A Disappearing Tribal World: and its fast-vanishing Traditional Way of Life

Bulu Imam

I was fortunate to have been born seventy years ago in one of India’s most beautiful natural and cultural environments in the mofussil town of Hazaribagh surrounded by jungles, wild animals and birds and the tribes of field and forest. The town itself had no walls around houses, only the ubiquitous lantana bush trimmed into hedges. We would walk out of our house and stroll across the fields of an evening or morning shooting the plentiful partridges or end up in our walk at a favourite jheel where we would wait in the darkening eve to take shots at the duck and teal flying in for the night. Often we would find the nomadic Birhor laying their string nooses for catching hares or partridges, and sometimes find them carrying back from the hunt the day’s catch of spurfowl or wild boar. These people would become my first real friends for my school was in these wilderness areas rather than the boring classroom to which I would return after several decades in order to document what these and other tribes had taught me. Both my early experience and later erudition would help to place in perspective a world that was even then disappearing before my eyes for India had gained independence from the hated British rule and begun a series of Five-Year-Plans to industrialize which meant the destruction of the natural world and its traditional custodians who were the tribals. Perhaps the most salient fact of the industrial way of life which feeds the economic consumption necessary to maintain modern progress is the destruction of the natural world upon which egalitarian tribal societies have subsisted for thousands of years. No better example of the destruction of natural habitat and the peoples who had lived in it for millennia could be given than the plateau of Hazaribagh clothed in emerald saal forests and dotted with scattered forest villages of various tribal clans. Beautiful lonely places were criss-crossed with meandering streams and high walled gorges contained the secrets of the older world in which the undisturbed anthropomorphs in stone held silent council undisturbed by the outside world of man. I wandered across this landscape both on foot and sometimes horseback, my young mind filling with knowledge, which I now realize is as secret as it is sacred. These places and the people who inhabited this world would shape my young developing mind and give me a responsibility to keep its teachings as if I were myself a denizen of this world.

A nomadic Uthlu Birhor hunter with a bird call


The tribals whom I encountered and later was to live among were hunters and gatherers who only killed for food and not for sport. These people depended upon the wild food sources both plant and animal and were in no way disposed to harming their supply. They respected the dignity of both human and animal life, and while they used the same axe to kill an animal in the hunt or kill an animal in sacred sacrifice they were at all times conscious of the sacredness of animal life and its importance in sustaining humans. They respected plants in the same way and though they required to cut trees for building timber and sundry carpentry uses in the village they never commercialized it. The forest was the abode of the deity and the animals were the herds whom the goddess of the hunt protected and without whose blessing, after due propitiation, could they kill even for food. Such was their respect for the natural world and its innumerable life forms… Today when all life has been commercialized and commodified we may step back a mere three or four decades in time and see how much the poorer we are for having made the same mistakes, which the white men made in Europe and the Americas by destroying their wildlife and forests on such a massive scale and polluting the clean air of the planet with dangerous chemicals and gases that today threaten the ability of our planet to sustain life itself. While western man is walking back to discover the natural world he destroyed through industrialization we in the East are vigorously employed in destroying the natural world for industrialization. The animals, which the tribal hunted were solely for food and there was absolutely no element of sport in its purpose even though the thrill of the chase was necessarily present and a great hunter, like a great tribal artist or craftsman, had his renown. But the natural world was always protected through custom and tradition and the child from his earliest years was taught that the earth was Mother and the trees were the abode of deities and out of this teaching have the various religions of the Indian sub-continent evolved. Myths and totems protected plants and animals and the tribals held them to be ancestor relatives so an even deeper relationship was established . The forest around the village was seen not as a commercial source of timber but as a fruit and vegetable garden where medicines were also abundant and in which a variety of birds and animals and other living things existed for food and treatment of sickness. The rivers and streams and lakes were sources of drinking water and also irrigation for the crops and the hills after summer firing yielded rich nitrogen when the soil was carried down to the dong rice-fields in the valley. The firing also cleared visibility during the seasonal summer hunts and gave fresh young grasses for grazing as well as making the collection of calyxes of the mohua tree which was a food staple yielding oil, flour and wine when distilled. The digging of medicinal roots was done so as to take only what was required and not to strip the entire plant to which the medicine-men or women would return year after year. Similarly, the using of the chope plant for making rope was careful not to destroy the parent plant. Even the fruitful yams, which were a large source of food were never completely dug up and left to regenerate and increase their produce to which the gatherer would return again and again. Even the fish in the rivers were harvested taking into account the yield, which was taken against the stocks left to regenerate. Wildlife conservation was born in the hunter-gatherer world where commodities could not be bought in a store and had to grow naturally out of nature’s larder. If nature had to suffer in order for man to survive, equally so too had man to be unselfish in order for nature to survive.

