Bare, glistening bodies. Colourful, feathered headgear. Menacing, long spears and incomprehensible, muttered incantations. Thanks to the tinsel worlds of Hollywood and Bollywood our image of the tribal inhabitants of this world is complete, though not always correct!
Let us set aside this image for a moment and see the world of the tribes in plain black and white. The world of the tribes is a world, which is fast losing its cultural matrix to the struggle for survival and, to the demands of `development as we define it, sitting in plush cinema halls with popcorn and Pepsi.
It is not as if the tribal people are becoming numerically extinct. Rather, they are getting diffused into what is called the ‘mainstream’ society and hence, the unique trait of their civilisation is being lost.
What exactly is a tribe?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a tribe as a group of people in a primitive or barbarous stage of development acknowledging the authority of a chief and usually regarding themselves as having a common ancestor.
According to G.W.B. Huntingford, a tribe is a group united by a common name in which the members take pride by a common language, by a common territory and by a feeling that all who do not share this name are outsiders, ‘enemies’ in fact.
According to I.M.Lewis, ideally, tribal societies are small in scale, are restricted in the spatial and temporal range of their social, legal and political relations; and possess a morality, a religion and a world-view of corresponding dimensions.
Characteristically too, tribal languages are unwritten and hence, the extent of communication both in time and space is inevitably narrow.
The age-old conflict of them and us!
The Oxford dictionary definition of tribes, which sees them as ‘barbarous and primitive people’, reflects ways in which we see the tribal society.
There is an underlying assumption that tribals are not sophisticated people. They have to rise up to the level of the so-called mainstream society, which sets the parameters of defining development.
Sociologists define several methods of interaction and assimilation of the tribal societies. One proposal finds it objectionable to change their ways, believing instead that they should be allowed to be themselves at whatever cost, so that their vivid lifestyle and uniqueness may not die out. Much like showcasing exotic and inaccessible luxury items.
Another proposal believes in roughshodding over these tribal societies in the march of development, whether they are ready for it or not reminiscent of our erstwhile slave trade.
A third and more reasonable approach seems to be discovering a lifestyle that would work in tandem with the tribal life style with selective intervention in order to further the cause of the tribes.
Whatever method of assimilation adopted we have to consider the fact that, the tribal societies are different from ours and we have to respect them for what they are. Tribal societies exhibit a remarkable economy of design and have a compactness and self-sufficiency lacking in modern society.
The social and cultural structures of the tribes are obviously vastly different from the social structure of the industrialised society.
Bewitched by the spirits of the night!
Long, matted hair, tattered robes flaring as she murmurs esoteric’ chants into a smoking cauldron. The hero, more familiarly the female lead, is in chains – human sacrifice being an integral ingredient of tribal rituals and religious practices.
While it may be true that the religious practices of the tribal world in India and elsewhere, are dominated more by the notions of spirits and ancestor worship than by the concept of a transcendental supernatural power, they really are not as fierce as we may imagine.
There are spirits controlling every aspect of life who have to be appeased for leading a peaceful and trouble free life. Spirits are seen as benevolent when appeased, but can turn malefic when discontented. Ancestors look after the welfare of the tribal community and often turn into spirits after death.
Spirits occupy rocks, trees, natural and human abodes and may even `possess’ a person when they want to communicate with the community. Usually, spirits are propitiated to overcome natural calamities, economic hardships, epidemics etc. Their religious practices reflect the tribal fear of nature as they rely on nature for their very existence.
Often, contact with modern technological machinery creates new concepts of supernatural power as they translate the object into the language they know. Thus, an aeroplane or an engine may be seen as a supernatural power not so much to be worshipped, but rather, to be feared, as it lies beyond their comprehension.
Life is beautiful where the habitat is bountiful!
The tribal ecological habitat moulds their economy in a significant manner. Tribes inhabiting dense forests subsist on hunting and food gathering. Proximity of a sea-coastline or river adds fishing to this as a major occupation.
In inter-montane valleys, enjoying relative isolation, settled agriculture is the normal mode of economy, though supplementing it with forest-products, wherever they are available may be practiced.
Combating extremes of climate, tribes live on the margins of our well cushioned existence. Severe droughts of the hot deserts to snow storms in the land of polar bears, nothing is unknown or unsolvable to these survivors of the soil.
