Tribal communities lead environment-friendly lives, and they have much to teach contemporary societies facing the threat of climate change and global warming
In India, the tribes were not considered as separate from the rest of Indian society. They were part of the country’s rich human diversity, with their languages and customs. There were some very ancient groups like the people in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Mundas in Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, the Naga tribes like Angami in the north-eastern state of Nagaland. Then there are the Bhils in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Gonds in Chhattisgarh, the Santhals in Bangla, who have maintained their distinct identity through the recent centuries while adopting the dominant religious beliefs of the Hindu system, though they have their own gods and goddesses. Anthropologists and historians believe that many of the divinities of the tribes of India have been absorbed into the Hindu pantheon in various parts of the country, and the local gods and goddesses were really pre-Hindu tribal divinities. India’s five-thousand-year-old history is indeed very complex, where many streams mix and form a large river.
The general definition of tribes in India, as in many other parts of India, is that they are generally pre-literate societies, who are at the stage of hunter-gatherers, and when they practice agriculture it is the slash-and-burn variety, where they clear a piece of forest, sow a crop and after it has been harvested they move on to the next forest patch. The life style and the stage of civilisation of the tribes has helped in tracing the pre-agricultural stage of society. The tribes have also been found to be living in forests or on the edge of forests, with intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna. With a population of 104 million, India is home to the largest tribal or indigenous people in the world. The tribal groups figure in the two popular Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Anthropologists have also identified the earliest tribal or indigenous groups in India to have arrived from Africa about 50,000 years ago. The first humans are considered to have emerged from Africa 65,000 years ago. So, the Indian tribal groups are the earliest settlers in the country.
One of the fascinating aspects of the tribes in India has been their languages, which are based on oral traditions, with complex linguistic structures and literary compositions. Many linguists are concerned that as many of the tribes get modernized and adopt the dominant languages of the region like English, Hindi, Bangla, Odiya, their own languages are dying out. The scholars believe that the preservation of the languages of the tribes is very important in understanding the evolution of languages in general. It is miraculous that hundreds of languages and dialects of the tribes have survived to this day, though many of them are on the verge of extinction today.
Ganesh Devy, an English Literature professor, who has carried out the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PSLI), says about the tribal languages which are to be found mainly in central India, stretching from east Gujarat in the West to Arunachal Pradesh, which has a 90 per cent tribal population and it is home to 26 languages, asks in a recent interview: “Is there something in these languages that kept them strong, and kept their communities undestroyed and non-colonised? Wherever English went – Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand – it destroyed native languages, but in Indian tribal communities continued to speak their languages, as did ‘mainland’ Indians. Had tribal languages given strength to the neighbouring Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese?”
Munda group of tribal languages, which is one of the ancient groups of people in the country, has the following languages in its Austroasiatic family: Santali, Sora, Remo, Ho, Gutob, Kera Mundari, Kharia, Bhumij, Korku, Tamaria Mundari, Goam, Juang, Birhor. At the north-eastern end, the Naga group of languages in Nagaland represent a wide spectrum of languages which include Angami, Sema, Rengma, Chakhesang, Ao, Lotha, Phom, Chang, Konyak. The sheer diversity of tribal languages within limited groups shows that India presents a veritable library of tribal languages apart from scores of other dominant languages.
There are attempts to bring the poetry of the tribal people of India to the modern reader through translations. The flavour of the poetry of the different tribes conveys their literary and aesthetic sensibility as well as the emotional make-up of these ancient groups in the country. Sitakant Mohapatra, an IAS officer from Odisha, has collected the oral poetry of many of the tribes of India in eight volumes with the title, “They Sing Life:Anthology of Oral Poetry of Primitive Tribes of India” in eight volumes.
Temsula Ao, a poet and folklorist from Nagaland, in her poems captures a sense of the collective memory of the tribe of Ao. She writes: “Grandfather constantly warend/That forgetting the stories/Would be catastrophic/We would lose our History,/Territory, and most certainly/Our intrinsic identity.” And she writes in the same poem: “But now a new era has dawned./Insidiously displacing the old./My own grandsons dismiss/Our stories as ancient gibberish?/From the dark ages, outmoded/In the present times, and ask/Who needs rambling stories/When books will do just fine.”
Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, who had won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2017, captures the mood of the tribal sense of the past and present, which is closely entwined with that of nature in the poem entitled, “Small Towns And the River”: “Small towns always remind me of death./My hometown lies calmly amidst the trees,/it is always the same/in summer or winter,/with the dust flying,/or the wind howling down the gorge.”
