Mother Mary in Tribal Attire

In Religion on June 20, 2013 at 5:27 pm




A statue of Mother Mary in a tribal attire, created a row in India. They were protesting the deliberate use of tribal attire and symbols, by local priests, to affect easier conversion of tribals to Christianity.

Conversion of pagans to Christianity is an ancient pass to the promised kingdom. So believed many of the followers of Jesus Christ, including St. Paul. Anybody outside of the faith was waiting to be saved, and it was the Christian prerogative to save as many as possible in one’s lifetime.

That was then and this is now. But more about conversions later. I was looking closer at our Tribal Mother to see if there is a semblance to existing art. I found there was.

lady1 lady2


I find that Yashoda and Mary were approximately in a similar predicament, with their respective sons Krishna and Jesus. The song here is almost an equivalent to the Christian one above:

I like the fact that Mother Mary is being given an Indian attire. It is beautiful and I have seen these before. The church I go to has one in a blue saree. That color is a more usual representation. I find in our Tribal Mother, a unique deviation.

This is definitely an Indian mother with a naked child in a shoulder sling. I think the common posture for the child is to straddle it’s legs around it’s mother’s waist. In this case the posture is closer to the western depiction, probably to bring the faces of mother and child a bit closer. I doubt that the tribe wears the sling with child this way. If it does, it needs the support of a hand, and the whole purpose of the sling is to free up the mother’s hands while she multi-tasks.

This posture and the mother holding the child’s hand bears close match to a 15th century Byzantine icon – Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This Byzantine imagery is very popular in India.

Some differences between the Tribal Mother and the Mother of Perpetual Help:

  1. The child Jesus in India is looking at his mother and the Byzantine child Jesus is looking away and up towards an angel warning him of his dark and troubling future.
  2. The Byzantine child has a footwear slipping off his foot. This is to depict that he might have been scared of the apparition and came running into his mother’s arms. The Indian child appears to be well fed and contended in his mother’s arms.
  3. The red tunic worn by the Byzantine mother actually represents a virgin. The tribal mother wearing a red blouse, for the locals probably does not give the impression that the mother is a virgin. It instead gives the impression that she is auspicious and divine. The Indian artist has maintained a Byzantine color and it’s meaning and did not translate it to an Indian equivalent. The white saree represents purity and hence probably the virgin status. The white in the Indian context is actually a color worn by widows, so here again the message is somewhat diluted.

But was this meant to be a conversion tool?

Irrespective of what the Mother wears, the conversion angle is difficult to dismiss in this tribal region. With the government doing so less for the tribals, a religion that offers any help will look attractive. Food, shelter, education, and vocation to do God’s work is on offer. I lost a good friend and priest here many decades ago. ‘Winning souls’ is considered God’s work. There are folks who do this with a passion and get into dangerous situations when people of other faith oppose such coercive conversions.

I do not believe in this conversion angle at all. You may invite somebody into your faith by free will, but it is absurd to think that by converting somebody’s faith you win a special place in heaven.

Sometimes the source of funding outside of India demands this as a pre-requisite for continued monetary support.

The localisation of religion through a deeper understanding of Indology to make it an artistic attempt. I believe this is a good approach. The intention here is not conversion, but adaptation of a foreign religion to Indian culture. But there is a fine line here, subject to a different interpretation like this issue here.

Indology is the study of Indian literature, culture and history. Many Christian priests study it as part of their theological training in seminaries. Many are fascinated by it and would hold private conversations about the subject but rarely expose that knowledge during public sermons.

A few bold ones do experiment with new ideas that fuse the foreign with the native. I knew of a christian priest who built a church on top of a hill in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh as an exact copy of a Hindu temple. He did not have conversion in mind. At the time he was contemplating a better life outside of priesthood himself! He gifted me a batik depiction of Christ seated in the lotus position on the ground like a Rishi, with a ring of enlightenment around his head, I still have it. These are beautiful Indian motifs that could easily be misconstrued as elements or tools of coercive conversion as opposed to an embrace and celebration of local and regional flavors by an undeniably western religion, foreign to the region.

In our modern times the greatest challenge is in converting a Christian to Christianity. Converting people of other faith, may just be a stupid and misguided numbers game that sounds ridiculous to me. But it does exist, especially where tribals looking for any help from any source abound. They may be as easily attracted to Christianity as they are to Maoism.

  1. Mother Mary statue in tribal attire stirs row in Jharkhand
  2. My ancestors’ conversion from Hinduism to Christianity
  3. Redemption songs: The Christian Conversion of Bob Marley



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