Dispatches from Bastar: Three dispatches from the tribal area of Abujhmad, Bastar, India

To celebrate the publication of our first ever themed book — Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê — we’ll be publishing a series of exclusive posts over the next few weeks. Today, we bring you this set of dispatches on tribal life in Central India from long-term Dark Mountain contributor Narendra.

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Cleaning the Chicken Before Worship

1. Work, Tools and Austerity

The cloud comes from unconscious,
And still returns to unconscious.
Unconscious is nowhere to be found:
Don’t seek where unconscious is.

— Wang An-Shih
Poet-scholar-statesman under Emperor Shen Tsung

Tools and technologies emerge from the work that people ask of themselves. Their presence has significant tales to tell about their people, as does their absence. They tell of human relationships with Earth and its things. Looking at Abujhmad, more often than not life seems most reassuring and happy when work, tools and technology are at their fewest. In Abujhmad(1), life needs only a few tools, sometimes none. Daily life stems from an economy of effort, making tools and their technology – and their industrious sensibility – superfluous. A certain pristine defencelessness about the people and their wilds helps them live simply and happily, having much time in the simplest of ways and for the simplest of reasons. When a people has few assignations, they give the Earth, too, much reassurance in its daily life; their own freshness and vitality are sustained.

In its own small way, Abujhmad is a story of nourishing ease and quiet, essentials of human lives now diminishing to the point of erasure almost everywhere. Their few tools, fewer words, and little apparatus provide a humbling perspective for those of us trying to save a damaged world with ever-evolving technologies. Theirs is also a story of how the Earth creates magic for its life and for those dependent on it.

Work here is an occasional cutting, digging, or scraping. For these tasks, the people need a few handmade tools. Stray rocks serve as regular tools for powdering dead animal bones as calcium for chewing tobacco. Much of the day is spent ‘idle’. There is only one maker of tools, the blacksmith, for every twenty or so villages. He makes axes, arrow tips and knives. The blacksmith, too, is ‘idle’; more than he works, he rests. There are no carpenters, potters or weavers. There is not much to do when the wilds work and provide their apparatus.

Apart from the business of staying alive, the Abujhmadia’s needs are not many. Food grows on its own. There is abundant bamboo and thatch for the huts. Tobacco is available for anyone who wishes a chew or a puff. Liquor grows on trees; infant and old are alike in merriment. People gather and hunt what is already provided. They themselves produce nothing for sale or barter with other people, only sometimes exchanging tamarind with the outside world for salt, an occasional piece of cloth to cover the pubic area (in deeper villages they use vine leaves), or a red comb for the hair. The simple methods, behaviours and works in their lives arise from the milieu of their trees, trails, shrubs, rivers, animals, birds, gods, ancestors, spaces and skies. Like the milieu, they do not want much work – and its ways – for themselves or their Earth, nor do they manifest a wish to advance in the ‘human order of things’.

As though intuitively, the Abujhmadia sees how work and its tools penetrate the Earth and sever it. They penetrate and sever its people as much, so the people have few of them. An axe, a bow and few arrows, two or three knives, a snare and fishing sieve – these are about the only tools people have. Three or four pots and pans (usually of bamboo), a ladle scooped out of a gourd, a gourd for carrying liquor, perhaps an umbrella made of Sihadi(2) leaves, a loincloth or two tucked into the hut’s bamboo walls, a lugga(3), a bamboo mat, and a tobacco pouch rounded off a root are about the Abujhmadia’s only earthly goods. They hardly want anything more for themselves. Theirs is a certain austerity to living.

The axe, knife, bow and arrows are used for many different tasks during their lives. An axe is not simply an axe. As well as cutting and chopping, like the knife and arrow it is also used for scraping, digging, hammering and piercing. For this reason a single design, length, breadth and weight of axe have persisted over a long time. The blacksmith knows the nature of both his Earth and the tools he makes. A hammer, a few tongs, bellows and fire, hand-eye coordination, strength, patience, and pain are his technologies.

With a red hot knife, the owner of an arrow or an axe spends painstaking hours embellishing it with fine tattoos to ensure it is directed towards its mark; just as tattoos protect the human body from the influence of mysterious evils. Painstaking hours go into re-sharpening and remaking tools throughout their lives. Every tool and its footfall is an aggregate of its whole technology.

