Memory and visual politics of Gond religion


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KACHARGARH is a series of caves in the hill forests of the central Indian state of Maharashtra, and is locally described as utapatti sthal, a ‘site of origin’. It is indeed a site of new envisioning: a space of a revived annual pilgrimage, literary production, and cultural and political awakening for the indigenous or tribal groups called Gonds. Initiated in the 1980s, this pilgrimage is organized every year in Magh Poornima (an auspicious lunar date in several Indic traditions/calendars, usually falling in January/February). The Gondi revivalist movement that emerged here in the 1980s has worked to establish an organized adivasi (indigenous) religion called Gondi Punem or Gondi Dharam. This collective re-invention and refashioning, along with an annual pilgrimage for the deity Mata Kali Kankali that ensued, has fundamentally altered the cultural, religious, and material landscape of central India.

This essay traces the conceptions of the origins of a Gond deity/leader named Lingo, who appears abundantly in this visual culture of Punem. The first part of the essay delineates the circumstances in which the deity came to be illustrated by a late-Victorian artist, Alice Bolingbroke Woodward, in 1916. The works of an Anglican missionary, Eyre Chatterton, whose book Woodward’s image features in, and Woodward of course, are critical to this section as they pull in the imagery of Christ, and Gond men as ‘Man’s ancestors’. This part studies how some of the illustrations by Woodward enter the realm of the sacred in the 1980s and become a site of contesting identities and spaces as much a site of making religion. By highlighting crucial transformations in the images of Lingo, this essay comments on the conceptions of Gond religion (and, culture) in the imaginary of Punem.

The second part of the essay takes up the task of exploring the ways in which Lingo gets deployed by the Punem while it draws upon select lineages of the colonial thought. My purpose is to show how the visual depictions of Lingo, and related aspects of the pilgrimage in which these depictions are made, express Gond desires to speak and take on the normative narratives of their marginality.


The revivalists of Gondi Punem find it compelling to engage with colonial ethnography while developing modes of self-representation. The Gond intellectuals collectively engage with one another through reading, writing and commenting on colonial anthropology, British administration reports and issues of cultural significance. While rituals and performative traditions also influence the visual archive of Punem, this essay specifically emphasizes the influences of colonial ethnography on this archive.

In India, colonial ethnography was responsible for creating cultural and regional stereotypes about the ‘aboriginals’. Gonds and Gondwana were crucial for the sustenance of this cultural imaginary as the ethnological studies on India also produced the ideas of ‘primitivism’, and later, deep time.1 This ethnological corpus is viewed as a relevant resource for the Gond intellectuals of the late twentieth century. The Gond intellectuals set up conversations with these writings while selectively borrowing content and methods of exposition from them. New modes of self-representation of an (Gond) Adivasi subject in post-colonial India are derived from these writings. While doing so, these self-representations sometimes retain the legitimacy of colonial writings. At the same time, Gond deities and a landscape for a homeland named Gondwana is also retrieved from colonial archives. This landscape is reframed and disseminated among the community.

An image of a prominent Gond deity named Lingo, sketched by Woodward, appeared in a story-book titled The Story of Gondwana (1916),2 written by the then Bishop of Nagpur Diocese named Eyre Chatterton. This black and white illustration appears on the book cover of a poetry collection by Prakash Sallame in Marathi titled Koyaphool (2001), albeit with colours filling in the illustrations and cultural symbols of the Gonds adorning the protagonist of the image.3 From Sallame’s book cover the image soon finds its way into the mass produced calendar images of Gond deities: a form of visual representation that is imbued with messianic potential. In this particular collage of the deities, the image is seated with historical and religious figures like Rani Durgavati and Shambhu/Shiv. This is just one of the many trajectories of genre-crossing of content.


Through the Gondi Punem certain paradigmatic shifts in the nature of worship are envisioned: movements of shrines and deities from city places to caves, from idol worship of gods to veneration of ancestors, and from elaborate to comparatively simplified rituals. Mass produced god posters emerging out of this movement offer a valuable insight into the ways in which revivalist ideas are received by Gond peoples. Various struggles over contested deities and spaces manifest in the realm of the god posters. Lingo is liberated from colonial archives to be represented in god posters lending him an ebullience all of his own. In the process, the visual language of Lingo selectively employs the trope of the monster and of the rakshasas.


The Gondi Punem envisages a distinct, consolidated religion for the Gonds. Certain deities are reclaimed from the Hindu pantheon, while previously lesser known Gond deities are standardized. This cultural project challenges Hindutva’s concept of vanvasi by reclaiming forest spaces for the religion. Simultaneously, Punem finds it significant to uphold the European discourses of ‘aboriginality’, and the terms ‘Gond’ and ‘Gondwana’. ‘The term Gondwana confers dignity and rights on the indigenous people of India’, declared the religious leader Motiravan Kangale in a Literary Meet conducted in Korba (Chhattisgarh), in June 1991.4 These revivalists’ writings are primarily in Marathi and Hindi.

Accounts of European explorers, ethnographers, missionaries and British administrators coupled with indigenous modes of thought became a crucial resource for the Gond intellectuals of 1980s.5 Writings by John Malcolm, Stephen Hislop and Eyre Chatterton are considered as legitimate historical accounts that are deployed for re-creating local histories to assert Gond peoples’ cultural sovereignty. These anthropological writings are cited as sources for the events relevant to the Gond past.

One of the revivalists named Vyankatesh Atram uses documentations of colonial ethnologists and administrators to reclaim Gond history. Ruins of forts and cities have a mobilizing potential. Covered in dust/ashes, these are antiquities imbued with pride and are also subjects of recovery. A history embodied in these artefacts waits to be discovered. In the words of the author of a Gond Gatha (A Gond Tale), ‘This golden history of Gondwana was quiet just like the embers buried beneath the ashes’,6 but has now burst into flames. This incendiary potential of a residual being governs the tone of the writings of the revivalists.