In the present context of growing assimilation, many of them have got integrated into the modern economic structure, which is largely, industry based. Many of their survival skills are dying out, replaced by developmental models, which may not be always applicable to their mode of living.
Water harnessing, living in unison with the ecological cycle; fighting epidemics and disease with drugs derived from their habitat and so on, are now stories of the past. The younger generation, aping the developed cultures has begun to set aside their own system of knowledge and values to adopt what the rest of the world follows.
We are thus losing enormous amount of data on immensely useful and not completely understood procedures and therapies of survival.
Is tribes’ one gargantuan category of naked painted people?
Not really! They may live in forests, or deserts, or snow-clad mountains, worship nature and follow a more or less common lifestyle. They may look similar, paint, and pierce their faces and bodies, very much like our modern day pop divas, but they are different in many ways.
Residing in India, you may be familiar with the tribes that live close to the place you stay. Perhaps you have heard of the Oraons of Chotanagpur. They inhabit a forest environment, although they are essentially agriculturists.
Well, the world has many such forest people. How many can you think of? Bingo! You must have hit upon the Pygmies of the Congo. So, here you are, read on, and know about our two forest tribes.
Who are the Oraons?
In the Rigvedic period, we have the familiar case of waves of Aryan tribes migrating into the Indian sub-continent and populating the Indo-Gangetic plains gradually, across a period of centuries. The migration of Rigvedic Aryans into the Indo-Gangetic plain and their subsequent movement eastwards had a most significant bearing on the growth of the Hindu worldview.
It also led to a gradual absorption of the aboriginal communities of the sub-continent into the Brahmanical fold, who formed the fourth varna and the `antyaja‘ or the outcastes. On the other hand, many of the non-Aryan tribal customs were absorbed into the ritual fold of Hinduism.
Puranic texts give specific description of the geographical location of the dwellers of the forests and the hills. Among the Puranas, the Vayu, Brahmanda, Matsya, Markandeya, Garuda and Vamana Puranas give a comprehensive list in which the Janapadas are arranged in seven divisions viz, (1) Madhyadesha, (2) Udichya, (3) Prachya, (4) Dakshinapatha, (5) Aparanta, (6) Vindhyavasins and (7) Parvatasrayins.
Out of these, the last two refer to the dwellers on the hills and often in the forests of these hills. The Parvatasrayins are located on the slopes of the Himalayas. In the division called Vindhyavasins, the Puranas mention the Janapadas that are located on the various tributaries of the Chambal and in the region lying to the north of Narmada, Mahanadi and south of the Gangetic doab.
Apart from migration, another method of tribal diffusion was the conquest of the tribes by the rulers or the invading tribes. In the early historical period, Ajatshatru conquered the tribe of republican Vaishali. Alexander conquered the tribal pockets on the northwestern frontiers of India.
Ashoka in his rock edicts threatened the northwestern tribes with dire consequences if they disobeyed his injunctions, while showing a compassionate approach to the forest tribes.
This policy was in line with the strategy mentioned in Arthashastra, which considered the Atavikas (that is, ‘the people of the forest’) potential troubleshooters of the empire.
The Panchatantra and Katha Sarit Sagar, anthologies of folk legends incorporated into the Brahmanical corpus, present tribals in a friendly perspective.
The reason why tribal migration in historical periods is important is that it led to a cultural synthesis between the immigrant society and the host society. The cultural modification of the tribes owed largely to this factor. In the historical period, this synthesis was a two-way process, the host society also borrowed the cultural traits from the immigrant tribes -something which is rarely evident in the tribal diffusion process of our times.
Thus, turning back the pages of history, even if you consider yourself the so-called ‘non-tribal’ society of modern India, the cultural churning over the centuries makes all of us partially ‘tribal’.
The Oraons are classified into Pre-Dravidian/Proto-Australoid racial category. They have dark nutty brown complexion, curly black hair, jet black eyes and a medium stature.
The Oraon language is assumed to belong to the Dravidian family. However, owing to contacts with the surrounding non-tribal population, it is now influenced by Oriya, Bengali and Hindi.
