By Rishi Bhatnagar for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Sex in 21st century India is still largely a taboo topic talked about in hushed tones behind closed doors. Public displays of affection are looked down up, and sometimes even penalised. But the Murias, an indigenous tribe in Chhattisgarh, practice vastly different attitudes towards sex and sexuality.
The Muria tribe are unique in their construction of the ‘Ghotul’ – a commune or dormitory, meant to create an environment for Muria youth to get acquainted with their sexuality. Taking place only at night, the practice or ritual involves young men and women spending time at the commune or the ghotul, where they take part in singing, dancing and exploring their sexuality. Good food and local toddy are also a part of the ritual with older members helping guide the younger members in sexual practices if required.
The custom, in fact, gets its name from the structure of the commune which has walls of bamboo and clay and a thatched roof, situated in the centre of the tribal hamlet with other dwellings surrounding it. The commune is divided into two unequal parts – the courtyard and the ‘parchhi’.
The ritual begins at dusk when men (Cheliks) and women (Motiaris) assemble at the Ghotul in all their finery. Married men play the drums. Food and locally made toddy are made available in plenty. The youth sing and dance; play games and tease each other. Girls groom themselves. They give erotic oil massages to the boys.
As the night extends, a boy and a girl, who have mutually consented to be with each other, enter the Ghotul’s dormitory, which they share with other couples. The adults leave, and the couples spend the night together, either talking or indulging in sexual activity.
There is a kind of laissez-faire attitude followed inside the dormitory, an unspoken policy of letting things take their course, without interference or objection. Partners can be switched, and that’s no big deal.
There are nearly 20,000-25,000 Muria tribals in Narayanpur and approximately 500 Ghotuls where this ritual happens with the Ghotul acting as an education centre for those aged 10 and above. However, they can take part in the Ghotul ritual only after they come of age – 18 for girls and 21 for boys.
A couple can talk to each other till they decide to tie the knot. And while the practice may seem like sexual freedom to some, the truth is that the ritual has its own rules. The girl and the boy are required to change their names once they join the Ghotul. A couple can talk to each other till they decide to tie the knot. But for sexual intercourse, they get only seven days.
After seven days, they have to either marry the person or look for another partner. Total freedom is given to choose one’s partner. At the end of these chances, the couple picks a partner. The decision announced by the boy by placing a flower in the girl’s hair, with the girl’s permission.
Since the youngsters spend a considerable amount of time at the Ghotul, the boys and girls are also assigned tasks – things like sweeping, cleaning, cooking, etc., which they are expected to perform. The tasks not only serve as a way for the youngsters to form friendships and learn household chores, but also to become responsible and get to know others in the Ghotul well.
Managing the affairs and upholding the customs of the Ghotul is the responsibility of the Sardar. He is the chief custodian, and he works with a deputy called Kotwar, a woman who is unmarried.
Till a half-century ago, Ghotuls were common to Gond tribes throughout central India. But today, the practice has dwindled and is only practised by the Muria tribe living in Narayanpur in Chhattisgarh, parts of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
Hirme Sukali, 32, a Muria woman says she met her husband Hemala Sukku, 33, at a Ghotul in Abujhmard, Chattisgarh. She had just turned 18 at that time, and when she first set eyes on Sukku, he was dancing, and “it was love at first sight”. Sukku shares the same feeling. “We kept meeting each other for three months and then finally I asked her to marry me, and she agreed. I placed the flower in her hair, and we told our parents,” he said.
A mandatory rule at a Ghotul is the girl’s consent. If the girl refuses, the boy cannot force or coerce her in any way. “The Motiari has the freedom to reject a Chelik even after agreeing to marry him,” a Muria told 101reporters.
“She can return the flower that he had given to her and refuse to marry him. The boy can talk to her parents and try to persuade her, but they cannot force her to marry him.”
Muria weddings are also unique in that the boy and his family have to pay money to the girl and her family if she agrees to marry him.
But for all the beauty of the Ghotul and the freedom that it gives to the girl and the boy, the ritual is under attack. And leading the attack are those tribals from the community who have taken up jobs outside, after attaining a certain level of education, and are questioning the old order. For example, the Ghotul tradition requires that the Murias compulsorily follow through with the Ghotul education. This means the Ghotul education gets priority over other kinds of formal education and many youngsters are raising questions about this aspect. It’s a tightrope to walk on for most people in the community. On one side is the risk of becoming ostracised by the community, on the other the fear of missing out on a decent education.
“We have followed all the rules laid down by the elders. This includes making sure that the child is sent to a Ghotul for education as he attains the age of 10. If we don’t follow them we stand the risk of being ostracised from the society,” he said.
He adds that with the government’s stressing on a formal education, they now have schools that their children have started attending. “There are a few youngsters in the community who have stepped out to pursue higher studies and are now in the city completing their studies. While the community now supports them, initially there was a lot of shock,” he says.
Then, there is the issue of people from the community not being allowed to marry those who don’t belong to it.
The elders in the community, on their part, seem to be clueless about how to handle these concerns. “Our customs including the Ghotul have been criticised by many. But we have stood our ground. But now with members leaving and leading a life outside of the village, they might question some rituals, and we don’t know how we tackle the same,” a senior member of the community said, not wanting to be named.
With the advent of education and new ideas entering the traditional life led by the Murias, the community is scared of what changes this will entail. As youngsters step out for better jobs and some even for a higher education, they bring in new experiences. But till then, the Murias and their Ghotul ritual remain a progressive act in a regressive society.
Rishi Bhatnagar is a Chhattisgarh based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.