Forging Sacred Spaces through Sound: the Matua Community

Studying the ‘sound’ of religion has long been the domain of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, but not so much the discipline of Religious Studies itself. Yet religion is never solely experienced visually; it involves ritual, singing, chanting, breathing, bell ringing, murmuring, and the vibrations and sensations that come with such sounds.

That was one of the main ideas Dr Carola Lorea, research fellow at the Religion and Globalisation Cluster, Asia Research Institute at the NUS, delivered in the first CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum of October by looking at the case of the Matua, a displaced ethnic community originating from East Bengal, now spread across modern day India, Bangladesh and the Andaman Islands. Borrowing R Murray Schaffer’s thought on ‘soundscape’, Lorea explained how for the Matua music is central in their religious practices. ‘Soundscape’ not only includes the ritualistic sounds, but also the background ‘noise’ and everyday peripheral sounds that make up one’s experience of the world. It gives context for the formation of Matuan religious identity to take place.

The displacement of the Matua

The Matua community formed in the 19th century following the teachings of the gurus Harichand Thakur (believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu/Rama/Krishna/Caitanya) and his son Guruchand Thakur (worshipped as an incarnation of Shiva). The performance gatherings are devotional and bodily, including the recital of sacred texts and participants chanting the sacred word ‘Haribol’ as well as dancing, or matam, to reach the siddhi (perfection)The Matua begin their rituals by welcoming guests with garlands of coconut beads, sandalwood paste to the forehead and hugging before the performance starts. (To get a sense of how the Matuan rituals sound like, watch a documentary film on them.)

The formation of the Matua was also as a resistance to the caste system and oppression felt by the community as part of the Untouchable or dalit caste. Translated literally as ‘madness’ or ‘drunk’ in Bengali, ‘matua’ was initially a derogatory epithet directed at the South Asian community due to the loudness and the seemingly intoxicated nature of their music and dancing central to their religious life. The Matua took ownership of this term, turning it into a positive attribute to their customs and rituals, and continued to sing and dance. Although the caste system was made illegal after India’s independence, Untouchables like the Matua continued to be discriminated against through lack of rights and erasure from culture and history.

After India’s Independence and subsequent Partition in 1947 which led to East Bengal transitioning into Bangladesh, the Matuans who continued to live within their original homeland became a religious minority, despite being a community of around nine million at the time. Many Matuans crossed the border to India where some were given refugee status, but an unknown number became stateless. Those who were granted refugee status were relocated by the government according to the Caste system. As Untouchables, the Matua were sent to isolated, inaccessible areas around the country, and the government’s colonisation scheme transmigrated them to as far as the sparsely populated Andaman Islands lying in the ocean between India and Indonesia. Presently, it is thought there are around 15 million Matuans overall, but due to the high number of stateless Matuans and lack of collected data on the community, there remains no actual figures about the total population or how the community move and work within the various regions.

The Matua. Photo: Carola Lorea

The politics and poetics of religious sound

It is due to that erasure and fragmentation that Lorea feels it is crucial to study the aural make-up of displaced communities. To this day there remains little documentation or cultural acknowledgement of the Matua people, which means that despite their large numbers, they have had almost no political or cultural power within the general population. If we are to take Spivak’s question, ‘can the subaltern speak?’, perhaps for the Matua the question should be—if the subaltern can speak, or play in the case of the Matua—what are the politics behind the refusal to listen? While Dalit Literature has developed as a genre, this excludes the great body of cultural work created by the various Matuan community around South Asia. Where various other tribal communities around India and the region have developed an audience in the Jazz or ethnic music scene, the music of the Matua continues to be seen as “unnecessary noise”. As Lorea described it, this untouchable cultural heritage has never become intangible cultural heritage.

Taken from interviews with members of the Matua community during Lorea’s research, one Matuan likened their music performances to the adzan, a reminder for Muslims to pray. Yet in the primarily Muslim country of Bangladesh, when the actual adzan plays, the Matua have to stop the sādhanā, highlighting the sonic hierarchy that develops in a space that holds religious majorities and minorities. Lorea calls this ‘the politics and poetics of religious sound’. Here we can see the development of sonic territories, the license for one sound to preside over another.

This ‘place’ of sound created by the community not only enters through the ears of those in the surrounding area, but also affect the landscape in other ways, creating large, sonorous vibrations which have been known to interfere with mobile phone signals and cure the heart problems of patients in nearby hospitals. The border of this new space ends where the music can no longer be heard, or where the sacred sound can no longer be felt. The performers may be far from the original marshes of East Bengal, but in that moment, the space in which they inhabit is distinctly theirs, and those who are open to experiencing and learning about this world of the Matua, they can. This encompassing sound of drums, horns, singing of ‘Haribol’, crying and ululating is an egalitarian way of celebrating the teachings of Harichand Thakur. One music teacher within the Matua commented, “Harichand Thakur…  he did not prescribe any mantra or prayer: he said his message will spread as far as the sound of the danka will reach. …The message, it enters automatically inside of you.” In this sense, anyone who is willing to understand can. There is no requirement to be able to read or write, nor a background in theology. All one needs is the ability to feel.

 Photo: Carola Lorea

How to study the sound of religion?

As the presentation came to a close, the discussion moved in the direction of how to approach an academic study of religious sound: how does one actually study or theorize the sound of the sacred?

Lorea explained three main schools of studying sound. The first is looking at the content of the music, whether the lyrics or elements feature religious knowledge, about the life of the saints, the prophets, or religious knowledge. The second school can be termed a phenomenological approach, and this involves comparing religious or sacred music across cultures and regions and the universally shared patterns which can be found, whether that be a certain pitch, the pace, or the intensity of the religious music. Yet both of these school require certain conditions which some forms of religious sound won’t have. For example, to look at the content of the religious music assumes there will be words which represent the spiritual element, and if we are to look at sacred sound phenomenologically, there are a number of flaws with comparing different religions.

The third school, to which Lorea subscribes, focuses on context—the music is sacred when the community contextualises it and defines it as sacred. To develop a real understanding of the sacredness of the sound created, a researcher should develop an understanding of the local system, listen to the songs and learn the various parts, discuss the content and the story behind the songs. For Lorea, embodied learning is key to understanding religious sound.

The forum and subsequent discussion not only provided insight into the largely overlooked community within South Asia but also critiques against the existing tendency in Religious Studies which gives much emphasis on written sources. Citing Isaac Weiner (2013), this lack of sonic study is a ‘disciplinary deafness’, with departments instead focusing on the visual and the written, or a ‘scriptist bias’, as termed by Roy Harris (1986), using sacred texts as the dominant, reliable source. The Matua community exemplifies a religious community for whom ‘soundscape’ is vital in identity formation and therefore cannot be neglected.

Written for CRCS as part of my scholarship. Read this and more on the website: