Hakki Pikki: The global nomads of Karnataka 

A large number of them are now stuck in different parts of Sudan where an internecine conflict rages.

Published : Apr 24, 2023 17:21 IST

A woman from the Hakki Pikki tribe cutting faux fur (a blend of acrylic and polyester) and beginning the process of making a doll in Kengeri Hakki Pikki colony in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Wenceslaus Mendes

Prabhu. S, 36, a member of the Hakki Pikki tribe from Gopanhal village in Channagiri taluk of the central Karnataka district of Davanagere, went to Sudan 10 months ago along with his wife to sell an assortment of herbal products manufactured by his tribespeople. Over the past year, the couple and other members of their tribe travelled all over Sudan vending their wares at local markets. Their herbal products such as hair oils, massage oils, and unguents are highly sought after in that impoverished part of the world where it is difficult to find doctors.

All was fine until they reached El Feshir, capital of the North Darfur province located in the western part of the country, where they found themselves in the middle of a violent civil war that erupted in mid-April between forces loyal to two army generals: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The generals disagree on the trajectory of Sudan’s move towards civilian rule, and while al-Burhan controls the army, Dagalo is in control of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. In this battle for power it is the civilians, both Sudanese and foreign nationals, who are ensnared in the crossfire.

Ramakrishna and Huli Raja, from Hakki Pikki tribe live in Gowripura Hakki Pikki colony located in Bidadi Taluk of Ramanagara district. | Photo Credit: Wenceslaus Mendes

Speaking to Frontline on April 20 through a WhatsApp call, Prabhu said, “We are stranded in El Feshir in the middle of a blazing desert for the past 10 days. There are 33 persons belonging to the Hakki Pikki tribe in this house between the ages of 20 and 50. There is no electricity supply and everything runs on generators, but we have run out of money to even buy fuel for the generators. We cannot even step out to buy groceries because of the continuous blasting and shelling. We are rationing our food and water. I do not know when our house will be bombed.”

He added: “Of the people stuck here, five are from Davanagere district and seven from Shivamogga, while the rest are from Hunsur in Mysuru district. I am in touch with officials from our Ministry of External Affairs and they keep reassuring us, but the situation is dire and we can die at any point. Please help us get out of here!” Prabhu interrupted his frantic plea to have a fluent conversation in Arabic with a local policeman and said, “There is a policeman taking shelter here. I do not know which side of the fight he is on and whether we can trust him.”

Kumuda Sushil is a Hakki Pikki tribal woman who lives in Shivamogga. Her daughter Rajeshwari Abram, 25, is stranded in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, along with 11 others from the tribe. “She left for Sudan on April 13 along with her husband after procuring a huge loan. There was no advisory at the Bengaluru or Delhi airports, and now they are cut off, with little food and water. They cannot step out of their houses and if anything happens, they cannot even go to the hospital. My daughter showed me bullet casings that have landed inside her house. I do not know what to do to help her and I just hope she comes back home safely,” she told Frontline.

Caught in a civil war in a country which seems to be trapped in a time warp, there are more than 300 Hakki Pikki tribal people who are pinned down in conflict zones in Sudan. It is hard to get a precise number because groups of them are stuck in pockets of the country marooned from each other. While some of them have hunkered down and are waiting for the conflict to die down, many of them, including the groups stuck in El Feshir and Khartoum, are passing every day in nail-biting anxiety, hoping that they will be rescued.

Roopa Mayura lives in the Kengeri Hakki Pikki colony. | Photo Credit: Wenceslaus Mendes

The fact that one Indian national has already died is also weighing on their minds. The situation of the Hakki Pikki people has also turned the spotlight on the community with their journeys to the far corners of the world arousing curiosity in India.

According to Census 2011, there are 11,892 Hakki Pikki tribal people in Karnataka. The majority reside in rural parts of the State, with the largest chunk residing in Hunsur taluk of Mysuru district. Significant populations of the tribe—more than 500 of them living in enclosed settlements—can be found in the districts of Hassan, Ballari, Davanagere, Shivamogga, Tumakuru, Bengaluru, Mandya, Chikkaballapur, and Ramanagara. Frontline paid a visit to two such communities, in Ramanagara district and Bengaluru, to understand their enthusiasm for globetrotting.

