Cultural and Religious Co-Existence in Maniabandhi ikat Saris
Guest post by Annapurna Devi Pandey
Although I bought my first Maniabandhi pata (silk sari) with my very first lecturer’s salary in December 1981, for the thirty-five years I’ve been wearing them, I knew little about the weavers who make them in the villages of Maniabandha and Nuapatna in Odisha. I have always been drawn to the vibrant colours, textures, and striking motifs (conch shells, lotuses, elephants, lions and wheels) of these saris. When I came to the U.S. in 1989, I was surprised to see my Odia friends attending parties in fashionable chiffon and georgette saris. Trying to fit in, I went along and began collecting similar saris.
But my love for Maniabandhi has endured. Whenever I return to Odisha, I visit the stores for latest Maniabandhi designs to proudly collect as markers of my personal identity.
Over the last few years, I'm pleasantly surprised to see increasing numbers of Odiya women in the U.S.A. favouring Maniabandhi saris over synthetic ones for festive occasions such as weddings, sacred thread ceremonies, and birthday celebrations. On a recent visit to Bhubaneswar, a fashionable Indian-born Bay-area entrepreneur greeted me with an exclamation: "Your sari! I want one exactly like it." I had acquired that particular Maniabandhi as a gift at a wedding in the Bay Area. Happily, Maniabandhi saris have acquired iconic status as wedding gifts exchanged between the bride and groom’s family and friends.
Buddhism in Maniabandh
In 2007, in the course of my research on Buddhism and its practice in Odisha, I visited Maniabandh and Nuapatna and discovered that the weavers of these saris are predominantly Buddhists. I was surprised to find Buddhism in this village as a living religion because it's commonly held that Buddhism has practically disappeared from India long ago. Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the eminent political leader who is remembered as the father of India’s constitution, revived it as a religion of protest. Born to a lower caste family in pre-independence India, Ambedkar had suffered caste discrimination and adopted Buddhism in 1956. In mid 20th C, Buddhism resurfaced as a protest against the caste hegemony and oppression associated with Hinduism, especially in Gujarat and Maharashtra. While growing up I was unaware of Buddhism being practised anywhere in Odisha.
On the contrary, Buddhism is a vibrant and living religion in Maniaband. Village weavers have practiced Buddhism for generations. Some believe their ancestors had migrated to Maniabandh from Burdwan in West Bengal, a claim supported by several genealogical accounts I collected during my research. The revelation in Maniabandh gave me hope that Buddhism is practised in other areas of Odisha.
How does Buddhism inform the weavers' work? The weavers believe their weaving is in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism. “We are weavers. We do not kill animals. If we plough the land, we could destroy life. With weaving, we do not tell lies, we do not cheat. Also, we do not have any rich man or family in the village.” They are vegetarians and abstain from alcohol. Many avoid onion and garlic, considered tamasic food. Weaving speaks to the Maniabandh weavers' collective self-mage as honest people.
I noted each member of the family is involved in some aspect of weaving: dyeing the yarn, tying the loom, designing patterns, finishing the sari and so on. Learning the trade is part of their daily life. Women of all ages participate in the production. They take pride in their creative ability and and display the exquisite patterns. A loom in the entrance room is a common sight, as are a few smaller ones around the house.
Another remarkable feature is the lack of outward migration. Young and old continue to live in the village because each plays a significant role in the weaving. The co-existence provides a strong sense of identity and tradition, as well as an enviable ability to lead a modern life side by side with a traditional one. This sense of identity helps them co-exist with Hindu neighbours.
In contrast, my home village, just twenty kilometers away, is completely transformed by the new consumer-driven economy of India. In just one generation, my village has been revolutionized by the money from mining business in Odisha. I could not recognize a single house from my childhood because all of the houses have become pukka mansions. Brand new Mercedes and BMWs abound, which I had never seen before I left India in 1988. I was struck by the contrast between my village's flashy new wealth and award-winning traditional Maniabandhi saris displayed on the walls of Maniabandh.
