The Forest Spirits

An annual pilgrimage of stories, resistance, and hope

'If you respect your ancestors and spirits in the forests, you will have your livelihoods, food and basic shelter guaranteed'. Activist and researcher Shrishtee, Bajpai goes to the region of Korchi in central India to witness the annual ceremonies of the adivasi (Indigenous peoples) that help them hold firm in a time of proposed state and corporate destruction of the forests for iron-ore. 
is an environmental and social activist- researcher from India working on weaving alternatives to development, exploring radical democracy and the rights of nature . She is a member of Kalpavriksh, Global Tapestry of Alternatives, and Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. She is an avid birder, photographer, and a writer.
It was a crisp and clear, cold night in February 2018 and I could hear the swish of dry leaves against the mud floor, while I adjusted myself to sleep in the courtyard of the village priest’s house. After a long tumbling journey from Nagpur city to Zendepar village (Korchi territory) of 300 households, I gathered myself to witness  the calm and steady preparations of an annual pilgrimage. The next morning it dawned clear and the rose-coloured hue of the sky spread through the newly-harvested fields of flaxseeds. I woke as early as I could for a quiet walk to the forests in search of birds. While I made my way to the community forest, I wondered what it means for the forest to be alive, as is believed among the communities. How this knowledge influences their interaction with the trees, birds and other creatures in the forest? What it means to me? A sense of unease overpowered me. A number of questions thronged in my head and I ran back towards the village.

I have been lucky enough to have been coming to this area for several years to document the worldviews and processes of transformation of the people who live here.  As a young researcher, I was warned against coming to Gadchiroli. Maoist-dominated with excessive state-repression, attacks on environment, land-rights and other activism, Gadchiroli is one of the regions that has faced massive onslaught on Indigenous peoples and defenders of their ways of being. The district is primarily dominated by Gonds adivasis, one among 200 different Indigenous peoples in India. 

Zendepar sacred hill proposed for mining, Korchi, Gadchiroli photo: Shrishtee Bajpai)

As the rest of the village prepared for the ceremonies, my day passed sipping endless cups of tea. The usual village pace is characterised by a hush in the mornings, long slumbers in the afternoons and the ruffle of the night before a very long steadiness. But that night was different. There was an unusual silence in the ruckus. I sat in the courtyard along with the women preparing for the next day’s feast while the men flitted around to prepare for ceremonies later in the night. The men clad in dhotis walking briskly were the priests getting reading for a long ceremonial night. I whispered  to a young girl, ‘Are they the priests from the neighbouring villages? ‘Yes’ she said, and quickly added ‘would you like to go and see the ceremonies?’ I confirmed but asked: ‘Are we allowed”? ‘Yes’, she replied, ‘you are outsiders. Deities won’t bother you’.

“Are we allowed? ‘Yes, she replied, ‘you are outsiders. Deities won’t bother you.’

It was a quick, witty and an innocent reminder of our belonging in different worlds. I went with my colleagues to the ceremonial site where deities from seven clans of 33 territorial villages in this region inhabited by Gond adivasis often reside. A fire in the middle was quietly blazing, while the men circled a little away from it in a trance hitting themselves with iron chains.

‘It is in the state of trance that the beings of this world interact with the beings from another world. These beings use priests as mediums to communicate with people; often guiding what’s gone wrong and how to mend it, while people seek penance for their past actions,’ explained Izam Katengey, from the neighbouring Salhe village. I sat through the ceremony until the moon shone fully an moonlight became the only source of finding one’s way back to the house. 

The next morning, Naro bai, known to be one the wisest women in the village and surrounding area, asked us if we were ready to walk with them to the Kanni Mathh Pahadi’ (Kanni Mathh hill) later in the day. I was overjoyed and agreed. A few hours later, a steady drumming and singing began, and men appeared with flags of seven clans among the Gonds of these 33 territorial villages, marching towards the sacred hill of Kanni Mathh. As the march began, I tried keeping up with the fast pace while filming the procession, finding my way between women singing the songs for deities, and men dancing in a ceremonial trance.  My clumsy movements were inspected with curiously by everyone in the procession. 

