Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2019 > Leaves from the Jungle and Anthropological Jigsaw

Mainstream, VOL LVII No 13 New Delhi March 16, 2019

Leaves from the Jungle and Anthropological Jigsaw

Sunday 17 March 2019, by J.J. Roy Burman


The anthropological method did not exist the way we know today almost a century back. It was established through prolonged field data collection, as was established by Malinowski in the study of the Trobriand Islands in the Western Pacific. Almost a similar trend was followed through by Radcliffe Brown in the study of the Andaman Islands. The method entailed prolonged interaction between the researcher and the studied community—better known as the ‘Participant Observer’ method or the ‘Observer Participant Method’. Though there is merit in implementing this technique for ‘data’ collection, the danger of ethnocentric bias cannot be ruled out. This entailed some of the leading anthropologists from India to opt for the rapid ‘Cross Fire Interview’ method. This permitted hermeneutic handling of collected information better than the Participant Observer technique or for eliminating ethnocentric bias.

In the last forty years of my career, I have lived in villages for short durations—not more than week at a stretch. Such endeavours allowed me look into crucial factors which sustained social solidarities bridged over conflict cartels. Epistemologically these ventures helped me to seek combinations of social dynamics based on structural functionalism and random flights of social conflicts. This approach has been delineated by scholars such as Max Gluckman and Andre Gunder Frank. Coser and Rosenberg too were closer to synthesising the two approaches.

Initiation into the field of Anthropology

MY orientation to the latter approach began with my sojourn to Madhya Pradesh, presently within the ambit of Chhattisgarh. It began with a quick look into the burial process of an old man belonging to Dudh Kawar tribe. The Dudh Kawars emphatically claim themselves to be Hindu. The village where I made this quick observation is named Lichirma, located about 50 kms off Bilaspur on the way to Ambikapur. This happens to be a forest zone and the tribe there is assigned to be junglemen thriving primarily on the food-gathering economy and fond of dwelling on penury— contented to sustain on the food-gathering economy. But this contention got blurred when I made a short visit to Guturma, another Dudh Kawar village bang opposite to Lichirma.
I reached a home where the household members were busy negotiating with an outside contractor who was settling the price for the kendu or tendu leaf collected by the tribesmen. Tendu leaves are high on demand for the bidi-making industry. This totally counters the concept of tribals being largely a non-economic community depending on self- sustenance.
This observation later became solidified after my observation of the Mahadeo Koli tribes of Pune district in Maharashtra. The Mahadeo Kolis inhabit by and large in mountainous forest zones. In spite of such areas of habitation, they thrive little on agricultural production and depend on collection and sale of hirda or myrobalan—a very expensive medicinal plant and ingredient of producing shoe polish. This practice is so popular among one of the most developed tribes of Maharashtra, where education is highly sought for and many of them work in cities like Mumbai and Pune. Tanaji, was a seniormost army general of Shivaji, the king and legendary hero of the Marathas. Tanaji was a Mahadeo Koli. Not very long back, Madhukar Rao Pitchard, a Mahadeo Koli person, was the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra under the aegis of Sharad Pawar, the Maratha strong man. Jayaba, the founder of the Jawhar principality, was not only a double-edged sword playing a bridge-buffer role between the sea coast and the hills or Western Ghats—looting and protecting the traders passing by, particularly the Nane Ghat pass. He was a Mahadeo Koli who joined hands with Shivaji while plundering the Surat port. Almost a similar kind of bridge-buffer diadic relation existed between the Tadvi Bhils and Vasabha Bhils, between the mountain passes of Khandesh and princely states of Gujarat bordering on Maharashtra.

A similar bridge-buffer role existed between the Sherdukpens and Akas on the routes between Tawang and Tezpur in Arunachal Pradesh. While the Sherdukpens were long-distance traders between Barpeta in Assam and Tibet-Lhasa, the Akas demanded quit money from the traders. This type of relationship reflects the peripatetic life-style and trading relationship of various tribes in different locations in India. This analysis defies the common notion of tribes being sedentary and isolated. The notion of tribes being isolated and non-monetised is thus a myth of modernity.