The ruins of forts invoke a heroic Gond past and estrangement from the perspective of the ones who were once the subjects of this kingdom. In the first chapter of his book, Atram cites a poem in Gondi7 and translates it in Marathi, which reads as

‘Ancient is the history of Gondwana

Of the kingdom named Gondwana

As it has endured through eternity’.8

A catalogue of ‘Gond forts’ follows this invocation. Along with forts, geographical places and towns significant to this cultural imaginary are presented as ‘kingdoms’ here. The grandeur of this past compels the poet to bow to it in an act of worship. This intimate, lyric form is followed by a British administrator’s report: ‘Walled towns, Forts, great irrigation works still remain as witness of Gond Power and Civilization’.9

A memory of the Gond kingdoms finds representation in orality, and poetry in print. Simultaneously, the written accounts of the ethnographers from the colonial times are pressed into the service of orality and memory, thereby lending objectivity to the latter. Chatterton’s The Story of Gondwana too is effectively utilized by the Gond intellectuals for the revival of the pilgrimage. The landscape and myths presented by Chatterton are a crucial point of departure for understanding the Gondwana conjured up in the religious realm.

Chatterton’s rendering of the Lingo myth in verse and visual, and the depictions of spaces in them, are followed as guidelines to identify a place appropriate for an Adivasi pilgrimage.10 The writings of the revivalists, especially those of Motiravan Kangale, are foundational texts in the Gondi Punem movement as they establish the norms of its cultural beliefs and practices. Chatterton’s Gondwana serves as an initial point of reference to conceptualize Lingo for Punem. Some of the visuals from Chatterton travel into this revivalist literature. These processes and transactions are topics of discussion in this section.


Lingo in Colonial Anthropology: Multiple Tales and Forms –

‘The story resembled Joseph’s temptation... Was not this strange mythical personage in some way preparing these primitive people for the message of the Gospel?’

(Eyre Chatterton,

The Story of Gondwana)

The figure of Lingo has appeared variously in anthropological accounts before and after independence. The central theme in these different tellings of the legend, is that of Lingo liberating Gonds from a confinement. The Gond children are imprisoned in a cave by the deity Mahadeva or Shiva, also known as Shambhu, for their misdemeanor. After having liberated them, Lingo initiates them into a kinship structure.


Stephen Hislop is believed to have heard a ‘Legend of Lingo’ from a Pardhan bard in Gondi before he rendered it in the Roman script. Hislop describes Lingo as the one who ‘cut down the trees, and burnt them for ashes, which fertilized the ground, and made it yield’.11 Under the supervision of the colonial administrator Richard Temple, the legend was translated first from Gondi to Hindi and then from Hindi to English.12 Hislop’s notes published posthumously as Papers Relating to the Aboriginal Tribes of the Central Provinces (1866) presents Gondi and English tellings, both in the Roman script. Captain Forsyth, in Highlands of Central India (1872), more specifically in ‘The Lay of Lingo’, rendered the legend into ‘the Hiwatha style’ of poetry. Eyre Chatterton uses Hislop’s tellings of the legend to suggest to the Gonds ‘to think that they owed their simple civilization to a being of a higher order than themselves.’13

In accounts of the twentieth century anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (1909-1995), Lingo is found as an infant ‘with a silver book’ in which is inscribed a prophecy: ‘His name and clan shall be famous in future’. In this peculiar account, Lingo is trained by a sage, Sonkastar, who ‘gave in his hand the book of the Parendra Khara Gond gods’.14 In the same documentation is another description of Lingo which goes as follows: ‘A bow and arrow he gave him/A gun with a powder horn on his hip and/small horn round his neck’. In all the accounts, Lingo is conceptualized in a human form, but visual representations of him are rare. In Chatterton’s insertion of the Lingo myth in print, we find possibly the first ever visual representation of this Gond deity.


In the year 1902, the Church of North India established the Nagpur Diocese and ordained Eyre Chatterton as its inaugural bishop. ‘Aboriginal’ peoples in the region, specifically Gonds, were perceived as the primary subjects of conversion. Chatterton served Nagpur Diocese for twenty-three years before being ordained as Assistant Bishop Diocese of Canterbury in the year 1926. Towards the end of his term in Nagpur, Chatterton hopes that under his successor’s tutelage, ‘the Church will press forward with renewed missionary activity to win thousands of Gonds into the Kingdom of Christ’.15 He was responsible for managing religious and educational matters related to the mission. In his words: ‘The work of the Nagpur Diocese, like that indeed of most other Indian Dioceses, is of two kinds – pastoral and evangelistic. We have to care for those who are already Christians... and... to attempt the evangelisation of a vast non-Christian population’.16

The community termed ‘Gonds’ disturbed imperial and evangelical projects in Central India. Some of the Gond groups had participated in the Revolt of 1857.17 The Bhumkal rebellion of 1910 was a violent response to the British administration’s control of forest resources in Bastar region.18

Chatterton perceived the heterogeneity and expanse of various social groups of Nagpur Diocese as the main challenge to the spread of Christianity in Central India. The Nagpur Diocese, that appears to him as ‘three times as big as England and Wales’,19 was rife with emergent nationalist assertions. Responses to these challenges drive the narratives in his writings. At the time of the publication of The Story, the Nagpur Diocese comprised three territories – the Central Provinces, Central India, and Rajputana. Out of these three political regions, only Central Provinces (CP) formed a part the British Empire while the rest functioned as princely states. In essence, CP was a British governed enclave surrounded by the ‘Native feudatory states’.20 The relatively low interference of the local chieftains and the presence of the population then perceived as the ‘aboriginal’ groups in the region made it an important site for the mission’s work.


Diverse anxieties operate in Chatterton’s writings. At the level of the Diocese, the Gonds were entrenched in their local customs and were resistant to religious interventions. Yet in his diaries, Chatterton’s fascination with several cults and the messianic nature of the local religions is revealed. He is repelled by the ritual of ‘lotting te deeg’: ‘a very weird and almost savage ceremony’. However very early on, the need for a vernacular Christianity is realized in his writings as the Christian Gonds were witnessed to have ‘relapsed into their old paganism’. His observations of the Gond peoples’ customs leads him to marvel at the attachment the Gonds feel for the ‘leaders of their own race’.21 He concludes in his diary that ‘if some gifted Gond Christian in future days arises with a message to his race, one may see a big movement into the Christian Chruch’.22

Chatterton is compelled by his experiences with the Gonds to cast the narratives of mission in a local form and idiom for them to have any effect on the peoples of Gondwana. In his narration of an experience of religious conversion from the Punjab, we are presented with a scene in which Jesus Christ implores in Hindustani, ‘How long will you persecute Me? I have come to save you. You were praying to know the right way, why do you not take it?’23 Through the writings of Chatterton it emerges that in order to be sustained in India, Christianity would have to be re-imagined in the local idiom of belief.

