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The night was bleak and surreal on the forest village. Absence of direct sunlight since early that evening rendered the landscape flat — a thin film of monotonous grey interrupted by foliage. No light reflected through the vapour-like but unremitting drizzle.
That nippy night, while my co-traveler Rahul Ramakrishna snored away tired from our daylong escapades right under the nose of Foresters, I was all ears to Chigurla Mallikarjun, the more aware among Chenchu tribesmen. Sitting on the edge of a wooden tape cot, every fibre of my dead-beat body creaking and cursing me, I listened intently to my narrator, as he unraveled the life of Chenchus before my eyes.
Chenchus are a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group whose hamlets or Pentas dot the Nallamala forest range spread across four to five districts in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh states. They are inveterate forest dwellers, who have, over centuries, steadfastly refused to move out of their woods regardless of the perils of such life. If patriotism be defined as love for the land, Chenchus are patriots in true spirit. The non-resident war cries on social media over imagined boundaries are no match for their raw affinity to forests where they live without basic facilities.
Love for life or prolonging of life, for one, is not the concern that bothers Chenchus ever. Baffling still, whenever the successive governments provided them agricultural lands in a bid to bring them out of forests, they died in higher numbers after losing the land to manipulative outsiders in return for hooch! They have no use for material wealth.
“They will live and die there. They will die even if they come out. So, we do not press them to go out,” says a forester, “For a Chenchu man who comes out on some work, entering the woods itself is coming home. His hamlet might be 30 kilometres farther, which he will walk slowly, resting occasionally, picking little forest treats, but he would have already let out a sigh, pleased with the idea of coming home.”
He also gives a peek into the uncanny shyness of Chenchus, whom a stranger may pester to no end with hundred questions, but extract no more than monosyllables.
“When this region was a Naxalite bastion, the revolutionaries would take shelter inside the hamlets. Chenchus would say no to neither — them or the police. Police would torture them endlessly, but silence is what they would be rewarded with.”
Well, it’s cacophony we need to sustain the “development” in our world, or to take the supposedly momentous, but dishonest decisions about reversing the damage done. But quiet and stillness is what the life in forests taught Chenchus, primarily a hunting, gathering tribe. After all, you don’t rustle about and give yourself away to either your prey or predator!
Mallikarjun, my host, was more articulate than the rest, owing to his association with city-based NGOs working for land and food rights. At 26, he was already married with two kids, and lived in a two-room house beside which he retained his bamboo-and-thatch hut typical of Chenchu Pentas . That night, after feeding me with jowar rotis and vegetable curry, he related to me the Chenchu way of life, and laid siege to my attention for hours. A tiny part of his narrative, I take the privilege to reproduce here.
Until Mallikarjun told, beehives, for me, were those dangling threats suspended from trees or rooftops, which we should steer clear of unless we wished to be stung to death.
There are many kinds, clarified Mallikarjun, and a method to take down each.
There is Sarrigoda or a colony of bee nests hanging from rocky outcroppings of the steeply falling hills, locations of which the Chenchus know like the back of their hands. Usually it takes a two-day expedition to and from the location, and a camp set up there till the extraction is done.
A line of bamboo sticks tied to one other at the end will be dropped, along which a man descends up to where honey is. A small basket will be dropped along with help of a rope. Smoke is worked up to clear the bees, after which the comb is removed and sent up.
Another set of men fill the honey into pots and then bottles. What remains mystery is how the man clothed in nothing but loin cloth and a head shroud, returns unstung by bees! Each such operation yields 20-22 beer bottles of honey which is then distributed equally in the group. Eggs and larvae are eaten.
“We don’t go for honey during rains. The bees will find it difficult to set up new home as the rocks get slippery,” explains Mallikarjun. Empathy from a hunter is not a myth of course. It does exist.
Nallamala has about 100 flower varieties, and as many flavours of nectar, which makes the taste of its honey distinct.
