Dooars: A group of half a dozen women—from a teenage girl to a sexagenarian—dance to the tune of a melodious folk song, accompanied by foot-tapping beats of the tumda and tamak—two kinds of tribal drums. No, the women are not rehearsing for the upcoming Durga Puja celebration. They are from the Asur tribe and the song-and-dance routine is an impromptu performance to showcase their endangered culture to this writer. 

The women, residents of the Kalkut buno Basti or Kalkut tribal village—an Asur settlement on the northern section of Majherdabri tea estate on the outskirts of Alipurduars town in northern Bengal—do not celebrate Durga Puja. 

Over the next week, when Hindus across Bengal, neighbouring Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and the rest of the country will be celebrating Goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasur, a small number of Asur tribespeople—scattered across a handful of tea plantations in northern Bengal districts of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduars and collectively known as the Dooars—will be mourning the death of the ‘demon’ Mahishasur—who the Goddess Durga symbolically kills. 

For the Asur tribespeople, Mahishasur is none other than their legendary ancestor in their glorious past. 

The Asur community—who number between 600-800 in Bengal—is on the verge of extinction as their language and culture are endangered, believe in a subaltern version of the Mahishasur myth, in which Goddess Durga had tricked their ancestor, a valiant warrior, and killed him. 

The Asurs are against celebrating Durga’s victory over Mahishasur as they believe that the Durga Puja celebrates the victory of the Aryan invaders from the north to eastern India, signalling the dawn of the pre-Vedic period.

The Asurs settled in the tea plantations and their adjoining neighbourhoods around the early 20th century and successive generations, who have grown up on an oral tradition of Mahishasur myth, say that people still look at them in suspicion and make fun of their ethnic identity.

Crisis of an ethnic identity

The Asur community is desperate to revive the Asuri language and imbibe a sense of pride about their distinctive identity among the younger generation who no longer tend to believe in the oral myths of the Asurs being descendants of warrior king Mahishasur.

The older generation of Asurs living and working in the tea-growing belts of north Bengal districts of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduars—collectively known as the Dooars—are fighting a losing battle to create an awareness of their cultural beliefs that they need to pass on to the next generation. 

Many of the younger generation Asurs are indifferent about their ethnic identity and feel that the “Asur” tag is a blemish on their very existence. 

“Neither did our elders teach us to speak in the Asuri language nor did they stress about preserving our cultural beliefs,” says Ramkumar Toppo, an Asur community leader and a village panchayat member at the Asur Lines in Majherdabri tea estate on the outskirts of Alipurduars town.

Ramkumar and his family adopted a more common tribal surname of “Toppo”, discarding the Asur tag. He says the change of surname is for the convenience of availing the benefits of being a Scheduled Tribe, not for any stigma connected to being an Asur.

They believe in a subaltern version of the Mahishasur myth, in which Goddess Durga had tricked their ancestor, a valiant warrior, and killed him. 

“We as a community are fighting to keep both the old traditional beliefs alive,” says Ramkumar Toppo, a staunch believer in the ancestral myth, alluding to the Asurs being against celebrating Durga’s victory over Mahishasur, 

Rubbishing the general perception of Hindu mythology of the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana, which describes the birth of Durga and the nine-day long battle with Mahishasur as biased, the Asurs believe their demon king—Mahishasur—was blessed with a boon by Brahma that no man or God could kill him.

The Asurs believe that the Durga’s birth from the combined powers Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva of crookedly conspiring to kill their ancestor, says Ramkumar Toppo. 

But despite the efforts of community elders like Toppo, the community face a big handicap in creating awareness among the next generation of Asur tribespeople.

Explaining the Asur’s aversion to Durga Puja festivities, Chinmoy Dhar, the manager of Majherdabri tea estate who has been with the plantation for the last 19 years, says, a decade back, Asur elders used to ‘avoid’ the Durga Pujas festivities and keep their children indoors.

“Earlier, the Asur elders isolated themselves during the nine-day Durga Puja festival…they used to forbid the children to celebrate Durga Puja…as the Asurs do not believe in idol worship,” Dhar tells EastMojo.

“Until now, the Asurs are still ‘uninvolved’ in the Durga Puja festivities…even though they have started allowing their children to wear new clothes and go pandal-hopping in nearby Alipurduars town, but the Asurs still don’t have any direct involvement in the festivities,” Dhar adds.

“Over the years, I have noticed that while Kali Puja and Saraswati Puja are celebrated in the other workers’ lines in our garden, no pujas are organised in the Asur Lines,” Dhar reveals.

“The community, however, celebrates two annual korom pujas—worship of a korom tree—in a big way.

“During the nine days of Durga Puja, the elders of the community go into complete isolation and only the children are seen around.”