In fact, one of the major effects of the cultural diffusion is that the subordinated social group acquires the cultural pattern of the dominant population around them. This is a survival strategy adopted by the threatened group to cope with the hierarchical order in which it is placed when it comes in contact with the other social group on which it is dependent for survival.
Adopting the language of the dominant group is a part of this cultural shift. In a study of the tribal region traditionally occupied by the Oraon, (including the tribes other than the Oraon) it was found that the percentage of tribal population speaking a language other than their own tribal dialect is the highest in districts, which have high industrial-job prospects. Or, are close to areas in which the non-tribal population has the potential to offer economic incentives to the tribal population.
Zeroing in on the Oraon habitat!
These present day inhabitants of the Chotanagpur plateau are located in the districts of Ranchi, Palamau, Hazaribagh in Jharkand state, Balaghat, Bilaspur, Raigarh, Surguja and adjoining districts in Chattisgarh state and Sundargarh, Keonjha Birmitrapur and adjoining districts in Odisha.
Owing to land alienation and economic problems, a large number of Oraon tribe members have migrated elsewhere, for example, to the nearby states of Assam, West Bengal and further north wards to the cities such as Delhi.
The Chotanagpur Plateau abounds in sal, mahua and bamboo trees. The forest type is of northern tropical dry deciduous variety. The animal life includes tiger, leopard, bear, sambhar, antelope, spotted deer, hare, different varieties of snakes, beautiful birds and plenty more.
Visit the Betla reserve forest located in this area and you may discover some yet undiscovered species. The abundance of snakes and the Oraons’ close affinity with them is evident from the fact that snake-meat forms a part of their traditional diet and is regarded as a delicacy.
The forest products, mainstay timber and kendu leaf, sabai grass, lac, tassar, myrabolan, mahua, kusuma seed, resin, tamarind, gum and sal seed. Although the soil, which is of the red and black type, is low in fertility, the Oraons practising shifting cultivation traditionally have managed to eke out enough from the land and supplement it with the forest products to survive successfully.
Today the transition is towards plough-based cultivation. The crops include paddy, maize, arhar, jowar, groundnut, ragi, urad, moong, til, niger, sugarcane cotton, and so on.
Once upon a time Sundargarh area, the Bichakani hill and the Jamshedpur area had millions of tonnes of iron-ore, lying placidly beneath virgin forests. Discovery of precious minerals imperative for modern development led to the establishment of several iron and steel industries.
Other mineral deposits include manganese, limestone and lead, which facilitated this process. Moreover the limestone quarries of north-western Odisha near Sundargarh began exporting limestone as raw material. Thus the economic activities of the Oraon tribe, apart from cultivation, include cattle, sheep and goat rearing and working in small-scale and large-scale industries.
For example, in Sundargarh district, small-scale industries operated by the local people (including the Oraon) include the manufacture of engineering goods, steel, metal industries for manufacture of containers and automobile spares, food-processing industry, and forest based industry.
In pursuance of the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1977, the District Industry Centre was established at the district of the tribal population here, are bamboo, headquarters in 1978 in order to provide guidance and assistance to small entrepreneurs and artisans, for setting up industrial units, among other things.
The Oraons, like other tribes in the area, have entrepreneurship opportunities as well as job prospects from heavy industries like the Rourkela and Jamshedpur steel plants.
These industries, apart from state and religious organisations, provide a venue for the diffusion of the tribes into modern mainstream society. Indeed, the Oraons, as also the other tribals employed with these steel plants have much in common with the non-tribal people of the area.
Oraons seem to prefer establishing settlements at higher altitudes. Their villages are usually located on the slope adjoining the cultivable land.
Houses are just like the ones you drew in your pre-nursery days, simple, graceful, and rectangular with a door in the longer arm of the rectangle. The walls are made of mud and the roofs tiled. The houses are generally huddled together in a disorderly pack, a pattern which is related to the agrarian life style, allowing the people to live in a cluster amidst the cultivable land around their settlement.
If you were to live with an Oraon family you would find that the social structure of the Oraon family is nuclear and patriarchal. If you are a male, teenager or adult, you will probably have to trudge to the fields every morning, while if you were a female you would have to maintain the house in addition to tending the fields.
The name of your clan would be derived from the name of birds, fish, vegetables, plants, or minerals, and designated the status of a totem. These totems are respected or regarded as ancestors, though not worshipped. The things that these totems represent are not eaten, as is the case with many other tribes.
