Meriah ...12 mins 17.7K 12 mins 17.7K
Year is 1838. I always hated to be in India. It is never the way people used to say it is. After being appointed as one of the members of Madras board of Revenue, it has been hell I have discovered so far. It's neither the work nor the negativity that is growing among the Indians towards us. The hell I am talking about is far more dark and gruesome.
There is one India which has been rich in its resources and culture. And there is another black face of it, in these core, untouched areas and civilizations, which God knows how old, where lies this unimaginable brutality. Everything I know so far, are only heard of. I am yet to discover it. It has struck me deep inside the heart and I don’t know how I will react when I see these in my own eyes. I don't know who to blame for this. That can be another reason for my hatred and frustration.
I never discussed these things with Martha. Definitely not, when I get the chance to meet her only for one month in a year. She is still in England and I am here, in a place that is alive on its surface, but rotten in the core. After losing my only son Pete, in front of my own eyes, I abhor death and at the same time felt the importance of life. Still I was selfish enough to leave Martha alone. We British are always selfish, that's the reason we have grown as such a big Empire here.
The relationship between a father and son is not as simple as that of a mother and her child. It has many layers to it and most of which remain hidden thorough out life. Men are always incapable of expressing their feelings like women do. Pete and I were more like friends. He used to be a little stubborn at times which was quite natural for a kid at the age of 15 I believe. He eagerly awaited the whole year when I met him during my vacation to England. I used to tell him all about India and he eagerly used to listen. He had an unusual eagerness to visit here with me. Martha and Pete moved to England after Pete was born. So he wanted to visit his birth place once in a lifetime. He imagined it to be a paradise which is rich in its culture and home for almost all the religions. Sadly he could never visit India. We lost him in an accident 4 years back and I came back here. Martha never wanted to come. She could not bear the pain of losing him and she thought India would have reminded her about her son. I had a different reason for coming here. I still live in the same home where Pete was born, a service quarter near Phulbani. In India, there is a belief in the Hindus. They say “With its last breath, the Spirit returns to the place it loves.” I never believed any of their beliefs, but somewhere in me, there is father, who hopes, Pete is here somewhere, or he will come back. I know, it's kind of stupid, but India is such a country. No matter how much you hate all of their blind faiths and beliefs, with all these years, unknowingly you become one of them. I still hope I find my son one day.
It has been one week, since we are travelling through the jungles of Ghumsur(a district under Madras Counsel, now in Ganjam district of Odisha). We are solely relying on the skill of a local tribesman, Bahadur, who is our guide and has some knowledge of the places these people (as much as I hate to consider them as human). They are far from the real world and the happenings. For them this jungle is the world they own as it gives them food, shelter and life in total. No doubt, they worship this place as God. They are the "Konds" (Kandho, as they call themselves in Oriya), who resides in the Hills and mountains ("kond" in Telugu means "hill"). They are of Dravidian Origin mainly residing in Phulbani and Ganjam district of Odisha.
I have been appointed here for last 17 years. I knew everything about these people and place. I have learnt their dialect (Konds’ use the “Kui” dialect native to this place). Konds are really innocent tribe. If they love you or owe you something, they will serve you for their life. If they feel you are their enemy, they won’t hesitate to kill you.
India is a country of people with so many blind beliefs. We British have been successful in eradicating many of them. The “Sati Daha Pratha” was the most horrific of all. But this thing we are going to witness is beyond all. In last 6 months, all of us who thought, we knew about these people, our belief has been shattered. And there is one word that did it all. One word that has been equally mysterious and heinous. It’s “Meriah”.
Bahadur told us, that we are 30 mins away from the Kond village (Here with only 20-30 houses comprises a village). He talks less. I have hardly seen him eating in these 6 arduous days of trekking in these mountains. We had confirmed news of Meriahs being captive there. My mission is to rescue them without creating any chaos. For Indians, their unity lies in their belief and so is their faith. We can’t afford to shake it. The plan was clear. We will reach the hut where they are kept and rescue them without anyone’s knowledge. The festival may begin soon and then we won’t have time.
We approached near the village and it seemed as if no one was there. That was quite strange for all of us. While we had no idea of the situation, Bahadur looked tensed. Quickly his face turned pale, and I somehow understood what he had in mind.
“Holy Lord. Are we late?” – I asked.
“Yes Saheb, we are late by 2 days.” – Replied Bahadur with a shivering tone.
I felt as if the earth shattered below my feet. I gathered some strength and asked again –
“And where are they, The Meriahs?”
“They must have kept them in the hut, which should be beyond the village. We have to go there and see” – Bahadur replied.
Without wasting any time we ran towards the end of the Village. I hoped they would be there, and this was the best time as the Villagers were away. We scattered and searched for the huts where Meriahs might be present. It took me no time to reach one of the hut. I had to break the weak wooden door to get inside. It was dark and sitting inside was a young man, whose face I could hardly see. This was the first time I met with a Meriah.
“Come, we are here to take you with us” – I explained in Kui dialect(whatever little knowledge I had).
“Why Babu (Saheb in Kui dialect), I am here for the purpose.” – The young man replied
“What purpose does this serve?” – I asked being angry now.
“Can you die for your mother, Babu?” – He asked, audaciously
“Yes, but definitely not for some blind stupid beliefs I have.” – He was really testing my patience.
