“Since ancient times, our ancestors have been conserving and managing the forests based on our tribal customary law”, says Dhira Ram, a Bhil tribesman, also the village mukhiya and an environmental activist residing in Som village, close to Phulwari Ki Nal wildlife sanctuary, which is 90 km southwest of Udaipur city under Udaipur district. He recalls, “In 2004, I joined the Van Utthan Sansthan, a federation of forest protection committees in Udaipur district. This is where I began as an activist. I used to be a Gavri artist, and our group would use folk songs to spread awareness on environment. Villagers in throngs would gather to see our performance in every village we enter, and I travelled with my companions in all the forest villages and the surrounding areas in Jhadol and Phalasiya tehsil.” Dhira Ram is a passionate writer and a singer, and he has been composing most of the songs his troupe sings even today.
Mukhiya is a title given to the head of the village in Southern Rajasthan, India. The mukhiya adjudicates over civil and administrative issues in a village. In tribal societies, the mukhiya is closely tied with traditional authority over customary affairs in the village.
Gavari is a 40-day ecstatic dance drama tradition dedicated to the Shakti avatar Gavari (aka Gavri or Gauri), the principal deity of Mewar’s Bhil tribe in Rajasthan, India. The Mewari Bhils honour Gavari as the creative protective spirit animating all life; and they perform this ritual annually to invoke, experience and celebrate her powers. This centuries-old ceremonial cycle employs austere discipline, enraptured trance, and wild theatrics to also convey ancient myths, historic events, tribal lore, and satiric political commentary. Among all the world’s folk performance traditions, it is unique, especially with respect to its epiphanous energy, scale, duration, and ascetic rigour and inspirational messaging as well as its mysterious provenance and genesis.
The Aravalli hills in southern Rajasthan runs south-west through Udaipur district. The hills in Udaipur district feeds many rivers and has a rich biodiversity; the region has 43% of the area under forest cover. It is home to the Bhil and Garasiya tribes and other sub-clans of the Bhil tribe. They constitute about 60% of the population in the district. Bhils in this part of Rajasthan are popularly known as the ‘bowmen of Rajasthan’. As a people, they were known to be great hunters with high regard for community autonomy.
Since colonial rule and the enforcement of Indian Forest Act post-independence by the State, tribes like the Bhil were marginalised from their lands and forest by subsequent state forest policies. In the past few decades, the livelihood pattern of these tribes has undergone significant change. At present, they are mostly small and marginal farmers practising subsistence agriculture and migrate to urban centres in Gujarat and Udaipur for casual work as labourers.
Nonetheless, most of them are still highly dependent on the forest for their livelihood and other socio-cultural needs. Studies conducted by Seva Mandir, an NGO working in southern Rajasthan, states 96% of the tribal perceive a close relationship with forest and pastures (commons) for their lives and livelihood. Further, 74% of the poorest households are directly dependent on commons for fodder, 52% for fuelwood, and 43% for non-timber forest products.
“Forest has been our only source of livelihood and our ancestors would sprinkle saffron on the forest to make it sacred. In this manner, they managed the forest and protected it from encroachments or other misuses”, emphasises Dhira Ram. Likewise, they continue this ritual to manage their forest today. He says, “every time we want to conserve and develop a forest, we arrange a community meeting and collectively decide to do the ritual of sprinkling this holy water on the forest”. In his words, Dhira Ram reiterates, “hamare liye jungle he sab kuch hai” and continues to say that if they destroy the forest, there is very less hope for the coming generation to survive and live a life of dignity. The offsets are very high, and so “we have a moral obligation to bequeath an environment heritage that is good for our children”.
The ritual around saffron sprinkling is deeply entrenched into the culture and beliefs of the Bhil tribes in Som village. In occasions such as this, the community with the elders will gather together at Mata ka Mandir (goddess temple) where the elders will collect water from the temple and sprinkle it over the forest. The ritual of sprinkling will be followed by a ‘Kirtan Bhajan’ for the whole night in the temple premise, where prayer to the gods and goddesses will be offered. In their prayers, they offer their pledge to protect the forest.
In a region with high forest cover like Jhadol in Udaipur, most village settlements have around 300 families residing with around 400 hectares of forest and pasture lands. So, communities in this region have developed an ingenious way to manage and protect their common property resources against encroachments, wildfires, illegal felling of trees and extraction of NTFP (Non-timber forest products) without the permission of respective village forest management committees.
Another remarkable thing to note about the indigenous ways of forest management is the system of ‘Soya’. It implies that every household is duty bound to take part as a guard in overseeing their forest. Accordingly, each household will watch over the forest for a day, and with the dawn of the new day, the responsibility would go to the next neighbour. Likewise, the whole village participates in this role of stewardship. A ritual that ties member towards this trusteeship is passing the ‘baton’, which is a ‘stick’ each member carry when they guard the forest. Once his/her duty ends for the day, s/he passes on the baton to the neighbour.
Civil societies like Van Utthan Sansthan and Seva Mandir, who have been working in the region for over 30 years on forest and pastures have encouraged communities to continue with such systems. They have also been able to replicate similar models in other areas with their work on a community-based approach of common property resources management and, over the past decade in advocating Community Forest Rights.
I was fortunate enough to encounter Dhira Ram as a Youth for India Rural Development Fellow with Seva Mandir. Visiting his humble home to listen to his stories and understand the indigenous systems of forest management, has been one of the most enriching experience for me. At the end of my 13-month long fellowship of hiking the forest lands of the Aravalli hills and, meeting folks like Dhira Ram and several other, I am humbled, convinced and hopeful on civic engagement, action by ordinary people for the larger good.
In the words of Dhira Ram, “the forest is ours, and we are conserving our future”, I think rightly sums up the symbiotic relationship of forest (nature) and people, and it echoes wisdom for all of us.