Furthermore, the debates on the Indian Church Act of 1927, which separated the Church of India from the Church of England, govern the tone of his writings. As an exponent of the independent power of the Church in India he proclaims that ‘the Prayer Book created for England over two centuries and a half ago doesn’t meet the spiritual needs of Indians many of whom are Indian aborigines and quite primitive’.24 Later in the essay, we shall see how the visualization of the tribal ‘deity’ Lingo (in the ‘Epic of Lingo’) attends to these diverse challenges.


The part-ethnographic, part-lyrical and part-visual account by Eyre Chatterton, titled The Story, included a ‘Foreword’ by Benjamin Robertson, the then Chief Commissioner of CP. It also includes an English translation of ‘The Epic of Lingo’ previously collected by Stephen Hislop (1817-1863), a Scottish missionary and geologist, who is credited with conducting one of the first archaeological excavations in central India.25


With an emphasis on the allegorical narratives of Christian conversions, The Story follows the form of a story book in which historical events are presented as fantastical narratives. It uses legends, photographs and illustrations to construct a ‘Gondwana’ as it culls out historical information from previous ethnographic works. While the photographs mobilize the ‘ruins’ of Gondwana’s forts, the illustrations present beliefs of the Gonds with a missionary subtext. As such, the text and its illustrations are resonant with Chatterton’s position as the Bishop of Nagpur. Chatterton’s account professes to be ‘redeeming the narrative (of Gondwana) from its otherwise antiquarian character, and while it is hoped it will give our readers some ideas of what their fellow countrymen are doing in this part of India’.26

Soon after its publication, a review of The Story was published in Illustrated London News.27 The review congratulated Chatterton for providing through his work the ‘splendid proof that its (India’s) hopes and futures are bound with those of the Empire’. By enlisting multiple instances from the book the review confirms the value of the British presence in India for its colonial subjects.

Photographs of forts, shrines, and landscape of Gondwana are used to lend authority to the narrative. Chatterton’s recuperation of previous ethnographic works attempts to lend the authority of a British administrator to the text. The renewed use of ‘the Epic’ and the insertion of photographs and illustrations throw up multiple authorial voices. Chatterton inserts this part as in his view, ‘no book could be complete without mentioning the strange customs of the Gonds’.28 Of the three books and the journals that he edited, The Story is the most complex text in terms of its genre: it simultaneously operates in the modes of fantasy and ethnography.

It emphasizes the compelling need of the Christian mission to incorporate local beliefs in its canon. In The Story, Chatterton asserts how the ‘Epic of Lingo’ resembled ‘Joseph’s temptation’. According to Chatterton, Lingo is ‘full of forgiveness for his murderers’ and he undergoes ‘severe penance for a whole year’ to rescue his four brothers. This self-effacing nature of Lingo drives Chatterton to ask: ‘Was not this strange mythical personage in some way preparing these primitive people for the message of the Gospel?’29 In Chatterton’s re-visioning of ‘The Epic of Lingo’, iconic similarities are forged between Christ and Lingo (the ancestral man of the Gonds). These two icons coalesce to create an ‘Emancipator’. Although aiming at the conversion of the ‘aboriginals’ to Christianity, Chatterton’s literary efforts triggered intriguing processes of visual representation. This image sketched by the prolific artist Woodward, brought together ethnographic ideas of ‘aboriginal’ religion, ‘primitivism’ (in depictions of the four Gond brothers), and fantasy.


Alice Bolingbroke Woodward was a professional illustrator who contributed regularly to British Museum of Natural History (BHNM) and to more popular children’s literature like The Peter Pan Picture Book (1911), Waterbabies (1863), Black Beauty (1877), Adventures of Alice in Wonderland (1865) and the Bon-Mots of the Nineteenth Century (1897). Woodward simultaneously sketched scientific drawings and popular illustrations, the former ‘she signed with her name’ and book illustrations were ‘decorated with a butterfly’.30 She engaged with the form of anthropological drawings of ‘prehistoric creatures’ from 1905 to 1938.31 The scientific drawings featured in BHNM publications were sometimes used in classrooms for teaching.


Through the contribution of Woodward in Chatterton’s story-book, the ‘tribal’ deity enters the realm of the visual. Lingo enters visuality en-framed as a Gond ‘Emancipator’: ‘Him who came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His Life a ransom for many’.32 By selectively combining previously documented textual accounts and illustrations, ‘The Story of Gondwana’ enabled Chatterton’s framing of this Gond deity as a ‘soul naturally Christian’ to enter into the imaginary of the British public. With the image, Chatterton presented the Gonds to be in agreement with the objectives of the mission.

This visual by Woodward appears towards the end of ‘The Epic’. Only two moments related to Lingo are visualized by Woodward – that of the birth of Lingo and the one in which Lingo crosses a river with four other Gonds. At this point in the narrative, Lingo has rescued the four Gond brothers from confinement. On their journey back to ‘Kachikupar Lohgad’ in the Satpura hills, they encounter a river. Seeing that Lingo and the brothers are stuck in a storm, a turtle and crocodile offer to take them across the river. By analyzing the genre and the representational dynamics of the image, I unravel multiple authorial voices embodied in this work. Various factors leading to this specific conceptualization of the Gonds are already delineated in the previous sub-section.


