Anthropology has taught us that the world is differently defined in different places. It is not only that people have different gods and expect different post-mortem fates. It is, rather, that the world of different peoples have different shapes. The very metaphysical suppositions differ. space does not conform to Euclidean geometry, time does not form a continuous unidirectional flow. Causation does not conform to Aristotelian logic, man is not differentiated from non-man or life from death, as in our world.

— Walter Goldschmidt1

We are familiar with the fact that the Brahmanic temple is an embodiment of some of the cosmological and mythological ideas of an ancient cultural tradition. It is not that the concept of the Brahmanic temple developed in isolation as the creative expression of an individual architect. It is rather that innumerable currents of beliefs and practices interacting with one another over a large span of time and space have flowed into the creation of a multitude of architectural forms and that the Brahmanic temple is only one of these expressions.

On the other hand traditional Indian tribal and village architecture which may appear to be purely functional and utilitarian on the surface is in reality not so mundane. The traditional dwelling of several of these communities at one level fulfilled the day-to-day functions of the ‘kitchen’, ‘bedroom’, ‘living-room’, ‘pen-place’ and ‘courtyard’, but at another level represented a whole universe packed with beliefs and ritual practices, mythological and symbolic meanings, archaic customs and memories. The traditional dwelling, in this sense, becomes a symbolic replica of the cosmic structure of spaces representing the worlds of men, gods and ancestors – communion among them being governed by the cycle of daily and yearly rituals.

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This article is an attempt to excavate the cosmological and mythological layers underlying the ‘Euclidean geometry’ of some Indian tribal and village dwellings and settlements and thereby identify a ‘stratigraphy’ which is normally not perceived by the bare eye.

A study of several tribal dwellings of Northern India2 points to the fact that they are simultaneously abodes for men, gods and deceased ancestors. These three categories correspond to the earth (men), the heaven (gods), and the netherworlds (ancestors) of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmology – though not consciously conceived as such a system by the tribal communities.

Man is in continuous interaction with the gods and deceased ancestors whose physical manifestations are the various symbolic elements and sacred spaces of the dwelling and its surroundings. Deified ancestors differ from gods in that the former are mainly family deities, whereas the latter are venerated by the entire village or community. Let us examine how the spaces and architectural elements of the dwelling relate to various gods and ancestors. To begin with, take the dwelling of the Rathva and Bhilala tribes of the border area of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh (Chhota Udepur /Alirajpur region).

The main wall of the verandah that divides it from the kitchen is sacred to such deities as Ind, Pithoro, as well as those related to their myth of creation3. These deities are installed in the wall by means of colourful paintings. The side walls are reserved for depiction of ghosts and deified ancestors. These paintings by themselves represent the entire cosmos and the myth of creation of the Rathvas and Bhilalas. Through a ceremony of invocation, the deities are invited to descend into the paintings and take shelter therein. (The ‘iconographic’ strata of the house as juxtaposed against the functional strata can be seen in Fig. 1)

In times of crisis such as failure of the harvest, disease, loss of cattle or property, the deities living in the wall-painting are invoked and consulted. At the time of the invocation ceremony, the space of the verandah – where the inhabitants normally relax, smoke a hukkah, pound grain, chat with guests or sit and drink – is converted into an area of the otherworld of their cosmology, where the deities descend, receive sacrifices and converse with the family members.

The Saoras of Orissa too have a similar practice. On one of the mud-plastered walls, a square or rectangular enclosure is drawn with a twig dipped in rice-paste. This enclosure is known as the ‘house’ of the gods. Inside the enclosure, a whole universe comprising gods, men, animals and vegetation is depicted. The deities are invoked to come and reside in the ‘house’ in the following words: “I have made a house for you. Here are your elephants and horses. Come riding on them. Come and see what a fine house I have made for you. Deities of the sky, come and see the house. Deities of the hills, come and see the house…”. 4

Once the gods painted inside the enclosure are invoked and offerings made to them, they descend into their ‘house’ and live there. On ceremonial occasions, the family places offerings before them and the deities in return protect the family. In this case the use of the word ‘house’ for the painted sacred enclosure clearly signifies the presence of a ‘house’ within a house – one representing the iconographic strata and the other the functional.

The Rathvas, the Bhilalas as well as several other tribal communities of Central and Western India hold the ‘central pole’ of the house as one of the most important ritual elements5. Here the ridge-piece rests on several supporting posts of which one is considered to be the ‘central pole’ of the house. However, it is not situated in the actual centre of the house but marks the last third of the central axis. This pole is the seat of gotar devi or the clan goddess whose installation here is represented by vermilion dots. The kitchen wall which is sacred to the same goddess is by virtue of the fact that this pole intercepts the wall on the kitchen side. During the marriage ceremony, offerings are made to gotar devi in the house of the bride as well as the bridegroom. The central pole is also sacred to deceased ancestors and at its base are placed offerings of rice, chickens or a goat, on such festive occasions as Divaso and Divali. At the time of laying the foundation, the owner of the house ritually places a coin into the hole for the central pole. This practice brings to mind the immense significance of the axis mundi of Hindu, and particularly Buddhist, sacred architecture.

Among the Barelas of the Satpura Hills, a small post called ginjri is installed in the kitchen in honour of kul devi. Here the actual central pole has no cultic significance.6 The Jhabua Bhils of Barwani region of Madhya Pradesh erect a piece of teak wood near the hearth to venerate their kul devi.7

The kitchen is considered to be one of the most sacred places among many tribal communities. The Rathvas and the Bhilalas install their clan goddess on the back of the main painted wall in the kitchen (Fig. 1). The hearth itself symbolises the deity Akhado Baman, the eldest brother of god Ind.

