Baiga (the medicine man)
By Kunal Sharma
26 October, 2007
Of the few remaining tribes in
the central highlands of India that still hold own to their ancient
ways and exhibit primitiveness in the anthropological sense, the Baiga
are among the last remaining inhabitants. Their culture, the association
with the forest, low levels of literacy and close bonding with nature
make them a special people. Though no longer associated with the term
‘hunting savage’ nevertheless they still follow many ancient
traditions. The characteristics which made the Baiga special, namely
the cult of magic, bewar or shifting cultivation, ancient customs of
medicine, their formidable hunting prowess, their famed story telling
abilities may have lessened in the new centuries but against all odds,
the Baigas have still managed to retain all these characteristics even
if to a little extent. The Baigas I came across were so simple, so frank,
and so decent that I was transported to another time, another period
when the world might have been a simpler place to stay in.
Most of the information we have on the Baigas come down from the Englishmen
when in 1867, Captain Thomson briefly described them as a wild tribe.
Then came Forsyth’s ‘Highlands of Central India’ who
was also greatly influenced by the Baigas. But it was left to one of
the greatest anthropologists of all times, Verrier Elwin to document
in detail all facets of the Baiga life in his seminal contribution,
The Baigas are spread all over the central highlands though their main
concentration lies in the Mandla, Dindori and Balaghat districts of
Madhya Pradesh. These districts encompass the impenetrable Maikal extension
of the Satpura ranges and cover the watershed of many an important river
like the famed Narmada. Though they are known by different names by
many people such as the Bhumia, Bhuiya, Narotia, Binjwar, Bharotia,
Narotia, Raibhaina, Kathbhaina, Kondwan and Gonwaina, essentially they
share similar characteristics.
Their appearance is what differentiates them from the other tribal groups
in the area. Their wild and unkempt looks, tattoos among the women,
piece of cloth covering the head that serves as a turban and similar
dressing pattern all help in making them easily recognizable to even
the most unobservant outsider. They are of a delicate and fine physique
not generally associated with the other tribal groups in the area. Long
face, elegant features, small hands and rarely a trace of body hair,
the Baigas are an object of envy for the other tribals in the area.
Above all, it is their hair that sets them apart. They have magnificent,
wavy hair that they so painstakingly take care of. The Baiga allows
his hair to grow very long and ties it in a bum or a jura. Though they
have normally very dark skin albeit a few have been known to possess
light and golden brown appearances.
In the earlier days, they
did not wear many clothes but partly due to coaxing from government
officials and partly due to the tribal tendency to adopt new things,
they started wearing clothes that cover most of their body. However,
there are still to be found many such members who show an utter disdain
for clothes and prefer just a langoti or a lugra (women’s garment).
The Baigas never wear any nose ornament which was surprising because
tribal groups are known to adorn ornaments. The Baigan women use tattoos
for ornamental significance and many an elaborate design can be found
on the baigan that they feel make them look beautiful.
They live in simple houses not much decorated and surrounded by the
meager collection of livestock and poultry that they own. Their house
tough small is however kept clean with regular mud dressings and constant
In having discussed the assets
that these people own, it was found that they hardly have any assets.
The hut may have a simple bed made usually of bamboo, some utensils,
a pharsa ”battle axes”, tangia ”axe for normal usage”,
hassia or the sickle and not much.
But it is a matter of pride for these people that they keep and make
several bamboo-based objects. Infact they make innumerable objects out
of bamboo that serve a lot of purpose. Baskets are often made of varying
sizes. I could find almost ten pieces of bamboo based articles. They
rear livestock but only for subsistence reasons. Pigs are a favourite,
while cows and goats are also found. Poultry are also reared.
They are avid smokers. Often while speaking with them, one of them would
start rolling a sal patta and fill tobacco from his pouch and begin
smoking. Of mahua, they are legendary drinkers. They have strong religious
and cultural affinities with mahua and use it to drown their sorrow
or enjoy a feast. Whatever the reason, whatever the occasion mahua is
an utmost necessity. In Dindori region, it is bought from across the
border in Bilaspur district and the people pay around Rs. 10-15 for
a litre of the intoxicant. There are also evidences of usage of ganja,
though hardly widespread. In choosing between food and drink, the baiga
might invariably go for the drink.
The baiga takes coarse food
and shows no extravagance in this aspect. They eat coarse grain, kodo,
and kutki, drink pej, eat little flour and are normally content with
what little that they get. One of the prime foods is pej that can be
made from grounding macca or from the water left from boiling rice.
