The Mythic Landscape of Religious Conflict and Conversion: Notes on the Place-Lore of Assam

Ülo Valk, University of Tartu

Place-lore is a folkloristic category encompassing a variety of genres that blend storyworlds with social and physical environments and charge landscapes with narrative plots, such as the mythic events of the past that turns places into arenas of action for deities and heroes. The scale of place-lore ranges from widely spread grand narratives to the micro-scale of personal experience stories. These localised narratives may take realistic, fantastic and other generic modalities, but they always manifest a historic dimension, sometimes explicitly but very often in a symbolic way. As Assam is a land where a variety of religious traditions have co-existed within the relationship of dialogue and conflict, its place-lore carries traces of tensions between different religious groups. The tribal kings, such as Naraka and Baṇa, were identified with the demonic asuras in Brahmanic mythology and thus the local religious and political institutions became included in the pan-Indian tradition. However, mythic narratives about these rulers express tensions and conflicts between religious traditions. Thus, Naraka was cursed by the sage Vasiṇṇha, abandoned by the goddess Kamakhya and finally killed by Kṇṇṇa. Baṇa was involved in the Hari-Hara war between Kṇṇṇa and Siva, which can be interpreted as a symbolic expression of the historic tensions between Saiva and Vaiṇṇava traditions. In the 15th and 16th centuries the great religious reformer Saṇkaradeva introduced the bhakti movement and condemned the cult of idols (murti) in temples, preaching the supremacy of Viṇṇu. Tensions between tribal and Brahmaṇic traditions are expressed in the myth about the furious sage Vasiṇṇha who cursed Siva and the goddess Ugratara, so that barbarians (mleccha) became their devotees and worshiped them according to the left-handed (vamacara) path. Hugh Urban has recently shown that the Tantric traditions of Assam are strongly influenced by the local tribal religions. The paper will explore the place-lore of Assam as an expression of religious conflicts, encounters and conversion. The landscape of Assam has been hinduised in narratives that confirm the presence of Hindu deities in the region (e.g. the body parts of the Goddess Sati have fallen in multiple places, today marked by temples). The paper will also discuss contested placelore of controversial narratives about Saint Madhavadeva’s birth place, which is claimed to have been mysteriously discovered by followers of two competing religious traditions. Place-lore thus becomes a manifestation of religious identity, providing tradition-bearers with a sense of belonging to certain religious and narrative environments.