A True Fairytale
An Eastern Ghats Tribe’s Struggle for Existence
Part Two: The Life of a Fairy Tale
A fairy tale, like all living things, lives and dies. It dies when the language that animates the tale dies. Sometimes it lives on precariously, translated in another language, like a homeless person in a refugee camp. It grows lonely and sad, and then it dies one day. On 26 January 2010, an old Bo woman died in a camp in Port Blair. With her died a language, and the last surviving member of a Great Andamanese tribe who had been living in the North Andamans island for at least 65 thousand years, until the British came to ‘civilize’ them. That was in mid 19th century, when the Bos numbered around five thousand. They came in contact with civilized people, civilized diseases, and before the turn of the century, their number dwindled to around two hundred. They were settled in a camp outside the forests. A fine people, a hardy race, who had been living in absolute freedom on a pristine island for ages, grew into idle, wasted wrecks, drug addicts, gave birth to sick and dead children, and became completely dependent on charity. And the last surviving member died on the day the Indian Republic was celebrating its 53rd birth anniversary.
We, the people of India, came to know about this after the old Bo woman died, after one of the oldest surviving languages in this subcontinent became extinct. And yet, every now and then, languages are dying – one in every two weeks, according to a United Nations estimate. With them are dying the fairy tales that live in these languages, like orchids upon trees.
Fairy tales live in a language. But sometimes they also live in a specific ecological setting. The fairy tale of Dongria Kondhs, officially a primitive tribe who inhabit the Eastern Ghats of Odisha, is etched on a particular hill range known as Niyamgiri – the Mountain of Law.
Parched Earth, Green Paradise
Since the beginning of time, since the earth god Dharani Penu defeated the prime demon in a fierce battle, the Dongria Kondhs have been living on the upper reaches of Niyamgiri. In the foothills live the Kutia Kondhs, another sub-sect of the Kondh tribe. The rich forests on this hill range belong, like elsewhere in the country, to state the Forest Department. But here there is no barbed wire; the forest guards, too, are scarcely to be seen. Here the Kondhs are the keepers of these forests. They collect minor forest produce, cultivate small patches of land, and worship their god Niyam Raja, the Lord of Law. Dongar means hill, and the existence of Dongrias is tied to the ecology of the hill range, to nature’s laws that govern it. On top of the hill lies their sacred grove, teeming with myriads forms of life. Hundreds of rare species of plants, orchids, mushrooms, birds, animals, reptiles and insects thrive here. The forest is composed of many varieties of evergreen and deciduous trees, several species of bamboos, shrubs and grasslands. This is also a critical wildlife corridor for elephants and big cats. In short, a garden of Eden in a particularly arid part of Western Odisha, a sliver of green stitching the notoriously drought-prone districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada.
Niyamgiri has an unceasing supply of water, even during the parched summer months. The forested hilltop retains moisture from rains and mists, letting it seep slowly into the earth through the roots of trees and shrubs, form into countless watery veins that flow along, silent and invisible, under layers of porous laterite, to emerge upon murmuring beds of pebbles. This is ancient Gondwana land. Millions of years of wind and rain have carved gentle slopes upon the hillsides, like the undulant muscles of hill god. The streams flow quietly downhill, keeping the forests moist and cool round the year, sustaining multiple forms of life. There are more than two dozen all-season streams that issue out of the top of Niyamgiri. As they wind down, they meet up at the gullies and are braided into rivers – Vansadhara and Nagavali.
The Dongria Kondhs grow maize, millet and a variety of leguminous grains on the hill slopes. They are also great horticulturists. Banana, guava, orange, custard apple and other fruits grow in plenty here. Juiciest pineapples, and also turmeric, are grown in the shaded forest floors. Life follows a quiet rhythm in the tiny hamlets nestled in the hills. Every village has a shrine dedicated to Dharani Penu, a modest structure made of wood and straw. It is the hub around which the social and religious life of the community is arranged. Every village also has its own priest, priestess and herabalist, not to mention the headman. Each has a role assigned by the community; the Dongrias have an intricate social structure.
The young unmarried girls, after they attain puberty, spend the nights in a village dormitory. Here they are initiated in the arts of life - sometimes under the watchful eyes of a matron, but mostly by themselves, the seniors passing on their knowledge to the juniors. They learn their myths and folklore, songs and properties of plants, embroidery and household work – in short, aspects of material culture, orally transmitted and handed down from generation to generation. Also, sex education – theory and a little practice. Drawn by the songs and music that sometimes go on in the dormitories through the night, young men from nearby hamlets show up. Elaborate rituals of courtship ensue. These are woven to the tunes of music and dance steps, beginning at the clearings in front of the thatched dormitories, and often, as the night ripens, straying into moon-dappled wood. But strict exogamy is practiced; sexual relations among boys and girls within the village clan is a taboo. The lovers exchange bead necklaces as tokens of engagement. Sometimes these trysts mature into wedlock, sometimes they don’t.
