In the earliest of times there was no land but only water all around. One fine day, God created the earth. Immediately after, two ascetics emerged from the depths of the ground. One of the ascetics was the Brahmin and the other was the Nanga Baiga. To the Brahmin, God gave pen and paper for reading and writing. But to the Nanga Baiga, he gave an axe. Further, God instructed the Nanga Baiga to cultivate kodo and kutki. Since then the Baiga people have been practicing Bewar (swidden agriculture) by clearing trees in forests. (Nirgune 1989)
The Baiga adivasis are a forest-dwelling indigenous tribal community of central India. In the local mythologies of the region, they are often recognized as the original inhabitants of the Earth. Identified as a primitive Dravidian tribe, the Baigas are known for their traditionally minimalistic ways of life (Russell 1916). They lived in intimacy with the elements of nature, and even at present, their everyday lives and livelihoods continue to be closely intertwined with their forest ecologies. Erstwhile nomadic hunter-gatherers, who practised shifting agriculture, they are also known to be extremely knowledgeable about the medicinal and healing properties of the various species of flora and fauna found in the forests of central India. In fact, it is also believed that the word ‘Baiga’ probably originated from the Hindi word Vaidya (the healer). The Baigas continue to possess a keen knowledge of their environment and of the biodiversity of their region which they pass on through oral traditions from one generation to the next.
Oral histories of the tribal communities of central India, strongly highlight the minimalism and simplicity of the Baiga tribe. The Baiga tribe is admired for being unattached to their material possessions, which are few in the first place. It is said that in the past, the Gond tribals would occupy the Baiga agricultural land by tilling their land with a plough. Because the Baigas were opposed to tilling of land, once a plough had been used in a piece of land, they would abandon that patch and move elsewhere into the forests. Even when the Baiga Chak region was established under the influence of the colonial British, several Gonds were organized to live in the regions originally inhabited by the Baigas and to spread practices of settled agriculture. As a result, the Baigas were pushed away to rocky, unfertile and unproductive patches of land (Chaurasia 2004).
The Government of India identifies the Baiga tribe in the states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh as one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG). These communities were identified for their poor performance in development indices and a commitment was made towards supporting them through additional government- sponsored schemes to improve their living conditions. The traditions of pre-agricultural practices such as hunting-gathering, low levels of population growth, extremely low literacy, poor nutrition and widespread unemployment among the Baigas, has contributed towards the classification of the tribal group as a PVTG.
Agricultural practices of Bewar
The first Baiga cut down two thousand Sal (Shorearobusta) trees in one day. Then God told him to sprinkle a few grains of kutki on the ashes. God further instructed him to retire and sleep for some months and on his return he would be able to reap a rich harvest for his children. Thus, the practices of shifting agriculture by the Baiga people received a divine sanction. (Russell 1916)
The Baigas revere the earth as Dharti Mata (Mother Earth), and consider it a sin to tear the breast of their mother through a ploughshare. They also believe that God made the forests to provide everything necessary for the sustenance of humans, and gifted the Baigas with the wisdom to discover everything that the forest could provide.Tthe Gonds and others who were not gifted with this precious knowledge had to take recourse to tilling the land for subsistence. The Baigas continue to believe that tilling the land is a grave sin and often attribute the reason of their impoverishment and marginalization to their acquired practice of agriculture (Elwin 2007).
The traditional agricultural practice of Bewar of the Baigas, was a form of shifting or swidden agriculture which involved burning down patches of forests and sowing seeds fertilized by the ashes after the rains. However, in the late 19th century, the colonial government limited this method of agriculture to a fixed region called the Baiga Chak. Additionally, the colonial government initiated several attempts to train the Baiga people in methods of settled agriculture. When notified in 1890, the Baiga Chak region consisted of seven villages. At present, the Baiga Chak region has 52 villages, all of which fall in the Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh. Over time, most Baigas have learnt and adopted methods of tilling the land for cultivation. However, the practice of Bewar continues in its morphed forms among a few Baigas. Kodo and Kutki were two prominent Bewar crops, which continue to be important elements in the staple diet of the Baigas.
