New Internationalist

Glad to be adivasi!

childrenscamp.jpg [Related Image]
A stone the children collected as a memento from the Madhuvana (honey) forest. © Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Anyone who has had some meaningful interaction with India’s indigenous or adivasi people, cannot fail to be touched by the encounter. There is a directness in them, an absence of artifice or guile, an almost childlike innocence, born of simplicity combined with a lack of greed and avarice. The more interior and untouched a village, the more unsullied the people.

Unfortunately, this easily gets eroded when the outside world creeps in to contaminate them with its consumerist culture and worldly ways.  Alcoholism, in every corner of the globe, has been the biggest factor in the downfall of indigenous people and in the decimation of their society. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe provided a perceptive insight into the disintegration of tribal society in Things Fall Apart.

For over 25 years, we, the team in the Gudalur Valley, Tamil Nadu, have worked with adivasis on issues of land alienation, dispossession, education and health. We saw the need for a focus on culture, but it constantly took a back seat as more pressing problems such as health and education headed the ‘to do’ list.  

Adivasi elders have complained of the loss of old ways and values, as the young move into modern clothes and emulate both filmstar heroes and non-tribal neighbours. Traditional adivasi garb has almost disappeared from younger people’s wardrobe. Women have switched to saris or salwar-kameez.  There is a battle for adivasi souls between RSS-Hindutva (or Hindu nationalist) groups and Pentecostal Christians. Conversions, Christianising or Sanskritising,  further alienate them from their roots and culture.

Recently, there were discussions on whether the loss of tradition and culture is irreversible. Whether there is some hope of at least making kids aware of their heritage. A camp might do the trick, someone suggested. And so a series of children’s camps were organized to see what the kids might make of all these cultural questions. We were pleasantly surprised

The children trooped in,delighted to have a holiday. They enjoyed the tribal singing, dancing, food and company. But the turning point in every camp was the group discussion on adivasi and non-adivasi culture. The really surprising factor, considering the kids seem so non-adivasi now, speaking Tamil rather than their traditional languages, was that they had a strong awareness of their own culture and identity.

They recalled that in the past, all adivasis wore the same clothes, and had similar houses because theirs was an intrinsically egalitarian society. One gem came from a boy who wanted a serious discussion on whether it was good to wear traditional or modern clothes. He then stuck his chest out and proclaimed he wanted to point out ‘it’s important what is inside not outside’.

Unanimously and very vehemently, the children declared that ‘the adivasi way of life is better’.

Their reasons: we try to find work close to our houses and villages, but non-adivasis go far away for jobs and money. The poor things have to leave their families and villages. Then, Gopalan, an adivasi facilitator said: ‘our bridegrooms pay a token gift to the bride’s family because women are valued’. Discussions ensued, on how women are viewed in the non-tribal society and the burden on families with daughters. ‘Our marriages are different,’ the kids announced. Why, we asked. ‘We don’t have dowry (or burn brides). We don’t wish only for boys and sons. We love daughters equally. Our wedding ceremonies are carried out by our elders, not by outsider priests or pujaris’. Very few kids had heard of female infanticide or sex-selective abortion. On learning what this meant, there was utter shock and disbelief on their faces.

Unexpectedly, the kids also felt, ‘our gods are in our homes, our trees, our forests. They are always with us. But the neighbours must go to temples, churches or mosques. We are more dependent on nature for food. They go to shops more. We live as a community not as individuals. Sharing is part of our lives.

The highlight of the camp was the walk through the Madhuvana (honey) forest. Every single group, every single child picked wild mangoes and jackfruit to their heart’s content. Spontaneously, they collected a stone to take back as a memento, in keeping with tribal tradition that you should never leave a place empty handed. In a farewell ritual, each child stood with eyes closed around a lamp lit by child representatives. The elders reminded them of all the things they learnt at the camp and planned to do after the camp. The stone would be kept carefully to remind them of their commitment and determination to protect their adivasi identity.

We hope this is the beginning of a cultural revival.

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  1. #1 Geetha Rajagopal 13 Jun 14

    Mari, This is a very interesting and a heart-warming piece. When you read such pieces you can't but introspect on your own situations. I find similarities in children growing up in a culture that is more predominant in their daily lives than their own. Superficially, they may emulate the other, but when it comes to their own well-being they end up choosing their own which was the basis of their up-bringing.

    I love the part about the forest and home being their place of worship!

    I enjoyed the content of this piece. Thank you!

  2. #2 priya thomas 13 Jun 14

    nice heartwarming article-the adivasi way of life seems almost utopian-one thing for sure we can certainly learn from them is how to treat our women folk better-no dowry deaths, female infanticide-I think many of our so called educated high caste Indians could take many a leaf from their books

  3. #3 Vinoth 14 Jun 14

    Glad to be reading this blog! We are counting days to get back to Gudalur. I have a small disconnect though on ’it’s important what is inside not outside’. Though ’inside’ matters, I have come to believe that what is ’outside’ (dress, houses we live, environment we live, etc) does have an impact on the inside albeit slow. It impacts your unconscious mind (which dictates 90% of your actions), the way your body reacts and several other things that no one has even understood. Overtime, there is a danger of what is inside getting lost if we continue to ignore outside. Refer to for more data on the research around this.

  4. #4 Niral 14 Jun 14

    Cute article Mari, One can only hope this generation on young adivasis can carry on their traditions to their future generations to follow.

  5. #5 Josette 14 Jun 14

    This is really nice, Mari, I hope with you that the kids keep strong remain.
    Love Josette

  6. #6 chandrika sen sharma 14 Jun 14

    Mari - what a wonderful article! From the mouth of babes ...I hope these young adivasis feel the same way when they are adults.

