maria Gonds of Bastar as one of the most authoritative works on the tribe, and it’s often taught in universities across the country. In one of the book’s most interesting sections, members of the tribe use the analogy of liberated bullocks, which won’t be confined by the yoke, to drive home the importance of women wanting to be bare-breasted.
According to Grigson, the Bison-Horn Maria also do not place “any value on premarital chastity.” Moreover, premarital sex is considered even “necessary to determine compatibility before marriage.” Their flexible conventions related to marriage, procreation, and sex only reflect the same. Sawhney said these ideas hold true to this day.
In his book, Grigson cited the example of a marriage he witnessed, where the bride and groom both fell in love with other people during the course of their betrothal ceremonies that went on for weeks. He detailed how they ended up having sex with their respective lovers to assess their compatibility and, once satisfied with the results, had their marriage annulled. It is quite telling that India decriminalised the colonial-era law of adultery only three years ago, holding the disproportionately sexist provisions of the law to be “arbitrary and conspicuously absurd.”
Even widow remarriage, which was legalised in India in 1856, has been practised by the Marias for as long as they can remember.
“In societies where the woman is considered a property, widow remarriage will always be shunned, but we Marias never see our women that way,” Renu, a 38-year-old farmer from the tribe, told VICE. “In some families, the mother-in-law will try her best to get a suitable groom for the widow. This is also one of the reasons why you will never read about a case of violence against women, because there are no inhibitions. Sex is not caged. We hold the earth sacred, not man-made institutions like marriage.”
Renu can’t remember the last time he heard of marital discord or domestic abuse in a Bison-Horn Maria family.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that cases of sexual crimes against women haven’t been recorded in the areas inhabited by the Marias since forever now,” he said. “There is no sexual frustration among the men. Everyone is free to fall in love or fall out of it. Marriages aren’t sacrosanct because human beings, who created the institution, aren’t sacrosanct themselves.”
He believes that normalising premarital sex and widow remariage in the “modern world” is important.
“All these rules are man-made,” he said. “If pleasure runs through your body, shouldn’t you address it in a safe environment instead of caging it in polite language?”
However, members of the Bison-Horn Maria adhere to certain conventions while also prioritising pleasure.
“I read up about the tribe as a child after being fascinated by them, and found out that in the Bison-Horn Maria, if premarital sex results in pregnancy (“pendul”), there can be no formal marriage. Then there is the rule which says that a widowed wife cannot marry her husband’s younger brother, among other similar conventions which have been passed down the ages,” said Varshney.
However, as both Sawhney and Grigson also note, there is no stigma attached to children born out of pendul unions, and they enjoy the same position and rights as children from a formal marriage.
Modern society, as it were, is clearly still catching up.
Varshney’s home is still adorned with various totems of the tribe, and framed black-and-white photos of the tribe members wearing their distinctive headgear, taken in the early 1990s by his father. Because he never got around to learning their language, he still communicates with his friends from the tribe using their totems and occult drawings.
“Even as a child, I was simply in awe of how effortless their social interaction was,” he said. “Our house was a stone’s throw away from a Bison-Horn Maria settlement, and I’d spend hours just marvelling at them as a spectator in awe. I first heard about ‘progressive’ customs of widow remarriage, premarital sex, and women and men freely socialising through the Bison-Horn Maria and not my textbooks.”
The Muria tribe, part of the same Gond group, also have rituals some find uncomfortable, not just in the colonial past but in contemporary India, too. The one most debated is the ritual of ghotul, a youth dormitory where unmarried adolescent boys and girls gather after dusk, away from their parents, to socialise, sing, dance and even have sex. Orgies, however, are prohibited.
Savyasaachi, a sociology professor at Jamia Millia Islamia university, visited one such ghotul in the 1980s.
“The ghotul is an integral part of the work life and village social structure of the Murias,” he told VICE. “It’s also a sacred place because they believe the Mother Earth goddess resides there. All activities happen under her gaze. Even the agriculture cycle of a village begins after the first plot is cultivated ritually by the ghotul kids. They are the backbone of social life.”
However, successive governments and the bureaucracy have a different take on the ghotul system.
Even though many reports highlight a direct correlation between zero sexual crimes and the ghotul, Sanjay Varshney, the additional director in the tribal affairs ministry of the Madhya Pradesh government, believes that such customs have “morally deteriorated” over the years, and that it’s only fair that such tribes “assimilate themselves” into modern society.
“When you look at the Bison-Horn Maria tribe or the Muria tribes, you can see that they have now started to cover their breasts,” he told VICE. “You cannot escape modernity. This is just simple evolution. For how long will they continue living in the interiors and eating bland rice with tamarind water?”
To this effect, the government is aggressively pushing for “modern education” across the tribal belt of Chattisgarh. For the Indigenous tribes though, there are legitimate fears that children who will be studying in these government-mandated centres will end up losing touch with the essence of their tribe.
“We are not against our children becoming doctors and engineers,” explained Renu. “But why do they have to choose one over the other? If tomorrow, my son becomes a doctor, what’s stopping him from participating in our tribal dance, wearing the Bison horn headgear, respecting the power of our common folktales, and believing that women are not owned by men?”
Even Sawhney, the researcher, laments the gradual dilution of the tribe’s traditional practices. “Both men and women have started to cover their bodies. It might be considered socially more appropriate, but in my view, it might mark an end to an era where women didn’t feel conscious, and freely celebrated their bodies.”
If you ask Renu, the Bison-Horn Maria family will always hold their fort. He believes that their tribal identity can be suppressed temporarily but never completely erased.
“We are children of Goddess Earth” he exclaimed. “All these so-called progressive laws came to this country much later. We are the original teachers.”
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