The Oraons are exogamous with respect to lineage, clan and the village, but are endogamous, with regards to the tribe, like all other Indian tribes. Endogamy within the clan, lineage or the village and exogamy outside the tribe is punishable by ex-communication.
Put simply if you decide to marry outside the tribe, beware, as you will probably be thrown out. Traditionally the Oraons followed the tradition of ‘marriage by service’ i.e., the prospective groom worked in his prospective bride’s house for sometime before getting married.
However, this custom is fading away now and mutual consent is the normal way of getting married. The Oraon section which lives in the industrialised area of Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Hazaribagh, Sundargarh, Rourkela, has adopted the traditional `arranged marriage’ system of the mainstream society.
The elders however do take care to maintain the traditional rules of exogamy and endogamy in all these marital practice. It is amazing that these marginalised people do not practice what is so rampant in our so-called civilized society — child marriage! In fact, widow remarriage is permissible and divorce, where the wife’s parents have to return the bride price, allowed. You by now maybe totally confused as to which is the advanced society.
In the patrilineal system of the Oraon, all the sons inherit the father’s property and the eldest son gets an extra plot of land. So you are lucky if you are a boy, and doubly so if you are the eldest. Monogamy is the common practice, but in rare cases, polygamy is permitted where the sons of the first wife get a bigger share of the property.
Unfortunately, if you have been thrown out of the fold you have no access to the property. The widow may not inherit, but her maintenance is provided for.
The king and I!
The Oraons have successfully managed their affairs through a regional village council called parha-panchayat. A parha is an Oraon territory consisting of five to 30 contiguous villages.
In this, there is a chief village called ‘raja-village’ and its mahato or the headman is the executive head of the parha-panchayat. All justice, whether civil or criminal, is dealt with here.
Among the other villages, some are granted specific functions, from which they derive names such as dewan (prime minister) village, panrey (clerk) village, kotwar (security official) village, while the rest of the villages are known as the praja (subject) villages.
The heads of each designated village have particular function in safeguarding and protecting the rights of its people and maintaining peace and prosperity. If you are the son of any of these heads, be good, as you will inherit your daddy’s place one day.
You gotta have faith!
Oraons follow animistic magico-religious practices. They believe in a supreme deity called Dharmesh, who was equated with the sun.
Although today a large section of the Oraon tribe follows this religious system, a significant number has adopted other religions, especially Christianity. Their lifestyle and standard of living seems to have largely benefited from the interaction and developmental activities of the Christian missionaries.
The Christianised tribe are better educated and lead a healthier and economically better life because of the welfare programmes of the Church. They have a sense of confidence about themselves and find it easier to become financially self-sufficient because of the higher literacy rate. The association with the Church has also helped in the diffusion of the Oraon tribe into the mainstream society.
The converted section of the Oraon tribe, in its language, cultural practices and lifestyle is in no way different from the non-tribals living in the same area. But wait, read on, there is more to it than meets the eye.
The Church expects its tribal followers to derecognise their traditional religious beliefs and practices. The tribe too, feel more secure and comfortable with their adopted religion and unfortunately tend to look down upon their ancestral religion, since it is also associated with poverty and struggles of survival.
This in turn creates a conflict between the converted section of the tribals and the non-converted section. The eventual antipathy to each other snaps the bond of a common community. The existing tribal world-view is also disturbed, as the religion of adoption has many beliefs and practices, which are directly opposed to the traditional world-view of the tribe.
For example, the Church in the Sundargarh at one time attempted to modify the marital rules of exogamy and endogamy, of its tribal members. It gave the injunction that the tribal Christians may marry outside their own tribe and into another tribe, if the prospective match is from a Christian family. However, they must not marry into their own tribe if the person is not a Christian.
This injunction went directly against the established tribal tradition and the tribals expressed a considerable degree of dissent. As a clarification, let us add that we do not intend to denounce Christianity or any other religion active in the tribal area.
Rather, the aim here is to show how different cultures, when they meet each other, have only a partial understanding of each other’s world-views. This often leads to conflicts.
Lonely is the night!
The experience of an Oraon tribe is incomplete without referring to their once lively tradition of youth dormitories, called Dhumkuria. These youth dormitories were meant to provide a venue for interaction of boys and girls above the age of eight years up to the time of marriage.