Influence of Christianity

Asur elders like Ramkumar Toppo of Majherdabri and young Asur leaders like Prakash Asur of Carron tea estate in Kalchini and Sukha Asur, better known as Tarnel Sardar of Kurti tea estate in Nagrakata of neighbouring Jalpaiguri district, say that the Asur community is losing its relevance and veering towards Christianity.

“The church influence among the Asur community has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade…the younger generation is being attracted to the new faith in hope of a better life,” rues Ramkumar Toppo, whose family has so far resisted the influence of the church in Majherdabri tea estate.

Over the years, their different churches have been established in Majherdabri tea estate, concurs Dhar.

“Almost 50% of the 52 Asur households in the plantation have converted to Christianity,” estimates Dhar.

“The new Christian converts have shunned most of Asur tradition beliefs and are a stauncher practitioner of the new belief,” Dhar tells EastMojo.

There are three different churches in Majherdabri tea estate, says Ramkumar Toppo.

However, Christian converts among the community defend the church’s role. Instead of alienating the community members, the church is helping preserve the ancient culture, besides educating the younger generation, they say. 

Sushma Toppo, a converted Christian and a social worker, acts as a bridge between the older and the younger generations of her community.

Besides forming a Jatra—a popular folk theatre—troupe with a mix of both young and older Asur women to highlight and preserve the Asur culture, the 28-year-old tribal rights activist frequently visits the Carron tea garden. Located in the neighbouring Jalpaiguri district on the India-Bhutan border, here an entire village, the Karri Line on the international border is inhabited by Asur tribespeople and is the hub of the Asur community in north Bengal. 

“I go to the Karri Line in Carron tea estate and try to learn the Asuri language—where a majority of the villagers still speak in Asuri— and traditional Asur folk songs. I come back and teach the same to people in our village and those who are interested at the Asur Line in Majherdabri tea garden,” Sushma Toppo tells EastMojo.

“We want to come out of our perceived demonic past and look forward to a better life while trying our best to preserve our language and ancient culture,” she says.

The last frontier of the Asur community in North Bengal

A half an hour ride north of the NH 31C at Luksan in an autorickshaw to the northern fringe of the undulating hills carpeted by emerald-green tea plantation in the Bhutan foothills leads to Karri Line of Carron tea estate: the largest Asur settlement in the Dooars.

Local district authorities have built a concrete road leading to the Asur village. The neat village is immaculately clean and hygienic, and residents have been provided with electricity and potable water. 

Though the village has a primary school, it does not have a healthcare facility. For medical emergencies, the villagers must depend on the tea garden hospital or go to the block primary health centre at Luksan, about 14 km south of the tribal village.

A small group of elderly Asur men are busy chatting at a bicycle repair shop at the entrance of a tribal village in the northernmost section of the Carron tea estate. They gather around as soon as they spot this writer, accompanied by Prakash Asur, an Asur leader from the Carron tea estate. 

The senior Asur members are curious as they don’t get many visitors to their remote tea workers’ village.

As it is late afternoon, most women and younger men are in the tea plantation below the village. 

The group, including Shuita Asur, 75, —one of the oldest Asur members of the village—his compatriot, Makku Asur, 70, and Bandha Asur, 65, are happy to share their collective knowledge about their endangered community.

The Karri Line, a colony of 101 households, most of which are bamboo and tin dwellings, apart from a few brick and mortar houses build with the PM housing fund, many of the backyards of the Asur dwellings open onto the India-Bhutan border—demarcated by concrete border pillars and a narrow dirt track that patrolled by the Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) personnel and their Bhutanese counterparts, the Bhutanese Royal Army—is home to the largest Asur settlement outside Jharkhand, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh.

In the pre-Covid 19 pandemic days, villagers—a substantial number of Asurs also reside in a village on the Bhutan side of the border—had free access to cross into each other’s territories.

Asur leaders Prakash Asur and pastor Santosh Asur at the Karri line tea workers in Carron Tea Estate.

Now, the Bhutanese Army has erected watchtowers along the border and keeps vigil as no one is allowed to enter the Himalayan kingdom due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The Carron tea estate colony Asur elders, too, are a worried lot. 

They are concerned about an uncertain future of the community and fear that the Asuri language will die along with them due to the indifferent attitude of the younger generation of the tribe.   

“The preference of the younger generation of Asurs to speak in the Sadri—the lingua franca of the tea tribespeople in the region—and an apparent embracement to identify themselves as Asurs, is a major stumbling block for the community,” laments Shuita Asur, who worked as a tea picker at the Carron tea estate for more than three decades.