Lingo and the Four Gonds Cross the River.33


Two pages before the image appears in the text, the readers are told that ‘the tortoise is a sacred animal or ‘totem’ to the Gonds. No religious Gond would hunt, kill, or eat the tortoise’. In Fig.1, depictions of Lingo and other Gonds are starkly different. Unarmed, illuminated, Lingo stands upright on ‘Dame the tortoise’ amidst a storm. Lingo is undeterred by the harsh weather and his poise reflects conviction and confidence. Portrayed in bright clothes with arms crossed in front of his chest, the facial reflections of Lingo are calm and somber.34 The waterscape around him is sketched brightly as if it is illuminated by Lingo’s presence. The other four Gond brothers are represented as dark, scantily clad, crooked and with mangled bodies. The facial features of the four brothers are not distinct while their bodies bearing bows, arrows and spears are struggling to find space at the back of the crocodile named ‘Pusi, the Alligator’, who attempts to drown them ‘in anticipation of a substantial meal’.35


Lingo is deliberately staged in contrast to the four Gond brothers, since the figure Lingo-as-the-savior stands alongside the four brothers, who are heaped on top of each other and appropriated as the ‘degraded’ brothers – a metonym for the ‘primitive savages’. Unlike Chatterton’s descriptions of the Gonds’ attachment to the ‘leaders of their own race’, in this visual narrative, a rift is created between the leaders and the followers. The visual juxtaposition of Lingo-as-Joseph and the four-Gond-brothers both accentuated the evangelist nature of the Lingo and silenced the Gond brothers, transforming their bodies into those of the ‘prehistoric man’, thus placing them in primitive time. Altogether, Woodward’s sketch exemplifies iconic powers, a representation which sought to materialize Christianity’s triumph over local religious practices.

Each of the two clusters employs a different visual language of its own. The image is a mix of allegory and anthropological stereotypes. This visual narrativisation of Lingo is a site of two encounters: (i) of a Christian missionary with ‘aboriginal’ beliefs and, (ii) of geological depictions of the Man with the aboriginal peoples of Central India.


This illustration represents the deity of the Gonds separated from its followers. An erect, haloed Lingo is depicted just before he is about to rescue the Gond brothers from vile machinations of a ‘wicked alligator’. This is a moment in the narrative when the brothers are to be rescued for one last time before they are initiated into a ‘civilized lifestyle’.36 For the British readers of the text, the depiction of the four Gond brothers might have conjured up different associations. The illustrations of Lingo, in this case, have allographic relations to Woodward’s scientific drawings. Beyond that, the two visualizations of Lingo and the Gonds relate the geological and anthropological ideas of the ‘aboriginal’ peoples to the popular perceptions about the same!

For the western readers of Chatterton’s text, Lingo would have appeared as a savior and the Gond brothers similar to ‘A Man’s New Ancestor from 30,000 years ago!’ The visual antecedents of the four brothers could be traced to the scientific drawings of Woodward, especially the ones in which she reconstructed primitive man.


Repelling an Attack – A Family Group of Paranthropus Robustus, whose skull was lately discovered in South Africa. A reconstruction drawing by Alice B. Woodward.37

Fig. 2 is a reconstruction illustration of the Kromdraai ape of the middle Pleistocene period: ‘the link (no longer missing) between man and ape’. When juxtaposed with this image of ‘Man’s ancestor’, it becomes apparent that the four Gonds were conceived of in the lines of this primitive man. A similar visual language depicts them with scantily clothed dark bodies and indistinct facial features. The two primitive men are to be distinguished from each other only by their weapons. By the deployment of a distinct visual language, Woodward pulled in a subtext of the primitive in this image. This delineation of the multiple discourses operating in this image brings to the fore various lenses through which the British public might have viewed the Gonds in the early twentieth century.


Intriguingly, Woodward’s illustrations of Lingo are mobilized in the revivalist movement of the Gonds. Pilgrimages and shrines are revived in the forested regions, the very regions that were essential to the creation of the category of ‘aboriginal’. In this project too, the visual realm undergoes an efflorescence, in which ancestral deities and historical figures find representation in visuality, albeit in the form of god posters.

The realm of visual is significant to the creation of this discursive tradition and collective self-making. Given the linguistic heterogeneity in the Gondi language practices,38 the visual emerges as stable site of making religion by the community.


Since the 1980s, select illustrations from The Story have been appropriated and circulated afresh in different forms and by the Gonds themselves. The illustrations cross multiple visual genres, gain multiple narrative after-lives, and respond to the legacies of colonial anthropology in the political and cultural domains. Re-cast in the form of religious paintings and posters in print, the illustrations attempt to imbue Lingo with a messianic potential in the midst of the revivalist movement. These reinvigorations of Lingo’s illustrations inform us not just about the peculiar attempts to find history in colonial anthropology, but also about the cultural identities, and the historical and political imaginations of the Gonds in post-colonial, independent nation of India.

The emergence of Gondi Punem movement is contemporaneous with the proliferation of new media in the hinterlands. Collaborative authorship and rapid circulation of religious and political materials is enabled by new media. Contemporary media practice is South Asia shows how new media has allowed a spatial and social mobility to religious ideas.39 Sometimes, the god posters cause proliferations of ‘omnipraxy’, i.e. thriving of a populist version of tradition that does not require mediation of a ritual specialist in the acts of devotion.40 Similarly, due to the involvement of images in the rituals, scholars of visuality have often called for the study of ‘corpothetics’, i.e. a range of activities and sense through which the images participate in religious sphere. After being retrieved from colonial archives, the image of Lingo is re-cast in the form of god posters, thereby making the visual realm specifically significant for the conception of religiosity in the context of Punem.


Although scholars of tribal history have addressed Gond reform movements to understand the processes of religious transformations among the Gonds, they have rarely considered this particular conversation of the Gonds with colonial ethnography.41 The recent reclaiming of the Lingo from colonial archives presents a peculiar case in which the very knowledge that was intended at annihilation of the Gond beliefs and customs is retrieved, imbued with potent symbols, and deployed for reclamation of their cultural identity.

The Gondi Punem revivalism is centered on forest places and consolidates a religion based on the model of ‘animism’ that was deployed in colonial censuses. Gond deities like Pari Kupar Lingo and Mata Jungo Raitad are reinstated as ancestral deities, both in metaphorical and physical forms.42 Depictions of the deities and landscapes negotiate and reflect the shifts in the nature of worship. Multiple challenges of visual representation remain. How does one understand visual representations of gods that are now understood as ancestral deities? In a religious movement that perceives shrine as an intervention in its belief world, how would idols and iconographies embody/articulate religious discourses? A darshana (the act of worshipful viewing) imagery is emergent in these images. Moreover, the diminished role of rituals in the Punem calls for the re-evaluation of the concept of ‘corpothetics’.


