Jharkhand: ‘tribal’ Madonna for Singpur Catholics

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MUMBAI, India, Jun 22, 2013–A statue of Our Lady with the features of a tribal woman in a sari with red borders, holding her son Jesus in a white cloth, has gone from being a masterpiece of inculturation to a source of discord in the State of Jharkhand.

Unveiled by Card Telesphore Toppo, archbishop of Ranchi (the state capital), near a Catholic church in the village of Singpur, the statue has sparked criticism from some members of the Sarna tribe, who want the work of art removed. The Sarna worship Mother Nature (or Maa Sarna).

According Bandhan Tigga, a local Sarna guru, “dressing up Mary with a red bordered white sari seems to be a tactic to convert tribal Sarnas to Christianity. It is absolutely wrong. We do not want conflict between our communities, but we do want the statue removed, or changed so that it no longer looks like a tribal woman. Otherwise, we shall step up our protests.”

Card Toppo, who is the first ethnic tribal Oraon cardinal in India, rejects the guru’s accusations. In his view, the dispute is political because “Next year, there will be elections,” he said, “and someone wants to take advantage from a conflict between Christians and non-Christians.”

For Fr Augustine Kanjamala SVD (Society of the Divine Word), an expert in the sociology of religion, “The depiction of Our Lady in accordance with local usage is legitimate from a legal and theological standpoint. Around the world, tens of thousands of artists have depicted Mary adapting her to local sensitivities. Indianisation and inculturation are important issues today and are opposed by Hindu nationalists who use it for political purposes.”

“In India,” the Verbite clergyman noted, “foreign Christian missionaries were the first to protect and promote the indigenous cultures of tribal people. They passionately defended indigenous rights. Culture is not a static thing, but a unifying factor. Although religious practices vary, most traditional customs and practice bind together. Culture includes many elements. Although important, dress is a small aspect of tribal identity.” (AsiaNews)

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