Mondrian in a forest

Museums are at their best when they encourage you to explore more. By that reckoning the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar was very successful. I was attracted to the line of huts in front of the auditorium by the beautiful Mondrianesque hut that you see in the featured photo. The shape is like a child’s drawing of a hut: round with a conical thatched roof, but the Gadaba tribe’s traditional construction is adept. The wood frame, the internal support pole for the roof made from a single trunk of a sal tree (Shorea robusta), and the wooden door and window (behind) are stained black, and the squares of plaster are painted in attractive bright colours. Unfortunately the Gadaba tribe’s culture is under strain, with many people having been displaced by the building of dams in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

The Gond people had centralized states for centuries before they were defeated by the Marathas and reduced to a political periphery in the 18th century CE.The Gondi culture is distinct, but is being slowly lost as they take on the language of the politically dominant people around them. The traditional houses of the Gondi are too varied to be captured in a single example. From the bungalow that we saw in the museum grounds I could recognize themes that I’d seen elsewhere. The bare earthen courtyard was one: this is a place where people can meet, both private and somewhat public; a place where the family will keep things they can’t bring inside, like a cart or bicycle, or agricultural implements or home equipment like a ladder, and it can even be a place to tie up a cow or goat. The bright geometrical paintings on the wall were another. The tiled roof and the elaborate construction spoke of wealth. I’ve seen that huts which poorer Gondi live in are simpler, and they often have a thatched roof.

Between these two was a layout which showcased the houses of the Juang people. Their lifestyle has been under threat since British colonial times, when their forests were declared reserved, and their traditional rights of use were taken away. The long hut at the back is called a majang, and serves as a dormitory where adolescent boys live. It also serves as a community hall. The veranda in front, the paintings on the walls, and the simple white door reminded me of the houses of the Saora people, although the tribes are quite separate culturally. The structure in front is an example of a injza, where a man lives with all the women in the family. Perhaps this construction is not complete, since it is meant to be divided into two spaces, one for sleeping and the other for storage and day use. On a positive note, it let me see the elaborate cross-braced framework on which the thatching of the roof rested. I also liked the carved posts around the injza.

Walking through a small village

We walked a short distance through the seemingly inhospitable terrain near the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. This was in the spring of 2006, on our first visit to Pench National Park. In medieval times this was the kingdom of the Gonds. The five century long history of the Gond rajas came to an end in the 18th century CE, when the Maratha armies captured their kingdom. The Gond state was completely demolished, and in present times we know these people only as a rural population of subsistence farmers. The only memory of that large kingdom is the name Gondwana by which the region is still known, and which was back-propagated by geologists to give a name to the southern part of the continent of Pangaea which formed 300 million years ago, of which the local rocks are a remnant.

The vegetation changed as we came nearer the village. I did not recognize it then, but the mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) surrounding the village were planted by them. In some places these mahua groves have a sacred status. It is interesting that mahua is a keystone species in such areas, encouraging the growth of several other kinds of plants, and perhaps attracting insects and birds. I guess the ecological engineering of Gonds is something that we are yet to completely understand. Contemporary records tell us that the late medieval period in this part of India was much drier than it is today, and there were many efforts to conserve water. It would be interesting to take a wider view of this kind of ecological engineering to see its effect on conservation of this kind. This history surely has something to teach us for the future.

The village was extremely small, just a few houses clustered together. I was fascinated by the painted walls of the houses. The dado was common. In offices and hospitals, the dado usually has a darker stripe on the bottom and a lighter colour on top, to hide accidental stains. Here it was reversed as you can see. I wonder why. I liked the patterns painted around the door. The long shaft of the yoke was fascinating. I suppose the length of the shaft means that the force applied at the yoke will be more nearly horizontal, resulting in easier rolling. The trade-off is that starting and stopping will be harder. Clearly this is a cart made for long-distance hauling on a flat terrain!

The village was not very empty. Most men were out, perhaps at work. Around a courtyard we found three generations of a family. The matriarch was almost bent double. Each family owned cattle. So I suppose milk and sunlight must be plentiful. Why would osteoporosis be a problem here? I found later that Gonds usually don’t drink milk as adults, perhaps due to widespread lactose intolerance. I suppose all the households in the village had three or four generations living together, and the families would probably be related to each other. I realize that I knew very little about the culture and history of the Gonds. That’s something I should repair; I share a country with them.