Come summer and many Bengalureans make a beeline for Wonderla, a waterpark situated around 35 kilometres away in Bidadi taluk of Ramanagara district. Opposite the majestic entrance of Wonderla, a path leads to Gowripura, a Hakki Pikki colony, where one of the elders, Ramakrishna, 69, was lazing by a grocery store. According to Ramakrishna, the Hakki Pikkis were originally a nomadic tribe that travelled to forests all over the country and hunted birds. Thus, in Karnataka, they were named “Hakki Pikki” as the Kannada word for bird is “Hakki”. “’Pikki’ does not have any meaning and just came to be used along with ‘Hakki’,” said Ramakrishna.

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“Our brethren in other States are known by different names such as Nari Kuravar (in Tamil Nadu), Vaghari (in Gujarat) and Pardhi (in Maharashtra),” said Ramakrishna. The Hakki Pikkis are an endogamous community and speak a language called Vaagri Booli, which, according to linguistic scholars, is an Indo-Aryan language.

The oral history of the community points to its geographical origins in the northwestern part of India where its members were part of the army of Maharana Pratap, the 16th century Rajput king of Mewar, who fought against the Mughal emperor Akbar. After Maharana Pratap’s defeat, the community dispersed all over India. In the colonial era, the Hakki Pikkis and similar tribes all over the country were designated as ”criminal tribes” through legislation in 1871 and were marginalised.

In post-Independence India, criminal tribes are collectively known as “Denotified Tribes” and many of them, like the Hakki Pikkis, are designated as Scheduled Tribes (STs). Researchers have said the Hakki Pikkis are denied benefits that are due to them as STs because they are so few in number and lose out to larger ST communities such as the Valmikis.

  • According to Census 2011, there are 11,892 Hakki Pikki tribal people in Karnataka.
  • Herbal products such as hair oils, massage oils, and unguents made by them are highly sought after in Sudan where it is difficult to find doctors.
  • Hakki Pikkis in Sudan are caught in the middle of a violent civil war between forces loyal to two army generals: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
  • There are more than 300 of them who are pinned down in conflict zones in Sudan.

Quirky naming conventions

Devoid of access to the forests after the passage of stringent environmental laws in the 1970s, the Hakki Pikkis were forced to settle down wherever the government provided them land. In Gowripura, for instance, Ramakrishna said that 100 acres of land were set aside for the community in 1982 with two acres provided for each household. While this elder has a conventional sounding name, he pointed to another tradition among the Hakki Pikkis which is of their quirky naming conventions. “If you walk around this colony of around 600 residents, you will find persons with names such as Japan, America, Inspector, Cycle Rani, Mysore Pak, Dafedar, Doctor, Lawyer, High Court,” Ramakrishna said with a laugh. He was joined by a person called “Huli Raja”, or “Tiger King”.

Huli Raja said that the community members were adventurous travellers and spirited entrepreneurs, and visited different parts of India selling the herbal products they manufactured as well as all kinds of knick-knacks such as copper rings, plastic flowers, scrunchies, dolls, soft toys, rudraksha malas, precious stones, and trinkets.

Stickers that are to be pasted on herbal hair oil bottles. | Photo Credit: Wenceslaus Mendes

Thus, all the Hakki Pikkis who lived in Gowripura have travelled all over the country and are polyglots. Chitramma, Ramakrishna’s wife, said she loved to go to Pragati Maidan and Dilli Haat in New Delhi and set up her stall every winter where regular customers look forward to seeing them. “We would not be doing all these petty businesses if we were allowed to hunt,” lamented Huli Raja.

It is this enterprising spirit that saw them taking their products overseas over the past two to three decades. “We have travelled all over the world to sell our products and have gone to all countries except China and Pakistan,” said Ramakrishna.

Logistics and finance

Herbs are taken abroad where they are subsequently mixed with locally available mustard oil which is then sold to customers. Asked about facing any issues specific to taking plant products with them, Ramakrishna said: “Airport authorities have no problems with herbs as these are Ayurvedic products used for medical purposes. They only have a problem with liquids so we do not take oils but only dried herbs which we then mix with locally available oils to prepare our finished products.”

Ramakrishna’s son and daughter-in-law live in Dubai where they have a shop selling herbal products, including “potency herbs, medicine for gastritis and kidney stones, cough and cold, and hair growth formulas”.

Asked about how finances were handled, Ramakrishna said: “We use online means to transfer money if the sums are large. If there are smaller sums of money, we bring it along with us and get it exchanged at currency exchange centres in Bengaluru or Delhi. My son transfers money to me online from Dubai.”

Herbal hair oil bottles for hair growth rejuvenation. | Photo Credit: Wenceslaus Mendes

“We are a community of illiterates but we have seen the world,” said Huli Raja as Chitramma brought out the gamut of products and assembled them on the dining table. Almost every member of the Hakki Pikki community has a passport, a testimony to the community’s success in its passage from nomadism to assimilation.

Behind the success

The Hakki Pikkis’ intrepid entrepreneurship in action is best seen in their colony in Kengeri on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Here, members of 108 Hakki Pikki families live in multi-storey buildings built by the Karnataka Slum Development Board, a step-up from the slums they used to live in on the same location 15 years ago. There were banners on several of the buildings advertising herbal hair oil, and inside each of these dwellings, men and women were busy packing oils and lotions in cardboard boxes to be delivered across India and overseas.

Roopa Mayura, 42, sat on the floor surrounded by hundreds of packed boxes of oils ready to be couriered. Conversing in Kannada, she explained how the Hakki Pikkis operated internationally. “A few of us travel to a foreign country on a tourist visa initially and visit local beauty parlours where we demonstrate our products, which helps us build a clientele, and then the demand for our products spreads through word of mouth. There is a lot of demand for hair oil and massage oil and I’m an expert masseuse as well with specific skills that are unique to the Hakki Pikkis that help in alleviating pain,” she said.

Chitramma (seated) said she loved to go to Pragati Maidan and Dilli Haat in New Delhi and set up her stall every winter where regular customers look forward to seeing them. | Photo Credit: Wenceslaus Mendes

Mayura listed the countries that she has travelled to in her career as a natural healer: Suriname, France, Italy, Netherlands, Singapore, the US, Brazil, Ghana, Guyana, and Jamaica. “It is really unfortunate that our fellow Hakki Pikkis have been stuck in Sudan. I personally don’t like to go to African countries because the food doesn’t suit me. Even language is not a barrier for us as we pick up a foreign language in a few days,” Mayura said. Two of her four sons live in Chikkamagaluru and procure raw materials from the forests of that region and send them to Bengaluru, where her two other sons prepare the finished oils and handle marketing, liaising with online shopping portals such as Shopify.

It is not easy to quantify the exact numbers of orders processed in a single Hakki Pikki colony such as this one, but Mayura said that every day she couriers more than 50 orders from her house. With every household involved in a similar endeavour, a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that this colony alone processes more than 5,000 orders daily. With each order worth a few thousand rupees, the daily turnover would be mind-boggling. It was not a surprise to see three fancy motorcycles—with the price of each running into several lakhs of rupees—parked in the porch of Mayura’s house. “My sons are educated but if they go and work they will get a salary of Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000. It is better that they do this business,” she said.

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According to members of the Hakki Pikki community, each foreign trip may last between a few weeks and many months, leading to revenues of several lakhs of rupees for each person. Thus, money is the primary impetus for many members of the community to travel to distant and potentially dangerous countries. In 2018, a group was detained in Mozambique after it was discovered that their visas were not in order. The then Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, had to intervene to ensure their return to the country.

Madhu Bhushan, a Bengaluru-based activist who made the film Sikkidare Shikari, Illididre Bhikari (Bird Trapper or Beggar?) on the Hakki Pikkis, said, “Basically, the Hakki Pikkis are an entrepreneurial community. Theirs is an economy of subsistence and the marginalised. Their trade networks do not conform to the known notions of the ‘poor’ and they make the most of their circumstances. They do make money but theirs is not an acquisitive way of money making. They make money, spend it, enjoy, and then start again. They were nomads once and are global nomads now.”

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