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  • Ankit Biswas

The Practice of Shamanism and Indigenous Art of India

The term “shamanism” is used to describe the spiritual practices of indigenous communities all over the world. It is a religious practice wherein a “shaman” acts as an intermediary between the visible world and the world of spirits and gods. Shaman is a priest who is called to a household to solve problems that a family face. The problems range from illness, fertility issues to crop failure. Such societies believe that invisible spirits enter the world around us and control our fate. Every shaman has his own rituals and practices though there are some common features like the ecstatic trance or the soul journey as it is called. The shaman acts as the negotiator with the spirits and helps the family by connecting with the spirits at a personal level. Though a practice not very prevalent in the urban areas there are tribes in India who still practice shamanism. The shaman has different names in different ethnic communities. Like the Santals of Orrisa, West Bengal and Jharkhand call an “ojha”, the Kharia community of Central India call a “pahan”. Very interesting common patterns like wall paintings are seen in some of these tribes.

Pithora Painting
Pithora Painting

The Rathva community of Gujarat is one such tribe where such practices are prevalent to date. They are the primary inhabitants of the Panchmahals and Baroda districts of Gujarat. Agriculture is the main occupation of the Rathvas today. Repeated offerings of food and objects are made by the Rathvas to their dead ancestors. They believe that unhappy spirits or “jiv” of a person who suffers a premature death wander around the village and harrases his living relatives. Such a spirit is to be made happy by ritual offerings of food and clothes. A “badvo” (the shaman) is the chief practitioner. Almost all aspects of the life of the Rathvas are governed by religious and magical beliefs and rituals and the badvo is the chief of these affairs. A very interesting feature seen in these rituals is the making of a wall painting known as the Pithora Paintings. These paintings depict the wedding story and procession of “Baba Pithoro” who is the local god of the Rathvas. The distinctive feature of these paintings is the large number of horses that are painted. Interestingly many ancient rock shelters found in these areas have rock paintings of very similar styles with a large number of horses painted. After the painting is done, the approval of the painting comes from the deity himself when he examines every painted character and element through the “badvo” in trance.

Saura Painting
Saura Painting

Such practices of wall paintings as a part of ritualistic practices is also seen amongst the Sauras of Orissa. Here the intermediary between the world of the dead and living(the shaman) is known as the “Kudang”. The kudang is called when bad times descend upon a family. The kudang first identifies the cause of sickness by throwing rice grains into the fire and then feeling the pulse of the sick. He then enters a semi-conscious state of trance where he communicates with the kulba (spirit of the dead) who is causing the sickness. The ritual involves the singing of a song and beating of the tom-tom that facilitates the kudang to attain his state of trance. Many activities and sacrifices are made during the entire ritual. In the end, the kudang with a piece of twig (used as a brush) and other natural pigments starts painting on the walls of the affected. The painting is done under the direct instructions of the spirits. It is very difficult to describe the perfect symbolic meanings of these paintings consisting of human, animal, and random geometric figures. These paintings are known as “Ekon” in the local language. Though a dying art, the saura wall paintings in its purest form can still be seen amongst the Lanjia Saura community. This community is said to be the original worshippers of Lord Jagannath.

Jadu Patua
Jadu Patua

Another interesting tribe to note here are the Jadupatuas of the Santhal tribe. The Santhal tribe is the third-largest in India with a population of four million. They mainly inhabit West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand regions of India, and parts of Bangladesh as well. Religion is considered to be a very important part of Santhal life. Like other indigenous tribes of India, they are polytheists and believe in several deities, spirits, and ghosts from the forests, hills, and streams around them. They too believe that their lives are guided by their ancestral spirits. Ojha is the traditional magico-religious healer, who is called to interact with the ancestral spirits. The death rituals of the Santhals are particularly interesting as paintings similar to that of the Rathvas and Sauras are made. The painters here are known as the Jadu Patuas or the magic painters. The ritual involves painting the ‘paraloukik patas’, which decides on the gifts to be asked from the relatives and family of the deceased. The patua brings a bag full of patas which is basically stock images of human types of various age groups and genders. From these patas, he pulls out a pata in which the image closely resembles the person who has died. The patua paints everything excepts the iris of the eye. As the ritual progresses the jadu patua tries to convince the family members that if the iris is not painted, the soul of the bereaved will not be able to travel to the world of spirits and would come back to haunt them. Once the family agrees, the iris is painted and the soul is freed. This ritual is known as the ‘Chokkhudan pata”.

It is interesting to see such associations between the practice of shamanism and image-making as part of rituals in India. Similar practices have also been thoroughly researched and documented outside India as well. Examples can be seen among the Aboriginals of Australia, San bushmen of Kalahari(Africa) to name a few.


1. Jyotindra Jain 2010. Painted Myths of Creation- Art and Ritual of an Indian Tribe, Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi

2. Shamanistic and Related Phenomena in Northern and Middle India by Rudolf Rahmann.

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