Forest dwellers in early India – myths and ecology in historical perspective

By Romila Thapar, Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University 

The hunt introduces us to the forest dwellers. These tended to be either creatures of the imagination such as the raksasas who are abundant, or else humans with supernatural faculties. Raksasas have generally been described as demons and as unreal. But given the perceptions of the forest in the epics, they are as likely to be the unfamiliar forest dwellers who obstructed hunting expeditions and harassed those establishing settlements in the forest, for example, rsis establishing asramas. Or are they societies contrasted with monarchy, such as the more sophisticated raksasas of the Ramayana? Moreover, is the hunt also an aspect of the subordination of nature to culture? If the forest is seen as a place which is without order or discipline, then it is required of the raja to control it and the hunt becomes the beginning of such control, even if it is initially chaotic. This subordination was also achieved, perhaps less traumatically, through the setting up of asramas in the forest. ln the narrative of Sakuntala, the ferocity of the hunt is contrasted with the gentle calm of the hermitage, each presenting a different view of nature. The hermitage is set so deep in the forest that it is almost another world, enveloped in a translucent green of sun and trees. This is liminal space, the threshold between the two contrasting ecologies of the vana and the ksetra. But at the same time it may be seen as a precursor of what later evolved into agraharas–grants of land to brahmanas–in forests or wastelands, or grants of cultivated land. The asrama is at one level an intrusion into the forest by the people of the grama, an intrusion sought to be stemmed by those living in the forest. […]

The preferred choice was a place distant from the settlement so that there would be few intrusions, which is ironic, since the hermitage itself was an intrusion. Its way of life was a denial of that associated with the settlement. Renouncers having renounced social obligations, had to live where such obligations and duties were not required. Rituals were performed, but only for the members of the asrama. Food was gathered from what the forest provided and cultivation was marginal. The attempt was to live in unison with the rhythms of the forest world, even if not in amity with the forest people.

The suggestion for a hermitage could have come from the existing sacred groves, located either on the peripheries, or in the dense areas of the forest. The former would be tended by the settlement and the latter by the forest dwellers. A small forest was dedicated to a deity, was left uncut, and had a space for offerings and activities demanded by rituals focusing sometimes on a shrine located in the grove. […]

The forest was never far away from habitation. For instance, excavations of the settlements at Atranjikhera and Hastinapur, which are not too far from Delhi, have yielded evidence of a large variety of forest trees.” The Buddhist Canon states that aside from the village and its outskirts, the rest of the land is jungle.” Even as late as the seventh century A.D., the Chinese Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang writes of forests close to Kausambi, as also of the extensively forested areas in the vicinity of Kapilavastu and Kusinagara in the terai and north Bihar.” Travelling from one town to another meant going through a forest. Therefore, when in exile, the forest was not a physically distant place, although distant in concept. The exile of heroes in both epics is to the forest. But here the forest takes on a different connotation and is not merely the jungle beyond the settlement. The forest, as the location of the state was also advised to take the initiative in developing forests, especially those featuring particular kinds of forest produce, and to settle people in forests who would be trained to garner this produce and to convert it into items for commerce.” Elephant forests were especially prized, for not only was the ivory valuable but it was also thought that victory in battle depended principally on the elephant wing of the army. Furthermore, such forests made excellent natural frontiers. That these activities of the state may have met with some opposition from forest dwellers is suggested by Kautilya’s remark that the king should not tax those areas which had been laid waste by the atavika/forest dwellers.” What form this opposition took is not specified, but the exemption from tax for those cultivators affected by the activities of the forest people would suggest that perhaps the crops of the cultivators were burnt. He also cautions against forest chieftains who were numerous, visible, brave and could ruin a country. They could be allies or could be used politically to create trouble for neighbouring kingdoms.” Forest peoples–aranyacaracatavika–are a distinct category, known and visible, in the text. […]

Was the threat to forest dwellers a way of preventing the illegal clearing of forests and of curbing shifting cultivation? Was Asoka, being a conscientious Buddhist, trying to wean away the atavikas from a life of hunting and killing animals, or was the state ensuring that its appropriation of forest produce would not be obstructed by forest dwellers? Or was the state protecting forest dwellers? There was at that time enough forested land for there to be no fear of the disappearance of forests. Shifting cultivation, therefore, may not have been viewed as a disaster, for it also permitted the growth of a secondary forest.  […]

What were once the perceptions of the forest in the epic, focusing on the hunt, the hermitage and exile were now beginning to fade. Banabhatta’s description would pertain to the middle of the first millennium A.D. Villages in the forest as described by Banabhatta are large and well stocked. In addition to cowpens there are rice paddies and sugarcane fields worked by farming families. Blacksmiths collect wood for charcoal, and hunters, trappers and fowlers are active. Others come with the produce of the forest-bark, cotton from the Simul tree, flax and hemp, honey, waterlily roots, and wax–and women carry baskets of forest fruit to sell at the next village. This is, economically, a different scene from the forests of the epics, and raksasas and apsaras are far less frequent. Yet this is the same Vindhyan forest through which the epic heroes were said to have wandered in exile. The description in the Harsacarita is not too dissimilar to that of Vimalasuri in the Paumacariyam–a Jaina version of the narrative of Rama, where exile in the Vindhyas entails travelling through many more kingdoms, unlike in the Valmiki version where there are more forests to be traversed through. […]

Source: Perceiving the Forest: Early India

Perceiving the Forest: Early India Studies in History February 2001 17: 1-16, doi:10.1177/025764300101700101
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