Sacred forests and groves in the West Ghats – Goa, Karnataka & Kerala

Niramkarachi Rai - the sacred grove at Nanode, Sattari - Pic by Mohan Pai
Niramkarachi Rai – the sacred grove at Nanode, Sattari – Pic by Mohan PaiSacred Groves

Forests have been the lifeline for tribals and other forest dwelling communities since distant past. Communities have been setting aside certain patches of land or forest dedicated to a deity or village God, protected and worshipped called Devachirai in Goa. […]

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Date Visited: Sat Aug 27 2011 11:39:13 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic times

The earliest human settlement in the Western Ghats have been traced back to the Palaeolithic or the Old Stone Age period – over 10,000 years BC.

Stone tools were discovered from the river valleys of Bharatpuzha (Palghat district), Beypur (Malappuram district) and Netravathi basin (Dakshina Kannada district).

Palaeolithic artifacts have been found at Kibbanahalli (Mysore district), Lingadahalli and Kadur (Chickmagalur district) and Honnalli (Shimoga district). […]

Read the historical details and view the photographs on environmentalist Mohan Pai’s blog >>

Sacred Forests

Forest clearance was inevitable for farming and yet, there was an overwhelming belief in the sacredness of the woods. Secondary species and heavily savannized tracts were interspersed with lofty evergreen patches, the menasukans or pepper forests, where the people tended to the wild pepper. The relics of such kans occur to this day in Uttara Kannada and Shimoga [Shivamogga]. They were important tracts of pre-colonial forest conservation in the Western Ghats. Myriad relics of such groves, exist even today all over the Western Ghats. They may be called Devrai in Maharashtra, Devarkadu in Kodagu and Kavu in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, these forests in pre-colonial landscape, served many functions like the conservation of biodiversity and watershed, moderation of climate and promoted varied wildlife.

Source: The Western Ghats: Ecological Past
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Date Visited: Sat Aug 27 2011 11:35:07 GMT+0200 (CEST)

A diploma holder in electrical engineering, Maske has travelled all over India by foot and has visited 289 primitive tribes and many other non-primitive tribes. He says he started his version of the Long March “to study the socio-economic condition of tribals in the country.” […]

Before visiting a tribal settlement inside dense forest, Maske takes the help of forest officers. After studying the condition prevailing among the tribals, he prepares a note on the development in the settlement, especially the infrastructure, and passes it on to the district collectors (deputy commissioners). […]

The Hakki Pikki community of H D Kote taluk in Mysore has a unique custom of naming the child. The first word that comes to the mind of a man informed that his wife has delivered, is the name the child will bear. Hence, these community members have names like Post Office and Deluxe Express, he says. […]

Source: “The man who lived with the tribes”, Deccan Herald, 25 March 2011
Date Visited: 29 August 2023

[…] 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. […]

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. […]

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. […]

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.

“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. […]

Source: “Hakki Pikki: The global nomads of Karnataka”, Frontline Magazine, 24 April 2023
Date Visited: 25 August 2023

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[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

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“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)

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Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)

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“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2

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“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)

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