In the Kondh society, women enjoy almost as much freedom as men, in almost all matters of life including love and marriage. Men, too, are as ardent as women in matters of dress and ornaments. Both keep long hair, adorn them with ornamental combs and clips, wear noserings – women three, men two – as well as loads of earrings and necklaces made of metal and beads. Some of the necklaces have special significance, there are specific sets of rules for their exchange.
In Dongria Kondh society, all aspects of life – rituals and festivities, fasting and feasting, song and dance, hunting and gathering – are tightly bound up in age-old customs and conventions. The hills they inhabit is called Niyamgiri, mountain of law. Its presiding deity is Niyam Raja, the lord of the law. The river that has its origin here is known as Vansadhara, the stream of progeny. Dongar means hill, and the triangular hill motif dominates the wall paintings and embroidery of the tribe. The life they lead here on the verdant hill slopes has the quality of an allegory, a fairy tale. A true fairy tale.
This tale had remained hidden behind the stark history of droughts and hunger for which Kalahandi is known. The world came to learn about the fairy tale only when it was about to be torn apart.
Fairy tales, like all living things on earth, live and die. Sometimes they fight back.
The Scrapping of St Paul’s Cathedral
I first saw Kumuti Majhi in a Guardian newspaper photograph. Sanjay Sahu, Bhubaneswar-based coordinator of Action Aid, was showing me a powerpoint presentation of the struggle of Niyamgiri Kondhs against Vedanta Alumina Limited, and how his organization was helping the people’s cause.
‘We are giving them strategic support only,’ Sanjay said. ‘We cannot take part in the movement, because then our critics would say that we are misguiding ignorant people and trying to create trouble. Not that they are not saying this. But we are only helping the story of Niyamgiri, of how a small tribal group is taking on a powerful mining company, reach out to the world. Look at this man …’
Sanjay tapped his index finger on his laptop’s touchpad, and the Guardian photo tumbled into the screen. It showed a middle-aged, rustic-looking man with high cheekbones and intense deep-set eyes, standing in front of a tall glitzy building. Dressed in a white kurta, a red muffler draped around his neck, he was facing a bank of cameras.
‘This is Kumuti Majhi, a Kutia Kondh man. He has been at the forefront of the movement since it started. We bought a few Vedanta shares on his behalf and flew him to the annual shareholder’s meeting in London. This is outside the meeting venue. Naturally, his presence electrified the atmosphere there. We also took him on a tour of the city, and later he said to the journalists – Look, Niyamgiri is as sacred to us as the St Paul’s cathedral is to you. I saw lots of precious wood, marble and tinted glass there. If anybody wants to buy up the cathedral, to wrench it apart and sell the priceless things as scrap, would you allow it?,’ Sanjay chuckled. ‘We got an idea from his comment and wrote to the mayor of London, asking him to please quote a price for St Paul’s! This attracted great media coverage.’
Sanjay tapped again on the touchpad and another slide, a heart-stopping vision, tumbled in: a gigantic trip hammer was pounding the famed dome of St Paul’s, sending bits of tinted glass and stone flying all around.
‘This type of international coverage has put pressure on our government, especially because Vedanta is a London-based company,’ Sanjay continued. ‘But the real blow has come from the government’s own expert committee, the one headed by N C Saxena. This report has hit the nail on the head: it has categorically stated that allowing Vedanta to mine bauxite on Niyamgiri would violate the constitutional rights of the people who have been living there.’
‘The matter is in Supreme Court now,’ I said. ‘Do you think Niyamgiri will be saved?’
‘It’s a tough battle,’ Sanjay admitted. ‘Now even the bureaucrats are acting like corporate lackeys, making false submissions before the courts. One of the judges hearing the case was found out to own Vedanta’s shares himself. Our finance minister at Delhi was a non-executive director of the company before he took up this job. So you can imagine the kind of clout this company enjoys. The media have been co-opted, and a large section of the urban middle class has been brought over to the fable of economic growth. It’s as if 10 percent growth rate is a cure-all formula - it will turn us into a superpower, crush Pakistan, give employment to everyone, fill our houses with luxury goods, help us win all the cricket matches … If that growth rate can be pulled off fastest by mining our mineral reserves and selling them to foreign companies, so be it! If we have to destroy our environment for this, so be it! If we have to throw out the tribal people from their forest lands, so be it!’
Sanjay’s boyish face tightened like a fist as an icy fury rang in his voice. An MBA from XLRI, Sanjay joined Action Aid after he gave up a cushy job in an insurance company. The work he was doing here not only gave him his daily bread, it was the air he breathed and the water he drank. As Sanjay went on narrating the unusual battle a little-known Eastern Ghats tribe had been waging for their survival, images – strange, magnetic, almost dreamlike – faded in and out on the laptop’s screen: a procession of colourfully-dressed Dongria Kondhs …tall chimneys of a refinery rising against the misty blue Niyamgiri … a bashful girl holding a cane basket full of wild mushrooms … a golden gecko camouflaged against a yellow leaf … a convoy of alumina tanker trucks winding along a forest road …
To be continued
Niyamgir photo: Author (Dongria girls photo courtesy: Ministry of Environment & Forests, GOI)
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