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Indigenous Religions in the Asian Uplands: Perspectives on Landscape in Northeast India  

Claire Scheid

Indigenous religions in the Asian uplands comprise a broad spectrum that includes a variety of unique site-specific practices, rituals, and beliefs. Just as the Asian uplands are a vast territory home to multiple cultures, they are also home to multiple indigenous religions. It is important not to conceptualize indigenous religions as homogeneous or static; rather, they are specific, organic systems particular to a given community that may vary even from household to household in design, praxis, and content. Similarly, it is tempting to presume that all indigenous religions in the Asian uplands must integrate the hilly or mountainous terrain around them into their cosmologies, ontologies, or eschatologies; this is also a fallacy. While some indigenous religions do worship or deify the topography that surrounds them—such as the Lepcha and Lhopo (Bhutia) of Sikkim, India, whose veneration of Mount Khangchendzonga is central to their understandings of the cosmos—others—such as the Adi of Arunachal Pradesh, India, and the Khasi of Meghalaya, India—consider certain upland sites in nature as sacred but do not incorporate them into the framework of their religious conceptualizations or practices in a primary way. To illustrate the variety of indigenous religions found in the Asian uplands, and their independent relationships with, and conceptions of, nature and landscape—and to highlight the diversity extant even between those in close proximity to each other—examples can be found in four ethnic communities (the Adi, the Khasi, the Lepcha, and the Lhopo [Bhutia]), all classified as “scheduled tribes” under the Constitution of the Indian Republic and located in Northeast India. Through a survey of these four groups, it becomes apparent that “indigenous religions” vary greatly in upland (and other) areas—and practically, and ethically, cannot be effectively generalized. It is easiest to glean a working comprehension of the characteristics of indigenous religions in the Asian uplands through recognizing the distinctive qualities of a sampling of individual ethnic communities that reveal great differences despite their geographical similarity. Indigenous religions do not exist in sterile isolation from other “mainstream” religions; boundaries between indigenous religions can be permeable, even if the religions themselves are very different; globalization is changing how indigenous religions are articulated, as they take on new structures for the sake of preservation; and while a mountain may be the center of an upland Northeast Indian religion, equally, it may not be.


Religion and Migration in Rakhine  

Michael W. Charney

The historical migration and religious development in Rakhine (Arakan) up to the end of the second decade of the 21st century is complicated. This region was a crossroads for South and Southeast Asian civilizations and existed at the overlap of the frontiers of Islam and Theravada Buddhism. Existing in an ecological niche with a difficult topography and climate and a low population base, Rakhine social and state formation was built around inclusivity and tolerance. Although for much of its history the dominant religions of the population of the region were animism and then Brahmanism, successive waves of immigrants from both Bengal and Myanmar meant that Islamic and Theravada Buddhist influence was very strong. The early modern kingdom that emerged at Mrauk-U, its main political center, was built on maritime connectivity with the Indian Ocean world and developed a court culture that was both Muslim and Buddhist and ruled over a population that was religiously heterogeneous. Toleration was challenged, however, by the conquest of Rakhine by Myanmar in 1785 and efforts to eradicate local religious autonomy. Things did not improve under British rule after the British annexation of 1826. The Myanmar and British rulers of Rakhine politicized the region’s history and tried to retell the history of the region in ways that excluded some populations and included others, leading to efforts to force the Rohingya out of Rakhine from August 2017.