THE MAHARASHTRA HOLI POLE SURVEY

General Introduction

By Nold Egenter




Originally it was one among other projects, but soon the Maharashtra Holi Pole survey developed as one of the most important tasks of our 'Indian Rural Settlement Survey Institute' in Ahmedabad (IRSSI). Not only because of the quantitative aspect (about 1600 villages are concerned), but also because the things found in the region correspond exactly to what we were looking for!

From its beginnings, the basic idea of our Ahmedabad Institute was to study traditional agrarian and/or tribal villages in India. But this was not intended to be done in the conventional way of "one author, one view" as most anthropological or ethnological surveys are done. It was planned to do village research in the framework of a preconceived hypothesis. A specific method and questionnaires had to be used. The basic question was: is there a common basic structure in the Indian agrarian or tribal village which would allow us to better understand this type of human settlement? That is to say, better than by using the standard disciplines of the Western humanities? The label of this hypothesis is "settlement core complex". We had been working positively with this concept in other cultures, ethnologically mainly in agrarian Japan and agrarian Europe, and historically and prehistorically in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia.

In its application to rural India the expression "settlement core complex" is essentially based on what L. P. Vidyarthi (1976) described as 'sacred geography' or 'sacred topography'. In each settlement a permanent set of traditionally or historically established sacred places is taken into consideration. It implies a relatively stable grid to which other informations can be related. Sacred implies a set of ontologically high values which may be traditionally deep rooted or historically evolved (bilevelled approach). As a whole this set of places shows some systematic characteristics. A sacred place may be related to the settlement as a whole in the spatial and social sense, others may represent some important spots in this settlement (e.g. related to path system, e.g. settlement entrance) or, others may be found either in one or in several or in all houses of the settlement. The corresponding demarcation of the 'house temple' being in the house, with a 'house deity' separately, mobile, or as part of the house (sacred pillar). Or the sacred place may be found outside the house, either in front or at the back, thus related to the courtyard. Other sacred places might be related more to economical conditions. They can be found as demarcations in the fields, in the woods, or related to a place where water is gained etc. If in agrarian societies hunting, fishing and collecting practices survive, sacred places can be related to such activities too.

Usually these places are marked by a sign or symbol or several signs or symbols. Such toposemantic signs are dominantly artificial, in most cases some sort of buildings, tectonic objects, sometimes also natural, or figural, but with artificial distinction.

As a whole these places and their signs form a grid, a system of orientation in the local inhabitant's worldview. Each of these places is related to a particular system of ritual or cultic behaviour. They play a role in the local festival calendar. Each place has also its history sometimes in a written form, but mostly in a legendary sense. Thus, they play an important role in various structural contexts of the local population: social, political, religious, cultic, emotional, philosophical etc. The emphasis is not only on belief, but represents a much wider spectrum, a traditional type of constitution, or, the whole of what can be called local culture. Thus, settlement core complex is also the idea that what Western anthropology calls religion is highly reductive. It destroys the complexity of the local ontology.

In contrast to conventional 'religious' studies, the method of the present research consists in using this permanent 'sacred topography' as a basic grid for the phenomenological description of the activities related to it.

The positive discovery in applying this method consists usually in the fact that another toposemantic system appears. It is of a technologically primary, namely 'fibroconstructive' character and the conditions of the evolved system are shown in a prototypical stage, allowing us to understand cultural developments. We can, for instance, understand how the primary fibroconstructive toposemantic system produced the cyclic structure of cults and rites. The signs' perishable character implied their cyclic renewal should the continuity of the facts they documented be guaranteed. Or, we can also understand how the ontological values came in, since the fibrous prototypes with their formal expression of categorical polarity provided a cognitive model for the structural perception of analogies among plants, animals, tectonic environments and cosmological conditions. That is, categorical polarity can be understood as a metaphysical prototype in the framework of spatial per-/conception and its relational evolution and extension into larger spaces.

Spirituality in this sense is not abstract and one-sided, it is not simply represented by certain irrational beliefs, but is expressed rather in a highly empirical and complex but not unsystematic whole which includes many factors, primarily aesthetical, spatial and temporal ones, but also social, legal, political, ethical and religious ones. In short, we gain a truly anthropological system of explanations.

The conventional Western approach misses this point. Its limitations on religion and belief and its apriori projection of a Eurocentric theological value system ("High religion" = High spirituality with low materiality factor stands against "low religion" = low spirituality with high materiality factor) leads it to apriori devalue the perceived phenomena as 'primitive religion', 'fetish' etc. .

This apriori devaluating - thus very unscientific - method is absolutely outdated today. The whole history of religion with its apriori theological extrapolations towards lower standards like 'primitive belief', 'animism' etc. has to be considered as Eurocentric propaganda (for the high religious standards of Europe and the West!).

In contrast to this, the anthropological approach shows us something very important: that what is called religion today originally was strongly related to the protection of man's spatial existence. In its original state this protective system was strongly related to earth, to the environments in which man lived, the lands, man cultivated. It was not at all primitive, but highly complex, and slightly closer to earth. The signs we discover in the following with their ontological expression of categorial polarity play an essential role in this domain of cultural evolution.



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