If languages and oral traditions define tribal culture at one end, then there is the rich tribal handicrafts tradition across the country. The handicrafts are made from locally available sources. For example, both in Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east of the country, and Rajasthan and Uttaranchal in the west and northwest, bamboo and wood are the raw materials used in the tribal handicrafts. What the tribals make have both utilitarian and decorative value. In many of the north-eastern states like Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, the dazzling textile designs bear witness to the fact that the tribal people in these places have a highly evolved aesthetic sense as well as sophisticated textile processes of weaving and dyeing.
The report says, “In Arunachal Pradesh, main handicrafts items are made up of bamboo as a raw material. Artisans of Banswara district of Rajasthan, Chamoli district of Uttaranchal were prominent in the production of handicrafts made of bamboo. Cane and bamboo products, not only adorn tribal houses, but they decorate the modern household as well. Cane furniture, bamboo mats, screens, tablemats etc are extremely popular…Wood carvings are important handicraft of Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal due to availability of wood as raw material from nearby forest areas. Bell metal handicrafts is prominent in Chhattisgarh state. Stone carvings in the form of deities, flower vases, agarbatti stands, bowls, were famous among tribal districts of Rajasthan state. This was partly due to the availability of raw material surrounding their villages. Terracota items like horses, elephants, flower vases are traditional handicrafts moulded by tribals in the districts of Chhattisgarh state with local river soil (mud).”
The report noted that the tribal handicrafts needed government support because the traditions were dying away as the tribal communities moved into agriculture, migrating to cities and getting modernized in their way of living. It was also observed that there was huge export potential for handicrafts in general, and for tribal handicraft products in particular. But producing handicrafts for export purposes, or for domestic markets, alone is an alien concept for many of the tribal communities. Many of the tribal communities made things for the use of their own people. The products never had a purely decorative function. They were things that were used in their everyday lives.
One of the major challenges with regard to tribes in India is about protecting their specific traditions while at the same time enabling the tribal people to modernize themselves, adopt modern education and take up jobs in the contemporary economy. This might mean that the tribal people would naturally move away from their traditional ways of life, and in the process lose of much of their customs, beliefs, language and food. It would not be possible or even right to ask the tribes of India to preserve their identities and resist change.
What should be possible is that the tribal people have the choice and the means to preserve what they want in their traditional culture and even adapt it to modern ways. This is indeed how change happens in many societies, where the old ways are modified and adapted even as the group embraces new things.
Governments in India are trying to preserve the economic and regional autonomy of the different tribes. Care is taken that outsiders do not purchase land and replace the tribal people where they have been residing for centuries. While the legal framework helps the tribes retain their identities, they face the pressure of change, which they cannot resist and which they cannot reject outright.
The challenge for governments, policy-makers and the tribal people themselves is about retaining their identity while at the same adapting to the modern technological world.
There has to be an attempt then from the tribal people themselves to want to preserve their traditions in languages, arts, customs and beliefs. Government policies may help them to preserve their diverse and rich cultural heritage, but administrators cannot do much more because they do not know the embedded cultural treasures which only members of the tribes know. The other way that tribal people would want to preserve their culture and way of life would be if the majority of people of India show interest in the tribal life, buy their handicrafts, paintings and textiles, listen to tribal music and show interest in the tribal languages and literatures. These are intangible culture treasures, and if they are to fade away then the country as a whole loses part of its heritage.
Every Indian has a stake in the tribal heritage of India because it belongs to the whole country and all the people. It is not an issue that concerns only the tribal people. While there are people like Ganesh Devy who are dedicated to preserving the tribal languages of India, there is need for the government and to people interested in culture to come up with innovative ideas of popularizing tribal handicrafts and languages, their beliefs and ways of life. It is generally recognised that over the centuries the tribal people have evolved a lifestyle that is eco-friendly, and that they know how to use the resources of nature – forests, rivers, plants and animals – with care. Tribal beliefs encourage a life that does not require destruction of nature. It is an important lesson at a time when the world is facing the threat of climate change and global warming. The tribal way of life has many lessons for modern societies, and these could be vital for the survival of modern civilization as such.
The tribal people, who are usually concerned to be ‘primitive’ by others, might be in the vanguard of restoring the balance between human beings and the environment. The tribal communities are natural ecologists, and that is where their value lies for contemporary societies.
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