The members assembled in the evenings, danced and sang, related folklores to each other, and mixed freely with each other. And you thought discos were a modem day invention! A male supervisor called barki dhangrin managed these dormitories. This institution thus, initiated the young members into adult life.
The light of dawn saw the members returning to their houses and resuming their day-to-day activities. Imagine what our parents would say if you returned home in the wee hours of the morning! You would be grounded for sure. But if you were an Oraon your parents would just pretend they never missed your absence.
Thus, a girl would leave the house in the evening without informing the elders that she was going to the dhumkuria. In the morning, she would return and resume the household activities before the elders woke up. Thus, this tradition had the approval of the elders and their tacit understanding.
Unfortunately this custom began to die out when the Oraon society came in contact with the non-tribal world. The puritanical views of Christianity, the insistence on the girl’s chastity before marriage in upper-caste Hinduism and Islamic society tainted the perception of the tribals who began to view it as a degrading custom, and gradually gave it up.
Today, most Oraons imitate the dominant notions of the non-tribals and not many of them are aware of the tradition of dhumkuria.
We are all aware that all is not well with the tribal population in our country. A major problem that the Oraon tribes face today is land alienation owing to poverty.
Its traditional method of `jhoom’ cultivation complicates the problem, as it does not yield enough harvest to sustain the members of the household.
There are pockets of tribals who do not practice plough-based cultivation and efforts are on to bring them into the purview of sedentary agriculture. However, members of the tribal community alleged that plough-based cultivation involves expenses, which they cannot bear.
Unfortunately the efforts made by the government to provide the tools, heavy machinery, fertilisers and high yielding variety (HYV) seeds have not been adequate or successful, as these materials have not really reached the tribals.
Even the agricultural credit forwarded by the state for the purpose has rarely reached its destination. This is a story you are familiar with. How much of grants and subsidies actually benefit our poor populace? Well, we all know the answer. Jharkhand’s efforts towards intensive cultivation in the Chotanagpur region, the original home of the Oraons, favour very poorly. Ranging from provisions of agricultural inputs to machinery and capital every aspect fares poorly, compared to the developed states of India.
Who are the pygmies?
The pygmies of the Congo Basin lead the simplest form of lifestyle possible for humans. There are many stocks of pygmies in Africa, but the best-studied are the pygmies who inhabit the rainforests in the river valley of Congo.
Locate the river Congo in your atlas, let your imagination fly and picture a dense green equatorial forest, complete with gigantic trees, and thick epiphytes hanging from them, and the sun rarely piercing the canopy to hit the forest floor.
It was no wonder that Africa was known as the Dark Continent. Now you are alone in a territory drained by the river Congo (it has a 9000 mile network of navigable tributaries), which covers almost all of Zaire as well as most of Congo, the Central African Republic, West Zambia and North Angola, apart from parts of Cameroon and Tanzania.
The forest merges into belts of Savannah where the Discovery Channel features quite a different kind of wild action. Keep your escape routes ready. Collect your clues as you read on.
Pygmies of Africa have been recorded in history from very early times. Egyptian chronicles mention their existence. Texts of Pharaoh Neferirkare (2494 BC-2345 BC) state that he had pygmies in his court. The Europeans believed for a long time that Pygmies were not humans.
The Greek poet Homer wrote about them during the 8th century BC. In 1865, the Italian Giovanni Miani entered Ituri forest, the home of Mbuti pygmies along the Congo. He captured two pygmies and sent them to Rome, though he was caught and killed subsequently by the pygmies. Thus, pygmies have been regarded through history as exotic creatures, closer to animals than to humans.
The pygmies belong to the Negroid stock with a stature that varies from 4 feet 3 inches to 4 feet 9 inches on an average, the women being a little shorter than the men.
You may find it remarkable that they are quite opposed to the tall Amazonians, who inhabit a similar habitat, a continent away. The complexion of the pygmies varies from yellowish to red-dish brown to very dark brown. Often they have hairy skin and are characterised by broad flat nose, large eyes, and dark woolly hair.
Sadly, they no longer speak their tribal language. They have adopted the languages of their nearby communities.
What is green, dark and deep?
