Spirits of the state


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IN the present day Dussehra and Madai (annual fair) festivals of the district of Kanker in southern Chhattisgarh, central India, hundreds of people of the mixed tribe (Gond)-caste communities of the region assemble in the palace of the royal family of the former colonial-princely state of Kanker with their ancestral deities. They enact rituals that play out the historical relationship between the people and the raja. These rituals are the most stubborn vestiges of a political system which, at least formally, has passed from the scene.

Separately but in connection with this, although this practice is dying out, two ritually pre-eminent ancestral deities in possession of the royal family, in following another practice from at least the colonial period if not before, visit villages to join local ancestral deities in resolving an entire gamut of issues which forms the very stuff of life and can be recognized as properly the arena of governance and administration of the state.

These ancestral deities of the communities of Kanker also figure as protagonists in popular accounts of the past given during ritual events, in which the raja is often the counter-point. Let me briefly recount a couple of connected accounts given by the village elders in relation to the ancestral deities Thema and Medha Dokra (old man) of a group of 52 villages not far from the town of Kanker, in which the figure of the raja plays a critical role. In one account, ancestor Thema, who was the leader of the people, was once struggling to rid the villages of man-eating tigers even though he had the skill to kill two tigers with one arrow. The raja of Kanker then decided to assist him with his gun and together they soon succeeded in eliminating the feral danger and then set up their joint reign in this area.

In a second account, I was told that the raja of Kanker was hostile to Thema to start with. Using the opportunity of a conflict between Thema and his brother Medha, he had them both captured and incarcerated. Stung by this move, and reunited, the brothers challenged him to shoot a tiger in their territory and boasted that he would not succeed unless he had their support. The raja tried killing a tiger in each of their 52 villages but every time he would shoot from his gun, the bullet would turn into water. Defeated, the raja released the brothers and was thereafter given access into the area only with their permission.


When I began my work on the history of the polity of the colonial-princely state of Kanker as part of a larger project on the history of Chhattisgarh several years ago, I found that the documents in the official archive, in which the annual administrative records of the state, compendia of the ‘history’ and information about the government/administration of the territory of princely Kanker, occupied a central position, made no mention of these deity practices, which seemed to be such a strong remnants of the colonial-princely state’s relationship with the people. Elsewhere, I have looked at the nature of these documents to argue that they produce a binary of ‘state’ and ‘subject’, and construct the state as unilaterally, actively and rationally governing the people who, thus separated out, become merely passive recipients of this regime.1

Though administrator-ethnologists in the employ of the state mention these deity practices in colonial anthropological writings, they are described as ‘culture and religion’, where typically, ‘tribal society’ is discussed in detail but hived off from an undeveloped and cursory preliminary section on politics.2 In other words, these deity practices, that are part of the political memory of the people of the region, are not recognized as ‘political’ by the statist documents of this period.


Following these documents, and mirroring the distinction they posit between history-politics and anthropology-society/culture/religion, which is how tribal communities have been represented generally,3 local academic histories have chosen to mention these practices under the category of ‘culture’, distinct from ‘politics’, having no bearing on the political relationship of the rajas with those they ruled.4

This corresponds well with the fact that by definition, both in mainstream scholarship and in common sense, tribal peoples are considered historically ‘pre-political’ or politically infantile; and even in ‘good’ histories, unless they learn ‘our’ politics, their politics is mostly reactive, never able to provide the terms on which the political can be constituted.5 In any case, tribal peoples are almost never seen as able to generate anything at the level of the state, the apotheosis of the properly political. In fact, they are seen as primitive, mired in superstition, dealing in spirits and magic, a past the state assures is past for good, vestiges of which it helps control and banish through modern governance.6


The view of the polity of colonial-princely state of Kanker from this location is entirely statist, to the exclusion of these mixed tribe-caste communities from the political. The state monopolizes the site of the political and the people are largely inert. This leads to a historicist reading of the present-day predicaments of these people where top-down, unilateral, state-centred and supposedly a-political ‘development’ is advocated as the only solution for their problems, often with disastrous consequences.7 In fact, this approach itself is partly a cause of the problem, given how closely it accompanies regimes of domination and subordination.

In this essay, I will explore another and somewhat different set of documents of the colonial-princely state of Kanker in which these deity practices are described in order to make a few arguments about how the ‘prose of the state’,8 despite its subterfuge, betrays traces of the people’s agency in state formation. Eventually however, going beyond this, with additional but critical ethnographic material, I will put forward an alternative view of the political history of tribal peoples in Kanker as a critique of the way in which tribal peoples’ pasts are understood and their future envisioned within dominant discourses.

I will argue that whereas its claim on ‘reason’ is the basis of the state’s appropriation of history/politics to the exclusion of its Other, the ‘tribal’, the state (a) transacts substantially in unreason (as understood by it) and (b) is alternatively reimagined in popular accounts where the specious distinction between reason and unreason is fundamentally called out, and the ‘subject’ peoples assert an-other kind of politics that challenges the state’s monopoly over the political. These accounts draw the state out into a realm whose terms of being and dynamics are located in popular cosmology and are thoroughly violative of the state’s imperious claims of absolute ruler-ship.


I have earlier made a reference to the practice in which the ancestral deities in the possession of the royal family are taken to the villages for the resolution of the life-problems of the villagers through divination. Colonial-anthropological writings limit their understanding of this practice to the sphere of culture/religion at best and to irrational beliefs in superstition and magic at worst, as mentioned before. There is no mention of this practice in the official records of the colonial-princely state.

In the private store rooms of the palace in Kanker however, untidily stashed away in several trunks, are stamped documents called iqrarnama, or generic legal statements of intent (from the Hindustani iqrar, meaning affirmation), which record this practice.9 In these iqrarnamas,10 the people petition the state for the visit of the royal ancestral deities or anga deo(s) – as ancestral deities are generically called – to their villages for the resolution of a variety of life-problems.


The state in Kanker possessed two ancestral deities, brothers, called the Bade (Senior/Elder) and Chhote (Junior/Younger) Pat anga deos (henceforth Chhote Pat). Of these, the former resides in the most important local temple of the popular goddess Shitala, built and looked after by the rajas, and has not been known to and still does not visit the villages. Though Bade Pat remains at the Shitala temple, in a practice that keeps the senior royal ancestral deity out of common circulation, he is very much part of the visitation system because the junior deity is supposed to carry his authority too. Chhote Pat has his shrine in the palace, the residence of the raja.

These deities, and ancestral deities from the village level onwards in general, take the shape of two rounded logs of wood joined in the middle by a plank (pat), and move hoisted on the shoulders of four bearers. While one story suggests that the royal ancestral deities came into the possession of the raja in the period of the Kandra dynasty (1344-97),11 the other story tells us that it was raja Narharideo (1853-1904) who lifted the anga deo brothers out of the river (and I will narrate these accounts later in this essay).


Though most of the iqrarnamas in these trunks are from the post-colonial period, testifying to the continuation of this practice even today, a few of them, and the earliest in this collection, are from the later period (the mid-1940s) of raja Bhanu Pratap Deo (1925-47), the last ruling chief of Kanker. These have not been filed and preserved like the administrative reports or related papers dealing with the state’s declared practices of governance and administration in the state archive.

References to similar practices in the neighbouring Bastar state in the writings of the colonial anthropologists suggest that this practice, of requisitioning ancestral deities, was perhaps older than the mid-1940s. In his work Muria and their Ghotul, the well known anthropologist-administrator Verrier Elwin has written that in 1940, the Muria headman of Palki, Aitu, wrote a petition to the tehsildar (officer in charge of tehsil, a lower level geo-administrative unit) on an eight anna (unit of currency) stamped paper and paid a fee of five rupees to have the officer issue a parwana (order) to allow Narsingnath of Bada Dongar to be taken to Palki.12 Aitu had applied for Narsingnath’s visit in order to investigate and find the cause of illness among humans and beasts, and the failure of crop, that had been afflicting his village for a long time.

Elwin also mentioned that a copy of Narsingnath’s brother, Pat anga deo, had been installed in the palace at Jagdalpur (the capital of Bastar) in the time of raja Bhairam Deo (1853-1891),13 who valued greatly this ancestral deity’s ability to hunt witches.14 One of colonial central India’s leading administrators W.V. Grigson, who served as the chief bureaucrat in Bastar for some time (1927-31), has written of another anga deo, the Jhoria log-god of Narainpur, whose copy had been kept by Bhairam Deo at the palace for the same reason; and who was being requisitioned by the Murias for a fee of five rupees to the state treasury in 1927.15


It is certainly possible that in Kanker too, as in the case of Bastar, the practice of iqrarnama is of greater antiquity than the 1940s. The very poor condition of the 1940s iqrarnamas and that they had almost been thrown away, along with the fact they were not filed in the official archive, suggest that the pre-1940s iqrarnamas may not have survived.

We have no way of knowing whether the practice of inviting the royal ancestral deities to the villages predates the convention of the iqrarnamas as there are hardly any people surviving from that time who can attest to the same, although its popularity and longevity suggests so. If indeed this was the case, it may be possible to argue that the iqrarnamas in Kanker were the result of a fuller administrative practice that became possible only in the early 1940s, and might have been copied, as in the case of other governmental practices, from the better organized Bastar regime; and that this practice was a means of controlling and regulating a much older phenomenon.