When the house is ready, the chief woman of the family makes two horseshoe-shaped mud chulhas or ovens. The deities of the hearth are invoked and installed in them by the badvo, the main religious practitioner. Offerings of rice, chickens and urad-grain cakes are cooked. The badvo then invokes various deities and puts fine vermilion dots on the back of the oven on the right side8

Among the Bhils of rajpipla and West Khandesh, as the bride enters the house of the bridegroom, she is ceremoniously led to the hearth for its worship9 And among the Balahi weavers of Nimar District of Madhya Pradesh, the head of the family dips his palms in rice-paste and puts their impressions on the kitchen wall to personify the deities of the hearth10.

The grain storage jars of the Rathvas are the abodes of Anniraya, the god of foodgrains. These jars are placed in one corner of the kitchen, entry to which is restricted, since it harbours such powerful deities.

The dwelling of the Pardhans of the Upper Narbada Valley11 consists of three structures. The main one is called the deo-ghar (house of gods) which also contains the kitchen. Two grain storage jars are kept before the fireplace to prevent undesired entry to it. Among most of these communities, where the kitchen is considered a sacred place, it has the function of bestowing fertility and wealth. For this reason among the Pardhans, when the eldest son is married, the parents let the newly-married couple live in the deo-ghar while they themselves sleep in one of the side structures. The Pardhanas’ family wealth is also buried in the deo-ghar.

‘I have made a house for you. Here are your elephants and horses. Come riding on them. Come and see what a fine house I have made for you. Deities of the sky, come and see the house. Deities of the hills, come and see the house….’.

—saora invocation

The Gonds and Bhumias of Eastern Mandla12 (Madhya Pradesh) worship dulha deo (the bridegroom god) who is supposed to reside near the hearth in each house. Every third or fourth year the head of the family sacrifices a red or black chicken to the god who in turn protects the family from snakes and tigers.

The house is as much a shelter for the deceased ancestors as for their descendants. Among the Bhangi, Dhedh, Vaghri and Ravalia castes of Gujarat it is customary to have in the house a miniature underground chamber dedicated to the ancestors. This author witnessed in a village in Saurashtra a ritual of blood sacrifice, at which a piece of meat of the sacrificial victim was offered to the deceased ancestor residing in the chamber. Interestingly enough, this evokes comparison with baliharana or the ritual of throwing oblations on the ground for the household gods as described in the Grihyasutras13.

Another deity of the pantheon residing in the house of the Rathvas and Bhilalas is Jhampa-Tota, the god protecting the entrance. That is where he is installed and where he receives blood sacrifices from time to time. The gods who protect the cattle of the Rathvas against wild animals or disease are called Bhehanto and Kohajo. The pen-place, an integral part of the dwelling, is their abode.

The space in front of the Rathva and Bhilala house is sacred to Babo Ind (comparable to Vedic Indra) who ensures a rich harvest. Branches of particular species of trees are ritually cut and replanted in front of the house where, along with a plough, deities related to fertility are worshipped with offerings. The tribal ritual known as Ind Karvo is comparable in many respects to the Brahmanic festival of Indramaha14.

The Rathva and Bhilala dwelling does not exist in isolation but forms part of a greater cosmic scheme of the tribal world view. Adjacent to the house is the field, where Khetarpal, the field-deity, takes shelter. Hedha Jatar or the goddess of the fence is provided an abode on the uncultivated strip of land along the fence. Beyond the hamlet is the entrance to the village, where the protector of the village, Jhampa-Tota, is housed. The periphery of the village is known as him which is occupied by the goddess Himodi, to whom terracotta tigers are offered. Malon is a wide, protected green patch near the village which is thickly forested with large trees. These trees, by convention, are not to be cut by anybody. Malon contains the main village shrine. Under some of its trees deities in the form of carved wooden images, or khunta, wooden poles, are installed. These are periodically venerated through offerings of terracotta animals and dhapo, dome-shaped miniature terracotta shrines. Gamdeo or the village god is also installed here.

The iconographic and symbolic significances in various tribal dwellings and settlements clearly reveal the deeper meaning underlying the physical structures and spaces. There is no firm dividing line between terrestrial and cosmic space because the tribal universe itself remains whole and unfragmented.

  • 1. In Introduction to: The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, New York, 1974, p. 10.
  • 2. Material from Northern India has been utilised here but it is most likely that similar beliefs and practices exist in Southern India or any other regions of the country.
  • 3. For detailed information see Painted Myths of Creation: Art and Ritual of an Indian Tribe by Jyotindra Jain, New Delhi, 1984.
  • 4. Elwin, Verrier: The Religion of an Indian Tribe, Bombay, 1955, p. 404.
  • 5. Information derived from Haekel, Josef: Der kultische Aspekt des Hauses bei den Bhilala in Zentralindien. publ. in Festschrift Paul J. Schebesta, Vienna, 1963, pp. 357 ff.
  • 6. ibid., p. 361.
  • 7. Koppers, W.: Die Bhil in Zentralindien, Vienna, 1948, p. 279.
  • 8. Haekel, op. cit., p. 359.
  • 9. .Naik, T.B.: The Bhils, Delhi, 1956, p. 27 f.
  • 10. Fuchs, Stephan: The Children of Hari, Vienna, 1950, pp. 344 ff.
  • 11. Hivale, Sham Rao: The Pardhans of the Upper Narbada Valley, Bombay, 1946, p. 44
  • 12. Fuchs, Stephan: The Gond and Bhumia of Eastern Mandla, Bombay, 1960, p. 393.
  • 13. Gonda, Jan: A History of Indian Literature: The Ritual Sutras, Wiesbaden, 1977, p. 582
  • 14. Jain, Jyotindra, op. cit., p. 61 ff.