It should not be ignored that Alexander, the Great conqueror, was born at a tribal village of Mesopotamia in Yugoslavia. He and his troops traversed along distance land trade routes. The Bedouin tribesmen in Saudi Arabia and adjoining areas were first-class traders amidst the sand dunes and oases. The Sentinelese of Andaman Islands have been a conduit facilitating long distance trade between West Asia and South-East Asia along sea routes. Taimur Lung was another famous tribal king from Uzbekistan-Central Asia to invade India up to Delhi. He followed the age-old trade route crossing the Hindu Kush through the Himalayas.

Sacred Groves and Dynamics

WHEN dealing with the lives of the tribesmen, a very common notion among the scholars that emanates is the institution of “Sacred Groves”. The topic has come more into notice because of the crisis of environment witnessed globally—mainly in the Western hemisphere where the wooden plants disappeared long back due to rabid consumerism and wanton destruction of natural wealth, particularly the ozone layer caused by industrialisation and the carbon emission by aero flights. As a panacea the Western countries have been pressurising the Third World nations to limit their functional industries and grow and save trees. This strategy emphasised on the maintenance of sacred groves—patches of forests dedicated to deities. In general no part of the forest should be felled or even touched. The legend of the sacred grove of Nemi in Oslo is often referred to. According to legends, the sacred grove dedicated to the goddess Nemi is perpetually guarded by a king with a sword in hand. He guards against intruders who might break a bough of the plant and acquire a moral right to fight and dislodge him and become a new priest king. This thus results in constant pressure such that power does not remain consolidated in one hand and remains constantly shifting. The constantly shifting power in perpetuity leads to an anarchic formation. Ernest Gellner terms the process as revolution in revolution. Mao Zedong similarly tried to shift power from fixed hands in running the state or the nation-state of China. Colin Debray, a renowned Marxist scholar, named the system as “Revolution in Revolution”. Ernest Gellner too studied the system and branded this as “Revolution in the Sacred Groves”.

Looking into the system of sacred groves from a political-economic approach as opposed to ecological determinism ultimately leads to the automatic understanding of the human race from the anarchic inclination. In my wide study of the sacred groves in various parts of the country I did not find any community to acknowledge that they maintain sacred groves for the sake of environment. The most common response has been that the groves reflect honouring the heritage and containing the natural beauty. This reflects the fulsome existence of the human race. Unfortunately, many different scholars from various parts of the world, knowingly or unconsciously, fall prey to the notion propagated by the Western view- point. The fact that sacred groves reflect social spaces more than physical entities gets ignored. One should not miss the point that there exist many sacred groves within the premises of state-managed reserved forests and sanctuaries. This manifests the perpetual race between the state-sponsored technical order and moral order of the people. Even when reserve forests and sanctuaries are fully under state control, the compartments are demarcated on the basis of traditional village demarcations. About thirty years back it came to the knowledge that two adjoining tribal villages, Mokas and Pendhermati, were having conflict over their boundary demarcation within the government forest and the case was referred to the Prant Office (Land Revenue Department) at Nandurbar in the Dhule district of Maharashtra. These types of conflicts are methodologically referred to as ‘proto-political relations’.

The Sahrul puja in Ranchi city incorporates the worship of flowers and has environmental implications on the one hand and political impor-tance on the other. During this puja processions accompanied by music and beating of drums end at the sarna or the sacred grove. The activity acquired greater virility with the strengthening of the Jharkhand movement at the instance of local tribesmen. Unfortunately, this dimension of the puja is almost totally ignored endangering the very existence of the indigenous people located there.

It is interesting to note that every Mahadeo Koli village in the Pune district has a boundary-level sacred grove which is located right within the border of the adjoining village. Apart from the boundary sacred grove each and every Koli settlement has a village-level tutelary deity-level (Gaon Devi) sacred grove which reinforces the territorial demarcation. Understanding this helps in the operation of village-level programmes. In the case of a village in Ambegaon taluka I saw a boundary-level deity having been declared as the tutelary deity. This instantly led me to conceive that there must have occurred shifts in the village territories. This was confirmed by the villagers as they informed that after a plague epidemic with the death of several people, many of the survivors shifted to the next village and the boundary deity was converted into a gaondevi or tutelary deity.