“Then there is Tordi honey, which is found in tree hollows.”
I looked at Mallikarjun in disbelief. Did he mean on the branches?
“No. That’s called Pera . It’s almost like Sarrigoda . Tordi is hidden in tree hollows.”
Ignoramus me! I was told through ‘Chandamama’ tales that only monsters and witches made tree hollows their home.
There are two varieties of Tordi , namely, Kinnerametla Tordi and Addapatla Tordi . It would be interesting to know that the former derives its name from its wax which was once used to attach frets to the musical instrument Kinnera played by Chenchus. Now, the instrument is nearly extinct here.
“The honey in tree hollows would not be visible from outside. There would be very small hole from which the bees enter. You need to be very observant to find it.”
Observant not only to the hole, but also to the aura outside, marked by the bees’ poo. Surroundings littered with bees’ faecal matter are sure indication of honey in some tree around. Other closer giveaways include scratches inflicted on the bark by a desperate bear, and existence of certain varieties of reptiles and birds which feed on bees.
“The drone can be heard if we press our ear against the tree. Once you are certain, you should climb atop and blow into the hollow. All the bees come out, and you can extract the comb using a pole,” explains Mallikarjun.
Tordi , once formed, stays there for two to four years and available any time. Pera or Sarrigoda ’s life time is only six months. Its wax is sold to Girijan Cooperative Corporation. Junti Tene or Junnu (Cheese-like honey) is another variety with very short gestation period.
Kannugulla is a white-coloured comb formed by very fine bees, and eaten as it is without extracting honey. Another similar variety is Mosaru which would be eaten earlier, but now used only as a cast for broken limbs after extracting honey. Both Kannugulla and Mosaru have life of only three days, and not carried home to preserve.
“They are neither sold, nor carried home, but consumed as and when plucked, mostly by hungry Chenchus wayfarers,” explains Husain Swamy, another Chenchu tribesman.
Finding water is one more challenge for the Chenchu on foot. Unlike depicted in popular media, woods can be as cruel as deserts when it comes to availability of water. Here too, honey-bees come to help.
“They have the ability to detect water, sometimes inside the trees. Our elders would mark such trees, and explore them for a drink when on foot inside the forest. I remember my father getting us water from the tree. Unfortunately, our generation has lost the precious knowledge,” says Mallikarjun.
Cultivation of Bt Cotton in forest lands by outsiders is spelling doom for the bees, and affecting the honey production. Despite their reluctance, Chenchus are forced to plant Bt cotton lest their food crops should attract more focused attacks by wild fauna.
Majority of the Chenchus do not cultivate regularly, which puts them at a disadvantage in comparison with other forest dwelling tribes when it comes to forest rights. No standard cultivation meant no allotment of land under the Act.
However, they do cultivate — each family an acre or half — when the conditions are favorable. Sorghum and Maize are the customary crops, along with millets.
“Earlier, my father and grandfather would plant the seeds into the holes dug out using sticks. After graduating to plough, two would be at work — one to hold the plough and one to drag. Many of us don’t have bullocks even now,” Mallikarjun says.
Ears of corn are hung above the wood-fire at sufficient distance to be exposed to smoke, so that they can be used as seed next year.
Grains are not sold, but exchanged within the tribe and among the relatives, not with commercial intent, but only to strengthen the friendships. Grains are measured even to the farm-hands, be it cooperative farming or waged labour.
“Thrice as many ears as can be carried between two extended hands. That’s the payment.”
Nevertheless, state-sponsored Public Distribution System has ensured invasion of rice into Chenchu households. Thirty kilos of rice per family is the quota, but only 10 to 12 kgs are distributed. It has not occurred to the authorities to replace rice with sorghum which is the standard diet of Chenchus.
Apart from grains, small game and insects too form part of the diet, providing the much needed proteins.
Uchchu and Bonu are the trapping methods, while Maatu is to hunt.