There is the occasional growing of Kohla(4) on Penda(5). Three months of Penda are about the only activity that comes close to ‘doing something’. Penda is not the primary ‘livelihood’ here, but only partial work. It is practised occasionally, and not each year by each family. It requires no more than an axe, a knife and two flint stones to kindle a fire. Individual trees on a small hill face – usually less than an acre – are felled. Sometimes, depending on topography, trees are indented to make them fall in a certain direction. A large tree on the far edge when felled knocks down the nearby ones, and these in turn bring down the next in line. Thus the entire clump of trunks and canopies fall together in successive chain reactions. They are then left to dry for months. Unless there is a forest fire, a fire set by flint stones and raw silk wool burns the brushwood, small branches and trunks lying around. Ash is then spread over the patch, and serves as a seedbed. The ground is neither hoed nor worked nor manured. The first monsoon showers are ever so gentle, soft, almost like dew. They firm the ash and the seed and prevent them from washing away when the strong showers follow. Gradually the seeds germinate and tiny roots meet the soil. Perhaps the Abujhmadia’s labour amounts to no more than 15% of this process; the rest is handled by the elements.

For the Abujhmadia, work – like much else – is a living abstract. It is mediated by the wilds, by their unintelligibility and mystery. The Earth is not resolutely material, nor bound to the senses, or their tangible-visible forms. Work is neither made to the measure of human mind, nor is it quite of human authorship. Work, and all that it entails, serves to alert people to the undisclosed and unintelligible. In that measure – an immense measure – the wilds determine work, its purpose, tools and methods. Thus for the Abujhmadia, the abstract and obscure becomes human and personal. Thus is also born a given human work and activity; the tool and method needed for it. Each activity has a sensibility of repose, its austerity a swing large enough to echo back the still rhythms of its wilds, as though there is a perpetual conversation between the two.

To practise work in a latitude greater than this would be intrusive. Abujhmad does not create systems that need control and ‘sustainability’, or need more and more tools for controlling an unmediated system. The story of Abujhmad is same as the story of its wilds. Sever the two and both fall apart. Abujhmad, then, would have to resort to other ways of living, and altogether different ways of looking at itself, the earth and its things. In the areas contiguous to it – and they certainly are not yet ‘developed’ areas – even partial work and technology have taken away almost all the time and repose of a people and their earth. What was until maybe a century ago a happy people and a commodious earth, now stand belittled. Children are weak and sickly and people miserly; the earth inconvenient and dissuading. Abujhmad and such developed areas stand separated by only 25-30 km as the crow flies.

In his less than meagre loin cloth, Banda(6) was every inch an emperor. Stout, straight and dark, mostly silent, with a dignity that surfaced in his majestic appearance, there was magic in his few words. At less than fifty, and having lived a ‘full life’, he was the ‘grand old man’ in Garpa, the largest village here, with seven scattered huts. He was an economist with words, movements and postures. He was also an economist in familial and community relationships, issues and aspirations; an economist in sensibilities and understandings. But he did not ‘work’, as we understand the word.

‘Everyone and everything has a body, and the body is not without intent,’ he said. ‘The business of our wilds – our gods, ancestors, trees, ponds and rivers, skies and earth, hills and plains – is to be available and provide for us. Our business is to stay within the intent of our bodies, and do nothing that severs other bodies. Nothing is whole without its intent. When we transgress and sever, the wilds retreat, and we cannot pursue them. It can be an endless pursuit, futile and foolish. They may never make themselves available to us again. We will have to, then, fend for ourselves endlessly.’

Drawing Water from Well

2. Bigdem-Aattur

‘Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child… I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.’
– Nature, RW Emerson

Just as there is no number beyond five(7) in Abujhmad, there is no phrase for ‘breakdown’ in the local dialect. This is because, in everyday life, there is practically nothing that breaks down. Not that arrow tips and axes don’t need sharpening, or bows need re-stringing, bamboo fishing-snares mending, or a thatch roof replacing; just that there is no word that denotes dysfunctionality in a tool, instrument or artefact. There are repairs and replacements; but the dialect has no corresponding word for dysfunctionality as such.

