In nearly every culture, there exists the notion that cultural refinement is city-based. Dwellers in the woods and forests are seen to be uncouth, undeveloped and far from ‘civilized’. Organised economy, defence and learning are available only in cities which are considered safer than forests. And so it follows that moving away from ‘kaadu’ or the ‘van’ is a move in the right direction. In some cultures, the forest is the equivalent of wilderness — again, undesirable, and the opposite of security which assures pleasing gentility, polish and artful speech. Tribals are viewed with some degree of disdain, as peoples who were bypassed by civilization and its benefits.
Are we confusing comforts and convenience with progress?
How has the human race survived? How did India, for instance, evolve its food culture? Because for thousands of years, we have eaten the right food. Who selected and developed the natural food Indians eat? Who decided what roots and leaves one might eat safely? Who found out which tubers and fruits are poisonous? Who spread the word about which animal’s flesh is suitable for humans and which ones should be avoided? Who discovered dyes, resins and gums that are commercially produced today? It was the adivasis. They were our first teachers. They shared their knowledge by passing it on through stories and songs. The adivasis (original inhabitants) were the earliest occupants of our country. They spread across the Indian subcontinent; living in forested hills far away from the plains and viewing their forest homes as sacred.
Many years ago, when social worker Sudha Murthy visited a tribal settlement in Karnataka, she spoke with an elder of the community. She could not help noticing that he had beautiful teeth, his skin was barely wrinkled and his hair was still black. Unable to contain her curiosity, she asked about his youthful appearance. He smiled and said that he ate only forest products and never added salt to his food. He also pointed out that there were several medicinal plants in the forest which his forefathers had originally spotted. Many fruits now grown on the plains were originally identified by the tribals. The collection of wild honey for medicinal purposes was also started by them. He told her that it was the adivasis who found out that the fruit of the tomato plant may be eaten, but not its leaves which are toxic. Through trial and error, the adivasis cultivated useful foods and rejected the harmful ones. Imagine that! Our taste buds were honed by our tribal ancestors.
India has one of the largest tribal populations in the world — 90 million. There are 624 Adivasi communities who constitute 8 per cent of the population. Several Indian languages are a mix of mainstream languages and tribal dialects. Many art forms also draw inspiration from tribal art and crafts as they speak deeply to the origins of our sense of aesthetics. Rich in a vibrant tradition but impoverished and marginalised due to prejudice against them, tribal society is distinguished by the absence of two things: obesity and the caste system. Tribals do not exploit other people’s labour, they do not ignore their widows, stigmatise raped women or leave their orphans to beg. Nor do they destroy nature to build edifices to human pride.
Therefore, not only should we respect the adivasis as we are historically indebted to them, but also because we have much to learn from them.