A little more understanding of the dynamics of sacred groves can create wonders. The tutelary deity-level sacred grove dedicated to Bhairavnath has many thick and large ancient trees. Few of the villagers turning greedy tried to sell off the grove to some Muslim wood-cutters by bribing the priest in whose name the sanctuary was recorded. But the drive was called off at the instance of an NGO operating in the region. The NGO blamed mainly the Police Patil and some influential persons of the village. But after interviewing many villagers I realised that the matter was not as simple as the NGO had projected. It struck me as to how the priest could be offered just Rs 500 for such an expensive grove. All the more, how can the priest give a consent signature; morally speaking he could just be a custodian. A little more probing revealed that about 30 years back there was a land revenue record exercise in the village. Since the grove had no formal owner, villagers decided to put it under the name of the priest whom they could easily control. Otherwise, the state could have taken control over it.

At a village called Kua in the Sindhdurg district of Maharashtra there is a sacred grove in Deoraiwadi. Though it is not very large, it has a thick vegetation. None of the villagers enter into the grove except for one night when everybody does so and clear off the leaf litter, twigs and branches. A similar round-shaped sacred grove, called Kaya, exists among the Mijikenda people in the eastern coast of Kenya. Very old villagers usually inhabit it. Politicians visit the grove when their boons are fulfilled. This apart, the villagers assemble within the grove when the society encounters any crisis and all the leaf litter and dirt are cleared up.

The most important sacred grove I have witnessed is the one located at Kabi village about twenty kms north of Gangtok, the capital of the Sikkim State. The grove, which is about two hectares in size, is called Kabi Lonstalk. The grove commemorates the blood treaty signed by Khye Bumsa (the king of the Denzong tribe) and Thekok Tek, the Lepcha king. This treaty signifies the formation of the Sikkim kingdom. The environ-mental importance of the grove is rudimentary and the state sponsors the commemoration function every year. In this manner, the State of Sikkim asserts its supremacy. It is though legally within India, in moral terms it is a non-state entity where the moral order reigns supreme and religious rituals mark several state holidays.

Anarchic Cliches

NOT only does the state order to adopt anarchic positions, the system plays a significant role in the villages as well as cities and metropolises. There are various community-level centres of congregation where castes and communities regularly assemble and take up issues for their own upliftment. Many such organisations take up the function of sanitation and maintenance of parks and temples – the Bahai temples, for example. The Sikh gurudwaras too are famous for their altruism as they run ‘langars’ to feed the tourists and the disabled. But none can surpass the Christian missionaries. No wonder, they are so strongly rooted among the tribes of North-East India. They are famous for running schools, colleges, medical dispensaries and hospitals without much government interference.

Death Knell of Anthropology and its Future Destiny

IN spite of so many illustrations, anthropologists in India are far from realising the principles of anarchic order and are busy settling ridiculous propositions. For instance, Ajit Danda, a senior scholar, concluded that religious mendicants like Rajmohini Devi and Gahira Guru (based in Chhattisgarh) were instrumental in reinforcing national integration through their utterances and religious proclivities. In reality they were operating under the aegis of the Marwari business-men and contractors (mainly dealing with tendu leaves). In contrast, a reporter of The Statesman daily pinpointed the initiation of a Ram mandir at Barbil, a small tribal predominated town of Odisha as a mark of penetration of the monetary system among the tribes of a non-moneytised zone—a sign of neo-colonialism. No wonder, anthropology in India has almost vanished into the blue. Students are found withdrawing from their course after the first year, as seen in the case of the University of Pune in Maharashtra. Scholars from history, geography, economics and political science have filled the void created by anthropology and anthropologists. This is a good sign as well since a neo-colonial subject is wit-nessing its death knell. Funds for sponsoring studies on sacred groves too are drying up as a symptom. David Harvey, an anarchist scholar, delineates that the study of Anarchism is the only way to look for social realities in future. The funding should not be much of a problem if the communities become convinced of such social fecundities. This situation is bolstered by the appropriate use of hermeneutics involving both theory and practice. 
Prof J.J. Roy Burman belongs to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted