Virgin Mary as tribal keeps debate running in Jharkhand

Talks between church representatives in Jharkhand and members of the Sarna faith have broken down over the latter's demand that a statue portraying Virgin Mary as a tribal be removed.

The statue was installed in May in the new Catholic parish church in Singhpur village, 15 km from Ranchi. It shows Mary in a white saree with a red border, her hair in a bun, bangles around her wrists. She is carrying the infant Jesus on a sling, as a tribal woman would.

The church is located in an Oraon-majority area and is maintained by the Marianists, who look up to Mary as their model. One of them came up with the idea for the statue and installed it. A source in the church said that Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi, came to know of it only the day he unveiled it. The cardinal refused to comment on this but the source indicated he approved of the idea.

The Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha has taken umbrage at this portrayal. "What they have shown Mother Mary to be wearing is the traditional dress of the Sarna people. We are demanding that the statue be restored to the traditional way of portraying Mary. We fear that this statue will later become a tool for conversion," said Sarna priest Bandhan Tigga.

Various Sarna organisations took out rallies in the early June. Earlier this month, the All Churches Committee met Sarna representatives in Ranchi. Sarna leaders said the committee had refused to take the statue down. "They told us it was not an issue at all, and that the matter was being pushed forward by those with vested interests," said Jiten Oraon, general secretary of the adivasi mahasabha. Churches committee secretary Manmasi Ekka of the Gossner Evangelical Luteran Church said deliberations are still going on.

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