From, 16 February 2007

By Mona Lisa Jena

Tribals are the children of nature. They live amidst forests surrounded by high hills and depend on them for everything they require in life. The forest gives them food, tools to build homes, to hunt animals and cook and also musical instruments for entertainment.

The forest is also the source of their indigenous medicines, which cures a lot of ailments for which crores of rupees are being spent in civilised societies. The forest with its streams, undulating terrain and birdsong brings music to their lives and also shapes their personality and gait.

The tribals need wood for building homes and fences to protect themselves from wild animals and protect their crops. They also need wood to make household equipments like cots, racks and utensils and weapons. They need bamboo for fencing, for making bows and arrows and for fishing traps and containers. They also make tools from stone and iron and metal, which is available in their natural surroundings. Necessity induces in them the creativity to explore and make objects most suited to their need. Rich environment induces a rich culture. They consistently develop knowledge and technology.

The Kutia Kandhas and Santhals, Hos and Mundaries are expert hunters. They have developed their individualistic hunting equipments. The Kutia Kandhas are known for expertise in elephant and tiger trapping. The Juangas have their own technique to trap porcupines. When they spot the animal and its nest, they put dry leaves around the entrance and set fire to them leaving only a small exit route. When the animal feels suffocated and tries to escape, the hunter kills it with bows and arrows.

There are many indigenous ways to kill and trap animals. Some kill animals by piercing them with sharp spears after chasing them into ditches made especially for the purpose.

The Malhars of Dhenkanal are known for their tiger trapping skills. They use two types of thread called Papasuta (thread of sin) and Dharmasuta (thread of justice). They tie these threads to a barricade raised around the bait for the tigers. If the tiger jumps over the thread of sin they believe that the tiger deserves to be killed.

Many tribal groups usually kill birds by hitting them with catapults. Some also catch birds by putting gum to the tips of bamboo poles. Poisoning and boomerang and trapping are the other techniques to kill and catch birds.

The Mankadia tribes of Mayurbhanj are known for their expertise in catching and killing monkeys whose flesh they savour. They also keep monkeys as pets. They are skilled in weaving ropes and baskets from Siali creepers.

The tribals kill animals mostly for food and when young to prove their masculinity as eligible bachelors. They do not fell trees unless they require its wood. The forests yield fruits, tubers, flowers and firewood. They practice conservation for it yields food and resources. They always leave behind a part of the tuber to grow, the fruit tree to yield seeds and rejuvenate the fruit trees and regeneration of the forests. They also leave behind a portion of honey when they extract it from the hives for the same purpose.

The tribals are easily identifiable by their distinct dress code and style of dressing. They have well-defined dress code for men and women, for boys and girls. One can know the marital status of a boy or a girl from their dress.

Some wear horns on their head as a crown, animal skins, feathers, and also tattoo themselves to protect themselves from wild animals. The embroidered textiles of the Dongoria Kondhas, the Keranga cloth of the Bondas and Gadabas and their bead necklaces are really spectacular. Mahalis and Juangas make lovely bamboo ornaments.

Though farming is still at its primitive stage, it is different for different tribes. The Sauras are known for their rice field terracing style and the Dongorias are known for their fruit orchard techniques. The Bondas are experts in Podu or slash and burn cultivation.

The different architectural designs of their homes and need based technology make them stand out. The Santhals are known for their beautiful house building techniques. The Sauras are famous for their wall paintings. The Juangas can be differentiated for the three bands in coloured mud.

The tribal people use herbs, flowers and leaves for preparing indigenous medicines. They can identify at least 100 such plants that are useful to them. The Kadams and Kudumbais in the Lanjia Saura community are religious experts and storehouses of ancient knowledge.

Their own system of healthcare is an integral part of their culture. They have used wild plants and herbs over centuries to fight disease and as sources of food and energy. They have medicines for a range of maladies - from cardiac disorder to dog-bite and as mosquito repellents and also for birth control. Take, for instance, castor seeds, which are used by the tribals as contraceptive. If their knowledge is acknowledged and recorded properly it can open new vistas of various antidotes against many diseases.

If the tribals are involved in developmental projects they can prevent thousands of trees and plant species from becoming extinct. Take, for instance, the Pojo tree, which has high medicinal properties but is facing rapid extinction in the forests of Similipal. Rauwolfia Serpentina, another medicinal plant which can reduce hypertension and high blood pressure, also faces the same disastrous fate. Curare contains tufocuraine, which is used as a muscle pain relaxant in surgery.

Tribal medicine has remained largely unexplored and there is need for urgent steps to protect their rights before their knowledge is exploited for commercial benefits.