Traditional Birhor leaf houses in Jharkhand

The hunting ability of tribals and aboriginals is legendary and witnessed on every continent among primitive societies. Unfortunately the balance of human races gave to the technologically more advanced the power to destroy the weaker races no matter how much greater their survival skills and the inventions of these dominant races led to a greed and blood-lust which is still seen in our economic wars of nations intent on superior conveniences for their population. Democracy has aided this greed and blood-lust in the name of what is called progress and which is sanctified by religion. This alien red claw never entered the tribal world or the heart and mind of aboriginal man. To see the tribal hunting is to witness magic, which enabled man to survive for millennia in a harsh and hostile world. To learn his ways and abilities is to enter a secret universe forbidden to the uninitiated. To join in his aesthetic experience is to realize how crass and cheap our modern consciousness of art is. To understand the significance of his languages is to know how far the gift of human expression can reach. But all this is forbidden to him who has left this world as most modern tribes-people have done in favor of this or that modern trend or denomination or imagined superior way. The word tribal does not define Tribal, it merely identifies a physiological structure. The tribal world hardly anymore belongs to tribals who have all but lost the knowledge of the world’s most ancient way of life. It is of them I speak in calling attention to their “disappearing world”. Dressing up a physiological human specimen in macaw or hornbill feathers (or naked) and parading them to a tourist audience is a mockery of the tribal world. It is at the survival level alone we may re-discover the trail of tribal man. The arts of camouflage and bird and animal language and snares and traps, which evolved out of the most intimate knowledge of the hunted species, are not for the uninitiated. The use and knowledge of sign language, tracking ability, wind and scent and a knowledge of the ways of the quarry are imperative to success in the hunt. The weapons used are of the simplest materials imaginable all made from what may be found within the radius of ten meters of the hunter’s dwelling. We are faced with the evolution of survival skills more sophisticated in their overall consummation than all of modern scientific discovery. If we take into consideration the knowledge of edible foods alone we will enter an encyclopaedic world of knowledge and etymology, which sustained mankind for hundreds of thousands of years before the tragic advent of agriculture and civilization. The gift of instinct – most precious of man’s gifts – honed this human type into a super-terrestrial creature which could perhaps have lived on any planet which could support human life because that is what it did on this planet. No wonder then that a world rich in natural resources for millions of years could not be kept safe for human survival within two centuries of industrialization by modern man.

How many calling themselves tribal today, and living in town or city, can find the eggs of the pangolin on demand or locate the nest of the honeybee through hearing alone? By the mere vibrations of inaudible sound the real tribal hunter can locate the hives inside the holes of trees and with a sharp stick bring out the precious liquid. The hunter can bring the quarry to his hand and catch it in several instances such as when he employs a decoy, or he may use gums on the end of an invisible pole to snare a bird, or swim into a flock of ducks under a lily-pad and gather as many as he can pull underwater by their webbed feet! The new dances of animals, which we see today, were originally used in camouflage for hunters to join a herd of animals and which slowly became translated into these graceful ceremonial dances. In the songs we find the clues through which the real meaning of several dances lie hidden and whose meaning and significance are steadily daily being lost. That is why it is a “disappearing world” rather than dying it is disappearing on the move. When the tribal stands and sees the earth-moving machinery of the developers moving in he sees the end of this private world. The tribal is not permitted to react with violence to the destruction of his world while the violence of development is allowed to enter into it and destroy it completely in the name of progress.