The Congo basin, habitat of the pygmies, being situated on both sides of the equator is hot and humid throughout the year. With a hot-wet type of climate and an average monthly temperature around 27°C throughout the year, except the areas of high altitudes, it would be a wonder if you could keep any clothes on.
Except for a loincloth made from the bark of some trees, pygmies wear little else. Some charms and beads perhaps, but clothes in the heat are a strict no no!
One can be caught in the rain anytime in the year although the months of March and September are rainier than usual. The weather is damp and hot, humidity contributing to the discomfort. The average annual rainfall is more than 65 inches and the south-western highlands receive more than 80 inches annually.
Much of the Congo plain is swampy and experiences seasonal floods, adding to the drama of the forests.
Well not everyone suffers the climate. Some actually enjoy it. Surprised? The forests proliferate in this hot and humid climate and give rise to one of the most luxuriant and densest forests on earth. These rainforests have so many beautiful varieties of broad leaved evergreen trees.
There are often more than 100 species of trees in one acre. The dark green forest canopy has an average height of 50 meters (160 feet) and is almost contiguous. The vegetation is layered with ferns and epiphytes occupying the lowest, while the lush tall trees occupy the highest.
Most trees have shallow roots and have large additional branches mainly for support. Besides the pygmies, a varied number of animal species like chimpanzees, gorilla, a variety of monkeys, snakes and birds share the rainforest. Almost like an enchanted forest in fairy tales!
Elixir the rainforest offers!
Hit by a poisonous arrow, painfully embracing death, gasping in vain for the last drop of water? The movie rolls to an intermission! Well, here are the people who have mastered the art of hunting with bows and poisonous arrows.
Pygmies are hunters and gatherers and live in the isolated areas of the rainforests, moving continuously in bands, subsisting on small animals and birds and occasional fishing. Unbelievable but true, is their unique adaptation to the environment. So adept are they at climbing trees that even their front toe is shaped outward for a better grip.
They gather a variety of berries, nuts, pith, leaves, shoots, roots, and tubers, yam being the most important. For digging the yam, they use sharpened sticks, hardened in fire.
Born a woman in a pygmy tribe would see you gathering fruits. As a man, you would go for hunts but in your spare time also help the women. Unfortunately, the weather does not allow for the preservation of hunted or gathered food, so the family or the group have to finish the food daily.
If you are planning boarding and lodging with these people, your meal times are early morning and sunset. Sundown indicates end of the day’s activities to gather together and share all that has been collected during the day. But do not loose heart, if you are a healthy eater, you will get little portions of food to keep you happily chewing throughout the day.
Leftovers are boiled in bamboo tubes for early morning consumption.
Pygmies hunt small game, such as rats, squirrels, birds, lizards. Occasionally, monkeys, gazelle and chimpanzees may fall prey, but however, large carnivores like the tiger, panther, leopard and elephant are feared and not chased.
The method of hunt is simple. Weave a crude net from tree barks, arrange your group in a circle around the net, wait and watch from the green canopies above. So shadowy is their presence that even animals are fooled into walking into the traps.
Snaring the animal is fine, but nailing it is yet another story because more often than not the animals get away by breaking the barrier and disappearing in the dark forest vegetation. They try their luck again till they succeed.
Sometimes women and children accompany the hunting party and try to catch birds and turtles.
Learn a few magic words and spells they use to obtain success in hunting, perhaps it will also work with your examinations. For the pygmies, it is a pleasure trip essential for survival, rather than a struggle. The meat is divided amongst all the members of the village, and if you caught the unfortunate little animal, the best parts will be graciously offered to you as a token of appreciation.
Besides food the forest provides a variety of other substances such as, firewood, tannin extracts, rubber, gutta-percha, dyes, bamboo, oil, resin, timber and medicinal extracts, for example, quinine, cocaine, camphor etc. These are commercially valuable products, but exploitation is a difficult proposition due to low accessibility of these areas.
First among equals
The pygmy society is indeed extremely egalitarian. The band leader hardly displays any authority and everyone is conferred the right to discuss important issues. There is a very strong sense of a collective community amongst these people.
Colin Turnbull, an anthropologist observed that all the members of one’s parents’ generation are addressed as `mother’ and ‘father’, all members of one’s grandparents’ generation are addressed as `grandfather’ and ‘grandmother’, and all members of one’s own generation are called ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. It is one big happy family.
