In transcribing this late Victorian description of various ethnic groups and tribes from Leonowens’s Life and Travel in India before the Days of Railroads (c. 1884), I have used the rough transcription made available by the Internet Archive, integrated some footnotes into the main text, and where possible added images and links to material elsewhere in the Victorian Web.
What is perhaps most fascinating about Leonowens’s commentary upon this act of self-sacrifice that both the person committing suicide and his or her fellows explicitly consider it the action of a saviour — her words — she sees no similarity to crucial elements of Christianity including the distribution of the remnants of the Saviour. Christian apologists since the Renaissance often presented similarities to aspects of Christianity in pagan religion as a baser partial anticipations of Christianity that demonstrated a fundamental human need for the true religion. Equally interesting, this Victorian woman does not see any parallels between the Khand self-sacrifice and analogous ones, such as the deaths of Lord Nelson or General Wolfe, so so often praised and memorialized in the many monuments in British India. —George P. Landow
Verging on the Gondwana** are the hilly provinces of Orissa, inhabited by the Khands, no doubt a tribe slightly in advance in physical type and civilization of their neighbors, the Gonds, the Thugs, and Sourahs. [**Gondwana has been thought by some Oriental scholars to be the ancient Chedi, which was ruled by the great Sisupal, who is said to have governed India about the time of the appeairance of Krishna (the last of the incarnations of Brahm) on earth. They identify Chanderi, his ancient capital, with the modern Chanda, a city in British India in the Nagpoor division of the Central Provinces, and abounding in fine remains of huge reservoirs for water, cave-tempies, and the curious tombs of the aboriginal Gond kings.
They regard the earth-spirit as in rebellion against the Supreme Deity. To the earth-spirit they direct their prayers, and seek to propitiate her by human sacrifices.
Their victims are called “Meriah” by the Oriyahs, and Kudatee by the Khands. [Meriah means -death-doomed," and Kudatee, "dedicated to the god."] These victims must not belong to their tribes nor to the Brahman caste. They are purchased, or more generally kidnapped, from the surrounding districts by persons called Panwhas, who are attached to their villages for these and other peculiar offices. They may be either male or female, and as consecrated persons are treated with great kindness. To the “Meriah” youth or maiden a portion of land is assigned, with farming stock. He or she is also permitted to marry and bear children who in turn become victims. If a “Meriah” youth forms an attachment to the daughter or even wife of a Khand, the relatives indulge him in his wishes, regardmg it as an especial favor.
The Ritual of Human Sacrifice
These sacrifices take place annually when the sun is in his highest point in the heavens. The victim is selected by casting of lots. The ceremony lasts three days, and is always attended by a large concourse of people of both sexes. The first day of the approaching sacrifice is spent in feasting, merriment, and prayers, which go hand in hand with wild revelry of all kinds On the second morning the victim who is to pro- pitiate the earth-goddess is washed, attired in a flowing white robe, and conducted, with music, beatmg of drums blowing of horns and rude reed instruments, to the sacred groves preserved for these rites. Here the assembled community implore the earth-goddess Tari (called Pennu by the Shanars and Davee by the Rajpoots, who have in great measure been tainted by their contact with these hill-tribes) to accept the sacrifice about to be offered, and to bless their land with increase of corn, wine, cattle, and so forth.
After the offering up of prayer the victim, whether male or female, stands up before the assembly, draws forth his glittering knife, and passes his hand three times over its sharp edge. He then deliberately steps up to the rude altar of Tari, lays down his knife upon it, and, bowing his head, worships the insatiable earth-goddess; then snatching up the knife, he cries, “Drink of my blood and be appeased, O Tari,” etc., etc. He waves it aloft three times and plunges it into his side. Leaning toward the earth, which he desires to propitiate in behalf of his fellow-men, he slowly draws out the knife, pours his life-blood out upon her parched and thirsty soil, and expires at the foot of the dreaded altar raised to her name. Honored as no other creature in the land, reared for death, the "Meriah," or doomed one, exults in the performance of this self-sacrifice with a consciousness of being a savior of the country, and has never been known to evade or escape the doom in store for him [emphasis aded].
After this horrible sacrifice the human victim is cut into small pieces, and each head of a Khand or Gond family obtains a shred or infinitesimal portion of the body, which he buries in his field to please the spirit of the earth. This is believed to aid not a little in rendering the soil rich and fertile. [147-48]
Leonowens, Anna Harriette. Life and Travel in India being Recollections of a Journey before the Days of Railroads. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates; London: Trübner, n.d. [c. 1884]. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 3 December 2018.
Last modified 5 December 2018