Priests preferred to doctors for cure in Arunachal

By Syed Zarir Hussain


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Tepia (Arunachal Pradesh) : Hundreds of tribal people in Arunachal Pradesh still rely on community priests rather than medical practitioners to cure diseases.

Close to half of the 1.1 million population of the state, bordering Tibet and Myanmar, are either animists or believers of a primitive faith called Donyi Polo whose followers worship the sun and moon gods.

Lui Sena had been running a high fever accompanied by a splitting headache for the past 10 days. After herbal remedies and a visit to a doctor failed to cure the eight-year-old boy, Sena's parents carried him in a makeshift stretcher made of bamboo staves to 72-year-old Dera Topu, the village priest.

Squatted on the wooden floor of his stilted bamboo and straw hut, Topu was engrossed in prayers with his eyes closed and hands folded. The priest chanted hymns and fanned Sena with a multi-coloured hornbill feather.

"This boy is haunted by evil spirits and now I have to ward off the spirit. No medicines or doctors could cure the boy. You did the right thing by coming to me," the priest told Sena's parents.

An hour later, the little boy said he was feeling comfortable.

Topu is a Dongdai or a priest who practices Donyi Polo, a religion which has no written scriptures. The traditions and hymns are passed on to each generation orally.

The followers of Donyi Polo worship the sun and the moon besides other things like bamboo and bushes that are found in the jungles. Today this primitive faith is in danger of becoming extinct.

"We don't have any written scriptures and I don't know who would perform the rites and rituals once I die," said a worried Topu.

"There is a threat to the indigenous faith with the advent of Christianity and Hinduism in this state," said Tejum Padu, a researcher on the local traditions and culture of Arunachal Pradesh.

Thousands in the state have converted to other religions, mainly Christianity and Hinduism. Hinduism accounts for about 34 percent while close to 19 percent of the state's total population is Christian.

"It is very difficult to practice Donyi Polo in its purest form as the faith is very rigid and requires a lot of money and resources to perform the rituals," a college student who has embraced Christianity said on condition of anonymity.

Proponents of the indigenous faith are now devising strategies to counter the challenge posed by organized missionaries.

"We have started reforming our traditional faith and have embarked on a serious mission to educate the younger generation about the need to preserve our indigenous religion and cultural practices," said Padu.

"We are also trying to put the oral scriptures into a written form for posterity," he added.