Local people gave testimony that this food is much more better and healthier
than many other food that they eat. Also, beyond doubt they eat several
items from the forest that includes primarily Chirota Bhaji, Gular leaves
such as Chirota, chinch, chakora, sarroota, peepal etc. They also eat
BirarKand, Kadukand and other rhizomes. Mushroom is also a delicacy.
Numerous fruits such as mango, char, jamun, tendu are also eaten. They
hunt as well, primarily fish and small mammals
The baigas are not strict
adherents of religion. From what was obvious during the festive season,
it appears that the tribe has now been almost completely assimilated
into the Hindu religion. There is no visible influence of Christianity.
Yet the old timers and a few of the youngsters rattled off names of
local deities such as bura deo, thakur deo, nanga baiga and baigin,
dharti mata, bhimsen and a few other local deities. They celebrate Hindu
festivals with as much vigour as their Hindu neighbours do and the researcher
had an opportunity of being treated to their way of celebrating deepawali.
For days preceding the festival, the people started bursting crackers.
On the night of the festival however, it was a completely different
spectacle. Beginning at around ten in the night, a large number of villagers
gathered at the Village Square in the village ‘chadha’ and
started playing the dholaks. All night long they played the dholaks
at intervals and sang in the chattisgarhi dialect. All the time the
members of the various troupes drank whatever mahua that came along
their way. They went from house to house and the various householders
gave some little mahua or some other gift to the troupes. All night
long these events went on. It was only around six in the morning that
the festivities gave way to silence but not before a final outburst
of dance and song.
The baiga religion is simple
and does not appear to be too highly affected by Hinduism though major
structural changes have indeed occurred that seems to have distanced
the average baiga from his traditional leanings.
The baigas were earlier excellent
hunters but have been forced by the administration to reject this practice.
When asked, a great many of them seemed embarrassed by the questioning
and professed no knowledge of hunting or any incidence of hunting in
the area. It was another matter that I found bows in a number of houses
still occupying a place of pride amongst the meager households assets
that they have.
The baigas residing in the
forest villages practice subsistence agriculture on the small pattas
that they have received. There is no evidence of bewar or shifting cultivation
that was the normal practice till not very long ago. In reality there
are a few baigas who now solely depend on the forest. Most practice
agriculture or are employed as labour. However the forest still continues
to be the major source of livelihood for the people as they sell a number
of forest based products in the local markets and to the government.
Bamboo based handicraft is
also practiced but hardly are these products sold. Thus the baiga has
very limited sources of livelihood and most of them, if existing are
often at the subsistence level.
The baiga is a strong believer in magic and pointed out numerous herbs
that they use to eliminate the use of magic and its illeffects. The
old timers informed that in the earlier days they were regarded as the
best magicians in the whole of the land. They used their magic for a
number of occasions such as growth of crops, marriage, death, and injury
from wild animals, venereal diseases and protection from ill omens.
The gunia or the medicine man is one of the most respected people in
the village. He is adept in the knowledge of wild herbs and many medicinal
plants. In these remote mountainous tracts the gunia and the vaidha
are the first succour for the poor tribals who have otherwise few other
means to cure themselves of diseases. The area is highly prone and endemic
to malaria, venereal diseases and diseases arising from poor water quality.
This vulnerability and almost fatal acceptance to the annual ravages
of malaria makes the population prone to death very monsoon.
The Baiga is among the last remaining tribes that dot the central highland
which are still not entirely a part of the mainstream. Today, after
years of deforestation and explosive growth of population it is difficult
to imagine the beauty of the place, as it must have been not long ago.
The great forests that still exist are a reminder of what was once paradise
and what could soon be lost. According to the locals, The 1998 sal borer
attack led to the loss of millions of huge and beautiful sal tress that
has changed the landscape to an extent that it has become unrecognizable
to the old timers. The people in this region are simple and honest to
a fault, such that they are perhaps not properly understood by their
neighbours in small towns or in places like Dindori. They are often
the symbol of mockery and treated with disdain when interacting with
townwallas. Under heavy debt and constant penury, many of these poor
tribals seem to have lost their lust for life and take recourse in addiction.
Incidences of crime, a word nonexistent in the dictionary of people
here, have now slowly begun to raise its ugly head.
Though there have been efforts to raise the standards of living, yet
the general feeling is the government policy of ‘disadvantaged
locations and top-down interventions’ have pushed further into
penury. Today however, the powers to be seems to have realised the faults
of this exclusionist policy and the winds of participatory approaches
appears to have arrived in these backward places too. Today, what these
people want is respect and some very basic amenities of life such as
freedom from disease and food stability. They do not ask for so many
hitech stuff that the city brethren are so obsessed with. For them,
it is still the basic desire for roti, kapada and makaan, enough to
live one’s life out.
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