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Photo Essay

Living the Gond life

Published : Nov 03, 2022 10:25 IST

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Living the Gond life

The mud house where Harshit lives at Nandora village in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. He uses solar lamps and enjoys living close to nature.

The mud house where Harshit lives at Nandora village in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. He uses solar lamps and enjoys living close to nature. | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

The experience of staying amid the tribals in a remote village near the Satpuras in central India.

We count to three before dropping the log we have been lugging together. “An Adivasi would carry it on his own,” says Harshit on whose farm I am volunteering for a month. We are in the process of constructing a 160-square-foot mud-and-wood machan.

Nandora lies on the banks of the Dev in a dry decidious forest in the Satpura range and is home to the Gonds, one of the largest tribes in India. Despite living near a river, they grow only a single rainfed crop during the monsoon because of the lack of irrigation. 
Nandora lies on the banks of the Dev in a dry decidious forest in the Satpura range and is home to the Gonds, one of the largest tribes in India. Despite living near a river, they grow only a single rainfed crop during the monsoon because of the lack of irrigation.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana
Plucking leaves from the chaar patta plant, which grows along the river, in time for the next meal. 
Plucking leaves from the chaar patta plant, which grows along the river, in time for the next meal.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

We wade through the river and return to the forest for more fallen logs. He is choosy; only sagwan, saja, sal, bija, and bheriya trees make the cut. “These hardwood trees can withstand load and termites, though they love the bark,” he says, peeling it off.

Mahua being distilled by a rivulet in the forest. Deemed illegal, the practice thrives because of strong local demand. <NO>“The police conduct raids, but we take the risk as we have to earn a living,” says Varun (name changed), who is doing this along with a helper. They get “Rs.120 a litre”.  Varun (name changed), who does this along with a helper, explains: “Sun-dried flowers that are a year old are soaked in water for three days. The fermented solution is heated and distilled.” The still warm liquid is as smooth as single malt to taste, with a heady aroma and a distinct mahua flavour. “Never more than a glass,” Varun smiles. 
Mahua being distilled by a rivulet in the forest. Deemed illegal, the practice thrives because of strong local demand. <NO>“The police conduct raids, but we take the risk as we have to earn a living,” says Varun (name changed), who is doing this along with a helper. They get “Rs.120 a litre”. Varun (name changed), who does this along with a helper, explains: “Sun-dried flowers that are a year old are soaked in water for three days. The fermented solution is heated and distilled.” The still warm liquid is as smooth as single malt to taste, with a heady aroma and a distinct mahua flavour. “Never more than a glass,” Varun smiles.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana
A virtual carpet of mahua flowers. The Gonds worship the tree for its many offerings that include oil, medicine, sweets, syrups, and alcohol. The mahua flowers have now emerged as a cash crop. Picking rights for the flowers are established over generations. Those who do not have a tree on their land can go to the forest for rich pickings of the yellow flower, which blooms at night and falls off at dawn. 
A virtual carpet of mahua flowers. The Gonds worship the tree for its many offerings that include oil, medicine, sweets, syrups, and alcohol. The mahua flowers have now emerged as a cash crop. Picking rights for the flowers are established over generations. Those who do not have a tree on their land can go to the forest for rich pickings of the yellow flower, which blooms at night and falls off at dawn.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

The forest is alive with hoots and chirps, the cooing of spotted doves, the shrill screech of the common kingfisher, and the sound of branches breaking as langurs leap from tree to tree. Hearing a loud thud, we turn around to see a flattened leaf-nest of weaver ants. A monkey slides down the kusum tree and drags it to a safe distance before feasting on the colony of ants.

Villagers squat for hours in the summer heat to pick mahua flowers, known for their heady fragrance, from the forest floor. Each family picks up to four quintals a season. The flowers are sun-dried for eight to nine days, which reduces their weight by more than half, before being sold for Rs.35-40 a kg. The hard work over two weeks fetches around Rs.7,000 for a family. 
Villagers squat for hours in the summer heat to pick mahua flowers, known for their heady fragrance, from the forest floor. Each family picks up to four quintals a season. The flowers are sun-dried for eight to nine days, which reduces their weight by more than half, before being sold for Rs.35-40 a kg. The hard work over two weeks fetches around Rs.7,000 for a family.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

Harshit’s farm—Adivasi Johar—is nestled in a dry-deciduous forest in the Satpura range on the banks of the Dev in Nandora. A remote village in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh, Nandora and the adjoining villages of Sitapar and Borvan are primarily home to the Gonds, one of India’s largest tribes.