On the way to the Zendepar hill , Korchi, Gadchiroli (photo: Shrishtee Bajpai)

We walked through the entire village, passing agriculture fields, stretches of community forests and finally arriving at the densely forested area which had a small patch in the middle for gatherings. As I leaned backward to record the rest of the procession, Samru Kallo, an elder from Zendepar village, whose witty one-liners and responses can leave you nodding for hours in contemplation, prodded me. He asked if I knew the story of forest deities and their reasons to struggle to protect this site from a proposed mining project. And it was a matter of few minutes, a young social activist from the nearby village Jhaduram started narrating the story of Kanni Mathh Pahadi:

A man named Ganga Ram, who was probably a very strong man with the ability to do marvels that people of his age couldn’t, would spend many hours in the hill and its surrounding forests. In one incident, he fell in the ditch while he was mining some material for the village’s local consumption. Since the hill was literally his home,  people believed that his spirit did not leave the hill after his passing on, but instead stayed there to protect the forests of Zendepar and its neighbouring areas from all evil. People called him Rao (a protector) Ganga Ram. Since then, the hill and its surrounding forest became a sacred site for people which is worshipped, protected and conserved. 

Shortly after, Samaru Kallo was invited to add his thoughts:

Rao Pat Gangaram Ghat’ is just one of the many deities residing in the forest. There are many others such as ‘Kankal Karo’, ‘Sakhri Pat’ and the spots where we have buried the young ones are also worshipped. The gods are not visible to our eyes. The air is also invisible but does that mean that the air does not exist? The Gods move around as invisible spirits and enter human bodies sometimes. Nature is our God. Adivasis do not make idols or statues made from cement. The leaves, tree, animals, are our gods. 

Listening to these stories and thoughts was a surreal experience. The sense of deep connectedness,  the cosmological, spiritual threads that tie the communities in Korchi with the rest of nature, evoked my own sense of belonging to a place. From a destructive, development point of view, Kanni Matth Hill is a potential site for iron-ore that can be extracted to avail profits, jobs and money. However, for the communities, the hill is where their gods and spirits reside. It is a spiritual being for them. As alive and thriving as you and I! ‘If you respect your ancestors and spirits in the forests, you will have your livelihoods, food and basic shelter guaranteed”, says Kumari Tai Jamkatan, an adivasi woman activist from the region. Seeing the rest of nature as a spiritual being might seem irrational but it is this intuitive intelligence and deep relationships with the rest of nature that has enabled the communities to thrive. 

Since 2007, Korchi’s traditional forests along with the sacred forests of Kanni Path Pahadi region have been proposed for iron-ore mining by the state government along with private companies without informing the affected village assemblies. People in Korchi have been raising strong objections to this unbridled exploitation of nature by asserting their spiritual, philosophical, and physical interdependence on the forests. These communities are narrating a worldview that is far removed from the extractive profiteering worldview that is plundering the earth. 

Rela- a traditional music and dance among Gond adivasis, Gadchiroli, India (photo: Shrishtee Bajpai)

The annual pilgrimages by the communities have acquired a special significance for people in the times of these external threats. From spiritual duty these pilgrimages have now expanded as political spaces as well.  It is a space to reflect, share, assert, and re-invent the traditions that currently are facing the juggernaut of extractivism, development and progress. They are also being used to re-narrate and re-tell the stories of adivasi warriors like Birsa Munda who fought against the colonial rulers. The oral tradition of telling the stories of warriors, fighters, the battles for freedom are used as a way to convey the younger generation that in the onslaught they must stay strong to their roots and origins. It has become a platform to illustrate why people are struggling to protect their forests instead of comfortably accepting money by the mining companies. 

‘Some people ask us why we are protesting. The company and government officials ask us what you get from these forests. Well, because we live here, we get our food, our livelihoods and we worship our forests. Isn’t that enough? says Zhaduram Salame of Salhe Village from the neighbouring village of Zendepar. 

Telling the stories of warriors, fighters, the battles for freedom are used as a way to convey the younger generation that in the onslaught they must stay strong to their roots and origins.

Along with resistance and awareness, these pilgrimages are also a moment to look inwards and reflect upon issues within the communities. An Adivasi elder from the region, Devaji Tofa urged people to revisit the term Koya that the Gond adivasis have used for themselves since centuries.

Koya means human and that is an important perspective to guide our vision. if we don’t have the vision, we won’t be able to see the Earth” says Devaji asserting that along with resistance we need a collective self-reflection, as well as future envisioning.

Sitting amid hundreds of people, watching many men and women one by one joining the circle, going around and around and around with the humming and a steady, rhythmic drumming, I felt the unison of movement and sensation tingling all over me. I have been attending these yatras for over three years now. Each gathering has been a personal awakening for me, offering medicines for a sick world. From the articulation of deep interconnectedness with the rest of nature to strong political assertions, these yatras are a special form of gathering, resistance and conversations that we all can learn from.

 

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