What is the meaning of this type of iqrarnama as a documentary practice of the colonial-princely state? What do these iqrarnamas tell us about the colonial-princely state, the people, and the interaction of the state and the people through the practice of the visit of Chhote Pat to the villages? These iqrarnamas were handwritten proforma on the stamped papers of the ‘Kanker State’ by official scribes in a mixed Hindustani-Chhattisgarhi language.

As pointed out earlier, these iqrarnamas were not filed and preserved in the public records of the administration. Even in current practice, when a copy of the iqrarnama is submitted to the police, it is not filed and saved in their dossiers but disposed of after a verbal acknowledgement by the station policepersons receiving the document. This archival denial of the iqrarnamas is notable. The anga deo practices described in the iqrarnamas were/are important enough to require documentary activity by the state but not sufficiently respectable to warrant archiving. What might explain this ambivalence and ‘semi-archival’ status of the iqrarnamas, and the un-archivability of the anga deo practices?

In the seven iqrarnamasfrom the last few years of the reign of Bhanu Deo that I have studied closely (since the rest are badly torn and illegible), the supplicants call themselves gaon-wasi (villagers)/kashtkar (peasant tenants).16 There are groups as large as 15 people representing their village or as small as a family of five. They identify themselves as Gond, Thakur, Kalar, Gaita and Nai, communities categorized as tribal or Other Backward Castes today, groups comprising the mixed tribe-caste communities of Kanker. They belong to the villages of Nadanmara, Makdi, Chivranj, Urkuda from Kanker tehsil, and Pandarwahi and Bhondia from Bhanupratappur tehsil.

Following are my translations of the main contents of these iqrarnamas, one after the other, with only the names of primary supplicants. The few parentheses mentioning the translations of local terms that have been referenced in the essay, are mine.


The iqrarnama submitted by Bhav Singh Kalar, Mehettar Gond Gaita and others of Nadanmara on behalf of their village on 28.01.1946, reads as follows:

‘This is to seek permission from the Sub-Divisional Munsif Saheb of Kanker State to take Chhote Pat to Nadanmara, tehsil Kanker, for the purpose of the restoration of the proper arrangement of the village. You are respectfully informed that because the configuration of gods and goddesses is not proper/good in our village, the village is being disturbed/unmade/corrupted day by day through crisis and illness. We the villagers therefore want to take Chhote Pat Deo of the Kanker Rajbada (palace) for restoring the proper arrangement of the village and the gods. After offering what is customary, we will return Chhote Pat with care. We will not allow any trouble/disorder during this time. We submit the following for your kind permission.’17

In another iqrarnama from Nadanmara submitted on 18.08.1946, Bhav Singh Kalar, Shobha Ram Nai, Sonar Ram Gond and others, representing their village, wrote as follows:

‘We, the villagers of Nadanmara affirm that we want to take Chhote Pat Deo of the Kanker Rajbada to our village Nadanmara in the Kanker tehsil for restoring the proper arrangement of our village and for the upkeep of our village. We commit that we will offer worship as is customary and that the entire village will be responsible for this. Whatever arises out of this will be settled as per the decision of the local notables (panch),18 and the entire village will be responsible if there is any trouble or disorder. We will return Chhote Pat to his temple in the palace when our work with the gods is done.’19


In an iqrarnama dated 17.10.1946 from Makdi, Rahipal Thakur, son of Gaudo Gond, wrote in the following manner for his family and clan:

‘We of one clan in Makdi feel that sorrow is raining on our family because its arrangement has gone wrong. We therefore ask to take Chhote Pat of the temple in the palace to our village because the Kanker State has given him for the people. We want him to see our homes, and to restore their proper arrangement. If any action is taken, we will be responsible for it; and will see to it that there is no disorder on this count. We will organize the customary worship and return Chhote Pat to the temple.’20

In one iqrarnama, Rai Singh Parmanand Gada and other villagers from Bondia village applied on behalf of their village on 03.05.1947 as follows:

‘We are residents of Bhondia village of the Kanker State. The people of our village are falling ill daily. We don’t know what is afflicting them. The arrangement of our village and its gods is being disturbed/undone/corrupted. We want to take Chhote Pat who resides in the court of Rajmata (Queen-mother) in Kanker so that he can make a proper arrangement of gods in our village, remove any god who has come into someone’s house and to catch any wizard or witch. If anyone is found guilty, we undertake to offer whatever worship is required together.’21