The old and invalid are protected carefully. If a child is orphaned, a family immediately adopts her and the women of the village generally commonly rear the children, all the parents being extremely affectionate towards them.
In familial matters, pygmies are much more humane and far ahead of the ‘modern’ non-tribal society.
Women are the homemakers. Being constantly on the move, they have mastered the art of quickly building temporary structures to serve as a house.
It is built in the shape of an elongated sphere and large leaves cover it, making it waterproof. The composition of the village too is very fluid due to this continual movement. Families are free to leave one camp to join another.
The hunting territory is split between camping villages and passed down from parents to offspring. New hunting rights are acquired through marriage, which is usually monogamous although divorce is not unknown. While the pygmies have borrowed the custom of paying the bride price from the surrounding cultivators, they have adapted it to suit their needs.
They have little use of material possessions, the power of life being paramount. Prospective grooms thus offer their services to the in-laws asking for permission to hunt with them for a year or two. Recollect that a similar custom is followed by the Oraon in India, as discussed in the last section.
Perhaps the perfect movie image of a heathen culture is slowly developing cracks. Contrary to the early perceptions of pygmies being closer to animals than humans, knowing their personal characteristics would probably make you place them as one of the most peace-loving people in the world. They are not only very polite but also extremely dignified and shun violence.
Now, not that they do not have their share of disagreements leading in extreme cases to fisticuffs, but amazingly they almost never use weapons against each other. They try to resolve conflicts by avoiding each other for a while, not talking to each other and building their huts in such a way that their entrances do not face each other. Our modern counsellors would perhaps term this as giving space to settle down.
In some cases, one person leaves the village to join another camp. In extreme cases, however, where the villagers experience considerable disturbance, the offending person is punished by exile. In the context of a forest, exile is equivalent to a death-sentence, as it is virtually impossible for a single individual or family to survive in the forest.
As a whole band, pygmies find the forest extremely hospitable, friendly and useful. They know their forest inside out and are thoroughly conversant with the characteristics of their trees and plants, forest routes and animal behaviour.
For example, it was only in the 20th century that Jane Goodall, after months of difficult companionship with the chimpanzees, found how they gather termites with a stick. The pygmies, on the other hand, from very early times had not only perfected the chimpanzees’ method of extracting termites, but had also developed a way of cooking them before eating. The forest has been their home and what we are beginning to find out today is knowledge they have acquired years ago.
Because they know the forest and the animals so well, their poisoned bows and arrows rarely miss the mark. In a study, a pygmy was given four cartridges and a rifle and in the evening he returned with three dead animals and one cartridge which had misfired — every time he fired, he killed an animal!
The less you know about something, the more mysterious and magical it seems. Thousands of frightful stories about dark forests and its evil cannibals and walking dead have fired the imagination of many. But this shadowy tribe is more friendly than frightful.
They have an excellent knowledge of the forest, which makes them admirable medicine men as well. They know the medicinal properties of the forest flora and can prepare medicines, which are still unknown to the modem world.
Their arrows are poisoned with the concoction of four types of plant juices, the deadly poison that has the potential to harm the entire community. But, our fear is baseless, as they have also developed the antidote for it. Unbelievably they have also developed fishing poisons. For example, the women folk of the Baka pygmies of Cameroon, Congo, Gabon and Zaire use milletia vine (`mongombo’ in their language) whose macerated pulp rinsed into the water has the characteristic of making the fish float on the surface, allowing them to be easily caught.
The religious practices of the pygmies are more in the nature of magical rituals than a belief in a transcendental god. Depending on the situation, they either bury their dead or intern them in their own hut, which is pulled down over the body, and a funeral rite is performed.
They believe in spirits and their deceased ancestors often take the form of protective guardian spirits who communicate with them regarding important matters. In the case of Baka pygmies, they believe in Komba, their omnipotent god, who is the creator of everything. Komba lies on a more supra-natural plane than other spirits who form contiguity between the human and the supernatural world. The Baka pygmies also believe in Jengi, the forest spirit who presides over the initiation rite of young Baka boys into adulthood. The cult of Jengi underlines the pygmies bond with the forest, which is their lifeline.
