Culture Contacts and Eco-Cultural Shock

Vishal Singh

And it is not. The green psyche of the man from high hills, his love for nature, his respect for life forms (from herds to herbs), his sensibilities, his lifestyle, his needs, his beliefs, his emotions evolved in the lap of Nature….in a holistic environment. So the modern cultivated environment, for all its comforts, can be the most – if one may use the word – “disquieting” for him.

On the surface everything seems fine with the socio-economic change in the Dhauladhar foothills – disorderly though it may be – for it has promoted tourism, generated a little employment and strengthened hill’s economy, but at times one gets the feeling that modern life is not that a hill-culture is designed for.

In three decades and a half with Dharamshala appearing prominently on the Buddhist pilgrimage-map, the culture-contacts of the natives have multiplied from occasional interactions to prolonged exposures of diverse kinds. And, the hill habitations of Mcleodganj, Dharmkot, Bhagsu, Naddi and Talnu, over-looking the expansive Kangra valley, have emerged as centers where the nomadic tribe of “Gaddis”1 has come in intimate contact with outside ethnic entities – Mongoloids, Europeans etc and the contact phenomenon has inevitably caused – if I may say- a flux in the foothills, an uneasiness, a restlessness that follows the opening up of a closed cultures.

For the first time, it may not be evident, but any old-timer can sense the silent cultural transformation which is relatively recent in origin. Talk to elderly residents in Dharamkot and they admit the fact: “Modern airs are sweeping the hill environs and the typical tribal flavor may vanish with a few more generations, a Gaddi selling cakes, Danish nuts, mineral water, sesame oil, brown rice, honey and coffee in Dharamkot.

Much has changed in the name of development, but something is amiss now, admits fifty year old Khooni Ram who has come from Salli village, seeking work as a construction labourer in one of the hotels, lodges, villas or meditation centres which have come up fast in the area. He reminisces clean and green Mcleodganj which once had thick forests of oaks and deodars resonating with magpie calls. Rhodos bloomed in abundance. Such was the meditative quality of the place then, he says. Today, public roads disturb the orderliness of the jungle habitat. And the inhabitants are getting increasingly incompatible with the shrinking habitat.

What strikes one most is the fact that the older folks of the tribe stand contented at the very centre of their Bharmauri culture while the new age folks seems confused by the obvious mismatch between the ancient and modern—popping bubble gums, marrying foreigners and imbibing every bit of all pervasive discontent. It’s they who face a veritable Hobson’s choice: between the eco-cultural pulls and the pressures of adaptation. It’s they who get increasingly indecisive as more and more nomads turn settlers looking for unconventional occupations. Will they head home or drift away?... can’t say for sure. It’s the grey ideas perhaps that guide green cultures on Darwinian lines, so one believes. leaving the rest for the sociologists or ethnologists to examine their acceptance and inhibition, their reaction and resilience to the profound disturbance of modernism.

“But who can insulate a hill-culture from the evolving vastness?” asks Negi, a local porter-mountaineer who has portered countless expeditions across the Dhauladhar in 20 years of trekking. “No one can and one should not,” answers a fellow mountaineer, Prem Sagar from Eagle’s height Trekkers, elaborating Negi’s point. “Adaptation – not isolation – will forever remain the mainstay of both biological and cultural evolution,” he says.

True that is. As a silent onlooker, one, who has seen the poverty and illiteracy of a score of Gaddi habitations – Boh, Salli, Darini, Bangotu, Ghera, Kareri, Chohla – surrounding the culture-contact centres, can say with concern that the typical flavour of their will fill the outer Himalayan airs for half a century more, if they do not come out of the self-imposed isolation, outgrow their infancy and learn to balance the ‘ancestral’ with the ‘modern’ and the ‘emotional’ with the ‘rational’. They have countless historical parallels to emulate who, within the confines of traditionalism, conceived remarkable ideas created an inspiring culture of survivors and carved a niche for themselves in the big wide world. Also, if interdependence of all beings and adaptive quality cultures are vital evolutionary processes, an ethnic entity – any entity that matter – must choose the ‘adaptive traits’ and drop the ‘un-evolved ones’ for its survival.

But then, which cultural traits can the Gaddis shed and pick from or contribute to the ‘pool-of-cultures’ to maintain a dynamic inter-flow with the outside ethnic entities; and be on the path of much needed progress like the contemporary mankind.

So, a hill-habitation – nay any ethnic entity- is constrained to set the broad contours of its evolutionary course which, I’ m afraid, is not an easy task because evolution in itself is a journey in space and time to the unknown… is unending and unpredictable. With each step, one runs the risks of losing identities – ethno-religious, cultural and others.
Therefore, some genuine fears haunt the hill habitations – fears that a consumerist society generates; and concerns that a rustic society harbours in meeting industrial cultures. “The contaminating contact of modernity may thwart the virtues that rusticity holds sacred and holy- that haunts us most”, says an old shepherd pacing uphill with a flock. He rests a load on his back against the wayside rock; wipes his sweat dripping face and continues the argument: “The virtues that we treasured for generations – simplicity, honesty, warm heatedness, compassion, truthfulness and nature-based lifestyle – are the traits of a mature and spiritually uplifted culture. Aren’t these”? he looks for no answer and moves on, but the question still echoes in my mind.

