Living the Gond life

Living off-grid and learning from it.

Plucking leaves from the chaar patta plant, which grows along the river, in time for the next meal.

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.

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.

Mahua being distilled by a rivulet in the forest. Deemed illegal, the practice thrives because of strong local demand. “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.

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.

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.

The harvest of tendu leaves begins in the first week of May, just after mahua season ends.

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.

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.

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 <EP>to help plant the rice crop.

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.

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.

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Plucking leaves from the chaar patta plant, which grows along the river, in time for the next meal.
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