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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY
Cultural Dimension of Ecology
A Case Study of the Oraons
This paper aims at understanding the place that the natural order assumes in the life of the Oraons, one of the major tribal groups in India. This is done by examining some features of Oraon culture — culture understood in the sense of the way of life of a group. All the same, the focus in this paper is not on how nature and the environment are articulated in riddles, stories, myths, legends, etc. Though these do tell us about the ways in which nature is perceived, they may not tell us how people actually relate to nature. Accordingly, the paper deals with aspects of culture that are being lived in the day-to-day lives of the people.
The paper is divided into three parts. The first part outlines the place of nature in the life of the Oraons. The second tries to understand the nature of the interface that obtains and the values making such interaction possible. In the last part we explore the modes through which the Oraons sustain the order that exists.I
An important aspect of Oraon culture that is intimately related to environmental features is food habits. The Oraons are primarily agriculturists. Their usual diet consists of rice, dal and vegetables. Fish and meat are occasionally consumed. What is striking, however, is that leaves, flowers, seeds, roots and fruits are an integral part of the Oraon diet. These are procured from the forest. Only a few are grown by the people themselves. A study has shown that there are about 21 kinds of common native plants whose leaves are eaten by the Oraons. The number of common native plants whose flowers, roots, seeds, fruits and whole plants that are eaten stand at 10, 10, 15, 25 and 6 respectively. In all, there are 87 kinds of common native plants which are related to the food of the Oraons.
The construction of houses, household items and other artifacts too show a linkage with the environment. Chotanagpur is a land of forests. Many products are obtained from the forest. Some of these are major products and others are minor ones. The Oraon house is usually made of mud walls and tile roofs. All the same, house construction requires the use of timber and bamboo.
It is for minor products that we find greater concern among the Oroans. The Oraon household includes such items as mats, cots, wooden stools, baskets, cups, plates, cushions, rope, mortar and pestle and oil presses. All of these are made from forest products. Hunting implements such as bows and arrows, slings, spears and swords are made from forest products. Similarly, fishing tools such as baskets and traps of various kinds are made of bamboo. Fishing nets are made of twine. Umbrellas are made with the handle and ribs of bamboo covered with gungu leaves. Even the hooded waterproof coat is made of the gungu leaves.
Knowledge of the treatment of diseases is another sphere where we find a close relation between the Oraon community and its environment. Treatment of diseases is invariably based on the use of medicinal herbs found in the region. There are about 34 kinds of disease which are treated with such medicines. These include pain (headache, toothache, stomachache, eye pain, ear pain, migraine), fever (high, ordinary, malaria), wounds, constipation, diarrhoea, dysentery, epilepsy, rheumatism, insomnia, tetanus, eczema, etc. These are treated with medicines based on leaves, roots, the bark of trees, and with plants which grow wild in the jungle. Some of them are grown in their fields by the people themselves.
The major customs among the Oraons, as with any other community, are connected with birth, marriage and death. The linkage of customs with the ecology is best reflected in customs connected with marriage and death. There are many customs preceding marriage with which the environment is very closely connected. There is the custom of men going to the forest to fetch firewood and women to fetch sal leaves for preparing cups and plates. The preparation of the marriage mat and marriage baskets of various sizes are other customs. Setting up a marwa is, however, the most significant. Nine sal saplings with leaves on top are planted in the courtyard in three rows. The middle one of the second row differs in its height. Also planted are branches of bamboo, sidha, bhelwa, mango and mahua. The mango suggests perpetuity of descendants, the bamboo symbolises progeny, the sidha fidelity of husband and wife, the bhelwa protection from the evil eye and the mahua, love between the couple. The marriage ritual would be incomplete without this invocation of trees and plants.
During funerals the Oraons practise burial and cremation. Bodies are buried when crops stand in the field. In this custom, various shapes of branches cover the bottom of the grave, lengthwise and crosswise.
Important festivals of the Oraons pertain to the forest, hunting, agriculture and cattle. Besides these, there are socio-religious gatherings known as jatras, which take place at the commencement of different seasons. It is not possible to discuss all their festivals. I shall confine myself to a few for the purpose of illustration.
The spring festival, known as sarhul, is celebrated when the sal tree is in full blossom. In this festival the Oraons perform the symbolic marriage of the sky with the earth. This is done to ensure the fertility of mother earth. On this day a propitiatory sacrifice is offered to the old lady (the village goddess) who is believed to abide in the sacred grove of the village. Phaggu is a festival which is observed towards the end of February or the beginning of March. On the evening previous to the feast, a young castor (Palma christi) plant and a semar (Bombax malabaricum) branch are planted in an open place. Around these some hay, firewood and dry leaves are heaped. The village priest sets fire to the hay. When fire burns at its brightest the young castor shrub is cut into pieces with an axe. Immediately the young boys of the village light torches from the bonfire and throw the burning torches at fruit trees, saying, ‘Be loaded with good fruit’.
What these selected illustrations show is the scale of interaction that prevails between the community and its environment. Whereas the community’s dependence on nature is overwhelming, it is far from being passive. The community acts on nature and transforms it into forms that are of use to it. However, the use of environmental resources is limited to the extent necessary for the community. It is this which leads to harmony between community and environment. Such harmony is, however, possible because of the overriding social values that guide Oraon society. These are the values of equality in society, collectivity in economy, accommodation in history, ethical living in philosophy, folkism in literature and group participation in art and music. On account of these, the attitude the Oraons have towards nature is one of rational adaptation and not of mastery over the world.
Crises in this harmony result from a number of sources. The opening up of the economy to the market and therefore profit is an important factor but is not the only one. Societies guided not by profit but by their assessed needs have been equally instrumental in the destruction of environmental wealth.
What seems to be at the back of disharmony is the attitude of rational mastery over the world rather than rational adaptation to it. What has led to this shift seems to be a spirit of competition and domination rather than cooperation, the hallmark of traditional societies.
After having tentatively explained what makes possible harmony between community and environment, we shall explore the ways in which the Oraons contribute to sustaining the existing order. We have seen how nature enters into the very fabric of Oraon society — their food, houses, domestic goods, artifacts, rites, rituals, customs, festivals, etc. This shows how the natural order enters into the social order of the Oraons. The two orders are not separate, discrete, autonomous. Rather, they are integral to each other. At the same time, the social order is also a moral order to the Oraons. Hence there are ways through which the moral order is maintained. In Oraon society, these orders are maintained either through prohibition or propitiation. Taboos surrounding the use of environmental features are varied. These are observed on different occasions and by different sets of people. Restrictions surrounding hunting or the commencement of a season or totemic institutions may be taken as illustrations. Propitiation of village deities in charge of different environmental features is another way by which the moral order is thought to be maintained in Oraon society.
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi