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The Case of the Khonds

Women and Customary Spiritual Authority

The Khonds of South India, categorised as a particularly vulnerable tribal group, uphold a unique religious institution called the pejjenis, where women are conferred the spiritual authority to perform critical religious and social ceremonies related to human and nature cycles, appeasement of the gods and spirits during calamities and conflict and conducting spiritual dialogue with the other worlds. This paper explores the spaces of egalitarianism among them and finds out what opportunities for gendered negotiations and authority for women within the sphere of the religions are nurtured within an overarching framework of patriarchy.

Religious authority often encompasses the space of politics and power, buttressing patriarchal dominance in matters of gender, social norms, morality, and cultural beliefs and practices (Riesebrodt and Chong 1999: 55). Alternatives to these hierarchies and social arrangements of dominant religious practices as exemplified in indigenous, precolonial or those considered as premodern societies are often perceived as savage, pagan and primitive. In India, the colonial and postcolonial states have historically used religion as a medium for asserting political dominance and ensuring the allegiance of its citizens. As a certain religious majoritarianism and sectarian politics is being asserted in the country today, one needs to examine religious practices of communities that do not conform to such majoritarian forms, and may yet provide invaluable resources for human well-being and spiritual flourishing. At a time when women from the modern dominant socio-religious groups are challenging prohibition and restrictions on entry into temples and participation in religious ceremonies, this paper provides a glimpse into an animistic system of religion that offers not only a space, but an authoritative role for women to lead their communities into spiritual well-being.

This study explores the intersecting roles of women and perspectives towards gender relations that are built within certain societies, including spaces of religious authority. It examines whether the space of priesthood is a reflection of the greater spaces of freedom and social status for women. What factors are likely to have determined this customary authority conferred on women, narrated in their mythologies and folklore, strong elements of which are visible as practising cultures even today? What are the gendered influences and boundaries of such an authority on the socio-economic dynamics of these communities? These questions are explored using the case of a Scheduled Tribe (ST)1 in southern India called the Khonds, who are administratively categorised as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG)2 by the Indian state.

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Updated On : 3rd Nov, 2017

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