INSIDE INDIA History & Culture

Kings of the Dang

Dang kings in a chariot at the rally

Dang kings in a chariot at the rally   | Photo Credit: Kavita Kanan Chandra

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Every year, this tribal district sees an extravagant darbar, the legacy of a 19th century colonial custom

It’s summer in the Dangs, and the teak trees that dominate the landscape are almost bereft of leaves. The few that cling on to the branches are pale and yellowing. Dry leaves crunch beneath my feet and I sink an inch or two into the forest floor.

But summer is a lucrative season for the tribal community of Dang district. Also called the Dangs, this is the smallest district of Gujarat, with a population that is 93.8% tribal. Teak—or sag as the tree is locally called—is a measure of wealth for the tribals who now have rights (with caveats) to harvest them. Sag tree was also the single most important reason for the British to lay claim to the Dang area.

In the mid-1800s, five Bhil kings fought valiantly against the British who tried to capture the area on several occasions. The Dangs was never conquered, but in 1842, the British managed to pull off a lease agreement with the tribal kings to fell teak. And around this time, colonialists introduced the tradition of a lavish 15-day festival, the ‘Dang Darbar’, to ‘honour’ the kings, who would ride up on horses to receive their annual salyana (income). The first such darbar was held in 1894.

Now, every year, this ritual from the Raj days is re-enacted in a three-day cultural extravaganza, at Ahwa, the district headquarters.

Hereditary pension

Bhil king Bhawar Singh Suryavanshi of the Linga ‘state’ shows me the coins pinned onto his bandi bearing the images of King George V and Queen Mary. The kings continue to receive an annual ‘hereditary political pension’ from the Governor at Dang Darbar. “Earlier the British would host the darbar, now it is officiated by the district collector,” says king Dhanraj Singh of Vasurana ‘state’.

Coins bearing the images of King George V and Queen Mary

Coins bearing the images of King George V and Queen Mary   | Photo Credit: Kavita Kanan Chandra

The road is packed with people beating dhols, blowing conches and playing the pavri (a wind instrument) as dancers in bright, shiny clothes and masks move energetically to the beat. Tribals from 311 villages, belonging to 13 tribes from the Dangs, have congregated in Ahwa. The most captivating is the dance where women clamber on to the shoulders of men.

The five kings come riding horse-drawn buggies. Kiran Yashwant Rao Pawar (Gadhavi), Tapat Rao Anand Rao Pawar (Daher), Bhawar Harshu Singh Suryavanshi (Linga), Dhanraj Singh Chandra Singh Suryavanshi (Vasurana) and Tikamrao Sahebrao Pawar (Pimpri) take seats beside government officials and elected representatives.

The Governor felicitates the kings with a shawl and a citation. Some predictable government rhetoric follows with promises of tribal welfare and a list of achievements, leaving the five guests of honour looking a bit lost. But nothing can take away from the energy of the occasion. The venue is packed to capacity. “This is the first time that tribal dancers and entertainment groups have come from across the country,” says a spectator Bharat Gamit of Gaigothan village.

Pavri, the traditional pipe.

Pavri, the traditional pipe.   | Photo Credit: Kavita Kanan Chandra

As I watch the extravaganza, the irony dawns on me. The British did manage to deceive the tribal community to exploit their teak forests. They built their Royal Navy fleet with this timber. The Dang Darbar was a consolation prize.

“The tribal leaders were actually village mukhiyas but designated as kings by the British,” says Mahesh Patel, a research student from Saurashtra University, who is writing a thesis on the history of the adivasis of Dang.

The Dang tribal history has been marked by struggles for justice. If they won—in part—the battle against the British, they waged several more with the Forest Department. When the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 was passed, this further justified the denial of tribal rights. Fourteen major uprisings took place in the Dangs, both during and after the Raj. Some of these wrongs have been righted with the Forest Rights Act of 2006. “The Act is a watershed in giving tribals the right to forest resources,” says Avinash Kulkarni an activist with Adivasi Mahasabha.

Today, the Dang tribes, collectively called ‘Dangi’, still largely rely on the forest for their livelihood; and an overwhelming 73.84% of the population falls below the poverty line. The Kotwalias weave bamboo baskets and the Kathodi collect katha, a red powder extracted from the khair tree and used in paan. There is a big trend of migration to sugarcane plantations in Surat, Valsad and Bardoli, and to vineyards and strawberry fields in Maharashtra.

A woman with the traditional beaded nose ring

A woman with the traditional beaded nose ring   | Photo Credit: Kavita Kanan Chandra

The Konkanas, who migrated from the Konkan coast in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and the Warli tribe, who moved later, have strong Marathi influences in their diet, attire, folk art and tamasha theatre. Most of the communities now speak a dialect that includes Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi words.

Responsible tourism

I am the guest for the day at Konkana tribal Ramubhai’s home in Subir village. The mud house with a sloping thatched roof is built on a bamboo frame. Golden corn cobs hang from horizontal teak beams. I am instantly attracted to the geometric Warli art on the cow dung layered mud walls.

“I used paint 35 years ago, just like others in my tribe, but slowly we stopped,” says Ramubhai. His 18-year-old grandson Amit has understood the value of their rural lifestyle, which now draws urban tourists to his home. Amit is part of a responsible tourism initiative where tribal families play host to tourists, like me, for a fee.

The greatest wealth for the Dang tribes, however, remains teak. The average rate of a mature teak tree is ₹1 lakh. But there are conditions they have to meet. A tribal is permitted to fell only a small percentage of trees, only those of a certain girth (120 cm) and only once every five years.

Yet, according to the Forest Department, in the last five years 3,244 tribals benefited from teak e-auctions in north Dang and 2,980 in south Dang.

As for the kings, they still rule the Dangs. Bhawar Singh, who owns a large teak plantation, tells me: “We are still respected in Gujarat. We are asked to play mediator in disputes between tribals, we are invited to all weddings.”

The writer is a freelance journalist and travel writer who searches for positive stories across the country.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 6:13:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/kings-of-the-dang/article19132643.ece

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