From Pandarwahi village in the tehsil of Bhanupratappur, there was an application made through an iqrarnama on 26.05.1947 which reads thus:

‘The cattle in our village are sick and the village is also disturbed. We therefore want to take Chhote Pat, who resides in the palace of the Rajmata, to our village. Chhote Pat can be taken around the village for the making of a proper arrangement for the village. Whoever wants to take him to his house to catch any wizard or witch will be responsible for doing so. We will keep Chhote Pat with the other gods of the village and propitiate him as is customary. We as a village will be responsible if there is any trouble/ disorder during this time,’22


In another iqrarnama submitted the following year (03.11.1948), until when the colonial-princely administration was in place, the villagers of Chivranj represented themselves through Babji Gond and others in the following manner:

‘We are taking Chhote Pat, who lives in the palace of the senior Rajmata, to our village. There is a lack of peace in our village. We agree that we will accept whatever arrangement Chhote Pat makes for our village. We will not allow any manner of disorder. We are making Chhote Pat, Sone Kunwar Devi of Nawagaon and Bal Kunwar Devi of Kodejunga (all ancestral deities of one kind or another) our panch. We will conduct worship according to custom and whoever is guilty according to the investigation will be responsible for worship or else will face punishment decided by the panch.’23

Finally, in an undated iqrarnama on a Kanker State stamped paper, Bhav Singh Gond of Urkuda village wrote on behalf of his village:

‘We are the people of the state of Kanker. The arrangement of our village is not good. Because of the internal problem among gods, the people and cattle of the village are suffering loss. We therefore want to take Chhote Pat of Kanker State and palace for the restoration of the proper arrangement of our village. If Chhote Pat objects to anything or anyone, and if anyone is found guilty, he will be liable for punishment. We will look after Chhote Pat as per everyone’s advice.’24


It will help to summarize and then briefly analyze the content of these iqrarnamas at this point. All the petitions requested permission to take Chhote Pat to their villages. Chhote Pat was noted as residing in the palace of the Queen-mother or Rajmata that was also recognized as the main palace or Rajbada.25 The supplicants pleaded that the intervention of Chhote Pat was needed to resolve various problems faced by them. These problems were identified as crisis and lack of peace in the village, the disturbance or undoing of the pro-per arrangement and configuration of gods, of the village and of family, internal trouble among gods, the illness of people and cattle, and the spell of wizards and witches.


The state-kept ancestral deity Chhote Pat was expected to resolve these problems by investigating the issues at hand, divining the cause of these problems, including the identification of wizards and witches engaged in harmful activities, restoring or making the proper arrangement of gods, and of the village and family, and bringing peace to the village. He was either expected to do this alone or with other, local anga deos who would together form the panch, the decision-making group, for the matter in question. There is also mention of a panch of notable people from the village to whom the findings of Chhote Pat would be supplied for action.

The requisitioning people undertook to resolve the matter without any trouble and disorder. They committed themselves to do whatever was required to solve the problem, including punishing the culprits. They were also obliged to propitiate Chhote Pat according to custom. In one of the iqrarnamas, the supplicants state that the visit of the Chhote Pat was being requested because the Kanker State had given him for the people.

From a study of the more numerous and better-preserved iqrarnamas of the decades from the 1950s to 1990s, making allowances for change in the context and the practice in the post-colonial period, one can get a more extensive idea of the purview of the practices described above.26 These iqrarnamas are printed on the stamped paper of the Government of India. They contain applications from not just the villages of the former territory of princely Kanker but also from that of the former princely state of Bastar and the Chhattisgarh Agency, namely those areas which are now in the districts of Dhamtari, Durg and Raipur, adjacent to the district of Kanker.

There is a critical difference between the nature of the iqrarnamas of Kanker before and after 1948.27 While the iqrarnamas of the colonial-princely regime represent a formal application of subjects to the administration, requisitioning the visit of Chhote Pat, an ancestral Gond deity in the possession of the raja/state, after 1948, they represent an agreement between two legally equal parties, the supplicants and the former royal family, overseen by a third entity, the post-colonial state. In the latter case, a copy of the iqrarnama is given to the police.28


In all other respects, the post-1948 iqrarnamas follow the same pattern of petitioning as the iqrarnamas of the colonial-princely state. The applicants may be entire villages, or a family, or even one person. Most of these iqrarnamas mention issues and problems similar to those in the colonial-princely iqrarnamas but, given their number, we get a more comprehensive sense of the phenomenon now. Apart from the problems mentioned in the iqrarnamas of the princely state, the most common problems stated in these post-colonial iqrarnamas are the wrath of gods, drought and the bad condition of cultivable land, conflict within villages, theft, the illness of children, and missing persons. In many cases of theft, significant village gods or their ornaments are reported stolen.