The friendly neighbour!
Pygmy life is incomplete without an interaction with the Bantu agriculturists, who practice cultivation and who live on the edges of the rainforest. The relationship of the pygmies with their nearest neighbour has seen various phases from mysterious, shadowy ‘silent trade’ to pygmies working on the fields of the Bantus. Since the Bantus are cultivators, they grow food, cotton and many other things useful for the pygmies. On the other hand, Bantus enjoy the choicest portions of fresh meat of the forest animals, honey, and many other forest products provided by the pygmies. Thus developed a rudimentary system of barter based on a symbiotic relationship.
What is this ‘silent trade’? Well, it is quite simple. You are a Bantu peacefully slumbering in the deathly silence of the night, and I am a pygmy quietly climbing your fence. Tied to the corner of my loincloth is a bundle of gazelle meat that I will leave at your doorstep and stealthily slip away. Tomorrow night, before the moon drops over the horizon I will visit you again.
Keep the price for this succulent flesh ready, whether it is grain, yam, or even perhaps tobacco. If I feel that the payment is not sufficient, I will leave it untouched, so that you may double it the following day.
Largely, this ‘silent trade’ went on without any problem, but there have been some occasions when the Bantus have been killed with poisoned arrows when they did not keep proper replacement for the pygmy products. In the reverse direction, a pygmy often cut off bunches of bananas from a Bantu’s garden (or some other crop) and hangs a sufficient quantity of meat or forest product on the branch of the tree in return.
During the short dry season the forest has little to offer and pygmies build their huts near the Bantu villages and work almost as bonded labourers on their fields. This relationship continues from generation to generation. In return for their work, they often get only tobacco leaf to which they are addicted.
The feature of pygmies working on the Bantu fields has created a hierarchical equation between the two groups, with pygmies being degraded in status and exploited by the Bantus. Moreover their nomadic lifestyle restricts them from carrying too many possessions with them. Apart from tobacco, the other things, which are of use to pygmies, are alcohol, bananas, cassava (manioc) and iron spears and arrow-heads. In recent times some pygmies have begun to grow cassava which requires relatively less labour and can act as a substitute for rice, wheat or potato as it is devoid of any strong flavour.
Friedrich Ratzel, a German imperialist thinker, regarded as the founder of ‘New-Determinism’ had postulated that ‘similar locations lead to similar modes of life’. A study of these two tribes may have convinced you of the same. The Oraons and Pygmies, living a continent away are remarkably similar to each other.
Ranging from their social structure to their modes of livelihood a comparison can be drawn at every quarter. They possess a deep knowledge of the forests and have been able to ferret out Mother Nature’s secrets to survive generation after generation. In the social sphere both of the groups live in small villages and are family oriented. They punish the offenders in their villages in a similar manner by excommunicating the villain. Their women are emancipated and widows are allowed to remarry. Even their religious beliefs are similar with nature worship and forest spirits ruling their lives.
However, man has been able to shape nature to suit his needs. In fact you neither have to feel the chill of weather, or the heat of summer if you so desire. Modem day air-conditioners can moderate temperatures of every unit that you use. Possibilities such as these are endless.
Wittfogel (1929) opposing the environmental thesis underlined that human labour is capable of moulding nature into different material (economic) bases of regional societies, and that this was the basis of diversity.
What is the relevance of such a discussion you may ask? Well, nestled among the rich bio-diversity of Congo and Chota Nagpur are deposits of valuable minerals, which are indeed useful to mankind. All that is required is technology to siphon out these minerals and lay it upon the surface. The Congo basin endowed with petroleum and natural gas reserves along with precious minerals such as gold, diamonds, and manganese.
In fact, besides capturing slaves, the Europeans of the eighteenth and nineteenth century frequented the Congo basin in search of the African El Dorado. Kasai’s diamond mines and Lubumbashi’s copper mines are still renowned. Chota Nagpur on the other hand has key resources such as iron and coal.
Perhaps that has resulted in greater industrialization of this area as opposed to Congo. However any change from the pre-existing fabric would bring some repercussions. Here man has begun to change the environment forever and habitats are being lost.
The tribals drawn into this controversy are suffering the consequences by either being marginalised into extreme corners of their habitat or paying the price by perpetual bondage to a so-called superior class.