Bigdem-Aattur is a phrase brought in from outside. It has been adapted from Chhattisgarhi, a language not native to Bastar. Close to Hindi, it does not have phonetic or other linkages with Bastar’s dialects. Prior to the coming of Chhattisgarhi in a major way, about 30 years ago, the many different tribes around Abujhmad did not have a common tongue. With the exception of Abujhmad, Chhattisgarhi is now the lingua franca in all of Bastar.

Bigdem-Aattur is a rather queer word in Abujhmad. It is a marriage of the Chhattisgarhi word ‘Bigadana‘ (breakdown) with the native ‘Aattur‘ (arrival) of Abujhmadia. A literal meaning would be ‘Arrival of Breakdown‘. So, whereas until a few years back only the object called for repair now there is also a phrase for it. Before, the arrow only needed sharpening, the bow stringing, the roof replacing. Now language says the arrow tip has gone blunt, the bow has snapped, the roof leaks. The Abujhmadia has never lived in the milieu of words and sensibilities. Nor has he brought in ideas and practises like settled agriculture, domesticated cattle, tiled mud-huts, lamps, clothes and bullock carts from Abujhmad’s immediate vicinity. The associated baggage of language did not come in either. But now it is doing so.

However, the dialect did always have words for breakdown in phenomena; things that were not artefacts. A god may get angry, even sulk now and then. Certain spots in the forest or along a river are considered dark or bad, and to be avoided. A particular tree along a trail is inauspicious and ought not be sheltered under during rains. The dialect has its own words for such ‘sullied’ or ‘evil’ things or places. In such a state the god, tree, trail or river acquires another self, value and intent which is intrinsically not its own for the duration of the problem. When the god or tree’s intent and purpose becomes something else, its value is impaired. Through propitiation or other suitable action, the value of the original ‘self’ is restored. The Abujhmadia does not know where gods, trees, trails or rivers and wilds come from; but he knows they come from an unknown superintendence. They have their own intrinsic value, and this value is not to be sullied. Sullying has consequences.

The arrival of breakdown, then, also brings the arrival of the non-self; of someone else’s self, Dharma(8). So, with the arrival of breakdown also arrives the non-self, someone else’s Dharma into the phenomenon; such arrival is against the very nature of its being. It leads to disquiet inside, and to the fear that comes from being against one’s self, or the true nature of one’s place and station.

The milieu in which Abujhmadias conduct their lives has very few issues that need human superintendence. What would such superintendence do or be useful for? In their mode and language of living there are no equivalents of trespass, justice, injustice, equality, inequality, anarchy, peace, war, gender, farmers, traders, profit, production, accumulation or theft. People are innocent of trade, commerce, industry, tools, technology, agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, herding, writing, housing, livelihood, governance, social institutions and big economic structures. A single artefact in any of these categories would have the power to knock the community off its natural and timeless axis. There is very little in Abujhmad of humans or their artefacts, and so there is little need for human power of control or its language and vocabulary.

There is no conception of damaging the earth, dividing the land or bounding the forest; or of property and ownership or of the estrangements involved; or of progress, hunger and lingering disease. There is, however, a rich conception and vocabulary for living agreeably on undivided, unowned and unbound land since the times of the ancestors. There are numerous ways of being with the ancestors and letting the landscape also be. This is a vocabulary of agreeability and nurture.

Though the Abujhmadia may not know where his landscape or its constituents come from, practically all areas of knowledge arise from it, be they architecture of the hut, size of the village, distance between villages, distance he has to walk between sunrise and sunset, upbringing of children, family size, healing of illness, near-nakedness, fishing, hunting or the occasional shifting cultivation. There is apparent no strife; nothing that calls for protection against the other. Even the tiny hut nearly completely corresponds to the shape, texture and contours of surrounding dense vegetation; for the untrained eye it becomes extremely difficult to tell, as with the dialects, where one ends and other begins. This is true also of his countenance, posture and gait. The Abujhmadia counts only up to five because in the landscape his needs are no more than five; the body’s senses are five too. In any case, it is an area of few transactions and engagements. Interactions with, and borrowings from, the outside world are minimal, close to non-existent.

