A successful society is one that focuses on the welfare of the larger good, which includes every aspect of the environment. By that parameter, the tribal society wins hands down, says Nabanita Deshmukh
My friend, Shibani, and I picked up a handful of millets in the village haat (fair) and let the grains slip through our fingers. The adivasi seller called Tulasi stared at us and burst out laughing. We watched her throw some grains at the passing birds and then stack up some bananas, sago stems and jackfruit on one side. “Kaha payin (for whom is it)?" we asked, and Tulasi gently replied, “For the wild animals that come foraging for food into the village. I always keep some vegetables and fruits aside for them, and they do not disturb my field.” Shibani and I looked at one another in surprise and impulsively bought a kilo each of mandiya (ragi) and walked back to the guesthouse. “I’ve worked so long with the adivasis,” my friend pensively remarked, “and I cannot but admire their generosity and warmth. Nearly every tribal I’ve met has a deep connection with nature and strives hard to protect it.” “Really?” I exclaimed, “What makes you say that?” “Last week, I spent some time with a tribal farmer,” began Shibani, “and I complimented him on the use of organic pest repellents. Instead of feeling proud, he humbly said that his field actually did not belong to him. The crops were there for the birds, the bees and the butterflies which fed on the plants he grew. The crop was also for the worms and other creatures living underground that nourished the soil and were fed by it, and finally the harvest belonged to his family and his tribesmen who worked in the field alongside him. Everyone benefitted and the village flourished!” finished Shibani with a smile and then turning towards me, she suddenly asked, “Any idea of the tribal worldview?” I shook my head in bewilderment. “What on earth is that?” I questioned. “I thought you knew,” sighed Shibani, and this is what motivated me to study tribal ethos and culture.
A holistic concept
Interestingly, I stumbled upon a definition of the worldview while reading an article on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It stated: "A worldview includes how a person or group interacts with the world around them, including land, animals and people." By probing further, I realised that the worldview of tribal or indigenous people focuses on a holistic understanding of the Universe rather than a materialistic one. Sitakanta Mahapatra, the well known Oriya poet, aptly summarises this in an article : "The tribal worldview continues to be holistic, not fragmented by the usual binary oppositions. The individual is undoubtedly at the centre, but his relationship with the 'other' human beings in society, with nature and the physical world, with the world of ancestors, gods and spirits is integrated into a coherent system. The alienation of the individual in modern society is unknown to him/her."
I sifted through numerous other explanations to better understand the concept and four important aspects emerged:
• A spiritual and supernatural connectedness with land
• Holistic cure and natural remedies
• Sustainable management of resources
• Building sustainable relationships within the community
Land and its significance
For indigenous people, land is considered a gift from the Creator for it nourishes and supports all forms of life. Although customs of indigenous peoples vary from region to region, one common trait binds them together and that is the way they perceive their land. Every tribal considers the Earth as a mother and respects it. Caring for the land is not an individual preoccupation but becomes a collective responsibility where every member of the tribe strives to preserve it. There may be instances when superstitious beliefs create tension and they need to be overcome, yet by and large tribal people preserve their environment and avoid polluting it. Below are some anecdotes to highlight these points. Protectors of the Forest In Brunei, the people of the Penan tribe believe in the concept of 'Molong' which means the conservation of natural resources. To illustrate this point, there is an interesting story of the dipterocarp tree. This unique tree produces seeds that wild boars love so the Penans never cut or harm it. The trees grow on riverbanks so the Penans take utmost care not to pollute the rivers. They let the wild boars get their fair share of seeds and also offer them food such as sago palms. 'Molong' gives the Penans a sense of ownership over the forest resources and the responsibility to preserve them for future generations. Greed is unheard of in the Penan community and everyone shares what they have with the creatures of the forest. Sacred mountain Closer home, the Dongrias Kondhs of Odisha consider their home on the Niyamgiri Hills as a sacred abode. These bauxite-rich hills soak up the rain and give rise to perennial streams that sustain hill tribes and communities living on the plains below. The decade-long uprising of the Dongrias against the mining giant, Vedanta, and their subsequent victory in July 2013 was a formidable feat that reveals not only the tribe’s valour but also its sacred links to the land. “Without Niyamgiri we will die. It is our God!” say the Dongrias when asked what prompted them to fight.
Natural cure and remedies
Indigenous healers not only work on their people’s bodies but on their minds and psyche as well. The remedies are largely based on the patient’s individual characteristics and social interactions. Miracle plant and wounds During a biological survey deep inside the Nilambur forests in Kerala, a group of scientists met a village elder of the Cholainaickan tribe called Kuppamala Kaniyan who had ugly scars on his chest. On inquiring how he got them, Kaniyan informed that he was once mauled by a bear but fortunately managed to escape. "As for curing the deep wounds on my chest, I applied a paste made of leaves from the 'pacha chedi'!" he said. The scientists took a sample of the miracle plant (pacha chedi) whose botanical name is N. calycinus back to their lab and clinical trials confirmed that it had therapeutic properties to treat wounds, burns, pains and a host of other ailments. Medicinal plants are used to treat spiritual origins of the disease as well as its physical symptoms. The tribal’s vast knowledge of indigenous flora is now being extensively used in alternative medicine.
Sustainable resource management
Indigenous people use resources without depleting them.
Rice for all
In the Karen community of Thailand, money does not play an important role but rice does. If a village has enough food it is considered prosperous and people are happy. Sometimes, however, cultivation fails for various reasons such as a weak monsoon or drought so people grow chilli or bamboo shoots to provide for their tribes, instead of pumping their land with chemical fertilisers. They also sell honey along with other forest produce and use their earnings to buy rice for villagers. The indigenous people’s knowledge of plants, soil, animals, birds, insects, climate and the power of emotions is profound, and they take utmost care to co-exist with nature without exploiting it.
Sustainable social interaction
Community feeling and cooperation are important for indigenous people. Food gathering, hunting and certain agricultural practices depend on mutual support and cooperation of tribe members. Quarrels within the community are frowned upon. In many indigenous cultures, men and women have complementary, if not equal, roles. Gifts for the enemy In Papua New Guinea, war is considered part of cultural life but the thought of annihilating the enemy is surprisingly absent. The Tsembaga and the Mae Enga tribes, for example, encourage their members to marry their foes after the battle as they believe that anger can be channelled into something constructive. After the bloodshed, a process of peace-building begins. Gifts, ceremonies, and weddings make warriors forget the pain and learn the art of forgiveness and letting go.
Indigenous values have much to offer in terms of health, education, farming and various other aspects of social life. In recent years, however, there has been a gradual shift in the lifestyle and perceptions of tribal people brought in by technological advances and globalisation. This conflict between traditional and modern values has created a rift in most tribal societies across the world. How to bridge these differences so that the indigenous worldview continues to remain relevant is a question worth exploring. The current environmental scenario of our world is not too bright. Pollution, destructive warfare, greenhouse emissions, overuse of chemical pesticide and medicines along with a growing sense of self- centredness, consumerism and alienation are adversely affecting our societies. Could the tribal people’s contribution help heal the wounds? Indigenous people may have rigid beliefs and a different worldview but are they not the best custodians of our planet? They treat the earth like a mother and understand her pain and her needs. They nourish and replenish her with love and warmth without exploiting her resources. We have so much to gain from them but why do we consider tribal people backward and uncivilised? By doing so, we miss a unique opportunity to grow holistically and find ways to preserve this beautiful Earth for its future inhabitants.
Bio: Nabanita Deshmukh is a teacher and writer of children's stories and poems. She conducts workshops on interactive methods of teaching.
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