In other problems related to village gods, Chhote Pat is asked to identify the placement of gods within the spaces of the village so that the villagers could have a sense of their proper arrangement and configuration, necessary for the peace of the village. In one iqrarnama from 1966, from the village of Sakarwara, the villagers complained that the village god was troubling the village and that the ‘business of gods’ in the village was spoiled.29 Most of these later iqrarnamas mention investigation or janch as the method through which Chhote Pat would resolve the problem, whether it is the investigation of persons or gods. They also speak of how they would select the decision-making panch as required from among the villagers and village gods; and that the decision of the panch would be binding on all.

Although the position of the main petitioners is seldom mentioned, except in some cases where the term gaita (priests/keepers of ancestral deities) is suffixed to the name, the petitioners speak on behalf of the whole village. There are scores of signatures in many of the iqrarnamas submitted on behalf of entire villages. In one from 1950s from Padampur, in a case involving theft, the villagers-supplicants state that they have given Chhote Pat the right to go wherever he pleases in the village and its jungles to find the wrongdoer.


Among the post-1948 iqrarnamas, I found two that went into the details of the activities described in them. The first of these is titled ‘description of program’ and is dated It reads as follows:

‘We villagers of Manjhicharra and Haliya appoint five panch and request them that they should fulfil their duty by asking Chhote Pat anga deo Rajmata-bada (Rajmata’s abode) Kanker to conduct a weeding of gods according to custom. Questions: 1. Is Shitala (goddess of pox) in her place or under someone’s spell? 2. Where is Thakur Deo (Village Founder God) and where is his place? 3. Where is Anna Kunwari (Goddess of Food)? Please show her to the panch. 4. Where are Sahda, Maoli, Chhapar and Gharsa (other significant cosmic forces)? Please have them investigated. 5. How many types of land/soil are there? Which is true and which is false? Show us their place. 6. What kinds of goddesses are in the pond? Kindly get them weeded out and tell us the cause. 7. Please get Rao, Pat and Seema (other significant cosmic forces) and other gods and goddesses weeded out. 8. Who is the main priest of this place? Get him to stand in front of the panch. 9. Please present those men in the village who do wizardry and witchcraft and play around with gods and goddesses. 10. Please do a weeding of the gods and goddesses of every house and (re)make them. The above-mentioned things should be done to our satisfaction. If anybody is dissatisfied with this he should have the right to speak before the villagers. Therefore we villagers request the panch and the priest of Chhote Pat to attend to the weeding of gods and goddesses, the state of our farms and fields and cattle and to purify our village.’

In this iqrarnama, the villagers ask the village panch and Chhote Pat to make/remake/restore the proper arrangement of the village in which the place and well-being of the gods and goddesses associated with various important aspects of village life like Anna Kunwari (goddess of food/grain/crop) and Seema (goddess of territory) have got undone/disturbed/corrupted. By ‘weeding’, the iqrarnama refers to the process of removing deities who have either been corrupted or rendered powerless.


In another iqrarnama dated 2 April 1965, members of a family of Gond and Gada (a sect of Gonds) gaitas of Largaon admitted to having stolen goddesses Hinglajin and Shitala, two pre-eminent village deities, and undertook to make amends.31 The main confession reads as follows:

‘I, Mansa Ram, son of Tuka Ram, caste Gada, am from Largaon Markatola… Out of five brothers, I have been looking after the ancestral gods of my family. I committed a mistake as a result of which there has been trouble in the village that the panch, Chhote Pat and Danteshwari (natal deity of the royal family) have pointed out. I had taken Shitala and Hinglajin under my control out of ill feelings, stolen them and hidden them in the farmstead of Bhav Singh Thakur. Today the gods pointed this out. I accept this mistake and undertake never to repeat it and to offer worship to all the gods, host a festival for them and to compensate whoever has suffered a loss as a result of my activities. I say this in my full senses and in front of witnesses.’

I believe that these iqrarnamas, in which the inert subject peoples of the administrative records32 of the colonial-princely state of Kanker emerge as recognizable persons, with their beliefs and practices, problems and concerns, fears and hope, conflicts and prejudices, give us an alternate view of the colonial-princely regime and its subjects from the formal, rationalist one carefully produced in the administrative records. In the iqrarnamas, which are legal and therefore statist documents, the colonial-princely state appears at first glance as a rational arbiter of popular cultural-religious activities. In fact, at the end of all the iqrarnamas, the administration can be seen warning the supplicants to avoid causing any trouble/disorder (danga-fasad) in the conduct of their activities, reducing its concern finally to questions of law and order.


The legal language in which the iqrarnamas are couched, distance the censorious state from what it would have publicly shunned as ‘superstition’. In fact, the anxiety about disorder, which is present in both the pre and post-colonial sets of iqrarnamas, shows up the colonial-princely state’s obsession of formally distancing itself from these activities.

Read differently and against the grain, the iqrarnamas broaden the horizon and draw the colonial-princely regime into the midst of real people, with names and palpable problems and issues that otherwise disappear in the aggregative and summarizing prose of the official reports; and into a whole world distinct from and in excess of the rational arena of the state. Most importantly, in all the iqrarnamas, the state’s Chhote Pat ancestral deity emerges as a powerful entity whose help and intervention is sought by the people in the many problems, disputes and events that form the everyday vicissitudes of their lives, as also in turning the very dynamic of their cosmos.

Chhote Pat is part of a cosmos in which these villages and their peoples are located, one that has its own field of forces in which gods, spirits and human beings are connected through complex and negotiated arrangements. The intervention of Chhote Pat is critical to this cosmos and to the colonial-princely regime which can be seen as facilitating this intervention. The concerns of law and order are here no longer those of censure of something external to the state but constitute the contingent exercise of power within a world in which the state has been relocated. Here ‘disorder’ could mean a challenge to the smooth functioning of the royal system of divination centred on Chhote Pat.

From this, it seems that the domain of the ‘state’ has mutated into a space very different from and inadmissible into that of rational governance and administration but one that is still centrally concerned with questions of power, authority and sovereignty, and hence the political. The sphere of ‘culture/religion’ in which the colonial anthropologists locate ancestral deity practices seems to be about everything that makes this world, including the state. What was this realm that is entirely veiled from view in mainstream understandings of the political and the polity of colonial-princely Kanker?


The political salience of ancestral deities and related practices is opened up if we listen to the accounts given by the people in this context. It is only in these accounts that we get to know who the Chhote Pat was or is, and why he was in the custody of the colonial-princely administration. What powers did Chhote Pat have for the people, and the ‘state’ did not, that allowed Chhote Pat this access into the world of the people? Or, by having control of Chhote Pat, was the colonial-princely regime hoping to have leverage on or share powers that resided elsewhere, beyond the domain of the ‘state’ as represented by itself in its records?

What was this powerful cosmos that seemed to exceed the arena of the ‘state’ and force an acknowledgement from it? What was this popular location of power that the ‘state’ transacted with (as seen in the iqrarnamas) but also outwardly othered (as in the silence about this in the administrative records and in the particular narrative strategies of colonial anthropology)?


Before I come to the case of Chhote Pat, let me stand alongside Manohar Netam, an ideologue of these communities, as he delineates the local cosmos. About sixty years of age, Netam is a Gond politician and social activist, who is centrally involved in the organization of the ancestral deity practices at the district level, including that of the festival of Dussehra. Armed with matriculation in Biology and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, he is also involved in a project to revive traditional medicine. From the village of Bhuigaon in the northern part of the Kanker district, he comes from a family of malguzars or colonial revenue collectors. Though one finds many versions of Netam’s exposition with minor departures among others, his account, in the main, is the most common and therefore representative.

According to Netam, ancestors have been deified because they possess powers of dealing with the various forces – of earth, climate, cultivation and food, illness, security – that constitute the realm of the land or bhum. Through their struggles to clear and settle the land, they dealt and negotiated with these forces, comprising both those that cause harm and those who do good, so that the land would be one of prosperity and good health for the people or bhumkal. Not only that, the ancestors are ever present, having merged their spirits (jiva) with those of the land, constantly guiding and supervising their descendants in their continued engagement with the forces of the land.


The ancestral deity practices constitute the means of achieving a proper arrangement and balance of all the forces of the world. The raja of Kanker, Netam recounted, had once propitiated the ancestral deities in order to be cured of leprosy. Once healed, he joined the powers of his own ancestors to that of the people so that together, all these ancestors were/are now charged with and look after the balance of forces that yield peace and nourishment for the land.

Read together with the information we can glean from the iqrarnamas and colonial anthropology, Netam’s account gives us a fair sense of the cosmology of the people. It is within this balance of forces that one must locate the political relations between the people, represented through their ancestors and related practices, and the colonial-princely regime. The stories of Thema and Medha Dokra mentioned at the beginning of the paper, and the play of power between them and the raja therein, suggest the structuring and re-structuring of this relationship further. However, it is in knowing about the ancestral deities in the possession of the colonial-princely regime, Bade and Chhote Pat, that we can divine the extent of the state’s involvement with this cosmos and its realm.