Quail or Burka Pitta is made accustomed to jowar seeds for a few days, after which a looped snare is laid across four pegs lined with loose knots.
“The bird will extend its neck to eat the grain, and once it withdraws the neck, the knots become tight,” tells Mallikarjun with the help of an amateurish depiction on paper.
To trap a partridge, or jungle fowl, a different loop is laid and covered with ashes. The knots tighten when the birds behaviourally scatter the ashes backwards to pick the grains.
Bonu with boulders and sticks is used to ensnare porcupine, but the method I couldn’t quite picture with my puny brain despite repeated explanations.
Squirrels and peafowl (hush!) too are trapped.
“A flexible branch should be bent downwards from the tree, and tied to a wooden peg driven into the ground along with a loop, near which figs, jowar seeds and chillies are scattered. When a squirrel or bird steps into the snare to have the fill, the peg loosens and the prey is flung back along with the branch.”
Betta kola is another device to hit squirrels directly with the help of bow. Receiving the hit, the squirrel would spiral down to the ground, dead.
Hunting rabbits and deer requires absolute stillness which comes only with practice. Rocks and branches are used as covers by Chenchus sitting still on Maatu near waterholes frequented by both the animals. Bows and arrows of bamboo are used for hunting.
Monitor lizard or Udumu is a favorite delicacy in these parts, gross as it may sound to us civilized.
They are caught after rains, by digging the earth. Every Chenchu family has a few dogs which are trained since puppy-hood to follow the trails of Udumu on trees or termite hills.
“There is a tree called Udumu Chettu . We squeeze the leaves into the dog’s nostrils, to make them sensitive to the smell of monitor lizard. Dogs are also useful to alert us about the approaching bear,” says Mallikarjun.
Ground rule is to set the hunt free if it has not attained certain age. So, young monitor lizards and birds are let off.
Anyway, coming back, Chenchu legend has it that monitor lizards are cursed by Voddi Chettu or Indian Ash Tree. Wherever on the lizard’s body the Voddi flower falls, the part apparently gets lacerated and separated from body. Later I enquired the Google for confirmation, but found none.
“We use a small Voddi piece while cooking Udumu so that it boils well. Would you like to taste it?”
I shook my twitched nose from side to side. Why would I? I’m accustomed to consume only poultry raised at industrial level, whose life mission is to be consumed! And we don’t hunt them. We merely deny them an escape so that they voluntarily walk into our kitchens!
I shall wind up this saga of Chenchu gastronomy, but not before I describe how they capture their one more culinary fixation Usillu or flying termites, which is no less an art.
The termites, as we all know, come out of the earth with pre-monsoon showers.
To bring the termites out before monsoons, the termite hill is dug up and the field is leveled, before soaking the soil with 15 to 20 pots of water. Four to five stones are placed in the middle of the field and covered with leaves, leaving a little gap for centipedes and scorpions to come out.
A pot is downed into a pit dug up on the opposite side with similar slit, through which a leaf is slanted into the pot. A stick is left in the pot as bridge for any odd centipede to climb back.
“We return the next day and close the gap opposite to the pot with ground mixture of Somma (translation unavailable) seeds and popcorn. The smell draws the termites out, and they travel towards light, only to slide into the pot,” Mallikarjun explains.
The insects are then fried on a heated stone, winnowed, and eaten with jowar roti .
“Each person easily eats a kg of them,” he says.
This is just a peek into the very many ways Chenchus find their food in the forests. I haven’t even mentioned the tubers the women dig out, the fruit they collect and ripen through natural means, the Mahua liquor they drink, and the tamarind pregnant women eat together with tamarind ash.
The menu may sound exhaustive, but it is a daily struggle for them to find food.
What binds Chenchus so inseparably to forests still remains a puzzle to me, and this trip to Chenchu heartland hasn’t solved it a wee bit. Nevertheless, I came out wondering if all the humanity didn’t belong here and if we didn’t have some important lessons to learn from here — lessons which no Paris Accord can teach us.