Conference presented during the workshop Exchange and Circulations: Cultural Contacts and Processes of Transfer organized by IGK 56 Kulturtransfer und ‘kulturelle Identität’ (Freiburg) and CEFRES, in partnership with Charles University. 27/11/2015
Cécile Guillaume-Pey (Cefres, Toulouse CAS-LISST)
Among colonised societies, we find numerous cases of the appropriation of literacy, a symbol of power-knowledge associated with colonial administration, Christian missions, and the education given by the latter. My research, based on recent ethnographic fieldwork I completed in rural India, focuses on the worship of an alphabet created by the Sora, a tribal group of central eastern India that speaks an Austroasiatic language. Nowadays, in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Assam, Sora are followers of Matharvanam, a religious movement born in the late 1930s and whose founder, Mangaya, designed an alphabet to transcribe his mother tongue.
Each letter of this script embodies a deity which the devotees incorporate into themselves through an alphabetic potion drunk during rituals. The script creator, who in his lifetime was a primary school teacher and religious leader, is worshipped today along with the god Jagannath, the main god embodied in the alphabet. Promoted to the rank of tutelary deity of the Odisha kingdom in the 12th century, Jagannath is, to this day, a central religious figure in the state. Present-day Matharvanam followers claim that the Brahmins and Rajas formerly stole Jagannath from them before the god, leaving Hindu temples, returned to his original Sora devotees in alphabetic form. The Matharvanam movement therefore offers a striking image of the re-appropriation by a tribal community of both Jagannath, a deity integrated in the Hindu mainstream for centuries, and of writing, a medium intimately linked to colonial power. The appropriation of script induces major changes in the transmission of ritual knowledge, the relationship to the body of the worshippers, the communicational context in which the devotees interact with the divine, and reshape the relationships between centers and peripheries, as well as between mainstream Hinduism and local religious practices.
A review written by Cécile Guillaume-Pey.