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A shining, sustainable example

Indigenous Peoples
Environment
India
Sustainability
Indian family

Johan Siegers under a Creative Commons Licence

If we want to save the planet, we need to look to indigenous culture, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara

In our 30-odd years in the Nilgiris, we’ve had never ending discussions on indigenous culture.

Trying to communicate why we think indigenous, tribal or adivasi culture is more than special is a complicated task. Even more difficult is trying to communicate to young adivasis the fact that their culture – rapidly being eroded by the onslaught of invaders from outside, by television, popular movies, an acquisitive, consumerist society and so on – is unique, something to be proud of. Something to shout about, because it offers solutions to much that the world desperately needs today.

We start by saying that though schools teach children that the ancient cultures to revere are the Greek, Egyptian and Roman, all these were based on slavery. All ancient monuments, ranging from the Taj Mahal to the Pyramids of Giza were built on the blood, sweat and tears of slaves. Indigenous people were uniquely egalitarian. Hunter-gatherers never hoarded. They foraged for food, going out to get just enough for the day. Their existence was based on need not greed.

In the current economy, they are despised all too often by upwardly mobile, get-rich-quickly folk, who consider them backward, unambitious or lazy. Yet they are the only people who live sustainably, whose carbon footprint is mostly zero. They are the folks whose lifestyle, if emulated in small ways, can save the planet.

‘Give us some stories, some examples of adivasi sharing,’ two recent arrivals to Gudalur ask. They have given up lucrative Bangalore IT jobs to live and work simply. They want their children to grow up with adivasi-like values. We recollected old stories. Long ago, someone saw a Paniya man who had discovered a treasure trove of precious, utterly delicious wild honey. Instead of bottling it for his kids, he beckoned passers-by, total strangers, to taste it. He was overjoyed at his find. But it didn’t occur to him to keep it for his family and friends. His instant reaction was to share it with everyone around.

In the old Moolukurumba hunting ritual, the wild boar brought back would be shared equally among every family in the village, not just those who went out to shoot it. If one household had visiting relatives, a share would be apportioned to them. An equal share for every single person, not based on status or any other criteria. When asked to talk about this ritual of sharing at an interfaith celebration in Germany, the puzzled adivasis said, ‘What’s to talk about? We just do it. That’s how it has always been.’ Getting the different ‘sharing’ ritual out was like drawing teeth. No-one understood why it was unique or precious. It was just an integral part of their ordinary lives.

When I first arrived in the Nilgiris, I watched amazed as a little five-year-old took the biscuit I gave her and went out and shared it, breaking it into tiny portions so every other child received a few crumbs. I took out a plate of biscuits and the little ones solemnly divided them carefully and equally. I had never seen anything like this among any city kids I knew.

The spirit of sharing is captured in many songs, in a completely unaffected, delightfully non-preachy way. It is there in their wedding ritual when a newly married couple promises to honour the traditions and customs of the community by never turning away a guest or any person who needs a meal.

Anthropologists throughout the ages have discovered this. Often accused of romanticizing the tribes, they have nevertheless documented these stories for all who care to listen and learn from them. Ramachandra Guha’s ‘Savaging the Civilized’ captures this beautifully, describing how the outside world has created chaos in tribal heartlands. It is why our first Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, beseeched bureaucrats to tread carefully in tribal lands. To introduce ‘our brand of development’ with trepidation. To recognize and admire their genius. Not to turn them into ‘pale imitations of ourselves’.

Many young people are turning their backs on the rat race and trying to learn from these sustainable societies. So perhaps there’s still hope.

I fervently hope so.

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