Of Course, these are the traits that sustain “life” on earth. These are the traits that set the hill community apart as the piously humble, the scriptural ‘meek’ who shall inherit the earth!.... But hollow consolations these are. So the fears multiply.

As the struggle for survival sheds the archaic ways and acquires ‘new age’ dimensions, even a casual conversation with the natives – literate or illiterate – reveals a painful awareness of the immense loss: “In an ethnic meltdown, cultural identity has only economic interpretations”, rationalises a worried social activist, Prem sagar. Another activist, Nanak chand reciprocates the concern: The modern scheming mind and its avaricious economics is devising ways to teach ‘new’ survival strategies which may not suit the hill tribe. The local market place is replete with instances of ‘dealers’ who, in the name of eco-cultural preservation, put to sale the hill ecology and the culture based on it. Apart from holding eco-cultural shows they regularly bring out heaps of glossy publications in Mcleodganj _ which never reveal the truth about the rampant eco-cultural degradation here. Who profits from it ?.. the scheming mind, who else? It’s amazing that the so called eco-cultural enthusiasts wink at the going on and never expose the ecological hypocrisy of this kind,” he sounds ruthlessly harsh.

And, his observations are based on truth. Look, what the ‘Bharmauri Cultural’ has been losing over the years: the folk arts and aesthetics; the discarded deities; the flora and fauna; the tribal lands and herds; The herbs and the healing systems – all dirt cheap. Their traditional respect for the heritage is gradually turning into a mad zeal for prosperity. They are in for an “eco-cultural shock”. Eh I the green psyche is turning grey in search of an ‘elusive’ prosperity !

Then, there are those who argue: “No matter how good and contented a hill-culture’ has been may seem, the inhabitants of the high hills cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits and comforts of the modern development”.

Convincing that is. But this argument is not made with an agonising honesty and it carries some serious errors of thinking. Do we need someone to tell us that the economics of new age is devouring the old-world’s economics of survival? So, one has reason to take up the cause seriously. True humanism demands that tribal realities should not be viewed as tradable commodities to meet the insatiable urban economic needs. What is good for survival has to be good for economics too – not the other way round.

How can we save the local hill-culture from the ‘contaminating’contact? How can we prepare it to take to the mainstream like a duck taking to waters – without a splash? One seeks an honest answer.

And the answer lies in creating a rural infrastructure for the local tribe outside the frenzy of the ‘free market mechanisms’.....till they understand the complexities of ‘new age’ economics. The point is to design a ‘remedial package’ to suit the simplicity of the hill-tribe. Resources from the Dhauladhar range – from tiny healing herbs to towering conifers – should not flow freely in a raw state, but with some value addition. And, synthesis of resources with local skills can give gainful employment to them and sustain rusticity without causing drastic changes in their nature-based occupational patterns. That alone can bring real prosperity to these hills.

1. A General overview about Gaddi Tribe
Gaddis have been alternating their flocks of sheep and goats during summers and winters in lowland and highland pastures of the Dhauladhar range overlooking the Kangra and Chamba valleys in Himachal Pradesh, India.

They constitute a sizeable proportion of total population in the tribal hill areas of Himachal Pradesh. The nomadic tribal population of around 30,0002 has been settling mainly in Kangra and Chamba valleys (76º 10´ E to 76º 50´ E and 32º to 32º 30´ N).

Though they trace their roots to Bharmaur area in the Chamba valley, but historians say that they migrated from some other places under Muslim persecution. There is a common saying: “Ujreya Lahore te basseya Bharmaur,” proving the above fact. It translates into: “That desertion of old Lahore (now in Pakistan) has resulted into the inhabitation of Bharmaur by the Gaddis.

The main occupation of Gaddis is shepherding and they make their livelihood by rearing and selling sheep and goats.

Past pastoral practices continuing in present

Though this tribe was more nomadic in older days but now they have made their settlements in the villages and make seasonal movements with their livestock to pastures in upper hills during summer season and to the foothills in chilly winters. Now people from Gaddi community have also started adopting several other occupations for earning their livelihoods.

Gaddis taking-off wool from sheep for making shawls, blankets and carpets

The Gaddis have deep-rooted Hindu beliefs, worshipping God Shiva and also Goddess Durga. The people of this tribe speak Gadyali dialect; they can also understand and converse in Hindi. Gaddis are also known for their simple lifestyle and are religious. Most of them still practice their old traditions and customs. They are also fond of music and dance and their important fairs are Minjar (associated with the planting of maize and paddy crops) and Manimahesh yatra (a pilgrimage to the sacred lake and Kailash Parvat, which is considered as the seat of Lord Shiva). Visits to a range of temples in the hills by the tribal families (called Jatras) are still a common tradition. Early marriage was the usual custom in the earlier days but such practices have been abandoned with the setting up of the schools in the tribal areas, regular contacts with mainstream modern civilization, increase of awareness levels, the women literacy, maternity care, child care, quality education and technical/professional skills.

As the requirement of shepherdism, Gaddis wear heavy woollens like pyjamas (trousers), long coats, dhoru (woollen sari), caps and footwear made from sheep wool and skin. Sheep wool is used for making shawls, blankets and carpets which are spun in traditional style manually on the khaddis in their homes. Gaddi women are also fond of traditional jewellery made-up of silver and gold studded with colourful stones.

Gaddi with his flock of sheep and goats, smoking-hukka wearing traditional-attire depicting forests habitat and livelihood

2. Source: District Tribal Development Office