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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

ADIVASI : JULY 16, 2000


A symbiotic bond

Mari and Stan Thekaekara

The writers are with ACCORD, an NGO in the Nilgiris working for tribal development.

"What do you see as the difference between your people (the adivasis) and the others?" I asked Badichi, a Bettakurumba adivasi woman. We were discussing religion and Badichi lived in a forest village called Chembakolly in the Gudalur Valley of Nilgiris district. Her reply was confident and direct. It left me absolutely speechless. "It is our good fortune," Badichi explained, "that our gods live with us in our villages all the time. We don't have to go to any church, mosque or temple to find them, pray to them or offer puja. They are a part of our lives."

K. Ramesh Babu

Adivasis or indigenous or aboriginal people the world over, have never given a name to their religion. We knew all about the Bettakurumba seances and calling of the spirits. But anthropology had programmed us, putting everything into neat little boxes unimaginatively labelled "animism" and "ancestor worship". Adivasis do not "worship" their ancestors, although this is a long held anthropological fallacy. But they revere the spirits of their ancestors and integrate them into their society. These spirits return after death to guide and protect the tribe.

Death in adivasi society is not seen as the end of life - it is an integral part of life. The adivasis talk about the spirits of their dead using the present tense enhancing the perception that the dead are very much part of society still. When anyone dies their spirit is gathered to the fold of the ancestors to remain forever with their people.

This is a universal truth for all aboriginal and indigenous people from Australia to Africa to North and South America. It is embodied in the immortal words of Chief Seattle's speech in 1854 when the American Indians surrendered their ancestral land to the white conquerors. "The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget the earth for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us." The ashes of our fathers are sacred. Their graves are holy ground and these hills, these trees, this portion of the earth is consecrated to us." "You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin'.

The same sentiments were echoed by the Kattunaicken, Paniyas and Mullukurumbas we spoke to. Each tribe had different names for their gods but they were kinship names like Mutthachan (grandfather) and Ajji (grandmother). Their relationship with their gods was an equal one. The Mullakurumbas who have much in common with the Keralite Nair traditions often have Hindu gods and goddesses in their homes but their everyday rituals remain linked to the ancestors. All the tribes celebrate Sivaratri.

Mahasweta Devi points out that adivasis predated Hinduism and Aryanism. She argues that Siva was not an Aryan god and that in the 8th century, the tribal forest goddess or harvest goddess was absorbed and adapted as Siva's wife.

"Goddess Kali definitely had a tribal origin, the goddess of hunters" asserts Mahasweta Devi. Kali and Mari are common adivasi names. Religion and culture are inextricably linked to each other. Most discussions on adivasi culture tend to dwell mostly on customs, traditions, dress, dance, music and exotic rituals. However what has struck us most forcibly after over a decade among adivasis, was the fact that adivasi values are the most beautiful and least discussed aspect of their lives. Their values are what make their lifestyle the only truly sustainable one in the world. Anyone, anthropologist, activist or humanist, who lives closely among these people comes away convinced of the beauty and value of adivasi culture.

The whole of adivasi society is built on a rock solid foundation of equality. It is based on an unconditional acceptance of all life forms including trees, water, the earth. This acceptance is based on a recognition of all things being mutually dependent on each other. What is often referred to as their symbiotic relationship with nature. Since this acceptance is total and unconditional, it automatically means that the other person or element in a relationship is treated with respect. Equality therefore in adivasi society is not some distant dream or goal to be attained - it is an integral part of how their society is structured. It is the natural outcome of treating everything with respect.

People are given respect and status according to their contribution to society but only when they are performing that particular function. Hence a priest or hunter is treated with respect when he is calling the gods or leading the hunt. After the event, he is equal to anyone else in the village unlike in our society where priests, politicians or officials are supposed to be treated with deference all the time.

Much of this attitude stems from the fact that it was a non-acquisitive society. This non-acquisitiveness is the very core of their culture and it impacts on everything - their relationship with nature, their social environment and even on their economy. Hunter gatherers collected what they needed, enough for the day. Then they relaxed till the supply of food - tubers, fruit, fish or meat was finished, before going out foraging again. People never had any need to prove their wealth or status by accumulating possessions.

The way these values are integrated into everyday life is what astounds people who live among them. We have seen children digging up a tuber from the forest and then cutting out the eyes delicately and replanting them with great care. They take from the earth just what they need. But they nurture it because they respect it. Most of the adivasis had utmost contempt for chemical fertiliser and pesticides, what they termed "English manure". We get enough from the earth. And the rice we get using chanagam, (cowdung) is tastier and good for health. The other, chemicals, gives plenty but it leaves the soil ruined. You must not treat the soil, the earth like that, "farmer after farmer told us."

Yet, this attitude is constantly denigrated. They are written off as lazy because they do not work from dawn to dusk in order to accumulate gold, dowries, big houses or bank balances.

For most of us, sharing is linked to our concept of ownership. Where does the issue of sharing arise if everyone owns everything equally? "Sharing" in this case does not arise from the generosity of the giver but is the inherent right of the receiver. This is part of the philosophy of indigenous people. When the Mullakurumbas go hunting a share is given to every family in the village, even those who were absent, sick or could not participate. An extra portion is added for any guest in the village and even non tribal passersby will be offered a share. Not sharing is something they find difficult to comprehend.

"Over on Maanjeri hill you will find the turmeric, in the Padhari river there are mussels. And if you will share with me your tobacco, my friend, together we can go there".

This Paniya song captures the tribal attitude to knowledge and education. Knowledge, like the land and the air and water is common property - everyone must share it. Some Paniya would have discovered turmeric on the Maanjeri hill and mussels in the Padhari river and what does he or she do with this knowledge? No intellectual property rights, or discovery patents here. On the contrary a song is composed and sung - what better way of making it public. Not only is it made public, it is also offered free - all that is asked in return is companionship.

This attitude to knowledge has been constantly exploited by researchers and scientists who claim "discovery" of some new flora or fauna when in fact it was shown to them by adivasis who had used it for centuries. It is the Columbus "Discovery of America" syndrome.

The main threat to adivasi culture and religious beliefs comes from the fact that it does not exclude others. The very nature of this philosophy has left them wide open to exploitation, both material and spiritual.

The most difficult threat to deal with however, comes from the onslaught of modern consumerist culture, cinema, popular music, fashion, TV all of which combine to tell the young adivasi that in order to be smart and fashionable they should modernise their dress, language, manners and customs. Indeed this is an onslaught that all of traditional Indian culture is facing. And the change in society is visible.

Romanticising adivasi culture makes little sense. Somewhere, we need to have a blend. An understanding that technology can be used to create not merely a more comfortable world but a compassionate kind, just, truly human one. A society that is driven not by the "market" but by a vision for an equitable, decent world for all human beings.

We need the adivasi voice to resound, to be heard above the clamour of the global marketplace.


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