I got a couple of stories about how Bade and Chhote Pat, two Gond ancestral deities of the subgroup Nahars, a community of bamboo cultivators, came into the possession of the raja of Kanker, from Mansai Darro, the head priest of the ancestral deities of a group of 84 villages in the Bhanupratappur area of the Kanker district.33 Not incidentally, this area, with its ancestral ritual centre at Bansla, was an early capital of the pre-colonial kingdom of Kanker, certainly under the Kandra dynasty of the Nahars, between 1344-97.34

Darro told me that Bade and Chhote Pat had once been the local rajas of Bansla. One day, they were dancing in a glade in the forest. A nahrin, the wife of a nahar or bamboo cultivator, who had gone bathing in a pond nearby, saw this dance and became spellbound. Finding that she was late in returning home, the nahar went looking for his wife in the forest and came upon this scene. Angry at his wife’s indiscretion, he shot an arrow at the dancers, wounding Chhote Pat in one hand. Bade and Chhote Pat were incensed and cursed the nahar that unless they were propitiated by the bigger raja, trouble and crisis would befall the people.

Since then, Darro said, Bade and Chhote Pat have lived with the king, as his special guests, first at Bansla and then in Kanker. The confusion regarding who the raja was – Bade and Chhote Pat or the propitiating raja or even the naharapart, Darro’s account clearly bears out the power of the royal anga deos in relation to the popular cosmos and the raja.


In another account, Darro gave a different picture. Once in the period of raja Narharideo in the late 19th century, the Nahars in Bansla were resisting the raja. Impatient with the fact that their ancestral deities Chhote and Bade Pat were not being able to bring them success against the raja, they set them adrift in the river. Floating fast with the currents of the water, Bade and Chhote Pat arrived in Kanker. Struck by their brilliance, the raja and the people lifted them out of the river and installed them in the palace.

All these ethnographic vignettes suggest that in the imagination of the people, ancestral deities and the rulers were locked together in a relationship of power where authority and sovereignty were not just a matter between them but part of a larger cosmic dynamic and their ability to enter and influence it for the good of the realm. In this case, the colonial-princely state’s possession of the Chhote and Bade Pat anga deos or ancestral deities, and the royal practices described in the iqrarnamas and colonial ethnographies, show us that the colonial-princely state of Kanker sought to control an important strand in the local web of power that allowed it, along with its own specific status in the cosmos as indicated by Netam, effective intervention in the balance of power in the field of forces that comprised the world of the people.


These important ancestral spirits, acquired, controlled and deployed by the state, helped it achieve much more effectively its own stated aim of governance and unstated aim of exercising power. Here, the sphere of the political/historical is punctured and the ingenious distinctions between it and the cultural/religious blurs, and more plural and shared, if also contested, realms of power and polity come into view. The political history of colonial-princely Kanker is no longer dominated let alone monopolized by the state and the people become agential, active in shaping their world. To be sure, this is not a benign imagination or world, but one that is fraught, political in a very immediate, rough-and-ready sense of the term.

In following these accounts, we must ask if we can think, as argued by Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, outside the ‘language of stateness’, the modern state’s registers of governance and authority, in this case statist documents like the iqrarnamas and the colonial ethnographies, to ask how the state, or more correctly the polity, looks like from outside its own expressions.35 Can we, as Achille Mbembe says, imagine ‘other languages on power’, ‘languages (that) emerge from the daily life of the people, and address everyday nightmares and fears, and the images with which people express or dream them’.36


If state formations or polities are to be seen as dialogic, multifarious processes, as a recent work on the colonial state has argued,37 and we are to gesture to political imaginations of communities we have considered pre-political and outside history, we must not just ‘explain or translate but engage through these languages’38 with realities that make our shared world. In the imagination of the people of Kanker, through precisely one such language, the colonial-princely state of Kanker gets relocated, and in the process re-constituted, as an entity that belongs to an open-ended field of forces it can scarcely hope to dominate and can enter only on terms not of its own making.


* A preliminary exploration of a few themes and sources in this paper has appeared in Aditya Pratap Deo, ‘Of Kings and Gods: The Archive of Sovereignty in a Princely State’, Gyanendra Pandey (ed.), Unarchived Histories: The ‘Mad’ and the ‘Trifling’ in the Colonial and Postcolonial World. Routledge, New York, 2013, pp. 127-143. The main theme and focus of this essay and the detailed discussion of the sources herein, are its own though.


1. Aditya Pratap Deo, ‘Of Kings and Gods’ in Gyanendra Pandey (ed.), Unarchived Histories, pp. 130-32.

2. Ibid., pp. 135-137.

3. For a discussion of the ‘culturization’ of tribes see Prathama Banerjee, ‘Culture/Politics: The Curious Double-Bind of the Indian Adivasi’, in Gyanendra Pandey (ed.), Subaltern Citizens: Investigations from India and the USA. Routledge, New York, 2009.