  7. #7 Usha Rai 15 Jun 14

    Dear Mari
    I enjoyed reading your piece. How simple and in keeping with nature the adivasi
    lives are.

  8. #8 Stan 16 Jun 14

    Responding to Priya's comment about the adivasi way of life being almost utopian: I first came across adivasis as a student in the 1970's when I attended a work camp in Bihar (now Jharkhand). A life changing experience that led me to make the adivasi cause more or less the focus of my life. Whenever I speak of the privilege of sharing in the lives of adivasi people on and off over the last 40 years or so - the most common reaction I get is that I am exaggerating, romanticising etc. Everyone is quick to point out that human beings are intrinsically selfish and greedy and you cannot have an entire society, an entire people who think differently. But guess what - you can! I have also had the privilege of being in villages of indigenous people in Kenya and Ethiopia and meeting and interacting with the first people of Australia and find among ALL these communities a common world view - one that is directly opposed to and in conflict with the majoritarian view that all of us non-adivasis assume is the norm!

    But this world view and its accompanying way of life is severely under threat as indigenous people all over the world are increasingly swamped and brought under the dominant world view. Their alternative voice is drowned out and if on rare occasions it is heard it is quickly derided.

    Against this background the 100 plus children who attended the 3 summer camps that Mari speaks of, were a giant ray of hope. They appear and sound exactly like their non-adivasi neighbours but through discussion we were delighted to discover their deep rooted sense of pride in being adivasi.

    Can this pride and strong identity see them into adulthood and enable them to make choices that are in keeping with their community's world view? Or will they slowly inexorably become part of dominant society as Vinoth fears? I dont know. Only time will tell. I sincerely hope they hold on and in the meantime we will do all we can to help them do so. And say a prayer - may their tribe increase!

  9. #9 Betty 17 Jun 14

    Just like to share an excerpt from an article.
    Traditional culture, is held together by relationships among people -- immediate family, extended family, clan and tribe. Everyone lives nearby. Everyone knows how he or she fits into the mix because relationships, and the behaviors that go along with them, are clearly defined.

    In the modern culture of mainstream society, most people live in nuclear families. Many have only occasional contact with family members outside the immediate household.

    In modern culture people learn that business life is separate from personal life, for example that church and state can be kept apart. We learn to compartmentalize our lives. During the week we can be shrewd business-makers in a competitive marketplace where there are happy winners and tragic losers. On the weekend we can go to church or temple and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, and then go back on Monday and start all over again. We learn (in some form) two key phrases: ’It's nothing personal, but...’ and ’It's just business.’

    But in traditional culture things are not that simple -- business life and personal life are often the same thing. Partners in trade and other economic activities are generally the same people as one's kin relations. Similarly, the principles and values that guide spiritual and ceremonial life are the same principles and values that guide political life. Thus in traditional culture, the compartmentalizing or separating of business and personal life, of religious and political life, would not work. You cannot separate how you treat your trade partners from how you treat your cousins if they are the same people. You cannot separate your spiritual values from your political values if they are the same values.

    I think it is because there is a hole in modern culture, where the truly important spiritual and humane parts of life used to be. Put another way, I think that inside modern man there is a traditional man somewhere -- who wants the security of feeling connected to an extended family and a clan of other humans.

  10. #10 david cohen 17 Jun 14

    What a beautiful piece on the possibilities of Adivasi cultural revival.
    Coming as I do from a traditional Orthodox Jewish immigrant community that was non-draconian, many thoughts went through my head and heart as I read Mari' Marcel Thekaekara's absorbing blog. I am reminded by my Jewish teaching that the way to the head is through the heart.

    My own childhood, because it lacked the rigidities that are sometimes associated with traditional communities, contrasted with much of the Jewish immigrant literature.that is now part of canon in the United States

    As a child I was influenced by American culture. Playing and following baseball was a way of feeling and becoming American. I followed my traditions in food, contributing examples in later life at culture shares and at office parties.

    In our globalized world it will be very hard to keep people from moving beyond their physical and cultural boundaries., spending time in other communities, and being influenced by them.

    It is important to know, and have pride, in your culture and history. That is away of not being overwhelmed by what is different and bring to the larger world what you value in your culture and traditions.Proselytizing, often in cult fashion, must be resisted. In doing so one can draw the lines on the right to be let alone communally. That is develop the ways to resist the efforts of the RSS or Christian fundamentalists to breach Adivasi communities.

    At the same time one advance is the concept of human rights as exemplified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That set a human rights perspective that is universal. For example, the genital mutilation of women that takes place among some African communities.clearly violates human rights. No matter the tradition, it must be stopped.

    It behooves the Adivasi community to look at its own traditions to determine what violates human rights and what advances human rights. Certainly the egalitarianism represents a major advance for human rights. That should be trumpeted. By giving it the full blasts a standard is set for others who are not Adivasis to aspire to. That is all to the good.

    David Cohen,
    Washington DC,
    June 17,

  11. #11 elizabeth williams 17 Jun 14

    What an inspiring report...Really glad to note that even though their clothes and attire may have changed ...inside they still honour and value their culture and traditions.

  12. #12 anu 23 Jun 14

    Dear Mari,

    Your beautifully written piece gives one so much hope amidst all the negative news items and articles we encounter all around us. Having such camps for adolescents is such a wonderful idea and is somehow the need of the hour. This is REAL education. Wishing all of you and the adivasi community all the best in your efforts.

  13. #13 Shoba Ramachandran 24 Jun 14

    Maybe there is a lot of their culture that should be included in our various educational courses. How much do we know of all this - and that goes for us adults too - and at the same time, there is so much of talk of 'culture'. Why isn't this 'inclusive' for all.

    Thanks Mari for sharing this and Stan and the team for this gorgeous effort and making it 'inclusive' for all of us.

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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.

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