For nomadic tribes the hunting and gathering way of life is fast ending as the forests are increasingly destroyed by industrial development and population expansion and tribes such as the nomadic Birhors have been forcibly settled in cement camps with a sedentarizing effect which destroys their rotational hunting and gathering cycles. They are increasingly hounded out of forest areas by the forest administration that sees them as a threat to wildlife, which is nonsense. All game caught in traps or the edible foodstuffs gathered largely by the women are shared as common food for the food-group. It is a way of life exactly comparable to the way of life of the Aboriginal in Australia where the women foraged for food which they called “bush tucker” and which was shared. These small groups of women wandered across the shrub country with a digging stick and bag for each woman, babies slung across their back, searching for all kinds of edible food such as yams, tubers, berries and also medicinal plants. Many of the women were expert medicine women with a vast knowledge of medicinal plants. These groups never returned empty-handed unlike the hunting groups of the men-folk, although often the women would accompany the men and both hunting and gathering was effectively done. This division of labor was very effective and since they had only survival requirements it was adequate for the tribe. They had very simple recreational requirements like singing or dancing and some times a drink of rice beer or mohua liquor. They did not grow any crops and they traded their game catch or honey or medicinal plants for rice or oil, which they did not produce. The settled tribal groups in the forests like the Manjhi Santals had an agrarian base to their economy but depended heavily upon the forests around them for the rewards of hunting and gathering as well. The Santals of Hazaribagh are famous for their annual summer hunts, their seasonal dances, and vast repertoire of songs in which every aspect of life may be found. Among all these people the women enjoy a similar privilege as the men except in certain areas such as offering blood sacrifice to ancestors, which is done only by the men. Otherwise the division of labor among the sexes is equal and well defined and each sex takes care of its own chores and does not impinge on the other. The children learn from their parents and when they become adults they carry on a similar way of life. With industrialization eating like cancer into the soul of this society the whole balance of life has been upset. Fruit yielding roadside trees have been clear-felled by a government intent on widening roads. A new kind of education in the form of primary schools is entering even forest villages. The old way of life is being mocked as backward and undeveloped. When industrial projects take away their agricultural and foraging lands the tribes-people are supposed to remain quiet and accept it and conflicts inevitably ensue. The children have to enter a harsh new industrialized world and think in terms of working as coolie labor or becoming apprentices in mechanical jobs.

The tribal house – whether the simple leaf dwelling of a Birhor or the more sophisticated mud huts of the other tribes are always clean and well appointed for the daily tasks of living. The courtyards are swept clean with brooms made from wild grasses, mats woven from the wild date palm (buda khejur) are spread on the floors, food supplies are quite enough since they are the produce of personal labor and skill. But all that is changing now and with it has entered the diseases of modern society – alcoholism and prostitution and the influence of outside religions. The old ways of cooking such as directly in the embers of the hearth, on hot stones, or in leaf vessels is dying. The preparing of forest produce, which has been such a sacred traditional survival skill is rapidly disappearing. The ancient arts of pottery and bronze casting and black-smithy are languishing as plastics and aluminium utensils enter the village. These people have different traditions and values to the modern industrial society that is forcefully creeping over them and where the worship of nature is being destroyed, and now even tribals can be seen joining in the hacking down of trees, which they formally considered sacred. The chope creeper’s slender stems were collected and soaked in water until soft then gently beaten with sticks to yield silken fibres with which they made threads which were woven into strong twine for making string for snares and nets and ropes sold to the villagers for tying their cattle. The leaves of this plant along with the broad leaves of the saal tree were used to cover a frame of branches to make their small leaf dwellings called kumba. The Birhor’s diet has been found to contain over fifteen hundred species of wild plants they can identify. They can identify hundreds of wild medicines (jari) for all their sicknesses such as coughs and colds, fevers, hydrocile, stomach disorders, snakebite, arthritis, headaches, mumps, hernia, diabetes, dysentery, earache, asthma, constipation, toothache, filaria. They have medicines for preventing pregnancy and for increasing milk in breast feeding mothers. Theirs is a small range of sicknesses for which their pharmacopeia is adequate. They do not suffer from modern diseases.

Birhor Tanda in Sultana, Hazaribagh

Nuts and seeds are ground between stones into flour and baked into bread. Some fruits are eaten raw or roasted and soaked in water to make porridge. Meat is always cooked either in open fire, on hot stones or in embers. Undisturbed by outsiders these people developed a way of living and social behavior, which was harmonious with the natural environment. Every person knew the part he or she was to play in the society and kinship defined behavior and obligations between age and sexes. It regulated the distribution of food and cared for the old or crippled. Children grew up in a warm and loving community, which cared for them equally. Work was a daily routine from which no holidays were necessary as the activities were pleasant and interesting – hunting, gathering, crafts, preparing food, and other household chores. People never went far from the village and thus close ties remained between all members of the tribe. Every part of the landscape has a special significance, many hills, forests and springs are sacred. Anthropomorphic formations are associated with the ancestors, and rock caves containing pre-historic paintings are worshipped as work by the ancestors, which “speak” to them.

