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The 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 Baiga’.

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 brooming.

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.

Kunal Sharma
Keystone foundation
The Nilgiris


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