I am staying in a mud-built resort – an initiative of and located in the village of Hodka in northwestern Gujarat, not far from the famous White Desert or Rann of Kachchh.
Meals are taken in the large open-air pavilion with grass roof and ceiling of colourful fabric. The central food station is attended by a group of lovely young men from the village. They are really friendly and I try to remember their names. In the tourist season they work here, then in off-season (summer – when it is way too hot for tourists) there are other jobs to do.
Natha is from a family who do mud work and wall painting. Mani is 16 years old and the lowest in the pecking order here, doing general cleaning work and food serving. He has the biggest whitest smile always ready to light up his brown face, and tries to please all the time. Valji is one of the serving staff. He is a member of the family who do all the resort’s mud and mirror work for which this region is famous. They also make the wattle and daub fences and paint the walls with traditional designs. In the off-season, he goes to Mumbai and Delhi and works on mud-work commissions and he is planning on creating a bird sanctuary nearby.
Once I have shown an interest in a few of the guys, spruiking my few sentences of Hindi, asking names, what their roles are etc., the others also want to tell their stories and I realize that it is my genuine interest in them that is the main difference between me and a visiting Indian family who treat them as staff only and as such, do not take an interest. That is the difference between a society built on class and caste and the Australian egalitarian style. The side benefit for me, of course, is that I get extremely good service and attention from these lovely guys, and after less than one day here, they are beginning to anticipate my needs. (Later, when it came time to leave, they lined up to bid me goodbye.)
Valji, who will be married in March after a thirteen year engagement (he and his future wife must have been betrothed as children), sensed my genuine interest in the place and the people and gifted me a book which I find both fascinating and educational. It outlines the biocultural community protocol of the Maldharis of Banni (the pastoralists of the Banni grasslands in this district in the north of Kachchh, Gujarat). The Maldharis have been the custodians of the biodiversity-rich Banni grassland ecosystem and have protected it and nurtured it for over 450 years.
This is an important document with the agreement between at first the Maharajah Radheshua-ji of Kachcch in the 18th century. There is documentary evidence (reproduced in the book) that the Madlharis have paid pancheri (grazing tax) since old times, in exchange for the right to graze their animals in Banni without any private land allocation or agriculture. It seems to me uncertain that contemporary governments have ratified this protocol and this document is a well researched and produced call to action to continue the historical rights of the Maldharis.
The Protocol in brief:
We believe that nature has entrusted us with the responsibility to protect Banni and the right to practice our traditional way of life in the Banni and through this biocultural community protocol we call on the government to respect and affirm this right.
In Maldharis biocultural community protocol we clearly state who we are, where we live, our relationship to Banni and our animals, our rights to land, our breeds and associated traditional knowledge and our duties to protect this ecosystem.
There are different stories of how these people came to live in the Banni. Here is one account from one of the elders of the Meghwal Hindus:
Our elders have told us that in 1736, and army from Sindh (now in Pakistan) led by Khaloda Mohammad Mir invaded Kachchh . Our ancestors were asked by the Maharajah Radheshua-ji of Kachcch to fight with his armies and defend the land from invaders. Though we lost many lives and suffered much in the ensuing battle, the Maharajah was, with our help, victorious. To reward our loyalty and valour, the Maharajah gave the Maldharis title to the Banni. As we were pastoralists the Maharajah also decreed that the grasslands should not be used for agriculture.
From further reading, I learn that the Maldharis have developed the unique Banni buffalo especially adapted to the grasses of the Banni.
The Maldharis hold their cattle in high regard. Some of us take our shoes off before we enter the place where our animals lie. Historically the measure of a man was based on different animals he kept. A Maldhari who had a good pedigree pure animals and expert in traditional knowledge was known as ‘bhagiya’ – he who is lucky with animals.
They have also developed a unique water harvesting system that enables them to suvive the harsh Kachchh summers. Temporary wells known as ‘virdas’ are built as a community activity by all the men of the village. The shallow wells are built in the place where a water hole has dried up but where ground water is not far below. The well is lined with logs of wood and Banni grasses: the wood prevents the well from collapsing and the grass filters the water.
I also learn that there are 18 Muslim communities and two Hindu in the Banni. There are strong ties between the communities and in solidarity with the Hindu, the Muslims refrain from eating beef. The Muslims provide milk and ghee to the Hindu Meghwals, who in turn provide leather shoes, saddles, water satchels and help building their bhungas (round houses).
The book goes on to list all the grasses of the Banni with images, the various tribal groups, the indigenous livestock and breeding protocols, and even home-grown vetinary treatments and much else. Challenges to their way of life are also catalogued, chief amongst them is poisonous effluent from industry on the fringes of the Banni: buffalo are dying because of poisoned waterholes. Another threat is police harassment.
I am finding it fascinating to delve a little deeper in the various cultures of India, and treasure this book and the brief time I have shared with the Maldharis of Kachchh.