In primitive societies religion began as conglomeration of ideas, attitudes, creeds and acts of supernaturalism, beyond the realm of the normal. In early tribal societies of the world, this rudimentary form of religion played an important part in the life of the community.
Rava or Rabha tribes of North Bengal are no exception a deep-rooted faith that they have inherited from their forefathers that revolve around the world of deities and spirits. Like most tribal societies they have their set of community activities to ensure safety, security and prosperity.
Today Rabhas practice a faith, which is basically a blend of some Hindu and a few animistic rituals. There are considerable differences in ritual practices among forest Rabhas and village Rabhas. The forest Rabhas follow traditional animistic practices tinged with some rituals of mainstream Hinduism. On the other hand village Rabhas have merged with local Hindus as far as their religious practices are concerned.
Various spirits and natural objects pervade the religious world of the Rabhas. The main deity of the Rabhas is Rishi. Rishi, for the forest Rabhas as well as village Rabhas, is a male deity and is also known as Mahakal. Forest Rabhas worship him in all important social and religious ceremonies.
In addition are the deities Rungtuk and Basek, represented by two earthen pots of rice placed on the northern side of the store. These two deities are considered as the daughters of Rishi or Mahakal. Rungtuk and Basek are household deities and considered as the deities of wealth like the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi. The head of the household lives in this room. These deities do not have any morphic figures. A red coloured earthen pitcher filled with rice represents the deity Rungtuk. An egg is kept on the neck of the pitcher.
Rabhas do not follow any Brahmanical methods of worship. The worship of idols or any morphic figures is absent. There is also ritual sacrifice of certain birds and animals. The ritual sacrifice is an integral part of Rabha religious practices and blood- the essential element to appease their Gods. Usually they sacrifice pigeons and fowls for their deities. Occasionally they sacrifice pigs too.
Like most tribal communities, dances and music play an important part in the life of the Rabhas. After every ritual they perform various dances to ingratiate their deities. Most Rabha women can both dance and sing. Seeing a Rabha male dance is a rare view.
Like most tribal dances, those of the Rabhas are connected to some daily agrarian activity. They have a unique dance form named "Nakchung Reni" to celebrate fishing in the forest rivulets. Rabha women of all ages take part in this dance whole-heartedly.
Today Hinduism and Christianity are two other major religious forces that has shaped the Rabha community. The influence of Christianity is perhaps more. In the recent years Rabhas have gained education through missionaries but have probably moved away from their indigenous culture and beliefs.
But in some pockets of North Bengal Rabhas are still trying to preserve their traditional ways of life. It is a struggle to maintain the age-old practices of their forefathers without turning away from the fruits of modernity. Only time can reveal the outcome of this social metamorphosis-taking place in the tribal heartland of North Bengal.