Some of the prominent themes in the posters of Gondi Punem are deities, pilgrimage centres, landscapes, Adivasi leaders, ruins and kings of Gondwana, and the terrestrial globe. Circulating either in print or digital form, these posters recover and re-associate images in multiple ways. The posters pull in multiple forms of images and archives: archaeological seals, locally produced paintings, political icons, scripts, photographs of tribal leaders and cultural artefacts. Some of the photographs used in the posters date back to the colonial period whereas others are more recent. Tremendous heterogeneity is exhibited in terms of the representations of scripts and Adivasi leaders. Among the Adivasi leaders in the posters, the Santhal rebel leader Birsa Munda occupies a prominent position. Representation of other Adivasi leaders like Sido Murmu and Tantya Bhil is contingent on the location of the press.


Lingo in the Posters of Gods:

‘Acts of seeing become acts of knowing as viewers/ consumers impute new meanings to familiar images. Such agency enables a civil society to grapple with change, to process change through indigenous sociologies of knowledge.... The visual realm is very often a critical component in this process in South Asian modernity’.43

The compelling power of visuals in everyday lives, i.e. of ‘control through vision’, has for a long time invited the discipline of history and popular culture to use visuality to redefine their historiography.44 Focusing on the Lingo images from the last five years, this section looks at popular, visual modes of representation in the Gondi Punem to highlight recurrent themes in it. Furthermore, it accentuates a cultural point of view that is retrieved from contested narratives and spaces.

Lingo, known as Rupolang Pahandi Pari Kupar Lingo (in the context of the Punem), is a significant mythical figure among the Gonds. He is revered for introducing the kinship structures and values of the Punem to his Gond followers. As Kangale notes,

‘On this Singardwip, Lingo established the principles that define the Punemi (of Punem) identity of the Koyas. Lingo is also a title for all the priests who advanced the values of Punem’.45


Visual representations of Lingo have significantly evolved in recent times. Lingo signifies the standardization project of the Gondi Punem. He has come to become one of most popular of the Gond deities. He is represented in different spaces, both public and domestic, in popular literature, shrines and in cement forms in villages that have a significant Gond population. Contemporary representations of Lingo in the visual media have correspondingly evolved conventions that are driven by mass production and a quest for homogenization. Characteristic of the twentieth century calendar art, Lingo has crystallized into a set of powerful icons in the form of god poster. Generally, the visuals are a response to a lineage of cultural stereotypes of beliefs, peoples and the region of Gondwana.

This particular image (Fig. 3) of Lingo that appears on an invitation card by the organising committee of Kachargarh pilgrimage (Pari Kupar Lingo Kali Kankali Devsthan Committee) is a recent formation. Lingo is presented as a human in a sitting position, more in the convention of a sage, adarshana imagery emergent in it, slightly muscled, adorned with symbols and jewellery of significance to revivalist discourse, showing the ‘three-way’ path to his followers; and Persapen, an ancestral deity, elegantly sits on the palm of the left hand. This standardised image of Lingo borrows conventions of representation of the god poster industry that has flourished since the twentieth century.


2018 Invitation Card by Kali Kankali Trust, Dhanegaon.

The Gond leader Lingo is marked as a human figure clad in white dhoti, and a yellow piece of cloth is wrapped around his chest. The yellow turban of Lingo integrates in it the bison-horn crown, locally called as singhmohur.46 With the image of the Kachargarh caves in the backdrop, Lingo is surrounded by wild birds and animals, all domesticated in his presence. Icons that are of significance to local religiosity: (i) Persapen, representing the Supreme Deity, and (ii) Sodum (a lion mounted on an elephant in an act of combat), representing historical Gond kingdoms, are also marked on this card. The issues related to the representation of the backdrop of caves in this image would be taken up later in the section.


Expansive images of nature, terrifying and wild, are suggestive of activities in nature that are beyond the reach of human agency. Placed amidst the background of the ‘terrifying’ forests, the trope of the ‘monstrous’, more specifically of asura (loosely ‘demon’) imagery is contained in Lingo’s portraits, albeit in subtle ways. Through the use of a crown, animal devotees, expansive and terrifying forest places, Lingo’s associations with the asura are maintained.

In fact, the revivalists claim this trope of the ‘monstrous’ in their writings. Vyankatesh Atram notes, ‘Ancient rakshasas are present day Gonds’.47 Kangale ascertains that the inhabitants of the ancient Gandodwip (another term for Koyamuri) would refer to themselves by words like danav and dasyu (meaning ‘demon’). In his perspective, ‘these words were ascribed negative connotations through the use of the (mainstream) mythologies’.48 This idea of the ‘tribes’ as the rakshasa figure of the Indian epics appears in colonial archives too.49


This trope of the ‘monstrous’ is moderately upheld in representation of Lingo. However, when compared with the diverse representations of rakshasasin the public sphere, a divergent discourse is discerned to be operating in the image of Lingo. In the Punem’s popular images, Lingo is a fair-skinned deity50 with no body hair. The moustache and beard are absent in this slightly muscular figure. A measured, benevolent smile graces his face. White and yellow are prominent colours of representation.

Contrast this image of Lingo with the depiction of rakshasas in a popular television series51 which ‘begins with a group of Hindu sages performing a yagya (ritual sacrifice) ceremony. As the ascetics chant in Sanskrit and toss oblations into a sacrificial fire, hideous creatures with black skin and wild hair begin to climb out of the fire and attack the sages. These monsters are rakshasas. In an effort to disrupt the sacred yagya ritual, the rakshasas fly through the air, breathe fire, and assault the terrified holy men’.52


About the use of black colour in the depictions of rakshasas in modern South Asian performances of the Indian Epics, Paula Richman observes: In the hierarchical ranking of skin colour, those from the higher varnas (Vedic social division) of north India, especially Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors), are said to have "fairer" skin than low-caste people and demons (rakshasas). The dark skin of demons is linked to their excessive behavior, which is considered undisciplined and savage.’53

Lingo’s assimilation in this imagery of asura/rakshasas remains incomplete, even though a few traces of the demonic imagery are retained through the use of the horns. In the realm of the god posters, the imagery of Lingo is more stable than that of the other rakshasa figure of the Indian epic traditions, Ravana.

