Edited transcript of the interview with Dr Ranju Hasini Sahoo
Ranju Hasini Sahoo is a professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology in the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University (IGNTU), Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh. She is leading a major ICSSR interdisciplinary research project on the Baiga people.
Ethnomedicine practices among Baiga adivasis
I am speaking particularly about the Baiga people. Baiga is one of the primitive tribal groups of Madhya Pradesh. They live in Dindori district, Anuppur district, Bilaspur and Seoni. Also, they live in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Bihar. So, why are they (considered) primitive? Because of their pre-agricultural techniques, low literacy level, diminishing or stagnant population. Baiga means vaidh, vaidh means medicine men. Baigas have their own traditional knowledge system of medicine. That means treating their own illnesses through their own medicinal knowledge. So their ethnomedicine is very rich. Because they have their ethnomedicinal plants, animals, even inanimate objects. So as for the diseases, they have their own method of treating them. So they extract medicine from plants and animals. They have their own methods of preparing medicines. They know about illnesses and how to prevent them. In one of the villages, where we are doing our fieldwork, one of the Baiga men showed us the frontal bone of a pig. He said, we treat the cancer type of disease by making ethnomedicine from this frontal bone of the pig. Then, one of the Baiga medicine men in Joraha village said we are having a medicine for it. You just imagine, when a woman in modern society delivers a baby, she needs to take rest at least for one to two months. But the Baiga women, after delivering the baby, get back to work the next day. So isn’t it amazing? They have their own ethnomedicine. By using that ethnomedicine they rejuvenate themselves. So the next day after the delivery, they go straight to work. This is simply amazing.
On transfer of traditional knowledge of the Baiga adivasis
It’s from generation to generation. Because, if one’s father is a medicine man, obviously he’ll just pass it on to his family members. But actually this is an area to which we need to give more importance. Because, many of the Baiga medicine men are hesitant to reveal their knowledge. It involves long continuous fieldwork to gain their confidence, so that they will reveal it. But many of the medicine men, they do not reveal anything. In the village Silyari, when I asked the medicine man, he said many things. Then he said, ‘Madam, you will take all this knowledge from here, but what will happen to us?' That is their concern. Obviously it is their knowledge, and many people in the laboratory would also be validating it. They may get it patented. But what would happen to the medicine men? What would happen to the community? Because it is their sole property, (they have) sole rights over their traditional knowledge. In that way, I think we are not doing much work. In that direction research work is required.
On traditional methods of constructing Baiga houses
There is Indira Awas Yojana. So everybody knows that Indira Awas Yojana is not very effective throughout India. If you go to any of the Baiga villages, you will find that the Indira Awas houses are lying vacant. Nobody stays there. Say, what is its longevity, maybe 20 to 30 years. But a Baiga house constructed with the use of soil and kodo stalk (stalk of kodo) lasts long. And, I think it is sustainable also. Because, from the ecological point of view, it is so important. And they prepare the bricks also, through their indigenous knowledge system. In one of the villages, I asked about the preparation of the bricks. They said, they prepare them from a type of soil—sihali mitti (sihali soil) or something like that—and the stalk of kodo, and dung of the horse. A house built with these lasts very long. So we should explore such traditional knowledge systems for the construction of the houses in development schemes.
Traditional uses of various kinds of soil by Baiga adivasis
They have indigenous knowledge systems regarding various types of mitti. Bharra mitti, lal mitti, chuhi mitti, moodmichini mitti. They have their different uses. In Bharra mitti, they harvest and cultivate the kodo. It is available in Dongar hills. They use chuhi mitti for the smearing of the house. So the kodo is grinded with a specific implement which is known as jaata. Jaata is made by womenfolk only. It grinds the kodo and kutki very well. They have moodmichini mitti. When I went to one of the Baiga villages in Kawardha side, they said that they collect moodmichini mitti from the jungles. So they wash their hair with the moodmichini mitti. It works like shampoo and conditioner. So all these things are so important.
Traditional agricultural practices of the Baiga adivasis
Their indigenous knowledge system for shifting cultivation is really amazing. It is multi-crop, as you know. They mainly cultivate kodo and kutki. Apart from kodo and kutki, they also cultivate pumpkin, cucumber, and bottle gourd. They have many types of pumpkin. They have many types of cucumber. Now they say that there is a type of cucumber which is found no more. It’s seeds are not available nowadays. It means that a type of inventory should be prepared for it. Agricultural officers or scientists should come forward to explore that knowledge. So the pumpkin is used as a milk and water container. It can contain milk and water for two years. So isn’t it amazing? So all these things are traditional knowledge systems. We have scanty rains due to climate change. So, it requires only three consecutive rains for kodo and kutki to survive. So we must explore this. Because food security is very important for research and sustainable development. So we must research and document all these traditional knowledge systems.
Folklore and traditional knowledge among the Baiga adivasis
Actually, their folklore is very rich. We have documented much folklore and folk songs in 65 villages. Folklore is a vast subject—folk songs, folk tales, riddles, idioms, proverbs. They sing folk songs during harvest time. They are having dadaria, dadra, saila, reena, karma (types of folk songs) all these things. They have some specific folk songs which are sung by the womenfolk only. And there are folk songs which are sung by both males and females. And there are marriage songs. And love songs also. For example in one of the folk songs, one of the boys is telling the girl, ‘Please come to my nagri so that I can show you around the hills, where the chaar has ripened. I will give you pakri bhaaji which has grown in the mud besides the river.’ So all these things are really very good. Folk songs should be documented extensively. Because it is an oral tradition. At least to the pre-school children or upper primary school children they should be given education in their own mother tongue. In this way, for example, in Achanakmar, Prof. Kheda is teaching the Baiga children for the last three decades. When I asked one of the Baiga boys—just a Class 1 student—regarding the trees and plants of his village, he was able to name as many as 89 varieties of plant.