The harvest of tendu leaves begins in the first week of May, just after mahua season ends.
The harvest of tendu leaves begins in the first week of May, just after mahua season ends. | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana
The palm-sized, oval leaf with a smooth edge is turned into bidis. Freshly plucked leaves are dumped in the centre of a room, around which the entire family sits and stacks them into bundles of 50 amid laughter and conversation. 
The palm-sized, oval leaf with a smooth edge is turned into bidis. Freshly plucked leaves are dumped in the centre of a room, around which the entire family sits and stacks them into bundles of 50 amid laughter and conversation.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

Harshit grew up in Balaghat city and after his graduation joined an NGO that worked with tribal people. As a photographer, and eating, sleeping, cooking, celebrating with his new friends, he realised he could never go back to city life. So he bought three acres of land and moved there.

Each bundle is tied with fine strips of the Akai bark and sun-dried until the leaves turn brown. Every family makes 10,000-12,000 bundles over three weeks, earning around Rs.25,000.
Each bundle is tied with fine strips of the Akai bark and sun-dried until the leaves turn brown. Every family makes 10,000-12,000 bundles over three weeks, earning around Rs.25,000. | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

His rustic mud house painted in blue and white has two solar lamps on its roof; he has chosen to live off-grid. “Why not take a bath in the river? Why make a toilet when you can dig one every day?” he asks.

Gond men are increasingly migrating to towns and cities in search of jobs because there is no income where they live. Most of them work as brick masons in Andhra Pradesh, earning about Rs.1,000 a day. Many have moved permanently, leaving their families to look after homes and fields, and return every monsoon to help plant the rice crop. 
Gond men are increasingly migrating to towns and cities in search of jobs because there is no income where they live. Most of them work as brick masons in Andhra Pradesh, earning about Rs.1,000 a day. Many have moved permanently, leaving their families to look after homes and fields, and return every monsoon to help plant the rice crop.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana
Cattle are reared primarily to raise bull calves, which are still the preferred means of ploughing and transportation. A well-matched pair of oxen can fetch upwards of Rs.35,000 in cattle markets such as this one. The preferred meat for celebrations is the low-maintenance goat, which can cost Rs.5,000-8,000 in the market, making it valuable to resource-strapped families. Incidentally, the Gonds are not fond of milk and curd. The milk that is left over after the calves have suckled is turned into ghee. 
Cattle are reared primarily to raise bull calves, which are still the preferred means of ploughing and transportation. A well-matched pair of oxen can fetch upwards of Rs.35,000 in cattle markets such as this one. The preferred meat for celebrations is the low-maintenance goat, which can cost Rs.5,000-8,000 in the market, making it valuable to resource-strapped families. Incidentally, the Gonds are not fond of milk and curd. The milk that is left over after the calves have suckled is turned into ghee.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

When a scorching April afternoon forces us indoors, fermented Bel sherbet provides instant relief. “You learn something new every day,” says Harshit. “Like the endless wild edibles.  Bans Pihri is one such, a flower-shaped white mushroom that sprouts around bamboo roots in the monsoon. The Gonds say it is tastier and healthier than meat. Every family collects at least two to three gunny bags.”

The Gonds get almost everything from the forest. Fruits, vegetables, medicines, wood, fish. The list includes tej patta (bay leaves), chaar patta, kusum fruit, amaaltass flowers, imli, honey, mangoes, sal seeds, tendu fruit, mushrooms, bhaji, bhirota, phakhan beel, jamun. There is also atai falli for stomach pain, arjan chaal and bija chaal for diabetes, harra fruit for cough, mahua oil for joint pain, amar bel for jaundice, and so on. The list is long. 
The Gonds get almost everything from the forest. Fruits, vegetables, medicines, wood, fish. The list includes tej patta (bay leaves), chaar patta, kusum fruit, amaaltass flowers, imli, honey, mangoes, sal seeds, tendu fruit, mushrooms, bhaji, bhirota, phakhan beel, jamun. There is also atai falli for stomach pain, arjan chaal and bija chaal for diabetes, harra fruit for cough, mahua oil for joint pain, amar bel for jaundice, and so on. The list is long.  | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

At a time when issues such as sustainability and climate change call for immediate action, the Adivasi way of life seems to provide numerous solutions. Is it not time we paused and took notice?

Himmat Rana is a writer and photographer on a mission to explore and learn what India is. He has trekked over 4,300 km through seven States.

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