The Sora are an indigenous people native to the highlands of southern Odisha and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh in India. The belief system of the Sora involves ancestral spirits who live in an underworld that is accessible by female shamans in trance. These shamans 'channel' the dead, who converse with the living in a form of bereavement therapy. Every day, they negotiated their well-being in heated arguments or in quiet reflections on their feelings of love, anger, and guilt.
The arrival of Christian missionaries in the region in the mid-20th century brought about a gradual shift in the religious practices of the Sora. Traditional shamanic practices of the Sora tribe came into conflict with the teachings of Christianity, but the appeal of the new religion, particularly its emphasis on education and healthcare and its proscription of alcohol, ultimately led to its widespread adoption among the tribe.
Today, most Sora have converted to Christianity, and Hindu activists seek to bring the rest into their fold. The old sacred sites are being demolished to make way for modern structures. The new generations don’t speak the Sora language anymore, and the shamans, without clients to perform ceremonies for, leave their ritualistic paintings to fade. Most Sora who died during the pandemic received Christian burials. The shamans, whose children have converted too, will receive a similar burial, cutting the Sora off forever from the spirits and ancestors that guided them.
On assignment for Scientific American.
Terraced paddy fields near a Sora settlement in Murising, Odisha, India.
The great funeral shaman of Rajingtal, Lokami, stands on top of the Rujab hill, which is the site of Labo-sim or the Earth Sonum. “Earth spirits symbolize water and the principle or wholeness, reuniting ancestors split apart by diverse experiences of death,” wrote the anthropologist Piers Vitebsky.
The cross of the church in Putasing, Odisha, India.
The Ganwar, a site where stones were planted around a tree in memory of dead villagers during an annual Karja ceremony, in Sogad, Odisha, India.
Jagat Dalbehera, 25, and Tinkamo Sabara, 30, tap toddy from silver date palm trees in Sogad, Odisha, India. Christian missionaries proscribed the consumption of alcohol among the converted, and the Church still imposes heavy penalties and even boycotts people for a few weeks for every transgression.
Men gather at a Gasal (drinking circle) for freshly tapped Sindisaal (toddy from silver date palm, Phoenix sylvestris) in Sogad, Odisha, India. The Sora’s preferred drink was Alin, which they tapped from the fishtail palm tree (Caryota urens), followed by Aba, tapped from Mahua (Madhuca indica). Alin was also demanded by the shamans, ancestors and spirits during rituals.
Artefacts at the Roman Catholic Church, ahead of special prayer session on the occasion of St.John’s day led by Father Kumuda Badaseph, 34, at the Roman Catholic Church in Rajingtal in Odisha, India.
Kids gather in a cashew orchard to watch a volleyball game being played next to it, near Putta in Odisha, India.
Sogad, one of the largest Sora villages in the region, as seen from the local Baptist Church. Established in 1947 by Canadian missionaries- one of the first churches in Sora territories, it played an important role in the Sora moving away from their ancient religious practices. June 24, 2022.
Father Kumuda Badaseph, 34, from the Roman Catholic Church in Rajingtal in Odisha, India.
Sunday service at the Sogad Baptist Church in Sogad, Odisha, India.
Father Kumuda Badaseph, 34,from the Roman Catholic Church, leads a house blessing prayer in Rajingtal in Odisha, India.
Sora Christian songbooks during a St. John’s Day special prayer session at the Roman Catholic Church in Rajingtal in Odisha, India.
The feet of Sora shamans Sompani Raito, Sindoi Raito and Ilanti Gomongo as they enter a trance in Gudara in Odisha, India.
A cockerel killed as an offering to the spirits during a trance by Sindoi Raito and Ilanti Gomongo in Gudara in Odisha, India.
Poyonti Raika cooks a meal for the shamans during a trance ritual in Gudara in Odisha, India.
Abhishek Karjee, 36, carpenter and the president of the Sogad Baptist Church, at his home in Sogad, Odisha, India.
Adam Raika, 36, and Sanju Bhuyan, 30, with their daughter Bivanshi on her first birthday in Sogad, Odisha, India.
The weekly Monday market in Puttasing, Odisha, India, where the worlds of the Sora and plains people meet.
Sripad Lilakrishna Das, 45, is a priest at the Jagannath Temple in Titising, Odisha, India. Das, himself a Sora, also works as a Pracharak at the Sabar Samaj Kalyana Samiti (Sora Community Welfare Organisation) and works to bring Sora into the Hindu fold.
Workers build a chariot ahead of the annual Chariot festival (Rath Yatra) of Lord Jagannath, a major cultural and religious event in Odisha, at the Jagannath Temple in Titising in Odisha, India.
Sora youth from Puttasing on the road leading up a hill towards Manengul, where they get better mobile network reception in Odisha, India.
Sora shaman Lokami and women from the family of Sakana Soboro stitch leaf cups, to be used during a trance ritual in Jorrepi, Odisha, India.
Sora shaman Lokami channels Sakana Soboro, who passed away three months ago after a brief illness and now speaks through her with his relatives. The chicken, the clothes on his shoulder and umbrella are all offerings from his family. Jorrepi, Odisha, India.