In the early summer month of April, around the magnificent Niyamgiri range in southern Odisha, the desi mango trees are already fruiting and mahua flowers have begun to blossom. Soon Kondh women will squeeze out the mango juice and dry it to make ambosoda, gather the mahua flowers to sell in the market while of its fruit they will make flavourful alcohol. These women have also harvested some forest turmeric and after boiling it, are beginning to dry and pound it. While the forests are replete, providing the adivasis of this area a nutritious diet in the midst of extreme heat and dryness, field work is at a lull and will only resume closer to the promise of the first rains.
During this time, in addition to the forests, people also depend on the foods harvested earlier on in the year: millets, pulses, tubers, dried fruits, roots and tubers. All these seeds have been safeguarded, some saved to be grown in the next season, while others have been stored to be eaten in months such as these. It is in this month that various Kondh communities organise the Bijun Parab or seed festival.
The festival begins with the mud walls of the home painted, the mud and cow dung floors swept and freshened, and, most importantly, the selecting of seeds. Women gather in the courtyard, cleaning the seeds from the husks, chatting with each other, shooing away the children who mill about, witnessing and participating in the seasonal celebration. Saving seeds over all these months and seasons has taken much effort: guarding the seeds from insects, animals and moisture as well as one’s own greed. Each one has a different technique, whether grinding up neem leaves and mixing it with the seeds as an insecticide or layering the seed basket with cow dung as disinfectant. Some women have managed to save more seeds, some just a little and there are some houses where pests and insects managed to get the best of the seeds and these families have not saved any. Nonetheless, everyone participates in this festival.
Sharing shade and seeds
Some of the women gather in their homes making bowls of leaves, known as phika and paraka in the Kuvi language, leaves they have collected from the forest. These wild leaf bowls will carry the seeds, much like the shade and support these tall trees provided to the grains and plants the Kondh sow in the forest. Living in this co-dependence with the forest means that the Kondh also provide strong support and reassurance to each other in their community
"During the Bijun Parab celebration, we show these seeds to mother earth, to assure her that we have been and we are continuing to take good care of her seeds. We will place them in front of her, and our Bejuni, one of our community guides, will call out the names of our other gods. Mind you—these gods do not have proper names or idols; these are the mountains, trees and skies that surround us," says Jagannath Majhi, who has been a part of many such festivals. The gods here do not divide or create a hierarchy among the people.
Is it possible that instead of bowing at the feet of created gods, we could have a horizontal relationship of shared responsibility and love, where we choose appropriate moments to evaluate our work and celebrate?
On the day of the festival, things begin early, around 3:00 am, when the seeds are brought out to the common space in front of all the houses and placed here in a large basket. You can see inside the large basket smaller ones containing the colours of pulses, rice, millets, oil seeds and vegetable seeds. The big basket, the collective one, will lie here in the centre of the village for around two or three days. Music and celebrations will surround the seeds in these days, while households continue with their regular work simultaneously.
One very important result of the seed celebration is that families receive seeds even if they have not saved any for the upcoming season. In fact, one may never have grown food only for oneself but always for the community as a whole and received from the community.
In this way, everyone gets to add a new nutritional and food component to their diet as well as to enjoy the fruits of a seed selected through the labour of someone else, making it a shared joy and shared work.
The Bejuni of the village, as well as the other people, carry out a small chicken sacrifice in front of the basket. The chicken first eats from the various grains in the basket, then the villagers call out the names of deities and read out messages, and the chicken is slaughtered in the midst of music and dance. The blood of the chicken is poured on some of the grains that are placed on a leaf and, in that symbiotic way, food, animals, forest and music and life itself is celebrated.
An elderly lady says: "We do this so that once the rains come, everyone has some seeds that they can take out to the field to grow. They can now go into the forest, up the mountain, and throw these seeds, and definitely they will have good luck." Some people even believe that bathing the children in the scarce waters of this time will assure good rains. Is it possible that instead of competing with our immediate neighbours, we could perhaps start each season as equals and hope for the best for each of us and all our children to come?
In recent years, there has been an increasing effort to limit the human sharing of seeds, and the state has even created a large central authority to control this activity, which is simply one of collective and dignified survival. Seed bills and other such legislations that give less meaning to people’s seeds and more concessions to company-laboratory seeds, are being pushed. Adivasis, who live as one with the forests and land, are being bulldozed by such legislations and other forms of violence. We must remember that the Kondhs, many of whom live high up in the mountainous forests and call themselves Dongria Kondh, do not safeguard humanity with just their seeds. They do so with their food systems, their bond with the forests and wildlife, their belief system, social ways, and culture. Kondh society carries within it several lessons that can teach us about humanity itself.
Have you ever been to a neighbour’s house to ask for some salt? Or have you ever stopped at someone’s kitchen to grab a bite? Have there been years when you couldn’t work as usual due to unforeseen circumstances? Or, simply, have you ever just realised that there is a joy in giving and receiving?
As evening falls, the sounds of insects and the hum of the forest gathers momentum, as does the dancing, drinking, eating and singing in the village. The village drummers are like the musicians of the forest—they play to gather people, they pull people here and there, create a sense of celebration. There are moments of accord and of disaccord, moments when all the beats sync and moments when they decide to take a pause and try again. As one of them lays down the dapu and walks off, a young child picks it up and has soon invented a beat that is in perfect rhythm with the night. A seed has been sown.
Aditi manages to write. She shares this story in the written form, but the oral and lived experience was provided by many people who are fighting for humanity.