New Internationalist

Inside India’s forest communities

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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  1. #2 Mahesh 29 May 12

    Nice one thanks for sharing

  2. #3 Mark Fernandes 29 May 12


    Good to hear about the community. I totally understand where your coming from. My better half is a tribal from the Himalayas an I have had the pleasure of tasting some mouth watering fares which are so simple but can be presented at a Star restaraunt.

    Its a tough choice for the youth of these communities to cling on to their roots with the commercialisation of India.

  3. #4 Esi Dadzie 29 May 12

    Mari I hope the book does get published because that recipe sounds DELICIOUS!

  4. #5 Laura 29 May 12

    Wow Mari, the party sounds amazing! I am still using the Action Aid Chembakoli pack with school and we are still drinking and loving Just Change tea here at Bardwell School!

  5. #6 Prabir 29 May 12

    Hoping to visit Chembakolli with family in June. Sounds amazing!

  6. #7 Sabita Banerji 29 May 12

    Please, please, please write your own book about adivasi communities, Mari! And put me down for at least three advance sale copies! And please write and put me down for five copies of an adivasi cookbook...

  7. #8 BEULAH KAUSHIK 30 May 12

    What a lovely time you have had!!!! Good insight into the lifevof the tribals... Would have loved to see the pictures as sell.
    Great article Mari.

  8. #9 Mallika Raghavan 30 May 12

    As always your articles are such an eye openers for people like us living in cities so far away from our natural surroundings which actually was a part of our growing up lives .Your article brings back memories of that and thanks for keeping us in touch with those parts of India and their lives .

  9. #10 Aloke Surin 30 May 12

    Great little vignette of a tribal forest community. The challenge here would be to continue to co-exist with the rest of encroaching India without being alienated from their culture, language, way of life, their forests. Or being exploited. I know ACCORD has done wonderful work in this field, thanks to Mari and Stan's pioneering work so many decades ago.

  10. #11 RItwik D 31 May 12

    Great article. A lovely experience so beautifully captured. Good luck with the book!

  11. #12 Alpheen 01 Jun 12

    Do send me some Chembakoli recipes Mari.. I would like to try them!

  12. #13 mari 01 Jun 12

    Hi Mari
    enjoyed the article and sitting in the Delhi heat imagines what it is to be in a green forest heavy with leaves...well the bees I must admit do give me spinal shivers and try as I will i cannot feel love towards them! How right you are. Soon we will have lost all the wonderful natural food not because people who knew them gave them up but because we have not left them with a choice. Then some Western orientalist will come and rediscover these for us and you and I and the rest of the middle class will throng to the nature shop to buy them at exorbitant rates ...while the tribals who owned this knowledge will remain deprived even in this revival phase as now it will be unaffordable for them in its new avatar.


  13. #14 mudumali 18 Jul 12

    [a href=’’]Mudumalai resorts are one of the most favorite recreational programs for a child and parents do take lot of initiatives to actually turn their dream into reality.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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