In the revivalist perspective, two strands of representation combine in the figure of the Gond Ravana. First, he is the bestial ‘Other’ of the traditional epic retellings of North India, ‘who can be categorized, counterposed, and condemned’.54 Simultaneously, he is also a virtuous, ‘tribal’ king of the Gonds: Gond Raja Ravan Madavi. When introduced in Gond cosmology, the figure of Ravana gets completely assimilated in the asura imagery.

For example, a wooden figurine of Ravana that was created in the year 1991 to be propitiated in one of the first shrines of Ravana in the village Paraswadi, in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.55 In this initial material representation of Ravana as a Gond ancestor, neither his human form nor his facial feature is emphasized. A dispassionate face is carved into a wooden log, and painted in white and yellow colors to represent Ravana. However, the more popular representations of Ravana, especially the ones in virtual media and political spaces, are imbued with a belligerent potential. Influenced by the asura imagery of the mainstream media, Ravana has evolved into an anthropomorphic, aggressive Gond king.


Over a span of 26 years, the wooden figurine that represented the idea of Ravana has evolved into a realist replica of man: an ancestor who was once a king. In this process of transformation, Ravana acquires more aggressive and human features and is often adorned by a bison-horn crown. A prospect of serving as an intermediate figure between diverse cultures is accorded to Ravana and denied to Lingo.

Elements of the demonized ‘Other’ of the mainstream representation as well as of the one victimized by the ‘Aryan’ mainstream co-exist in Lingo’s representations. At the same time, as has happened in the case of Hindu god posters, the excesses of a certain deities are restrained in these posters. Lutgendorf calls it an ‘airbrushing’ of the appearance that more ‘likely reflects a ‘domestication’ appropriate to the new environments in which such images have come to live – homes, offices, businesses – where dangerous divine powers cannot be constantly propitiate through ritual’.56 Shorn off of the bestiality and ‘animistic’ features, Lingo is made in the image of the dignified, acceptable, appropriate deity of the mainstream. Yet, the traces of asura imagery remain intact, subtle as they may be. The resultant image of Lingo is that of a multi-layered ‘tribal’ deity who invokes suspicion and mistrust.


When Lingo represents the Punem instead of the more popular Shambhu or Ravana, the possibilities of appropriation of Gond deities by other religions are radically diminished. In the inclusion of Ravana in Gond cosmology, the dominantly evil of the mainstream is projected as the victimized figure from the margins. This deployment of Ravana by the Gonds overhauls a certain cultural paradigm of the mainstream

Lingo, thus, is established as the standard, homogenized deity of the Gondi Punem. In Fig. 4, placed between photographs of the Pasupati seal and poster of Persapen, Lingo performs the task of connecting an ancient past with present. Symbols in all the individual images are transferable and cumulative. Pasupati, Lingo and Persapen are visually linked by the use of horns. Pasupati’s crown merges with Lingo’s singhmohur, traces of which appear in Persapen too. In some popular pamphlets of the Punem, Persapen is referred to by the English word ‘totem’. This successive placement of the images hints at the movement of a symbol over time. The imagery of horns is consistent in all of them. Elements from nature, specifically animals and birds, are suggestive of a dominion of Gond deities in forest places.


Pasupati, Lingo and Persapen.

About the Indus Seal M. 304, Kangale writes, ‘The letters written in the upper section of the seal read from right to left: ‘This is KoyaPahandi Guru Mukhiya’.

In between an Indus seal and the totemic Pasupati, Lingo’s human form is sustained by selectively embodying specific features from them. By means of the Indus seal, the spatial expanse of the Gonds is lent a temporal depth. In the writings of the revivalists, the excavation sites of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were parts of Gond kingdoms that were destroyed by the invasion of ‘Aryans’. Kangale asserts, ‘By deciphering Indus script, I have realised that it’s the social, religious and cultural aspects of this civilization – the ones that are inherent in their writing – that are resonant with the social, religious and cultural values of the Gond culture in present’.57

The image of Lingo in this case connects two distinct civilizations. The pre-Vedic, Harappan seal and Persapen are lent continuity by the use of the Lingo image. Furthermore, it facilitates a simultaneous return to soil and nature – a quest that the Punem envisages.


The Gondi Punem claims contested spaces of forests as abodes of Gond deities. Before turning to the competing claims of spaces, I touch upon the diverse use of animals by poster art.

This following depiction of Hirasuka, the traditional Gond bard, whose music liberated the Gonds from their bondage, is similar to that of Lingo, in terms of its visual language. There are slight variations in the crown while the musical lineage of Hirasuka is made prominent through the depiction of musical instruments around him. In fact, the images of Lingo and Hirasuka are interchangeable in most of the god posters. This image is important as it reclaims the space of forest for the Kachargarh imaginary. Second, it presents two narratives vis-à-vis animals and birds.


Two sets of animals are deployed in this painting, this time, to two different ends. The first cluster of animals includes two photo-shopped images of the Mynah. The second cluster is a group of wild animals sitting around, listening to the music played by Hirasuka. A snake too appears to be drawn towards the origin of the music. A disproportionate scale is utilized to represent both these clusters. The docile and harmless Mynahs are magnified in size and placed on the trees and caves (which are shrines in this case), symbolising the harmonious relations of Gond deities with the natural elements.58 The natural landscape of Kachargarh is shown to be appealing to these gentle birds.


Hirasuka Devjagaar Bhoomi Kachargarh.

On the contrary, the set of animals sitting around Hirasuka belong to the category of terrifying and dangerous. They are all diminished in size. The tiger in particular is an image of a gentle, soft toy that is divested of its terrifying potential. In the domestication of these wild animals, Hirasuka gains the power to control the wild elements of nature. These two approaches to the animals co-exist in the picture without impinging on the other. These approaches towards nature recur in the depictions of landscapes, albeit through agents outside of the Punem.


