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Inside India’s forest communities

Indigenous Peoples
I'm back in Chembakolli, an adivasi village inside the Mudumalai Forest in Tamil Nadu, south India. I was there in 1988, with the ACCORD team to support adivasis who had decided that they should establish permanent settlements on their ancestral lands.

Without permanent crops they were being ousted from places where their nomadic ancestors had roamed freely for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They were denied justice and were treated like criminals in a land which was once their own.

Twenty-four years later, it’s a wonderful feeling to enter Chembakolli. It has a magical ambience. It still feels untouched and unspoilt by the surrounding predatory, commercialized world, only a few kilometres away. The kids are a confident, often cheeky, mostly happy bunch who go to the Vidyodaya school where they speak and write English and learn to sing both western and adivasi songs. Yet they keep their traditional forest-based roots.

I'm there with Nishita, a Bangalore girl with a can-do attitude, who has tenaciously kept a bee-keeping project going for some months now. I watch as the people harvest the first honey. Happiness is honey for those from the Kattunaicken tribe. They are possibly the world's experts on honey gathering.

When the Kattunaickens lifted the lid off the wooden bee box, the mass of swarming bees gave me the creeps. I backed off to a safe distance. Watching the adivasis and Nishita handling them so naturally, I gradually moved closer, and slowly the innate fear and revulsion (hundreds of bees clumped together looking like a nightmarish film – sorry bee lovers) evaporated. I actually forgot to be afraid of being stung. Their confidence and calmness, unconsciously seeped into me.

Being with adivasi communities in remote villages is always lovely. Read Ramachandra Guha's Savaging the Civilized for similar experiences. I could probably write my own book about it. Time stands still. The people are utterly natural. There’s no smarming up to those in authority, no hierarchy, and a non-judgemental acceptance of others. Even the poorest are the epitome of dignity and grace.

We are starting a cultural centre and I was recording the different kinds of wild food they harvest through the year. It was fascinating. Their knowledge of hundreds of varieties of wild tubers, edible mushrooms, greens, fruit, vegetables and herbs is unsurpassed. All this is in danger of being lost now, as they are prohibited from entering the forests in spite of a progressive Forest Rights Act which allows them legal entry as a right.

They also began telling me about the way in which they cooked the wild tubers, mushrooms and other food they gathered. They roast the rice and mix it with wild honey and freshly grated coconut. Tubers are steamed in banana or special leaves which give a distinctive flavour. Barbecued game, smoked fish, freshly gathered bamboo shoots, it’s all delicious.

This is gourmet food in most parts of the sophisticated world. Yet whenever they are asked questions about their food, they are apologetic and almost ashamed about it because their customs and jungle ways are denigrated by the dominant non adivasis around them (to many jungle = uncivilized).

I've heard people in authority say ‘the poor things, they don’t know anything’ in a patronizing way which becomes internalized by adivasi kids who go to school everywhere in India.

I'm having a Chembakolli party this week to document their wild food and ancient recipes. Hopefully, we'll publish some. Wish me luck.

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