Their visual art is a continuation of these sacred expressions to be maintained in perpetuity for future generations, while certain artists are considered more proficient than others and which make their creations more than mere ritual, but works of natural merit. The sacred colors used are white, red, black and yellow, all of which are made from natural pigments found in their natural environment. Only recently have these works been commercialized, and the artists hide in professional works the real meanings of their art. Their life philosophy is expressed in their songs, and their dances and tells stories about the past events of their history. Their spiritual world is intimately connected with the natural world, rituals of initiation are performed, and increase sites are venerated at special events and places of sacred significance to them. The crises of birth, marriage and death are marked by complex rituals grown out of time, and ceremony is observed with complete decorum and the knowledge of elders in these matters which is respected as paramount. Sacred objects are revered. Special days are set-aside in every season for special observances. The totem is deeply respected and associated with all happenings from eating food to marriage. Women have their own secret world with rituals from which the men are excluded and which are connected with the earth mother – for woman is the source of life. Though non literate in the modern sense their expressions are more forceful because they come from the depths of shared traditions, a body of knowledge and experience peculiar to the tribal world, and which is shared alone with other tribes. Ochres are not found everywhere commonly and certain places are identified from where they are gathered and brought to the village where they are carefully ground and sifted before mixing with water and perhaps a binder juice from a wild plant, then lovingly painted with crushed or chewed stems or cloth rags on mud walls at certain seasons. The connections between motifs form a language of expression known only by those familiar with the forms. Anthropomorphic figures are believed to be implicit with life and this is the oldest evidence of the belief that life is contained in form and that the forms can come to life and move and speak. The oldest known art of man is in stone and bone incised or fashioned either to represent sacred figures or as objects of propitiation; and rock paintings are one of the oldest expressions. The tribals in India are not known to be painting on rock any longer but this is probably because people have given up dwelling in caves in which they used to paint. Men are known to peck glypts in house walls and it must be the oldest form of male expression, while in Australia the oldest art of that aboriginal continent is believed to be the pecked glypts honoring the mother goddess in geometric forms, and in particular the circle. Perhaps an even older form of expression than painting or glypts are sand drawings, which have left behind no visible remains but which are drawn by village women as an aide memoire even today. In these the outlines of forms are drawn in the dust of the ground and last but a little while. But they are creations of great significance despite their ephemerality. All of these traditions are common to tribes around the world and point to shared origins. The belief of life in every material object was in its oldest manifestation peculiar to the tribal world and its root culture, and which was the foundation of Indian religion and philosophy .It is from this root that India’s reverence for the natural world was grown and founded and which is slowly being destroyed by western materialism and economics. The myths and legends of antiquity grew out of this matrix and were later fashioned by religious sects and their founders and followers into the colorful forms of present day religions.

We who inhabit India today feel in every corner, in every nuance, a presence of what for want of a better word we term Sacred. We feel the flame of this rare essence in the possession of our heroes and that is why India has continually throughout its long history created heroes. But we have become blind to the fact that this essence of our culture is steeped in the tribal and natural world from which come the colors with which we paint our own lives. To return to that flame, that essence is the duty of every Indian for it is his birthright and it is the sublime goal of Realization pointed out by our greatest religious mystics and avatars. India may be said to be the foremost religion of the world where the divine is believed to inhabit the human and which is the foremost belief of its most ancient philosophy.

Carrying the sacred traditions of a continent from the most unknowable times to the present is like going back in time and we who live in India are privileged to take part in this experience every day of our lives if we but open our eyes to the truth which surrounds us in the living present. We know from studying other aboriginal cultures similar to ours that the most recent origins of painted art have been found in the paintings of human dwellings. For example the famed bark paintings of Australia. In northern parts of that continent in Arnhem Land and islands of the Gulf of Carpentaria the bark dwellings made by the aboriginals during the rainy season was where the painted barks first appeared and were noticed by the white settlers. The pigments used as in India were black manganese and natural ochre colors fixed with a mixture of tree orchid saps and the yolk of turtle eggs painted with chewed pieces of bark, or palm fibers. After cleaning the bark it was flattened and dried and on this the ground was first painted and later the forms were painted over it. Today these paintings, more particularly the oldest ones, are prized collector’s pieces in the modern art world. The same may be said of India’s tribal art in particular from Jharkhand, or the Gond, Warli or other tribal art forms gaining international popularity.

Around the ancient world the other major remnants of the pre-historic world left to modern generations to discover were memorials to the dead such as the ancient megaliths and menhirs of Avebury and Stonehenge in England or the famous standing stones of Brittany in France. But in India throughout its long history and even into the present standing stones left by the ancestors point to the ancient graveyards and sights of astronomical significance. These so-called Megalithic sites are not merely antiquities but the living heritage of our diverse peoples. Throughout Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand such contemporary megaliths abound amongst those many thousands of years old. It is this continuity of cultural ambience, which has made India great in the community of world nations. But it is also sad to see how the planned development by government in mining and industrializing the tribal landscape is rapidly destroying not only the cultural landscape profoundly built up through millennia of cultural evolution but also how it is mercilessly displacing and dispossessing the tribals who have inherited these sacred sites and the civilization to which it belonged.


Written on 17th February 2012