Tools and technologies are modes of transaction and engagement. Because there is no apparent wish in an Abujhmadia to reach out, to noticeably modify or change a given circumstance of his life and ‘improve’ it, there is little or no need for tools or technologies of any substance. Living here involves very little tangible striving or vigour; it is as though living comes more easily and with minimal agency. In spite of the almost infinite variety of tools and technologies available in the outside world, the kind of energy, skills, and preparations needed to survive are greater than in these quiet, deep interiors.

Technological civilisation requires the defending, preserving and nurturing of individuals and their places, belongings and property, the creation of complex systems, institutions, languages, and mechanisms and their constant maintenance and defence. It is an immense and exhausting enterprise. In Abujhmad, on the other hand, food gathering, for example, involves hunting; fishing; roaming the forest; picking red ants; trapping jungle fowls, rats and small animals; sitting on haunches for the greater part of a day looking out for a honeybee in thickly entangled foliage. This is as effortless as the wild itself. It involves not vigour but the subtle and delicate, the undemanding. Landscape and people are in poise, unmediated.

In the areas adjoining Abujhmad it is evident that a people who have become the dominant force in their place have lost the ways innate to them. The reciprocity between them and landscape is lost. One can acquire another’s Dharma but one’s self, Svadharma(9), is intrinsic; it arises from the unknown and there is no lending or borrowing it. Linguists believe that, in order to grow, languages borrow words from one another and often use them as though they were their own. Looking at Abujhmad it seems that when a languages does so it has to also give up its Svadharma, referents and trajectory; it has to abdicate its intrinsic value to acquire another’s; it becomes sullied. Gods become angry and trees unsafe; there arises new vegetation whose touch misleads one on a trail. Human superintendence and control makes its arrival. It becomes the sole arbiter in affairs whose referents come from the indeterminate and unknown.

The Native Americans began asking for lands once the Europeans began settling in and dividing it. They began fighting with the Europeans and amongst themselves. Landscapes began changing, so did a subtle emphasis in conception and language. Lending and borrowing commenced, as did new strange ways of conducting oneself on Earth. The earliest Indian Reservations were square or rectangular. Ownership came as squared or rectangled dismemberments of landscape. The contours of land became contingent on administrative requirements. Landscape was no longer central to life. The centrality of man in the landscape came as an unprecedented phenomenon for the Indian. The poise and intimacy of both language and landscape fell apart.

It seems as though a war is being waged by languages from the outside. ‘Bigdem-Aattur‘ is invading the mystic essence of the local dialect. From being itself, it is becoming the other. But how many words does one need to live a good and happy life?

Craftsman at Work

3. The Inscrutable Hut
Beyond the Home

Though seemingly insecure, the Abhujhmadia’s traditional and usually fragile hut looks comfortable in its surroundings, a timeless symbol of many meanings and intimations. Meanwhile, the new cement-concrete-steel structures built by the state in nearby areas do not convey comfort or homeliness. The Forest Department’s Rest House at Sonepur was the only uncomfortable structure in the small village. It stood at awkward variance, with an almost hostile intent, to Sonepur’s traditional architectural irregularity and the wild vegetation’s disorderly, labyrinthine arrangements. It had something misanthropic, if not pretentious, about it.

In its appearance and carriage the Rest House was contentious, given to a self-assertion that promises to elevate the human over the rest of nature; something messianic that offered deliverance. A messiah is only needed when there is a sense of loss, when something has been taken away and is unlikely to return. The Rest House emerges from a masculine hero system through which a people aspires to become significant and worthy. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’, continuously reinforcing social-political institutions, ethnicity, religion, ideology, gender, race, class and social roles, are portents of this kind of masculine heroism that inspires and substantiates such worthiness. Looking out from Abujhmad this is the contemporary human condition; a condition looking for heroic possibility.

Huts are said to be among the earliest abodes of humans. They have long offered shelter and protection against the outside. But home in Abujhmad is not in the hut; home is the outside. Like its maker, the hut is practically empty inside. How can one come to grips with the hut, its maker or its wilds without addressing the mysticism of either? Anthropology, ecology, or other sciences often seem miscued; they practice the sensibility of modern science and the rational, and not of adivasi ways of seeing. They use the language of departures and agitation, are born of and driven towards the same certainties, conduct the transactions of socio-political truths, and create pursuits and futilities.