The caves of Kachargarh are situated in the Gondia district of Maharashtra. It is very close to the state borders of Madhya Pradesh and the recently formed Chhattisgarh state. Politically, it has been a region affected by the Naxalite movement and the subsequent reaction of the Salwa Judum. Moreover, Kachargarh is also situated between Hazra Falls and Dongargarh.59 The first is an emerging centre of ecotourism and the latter, an established site of Hindu religious pilgrimage. The posters of the Kachargarh shrine set up conversations with these forces of tourism.

This photograph of Kachargarh is a defining image of Kachargarh pilgrimage in local media. It is a perspective of someone standing inside the cave and looking outwards at the expanse of the landscape. This photograph captures the essence of the Punem’s idea of the Gonds as ‘worshippers of nature’. Accordingly, the shrine is located inside a cave and not in elaborately constructed temples. In this depiction of the pilgrimage however, the deities are conspicuously absent. We only view a few pilgrims and a Gond flag. With it links with ‘authenticity’, the form of photography is employed to selectively construct a cultural myth of Kachargarh shrine. This image is in a striking contrast to the posters that draw in the natural surroundings to depict the power of its deities.


The landscape of Kachargarh caves further gets employed by the Gondia Board of Tourismto create a twenty minute video-advertisement (by the Directorate General of Information and Public Relations) to invite tourists to the Hazra Falls where they can enjoy its natural beauty while participating in various adventure activities. In this short advertisement titled ‘Hazra Falls GondiaTourism’,60 Kachargarh is one among the several adjoining places that the video captures. Multiple aerial sequences of the caves, shot when the pilgrimage was not being conducted, appear in this video. Intriguingly enough, the video does not mention the name of Kachargarh caves, let alone the fact that it is a shrine.


Advertisement of Kachargarh Pilgrimage in Lokmat Newspaper.61

The developmental agenda of employing local youth underwrites the accompanying narration of ‘Hazra Fall Ecotourism Project’. This advertisement invites its viewers to participate in the dual project of relaxing in the proximity of nature while they contribute to the local economy, in which the Adivasi youth would be a major stakeholder. Kachargarh and the village Dhanegaon, in which the former is situated, are presented through aerial views, with even the bust of Kangale captured in one of these views. Both Kachargarh and Dhanegaon remain unnamed.


Similar processes of erasure are at work in the tourist campaigns of the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board, in which a ‘strategic absence of the inhabitants from crucial sites renders these spaces divorced from the history of its peoples, hinting at an erasure of crucial narratives that would have been capable of nuancing the emergent idea of the state.’62 Furthermore, through these campaigns, religious events are presented as spectacles in which ‘multifaceted expressions of culture, history and social reform are turned into identifiable, consumable icons.’63

These two advertisements are conscious ways to oversee entire socio-cultural milieus, even though each is sensitive to some aspects of Gond culture. The first advertisement presents Kachargarh as a destination of Adivasi pilgrimage while displacing the very deities who are to be propitiated in the journey. The second advertisement uses the landscape of pilgrimage, unnamed to serve as a tourist destination. The god posters of the Punem, then, present contrasting narratives. In these posters, the deities are liberated from traditional shrines (inside house, under a tree and in temples) and placed in the backdrop of the landscape. Concomitantly, the landscape is claimed for the community by lending it a religious history.

This essay has tried to show how the cultural production of the Gondi Punem attempts to lend legitimacy to its mythical narratives by the use of colonial anthropology and visual medium. Due to the high linguistic heterogeneity and mutual unintelligibility among the two million speakers of various Gondi dialects, the activist imaginary gives a pride of place to visual materials.


The Gondi Punem reclaims contested spaces of forests as abodes of Gond deities. Furthermore, the complex relation of Gond cosmologies and Hindu religion is being reorganized in a way in which the new religion envisages a renewed social order and echoes a ‘traditional’ worldview based on the worship of nature. Many community members thus return to the use of traditional ‘Gond surnames’, each of which is representative of a tree, and thus devoid of caste markers. Posters of Lingo and forest places are visual responses to the religion that attempts to lend truth-claim to its mythology. The interplay of sources is complex, and the memory of a lost Gond religion, for instance, is sometimes passed on through oral and performative genres and at other times is recuperated from colonial archives.



1. P. Chakrabarti, ‘Gondwana and the Politics of Deep Past’, Past and Present 242(1), 2019, pp. 119-153.

2. Eyre Chatterton, The Story of Gondwana, ed. Richard Temple. Sir I. Pitman & Sons, London, 1916.

3. Prakash Sallame, Koyaphool: Kavita Sangrah. Akhil Gondwana Gondi Sahitya Parishad, February 2001.

4. Third Gondi Literary Meet, Pragati Nagar, Korba. Akhil Gondwana Gondi Sahitya Parishad, June 1991. (Pamphlet)

5. It is noteworthy that writings of Verrier Elwin are used in limited ways by Gond intellectuals.

6. S.R. Barkhade and Onkar Singh Marai, Gondian Gaurav Gatha: Gondwana Sanskruti Ke Riti-Riwaaj. Jai Seva Prakashan, Jabalpur, 2013, pp. vii.

7. Hanumantrao Kusram, Gondigeet Sangrah, (n.d.).

8. Vyankatesh Atram, Gondi Sanskrutiche Sandarbh. Sudhir Prakashan, Wardha, 1989, p. 23.

9. See L.S.S. O’Malley, India’s Social Heritage. Curzon Press, Oxford,1934.

10. Sahapedia online, ‘Sunher Singh Taram on Kachchargadh Jatra and "Gondwana Darshan"’, interview, YouTube. 09April 2018. Accessed 22 April 2018, https://www. vA&t=948s.

11. Richard Temple and Stephen Hislop, Papers related to the Aboriginal Tribes of Central Provinces (1866), p. 56.

12. The mediating Hindi version is not available in online archives.

13. Chatterton, The Story of Gondwana, p. 223.

14. Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, The Raj Gonds of Adilabad. Macmillan and Co., London,1948, p. 128.

15. See

16. Ibid.

17. See, K.S. Singh, ‘The "Tribals" and the 1857 Uprising’, in Social Scientist, 26 (1998), pp. 76-85.

18. See Jonathan Kennedy and Lawrence King,‘Adivasis, Maoists and Insurgency in the Central Indian Tribal Belt’, European Journal of Sociology54, 2013, pp. 1-32.

