Diamond Barway

Adivasi Christians in India

Adivasi are considered to be the original inhabitants of India. The British called them tribals, a term still used in the Indian constitution. Hindu nationalists prefer the name vanvasi or forest dwellers. They themselves prefer Adivasi, a Hindi word meaning ‘first inhabitants’.

Nearly one in ten Indians is an Adivasi. The 2011 census registered 104 million Adivasi, but there may be many more, since the term Adivasi is a flexible one that covers dozens of language groups and tribes.

For centuries, the Adivasi have lived on the margins of Indian society. Most of them live in less developed or even difficult-to-reach areas, inter alia in the Seven Sisters (the seven north-eastern states of India) and a few of the newer states in central India (such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand). They lead highly traditional lives based on subsistence farming. Adivasi communities struggle with poverty and illiteracy, and seldom have access to good education or health care.

The Adivasi religions were originally animist and shamanist practices revolving around the spiritual powers of nature. Although they have been influenced by Hinduism, at the same time they explicitly distinguish themselves from it. The Adivasi do not believe in reincarnation and bury their dead instead of cremating them. Another important factor is that they are outside of the caste system and support a more egalitarian model of society.

After independence, India’s new government made attempts to integrate the Adivasi more into society. They drew up lists of tribal communities that qualified for positive discrimination. One form this took was allocating a given percentage of government jobs and school places to these ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (STs).

India’s economic growth is increasingly putting the Adivasi homelands under pressure. The soil is rich in minerals and the rivers are well suited to constructing dams for generating badly needed hydroelectric power. Government authorities and multinationals are building new roads and factories in the name of progress and development. The local population, however, feels they have been passed over: they see too little of the benefits coming back to them and they have sometimes been collectively forced from their lands. Many are protesting, and it is no coincidence that the Naxalites, a Maoist rebel movement, have many supporters in tribal areas.


The confrontation of the Adivasi with modernity is nothing new. Throughout the nineteenth century, they were approached by Christian missionaries, who were more successful among Adivasi than among the Hindus. Missionaries succeeded in finding common ground between Christianity and the Adivasi’s monistic worldview. They also provided legal assistance to the Adivasi in their fight against landowners claiming Adivasi territory.

Some of these missionaries were Belgians. One of the best known of them was Constant Lievens (1856-1893). He left for India in 1880 and in 1885 travelled from Calcutta to the interior of the country, where he converted thousands of Adivasi during the next few years. Although the ‘Apostle of Chota Nagpur’ died very young in 1893, he had laid the foundations of a thriving mission. During the following decades, hundreds of Flemish Jesuits came to the province of Ranchi, now also the capital of the state of Jharkhand. They were followed by other congregations and aided more and more by clergy from the local Adivasi population. The Ranchi Jesuits nowadays support a flourishing community and they are widely appreciated for their educational network and development projects.

Today there are almost 1.5 million Christians in Jharkhand, only 4.3% of the state’s population. (By comparison, nearly 90% of the population of several northern states are Christians.) The Jharkhand Christians, however, live concentrated in relatively small regions. One of these is Barway, a series of villages 150 kilometres to the west of Ranchi. Because diamonds were said to have been found there, the area is also known as Diamond Barway. It was here that ‘Father Lievens’ undertook his very last conversion mission in 1892.


More than 120 years later, Ghent photographer Sander Buyck repeated Lievens’ last journey. In 2015 he travelled several times through Diamond Barway, where he was allowed into local congregations and was able to capture many scenes from daily life. The result is a series of photos of Adivasi who are trying to survive between tradition and modernity. We see the simple dwellings, the daily routine, the market as the busy hub. We see men going out to hunt, more to honour tradition than to catch anything. In addition, we witness the traces Lievens left in Diamond Barway. We are reminded of his presence in the form of material heritage, as well as by a series of mass celebrations in places where Lievens baptized large groups of Adivasi or is said to have performed a miracle.

Sander Buyck himself was struck above all by (citaat).