Everyday lives and culture of the Baiga people
The Baiga households of the present continue to be simply provisioned with earthen pots and vessels for cooking and storage, leaves for plates and gourds for drinking vessels. Over time, pots, pans and other utensils of steel, aluminium and brass have also become commonplace. The staple food of the Baiga people consists of kodo, kutki, paddy, jowar, wheat, corn and masoor. Pej is an important element in the food of the Baiga people. It is prepared by coarsely crushing grains such as wheat, corn, kodo or kutki and then boiling them in water. To this preparation, cold water is further added to maintain its liquid state. Pej is considered to be extremely healthy and filling, and is relished in large quantities by the Baiga people, particularly in seasons when they have to engage in strenuous agricultural labour. The meals are further supplemented by a variety of mushrooms, bhaajis (leafy vegetables) and roots collected from the surrounding forests. Additionally, mahua liquor is consumed regularly in Baiga households, and is an important element in all festivities and celebrations.
Traditionally, Baigas dressed scantily and their orthodox practice was to wear as little as possible. It is believed that the Nanga Baiga (the first Baiga man) was gifted a piece of cloth nine hands (cubits) in length by the God, but he returned all of it but a hand and a half that was necessary. Some elderly Baigas believe that the present poverty in the Baigas can be traced to their wearing of clothes and shoes. Short dhotis above the knees and sleeveless waistcoats are sported by many Baiga men, though in the recent times trousers, T-shirts and shirts are also commonly worn. The Baiga men traditionally sported long hair tied into elegant knots, a practice which can be seen as disappearing with time.
The traditional dress of the Baiga women is called lugra, which is a long strip of pink coloured cloth and is tied around the waist, carried across the breast and tucked in at the shoulder. The skirt which gets formed around is short and does not reach the knees. In recent times, sarees have become a popular choice among the Baiga women. The Baiga girls and women sport necklaces and ornaments made of colourful beads and coins, silver and aluminium bracelets and armlets, and bangles. The Baiga women sport permanent tattoos on their bodies which form a distinct characteristic of their cultural identity. A girl gets tattooed on her forehead at the age of five. By the time she gets married she gets tattoos all over her body (Russell 1916).
Tattoos hold a special significance for the Baiga women. They are considered to enhance the beauty of the women and are often perceived as a substitute to ornaments in their adivasi culture. Women like being tattooed not only because it increases their attractiveness, but also because of their permanence (Elwin 2007). Getting elaborately tattooed is culturally appreciated and women take pride in their tattoos. The tattoos on the bodies of the Baiga women are created by women known as the Godnaharin and male folks are not allowed to witness the process. The tattoo ink is prepared using locally procured items such as ramtila oil and sal gum.
The weekly market is an important event in the lives of the Baiga people and, women in particular elaborately dress up to visit the market. Fruits, vegetables, grains and other seasonally collected forest produce such as chaar, amla, sal seeds, roots, dried mahua flowers, honey and fish are brought to be sold in the market. Additionally, the Baigas also sell goats and poultry such as chicken which they rear in their households. The money received from their sale is then used to acquire necessities such as salt, spices, clothes and other items of necessity which they cannot get from the forests. Some Baiga men also make bamboo mats and baskets which they sell in the weekly markets (Russell 1916).
Singing and dancing are not only popular pastimes, but have a ritual and cultural significance in the lives of the Baiga people. Festivals, madais (fairs), rites and rituals, weddings, and even birth and death ceremonies are all incomplete without singing and dancing. Of the several dance forms of the Baigas, Karma is the most popular one. The Baigas are considered to be the inventors of the Karma dance which is one of the most popular dance forms of central India. Other dance forms include Saila, Reena, Sua and Tapadi. The Dadaria is another important form of song and dance which use poetic expressions of the Baigas. The singing and dancing among the Baigas is often accompanied with rhythmic drumming on the percussion instrument mandar.
The Baigas share an intimate relationship with the forests and the wildlife in it. They are adept woodcutters and extremely skilful at using the axe, including its use for hunting. Baigas have been traditionally skilled hunters and could hunt small animals such as deer, hares and peacocks with a single throw of their axe. Even larger animals such as panthers are known to have been killed with one single skilful blow by the Baigas. Over time, as bans on hunting were established and there was an overall decrease in the number of prey animals, the hunting practices of the Baigas also disappeared. However, they continue their skilful practice of catching fishes by damming streams. The Baigas are also astute at finding medicinal herbs, roots, fruits and other consumable vegetation from the forests. Most of their material and cultural needs on a daily basis are met thus.
The Baigas and the Gonds
In the beginning the God created the Nanga Baiga and the Nangi Baigin as the first of the human race. He then asked them how they would choose to live. They immediately responded that they would prefer to make their living by felling trees in the forests and were granted permission to do so. The Nanga Baiga and the Nangi Baigin had two sons. The elder of them remained a Baiga while the younger one became a Gond, the tiller of the soil. The sons married their own two sisters who were afterwards born. Thus, the elder couple became the ancestors of the Baiga and the younger couple became the forefathers of the Gonds and the rest of mankind (Russell 1916).
The Baiga people have traditionally lived in areas which are also abundantly populated by Gond adivasis. The Baiga and the Gond tribal communities live in close proximity and their everyday material and cultural lives are closely intertwined with one another. They share a close relationship with their environment and have overlapping social and cultural practices. And though the two tribes do not share marital ties, they come together for several social events and festivities. The Baigas perform several important rituals for the Gonds. They also lead important rites in the villages that have a mixed population of both the communities.
Many adivasi communities are known to have great faith in magic and the Baigas regard themselves as the most powerful of magicians. Thus, the Baigas are venerated by other tribes and communities of the region where they reside, including the Gonds. Their advice is sought on a range of issues and crises such as the health of agricultural crops and their harvest, infertility in men and women, recovery of stolen goods and protection from wild beasts such as bears and tigers. Among the Baigas, the Dewar is considered to be the most competent of magicians and performs all important rites related to agriculture and protection of the village. Dewars are known to be able to cause rain, stop earthquakes and to make even the most ferocious of tigers docile. The ordinary Gunias on the other hand, mainly treat diseases in animals and humans (Gangwar and Bose 2013; Mishra 2003).
It is a daunting task to comprehensively document all socio-cultural aspects of any community, and even more so for indigenous communities which have distinct and significantly different traditions from that of the mainstream and hegemonic cultures. The Baiga community, which is known for its intimate relationship with the forests and its wildlife, has time and again through history experienced dramatic setbacks in its ways of life owing to the ruling powers. The historical demonization of the Baiga tribe, first by the colonial powers, and then by many agencies of the post-colonial Indian State, has led to a gross negligence towards documenting and acknowledging the rich, vibrant and distinct culture of the Baiga people. Furthermore, the influence of the forces of modernization and their integration into mainstream society, has caused the Baiga community to transform and disengage with various elements of its cultural heritage.
Chaurasia, Vijay. 2004. Prakriti Putra Baiga, Bhopal: Madhya Pradesh Hindi Granth Academy.
Elwin, Verrier. 2007. The Baiga. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.
Gangwar, M. and P. Bose, 2013, ‘The Baiga People.’ Online at http://www.peoplesoftheworld.org/hosted/baiga/(viewed on December 29, 2017).
Mishra, N. 2003.Tribal Culture in India. New Delhi:Kalpaz Publications.
Nirgune, Basant. 1989. ‘Baiga, SahariaaurShahdolkeaadivaasiyonkimithkathaayein.’In Adivasi Lok Kathaayein, edited by Niranjan Mahavar, 137–68. Bhopal: Madhya Pradesh Lokkala Parishad.
Russell R.V. 1916. The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India. London: Macmillan and Co. Limited.