19. Eyre Chatterton, India through a Bishop’s Diary: Or, Memories of an Indian Diocese by Its First Bishop. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1935, p. 17.

20. See:

21. Chatterton, India Through a Bishop’s Diary, p. 72

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., p. 76.

24. Ibid., p. 193.

25. Reshma Sawant, ‘Review of Archaeological Investigations in the Proto-historic and Historical Archaeology of Vidarbha’, in Man and Environment (Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies), 35(2), 2010, pp. 45-65.

26. Chatterton, The Story, pp. vii.

27. Dated 30 September 1916, p. ii.

28. Chatterton, The Story, p. 187.

29. Ibid., p. 7.

30. See Susan Turner, Cynthia V. Burek and Richard T. J. Moody, ‘Forgotten Women in an Extinct Saurian (Man’s) World’, in R.T.J. Moody et al. (ed.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society Publishing House, London, 2010, p. 137.

31. Geoffrey Bearde and Dennis Denisoff, ‘Alice Bolingbroke Woodward’, The Yellow Nineties Online.

32. Chatterton, The Story, p. 223.

33. Ibid., p. 211.

34. A scanned copy of The Story was used for this analysis, which presents the illustrations in black and white. We do not know if the illustrations were originally sketched in black and white or colour. Woodward also contributed to W. Ramsay Smith’s Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals (1930), in which she recreated the myths in colour.

35. Chatterton, The Story, p. 208.

36. Ibid., p. 210.

37. Appeared in Illustrated London News, 20 August 1938, p. 9. Sourced from (www., See

38. A sociolinguistic survey conducted in 1994 identifies ‘seven mutually unintelligible dialects of the Gondi language’. See David Karl Beine, A Socio-linguistic Survey of Gondi-speaking Communities of Central India. 1994, 89. SIL International, 2013. https://www.sil. org/system/files/reapdata/10/35/12/103512822423457079263042993945251225440/silesr2013_006.pdf

39. Lawrence A. Babb and Susan S. Wadley, ‘Introduction’ in Babb and Wadley (eds.), Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia. Motilal Banarasidas, Delhi, 1997, p. 3.

40. Daniel H. Smith, ‘Impact of "God Posters" on Hindus and Their Devotional Traditions’ in Lawrence A. Babb and Susan S. Wadley (eds.), ibid., pp. 24-50.

41. See Amit Desai,‘Witchcraft, Religious Transformation, and Hindu Nationalism in Rural Central India’. PhD diss., University of London, 2007. Proquest LLC (UMI Number: U615660); K.S. Singh, ‘The "Tribals"’; and Akash K. Prasad, ‘Gondwana Movement in Post-Colonial India: Exploring Paradigms of Assertion, Self-Determination and Statehood’, Journal of Tribal Intellectual Collective India 3(1), September 2015, pp. 37-45.

42. Sahapedia online, ‘Sunher Singh Taram on Kachchargadh Jatra and "Gondwana Darshan"’, interview, YouTube. 09 April 2018. Accessed 22 April 2018, https://www. =948s.

43. Sandria Freitag, ‘The Realm of the Visual: Agency and Modern Civil Society’ in Sumathi Ramaswamy (ed.), Beyond Appearances? Visual Practices and Ideologies in Modern India. Sage Publications, Delhi, 2003, p. 366.

44. Sumathi Ramaswamy’s The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother, India (Duke University Press, Durham, 2009); and Daniel J. Rycroft’s Representing Rebellion: Visual Aspects of Counter-Insurgency in Colonial India (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) are significant contributions in this regard.

45. Motiravan Kangale, Pari Kupar Lingo: Gondi Punem Darshan. Tirumaay Chandralekha Kangali Publication, Nagpur, 2011, p. 14.

46. For visual documentation of various head-dresses among the groups of Central India, see Verrier Elwin, ‘The Head-dress’ in The Tribal Art of Middle India: A Personal Record. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1951, pp. 55-63.

47. Atram, Gondi Sanskrutiche Sandarbh, p. 12.

48. Kangale, Pari Kupar Lingo, p. 329.

49. As George Grierson noted in 1912, ‘Raksasas have often been identified with this or that aboriginal tribe, and no one has ever objected to this on principle’. (Grierson in Pollock 1985-1986, p. 264).

50. Lingo’s dark-skinned representations also exist. A dark complexion is usually used when his is represented as a Pradhan bard. Lingo is, thus, also a register on which caste/clan markers are indexed.

51. Ramleela: Ajay Devgan Ke Saath (2013). Directed by Ashim Sen. Mumbai, India, Ultra DVD.

52. See Sohini Pillai, ‘Representations of Raksasas in Contemporary India’. MA Thesis, Columbia University, 2015 (Unpublished).

53. Paula Richman,‘Ravana in London: The Theatrical Career of a Demon in the South Asian Diaspora’, Cultural Dynamics 19, 2007, p. 170.

54. Sheldon Pollock, ‘Ramayana and the Political Imagination’, The Journal of Asian Studies 52, 1993, p. 264.

55. This shrine is situated in the village of Prasawadi.

56. Philip Lutgendorf, ‘Evolving a Monkey: Hanuman, Poster Art and Postcolonial Anxiety’ in Sumathi Ramaswamy (ed.), Beyond Appearances? Visual Practices in Modern India. Sage Publications,NewDelhi, 2003, p. 86, doi:10.1177/006996670203600104.

57. Kangale, Saudhavi Lipi ka Gondi Mein Udwachan. Tirumaay Chandralekha Kangali Press, Nagpur, 2002, p. 2.

58. This issue would recur later in the section.

59. The former is about 5 kms to its west and the latter around 40 kms.

60. Maharashtra DGIPR, ‘Hazra Fall Gondia Tourism’, advertisement, YouTube. 20 April 2017. Accessed July 3, 2018, https://www. QQvU&t=1117s

61. Kachargarh Advertisement, Lokmat (Nagpur edition), 8 February 2017, front page.

62. Avrati Bhatnagar , ‘Interrogating "Credible Chhattisgarh": Photography and the Construction of a New Indian State’ in Aileen Blaney and Chinar Shah (eds.), Photography in India: From Archives to Contemporary Practice. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

63. Ibid., n.p.