Like Shuita Asur, 33-year-old Prakash Asur—a tea plantation leader and one of the most vocal Asur tribal-rights activists from the Carron tea estate, is passionate about his ancestral myth. 

Prakash Asur and his family members are the remaining few in the village who have not yet converted to Christianity. 

“Even though more than 90% of Asurs in Karri Line of Carron tea estate have converted to Christianity, they continue with their centuries-old Asur practices at home,” Prakash Asur, who takes immense pride in being an Asur, tells EastMojo.

Even though Prakash Asur cannot speak the Asuri fluently, he is concerned that despite knowing Asuri, the younger generation of his fellow villagers in the Karri Line, are embarrassed to converse in their ancient language.

“I berate my parents for not speaking to us in Asuri at home during my childhood…I now regret that had they have done so, I may have been more fluent in my language today,” said the young Asur leader, who speaks fluent Bengali, Nepali, Hindi and Sadri, and who represented the community as a member of the West Bengal contingent at the Republic Day ceremony in New Delhi, a few years back.

“It was one of the proudest moments in my life to represent my tribe in the Republic Day tableau from the state…the younger generation of our tribe should take pride in being an Asur and not be embarrassed about their ethnic identity,” says the young Asur leader, who works in close coordination with Sushma Toppo of Kalkut Buno Basti in Alipurduars, in their untiring efforts to keep the Asur culture and ancestral traditions alive and revive the Asuri language.

Defending the church’s role in bettering a lot of Asur community, Santosh Asur, the pastor of the sole church at the Karri Line in Carron tea estate, says besides providing basic education in the Christian-majority village, during Sunday Mass, we translate Sadri songs—read Christian hymns—into Asuri.

Asur workers at the Karri Line in Carron tea estate

“We are also trying to preserve the Asuri language through the church and are in the process procuring Asuri textbooks and other published Asuri literary works from Jharkhand,” pastor Santosh Asur (34), tells EastMojo, standing in from of his church at the tribal village.

Enthused by the work of Prakash Asur and Sushma Toppo, other Asur youngsters, including Ramkumar Toppo’s 23-year-old daughter Alka—a Bachelor of Arts graduate in Hindi— Sushma Toppo’s niece Jyoti, a budding footballer and Class-11 student and her friend Alma Kajur also a budding footballer and members of the Kalkut Women’s Football Club, want to visit Carron tea estate’s Karri Line to learn the Asuri language.

“There is no one to teach us the Asuri language even though we want to learn to speak and write and sing Asur folk songs,” says Jyoti.

“We heard from our elders that Asurs tribespeople were expert iron smelters, but there is not a single iron smelting workshop anywhere in our tea garden or the village,” wonders 17-year-old Jyoti.

However, untiring efforts of a handful of young Asur social activist and tribal-rights activist is not enough to preserve the Asuri language from becoming extinct.

While the few Asurs families living and working at Kurti tea estate, another tea plantation on the border of the Bhutan foothills, say that even as the younger generation of Asurs are trying to assimilate with their Bengali, Nepali-speaking and other tribal neighbours, they still face a lot of stigmas. 

“People from other communities still call us demons, and that gives the younger generation a sense of alienation and embarrassment,” says Titusama Toppo, the young tribal-rights activist.

Though the older generation of Asurs is desperate to preserve their cultural heritage, the younger generation—many of whom have been educated—are slowly assimilating with the mainstream Hindu community and other religious faiths. 

The younger generation is breaking away from the traditional practices and has been willingly taking part in the Durga Puja celebrations, says Tarnel Sardar, a retired Asur tea garden leader at the Kurti tea estate in Nagrakata block of neighbouring Jalpaiguri district.

“Though the Bengal government has done a lot for the development of the Asur community in Kurti tea garden, bordering Bhutan—the government has provided electricity, built concrete roads, and built a primary school…” says Tarnel Sardar aka Sukha Asur (62) at Number 18, upper Kurti tea garden workers’ line, on the northern fringe of the plantation.

Tarnel Asur aka Sukha Asur (left), Asur community leader and retired tea garden worker and his family members at the Kurti Tea Estate bordering Bhutan in Jalpaiguri district

“The government should create more jobs for the Asurs who have few graduates,” says the former tea garden workers’ leader.

“The Asurs need to be educated and go out and seek employment outside the tea gardens as generations of Asurs have been tea garden workers,” says Tarnel Sardar, whose eldest son, Ravindra, 31, is like him, employed at the plantation as a tea leaf picker.

His younger son Rajendra—a Class 8 dropout—is unemployed, while his daughter, Rajni (24) is a high school graduate and also unemployed.

Both young and old Asur community leaders say that unless the Federal and the state government provide further reservation for the Asurs, the revival of their centuries-old traditions and language will be lost forever.

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