Meanwhile, ‘this mud hut philosophy bids us not to demand too much from life’, writes Verrier Elwin(10), ‘not to set too much store on things, not even to expect too much from the immortal gods, but to love most where love will be returned… A gay freedom of spirit is the most precious of possessions, and simplicity of heart the greatest treasure man or woman knows’. The hut is an allusion to freedom and the outside. It cautions against behaviours, habits and practices that foster disordered love, engagements, isolation and destruction.

Constructed of thatch and bamboo, almost alone in the perplexing wizardry of the wilds, the Abujhmadia’s hut conveys the poise of the unknown. It conveys no anxiety. It seems to grow from some ancient lore of perpetual restitution and reprieval. Measuring less than a modest 10’x 8′, its perceptible monasticism asserts no departures from that which is within and without, only exceeds them. The Rest House and its distinctive heroism, meanwhile, stands as though separate and in conflict with the wild surroundings. There is a mystifying, meandering and discreet timidity about the traditional hut here that has endured an immeasurably long time. There is a similar timidity to the Abujhmadia him/herself: a certain withholding that urges reticence against the ungracious heroisms of intense engagement. Just like Abujhmad, the reticent hut is suggestive of something incomprehensible; that which cannot be shaped or ought not be shaped.

In its unknowability, the hut is the also a sanctuary of the spirit of the place. While upholding timidity and shyness — and proclaiming its own nothingness — it voices the sentiment of the most mystical love. Such love is homeless. When elderly Aja declined to travel in a car, and walked the forest for three days to reach the village lest speed brought him illness, he was acknowledging a profound mystical love. In its nothingness, the hut is immeasurable; in their intimidating nebulousness, the wilds are more so. Neither conveys an inner commotion, nor discomposure. Ever an inarticulated poise that comes in absence of commotion.

As an act of positioning, the Rest House symbolises engagement, excessive organisation and giving unrestrained form to life — the very vitals of a disordered world are within. The Adivasis of Sonepur and surrounding Abujhmad look down on it. It is good-humouredly laughed at, the ostensible reason being that, despite its reinforced strength, it is the only structure that leaks during the rains. Yet, ironically, it is impervious and forbidding, and this is what the Abujhmadia laughs at more. Villagers in Thadgabehra — about 400 km away in Bilaspur district — use their school building as detention house for the erring cattle, while its children learn under a tree.

There is no home in the hut. It is a whispering, demurring, faintly suggestive disarticulation of the home; an act of distancing that induces disengagement and release. For the Abujhmadia, the home is in the open wilds; in homelessness.

Footnotes

(1) A 4000 sq km area in the tribal belt of Bastar (central India). Literally translated, the ‘Inscrutable Land’
(2) Vine with giant leaves; also used as raincoats
(3) Knee length cloth around a woman’s waist
(4) Edible grain smaller than a mustard seed; believed by some to be the ancestor of rice. Much of Kohla is eaten away by wild boars at night, leaving the rest for growers
(5) Shifting cultivation
(6) Literally, ‘Stone’
(7) Counting only up to five prevailed in some villages until the mid-1980s. Later it rose to seven in peripheral villages
(8) ‘Worldly Way’ or ‘Conduct’. Often equated with religion
(9) Loosely, ‘Way of the Self’ (Taking a cue from Svadharma Gandhi almost replaced Dharma with Svadharma: ‘There are as many Dharmas as there are individuals’ — Hind Swaraj)
(10) An English self-trained anthropologist (1902-1964). A Christian missionary, he abandoned the clergy and settled amongst tribal communities of India. He wrote several authoritative works on tribal life

 

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Narendra’s association with tribal communities and ecology began when he undertook field-research from 1980 to 1985 in the Abujhmad region of Bastar on a UN University field-research project, Tribal Perceptions and the Modern World. Though the project formally concluded in 1985, he continues work on field study activities in Bastar on issues of adivasi ecological-cultural expressions, notions of forests and wilds, nature-inspired modes and institutions of governance, adivasi survival in a market economy, ecology, knowledge and learning.

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