The predominantly Buddhist weavers have learned to live side by side with their Hindu neighbours. In their weaving, saris are specially woven for the Hindu deities Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra by the artisans of Maniabandh and Nuapatna. Madala Panji of Jagannath Temple, Puri, says this practice has continued for several hundred years. The weavers also produce saris for the goddess Lakshmi with nine motifs: lotus, elephant, temple, peacock, water pot, conch cell, butterfly, and deer. Hindu and Buddhist weavers not only celebrate each other’s festivals but also participate in each other’s ritual performances. Buddhist weavers of Maniabandh are aware of combining Hindu and Buddhist symbols. Buddhist symbols such as lions, swans, and lotuses, and orange and red colors, are visible on the Maniabandhi sari. Hindu symbols such as temples, swans, lions, water pitchers and roses are woven alongside, making for an intricate pattern.
In their daily rituals, not seeing a contradiction, Buddhists continue to worship Hindu gods and goddesses. Maniabandha has five Buddhist temples, which look like Hindu temples where both Buddha and Hindu Gods are worshipped together. The temples are consecrated with statues of the Buddha and Hindu deities of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra, all worshipped side by side and offered prayers, chanting, and evening arati together. This common worship speaks to religious acceptance by both communities. The Buddhist congregation reasons Jagannath is an embodiment of the Buddha, and hark back to an age-old tradition of making the Khandua sari which makes them indispensable in serving the Lord Jagannath.
Like their Hindu neighbours, Buddhist weavers practice endogamy but unlike Hindus, they have not succumbed to the practice of dowry so common in Odisha and the rest of India. Demands of dowry are a major cause of physical abuse and assault of women in their wedded families. Buddhist women in Maniabandha told me their young women do not suffer ostracization in their search for a marriage partner because of lack of money. Marriage takes place mainly within Buddhist communities spread out between Maniabandha and Nuapatna and villages like Ragadi and Choudwar in Cuttack district. Instead of dowry, families partake of communal feasts in order to celebrate with their extended family and the community. Weddings are colourful. Buddhist houses are adorned with a Buddha painting just as every Hindu house sports a Jagannath painting. Decorating houses for weddings involves paintings of the Buddha and segments of the Jataka stories.
Women in Maniabandh
Women's weaving skills are valued as highly as men's. A single mother shared her experiences: “I have been very sick, constantly in and out of the hospital. Both my daughters are taking care of me. They said, Ma, do not worry. We will weave saris and will take care of you”. Clearly daughters are as valued as their brothers.
However, there's a twist when it comes to education. Parents are reluctant to send daughters for higher education because the daughters are already gainfully employed as weavers, which might disappear after high school or college education. I met a very bright girl who earned first class in her high school and intermediate college examination. When asked whether she would continue her studies, she replied, “It is up to my father whether he will let me go for higher education.” Her father said, “I have no objection to her higher education but she has tons of work at home and eventually will get married”. That said, new opportunities for educated women are appearing. In Maniabandh, I met a married woman weaver in her twenties. She is mother to a toddler, has a college degree, and teaches in the village's Buddhist school. “It is not easy to juggle all the different responsibilities of being a wife, daughter-in-law, mother, teacher and a weaver”. To add to her accomplishments, she is also privately preparing for her BA degree. She said she finds courage and patience to manage all her responsibilities through her Buddhist faith.
A distinct identity
Buddhist weavers in Maniabandh and Nuapatna may live side by side with their Hindu neighbours, but their way of life is distinct. In rapidly changing modern India, they are upholding their traditional occupation while catering to the growing demand for Maniabandhi saris. Remarkably, their way of life allows for best of both worlds. Religious beliefs deeply inform and provide meaning to their occupation while they embrace contemporary demand for their weaves. In welcoming the His Holiness Dalai Lama - the living Buddha - to their village while sending saris to the international market, they participate in the global economy concurrent to maintaining their traditional occupation and Buddhist way of life. The villagers in Maniabandh incorporate both old and new.
The Maniabandhi sari, symbol of traditional values, has become the means by which they hope to succeed in the twenty-first century.
Excerpted from American Kahani with permission of author. Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.