4. For example, see J.R. Valyani and V.D. Sahasi, Bastar aur Kanker Riyasat Ka Rajnaitik evam Sanskritic Itihas. Divya Prakashan, Kanker, 1997.

5. This set of propositions is well known and can be found in Banerjee, ‘Culture/Politics’, and by the same author, The Politics of Time: ‘Primitives’ and History-writing in a Colonial Society. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; also in Morton Fried, The Notion of Tribe. Cummings, Menlo Park, 1975; and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000.

6. A broad and philosophical statement of this position can be found in Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, pp. 97-113.

7. See Nandini Sundar, Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar, 1854 to 2006,Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2014, and by the same author, the more recent The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar. Juggernaut, Delhi, 2016, for how this phenomenon has played out historically in the larger neighbouring region of Bastar. For what an alternative approach can make possible, see R.C. Singh Deo, Bastar Development Plan. State Planning Board, Bhopal, Government of Madhya Pradesh, 1984, and by the same author, Civilization in a Hurry, Vaibhav Prakashan, Raipur, 1982. For an argument about development’s a-political, or even ‘anti-political’, claims see James Ferguson, The Anti-Political Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

8. Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat (ed.), States of Imagination: Ethnographic Imagination of the Postcolonial State. Duke University Press, Durham, 2001, p. 5.

9. I have a short discussion of the iqrarnamas in Deo, ‘Of Kings and Gods’, as well.

10. I am taking the liberty of pluralizing non-English words like iqrarnama, and later anga deo (ancestral deity), in the English way by suffixing ‘s’, for ease of writing and smooth flow of the narrative.

11. Valyani and Sahasi, Bastar aur Kanker, pp. 77-80.

12. Verrier Elwin, The Muria and their Ghotul. Oxford University Press, Calcutta, 1947, p. 192.

13. Valyani and Sahasi, Bastar aur Kanker, pp. 101-109.

14. Elwin, The Muria, p. 192.

15. W.V. Grigson, The Maria Gonds. Oxford University Press, London, 1936, p. 198.

16. Anga Deo Iqrarnama (henceforth ADI), Series 1.1-1.7, 1946-48 (Private Collection, Kanker Palace Library, Kanker). The translations of these, by me, are also now attached to the main documents; and figure here as they are.

17. ADI, 1.1.

18. Literally ‘five’, referring to the classic group of five elders who have traditionally comprised the head of the village self-government across periods in a large part of the Indian subcontinent.

19. ADI, 1.2.

20. ADI, 1.3.

21. ADI, 1.4.

22. ADI, 1.5.

23. ADI, 1.6.

24. ADI, 1.7.

25. After assuming ruling powers, Bhanu Pratap Deo took up residence in the bungalow of the erstwhile Political Agent that subsequently became the new palace. His foster father and predecessor raja Komal Deo’s surviving wife Shivnandini Devi, the Rajmata, lived in the Rajbada. Chhote Pat’s temple was situated in the Rajbada complex.

26. Anga Dev Iqrarnama, Series 2-6,1949-2010. Private Collection, Kanker Palace Library, Kanker.

27. The Kanker State’s administration was in place till 1948.

28. The reasons why the iqrarnamas remain in use even today are several. To some extent this practice from colonial times was retained after 1948 out of form. The paperwork also permitted a better management of Chhote Pat’s visits by the former royal family, which no longer had the benefit of the administration behind it. In recent years, the iqrarnamas have served to legitimate a practice that is considered by normative discourses to be ‘superstition’, especially since the practice encroaches on the ‘secular’ sphere of justice that is claimed as the monopoly of the post-colonial state. The royal family, the supplicants, as well as the police, have found it prudent to have this practice ‘legalized’.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Deo, ‘Of Gods and Kings’. The administrative records describe the subject people in general terms, and through the language of administration, as the objects, often reduced to numbers, of government policy, rules and regulations.

33. These stories have appeared first in Deo, ‘Of Gods and Kings’.

34. Valyani and Sahasi, Bastar aur Kanker, pp. 77-80.

35. Blom Hansen and Stepputat, States of Imagination, p. 5.

36. Quoted in Harry G. West, Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, p. 3.

37. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, The Colonial State: Theory and Practice. Primus, Delhi, 2016, pp. 1-42; See also Alpa Shah, In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India. Duke University Press, Durham, 2010, for a strong argument for mining post-colonial local political imaginaries and ethics.

38. West, Kupilikula, p. 4.