“This is our mother Babu. These people have bought me and given me a chance to die for the mother, mother Earth” – He replied.
I did not have time for all these discussion. I dragged him out of the hut forcefully. Now I could see his face and something struck me. His eyes, he had the same brown eyes Pete had. The young man was hardly 20 years of age and I felt as if Pete is standing in front of me. Then suddenly he ran away and vanished inside the deep forest. I could not catch him and Bahadur, came running.
Bahadur – “We searched Saheb, There are no Meriahs left. The Budali (old woman in Kui) at the graveyard told us, that there were 4 Meriahs. All are gone. The last one is Being Sacrificed today.”
“I could not get it. I just caught hold of one Meriah. He just vanished into the forest.” – I was shocked.
Bahadur – “That’s impossible Saheb. There is no-one left here. Today is the last day of the Sacrifice. I think we have to return back. The villagers will be coming.”
I had no purpose to be there. We have failed to rescue the Meriahs. I had no idea what else to do except for return.
“I want to see it.” – I didn’t know what I said. It just came out from my mouth.
“What!!! What are you saying Saheb, You want to go to there.” – Bahadur was terrified. I had never seen him like that.
“I want to witness it. Take me to that place.” – I had no control on my words now and I still could not take that young man out of my mind. I was sure I met with him and now I am clueless who he was.
“This is madness, Saheb. No... It’s suicide.” – Bahadur begged me to change my mind.
I had come all this far and lost it.
“You wait for me outside the village. I will join you on the other side of the mountain” – I instructed Bahadur.
“I can’t just leave you Saheb. If you are so adamant, I will go with you.” - Bahadur replied and I could not deny.
Rest of the group returned back and waited for us as instructed. I had told them to wait till midnight. If we didn't come, they should be leaving us and return back. Bahadur and I moved towards the sacred tree in the jungle, where the ritual was taking place. The nearer we got the sounds of drums and the cries of the people became prominent. It was the last day of the sacrifice. So the whole village was gathered there. We could not go any nearer. We climbed a tree and watched from there.
The ritual was almost over and the village priests have indicated that it’s the time for the sacrifice now. The whole area was lit with fire as it was almost 10 O’ clock night. Two of the Konds were beating the drum non-stop, and the sound was getting louder and louder now. People have started shouting and out of nowhere, the Meriah was brought to the centre. He was not the young man I met sometime back. There was huge wooden log mounted over ground with nails pierced on it. The Meriah seemed quite in good health (They were purchased and kept in the hut for months before the sacrifice) and was not resisting as if he knew what was going to happen next. There was no expression on his face. I was going to witness the most notorious act anybody could imagine. They tied him with the log with ropes so that he was hardly able to move. Then the rituals started. There were some 10 men equipped with knives who started to remove flesh from his body one by one as the priests instructed. The man cried with pain but it was dominated by the constant drumming sound and the villagers were dancing around. I could not bear this and vomited right there. Bahadur was watching that with a hard expression on his face as if he has turned into a rock. The notoriety lasted for 1 hour and the Meriah had died by that time. He was sacrificed for the Jungle Goddess and as per the belief, she would provide prosperity for the next 1 year. Gradually we saw the villagers vanished with only two of them guarding the temple as they would not want any wild animal come there and make the ritual impure.
I returned with a heart full of pain and anger. Bahadur did not talk to me much throughout the journey. But this time, we both were part of something that only we know and could never describe to anyone.
Bahadur - “Saheb, Are you OK?”
Me- “Don’t ask anything Bahadur. Don’t ask anything. Throughout my life I served here in this place in India. I thought I belonged here and I knew everything about these people. I was so wrong. How can they be so blind in their belief that they become animals and kill people like this?”
And I thought “Sati Daha Pratha” was the most heinous of all.
Bahadur - “Saheb, I cannot make you understand or justify the belief these people have. But imagine if you are part of a civilization that has been living in this jungle for thousands of years which never connected to the outside world. They have inherited these beliefs from their ancestors.”
Me- “We need to end this. I won’t stop till I see this barbarity end.”
Bahadur kept quiet. He wanted to say something but he didn’t. Later I came to know that he had lost his child in one of these “Meriah Sacrifices” 15 years ago. His child was abducted and he never found him. For a moment, I felt, my pain is nothing compared to what he had been through.
After I went to England in vacation same year, Martha told me she had a dream. She said Pete had come to her in the dream and told her that he had met me there in India. I hugged her tight. I thought I should tell her everything that happened that day. But I could not. “Who was that young man I met there? Was it Pete? Did it actually happen that his spirit returned there to his birth place which he always wanted to visit?” I had no answers.
Captain Russell served for next 10 years to educate Konds about the blind belief they had. He traveled to many villages and also saved many Meriahs. He never found that young man again.
This notorious practice of human sacrifice prevailed in these tribal regions of Odisha for years during the British occupation. It took 20 more years for the British Raj to completely eradicate this cruelty of the human sacrifices. British officers like S.C.Macpherson, John Campbell, Mac Vicar and Mac Neil had a major contribution in successfully putting down the tribal insurgency and terminating the practice of human sacrifice, Meriah. While many credit the British for their contribution for removal of many such blind customs that prevailed in the society, very few remember their role in abolishing this Meriah custom from India.