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Peasant Perception of Bhutas

Uttara Kannada


M. D. Subash Chandran

Sanskrit textual tradition holds that man has a fivefold constitution, called bhuta or tattva (element). The pancabhutas (five elements) are bhumi (earth), jala (water), agni (fire) vayu (air) and akasa (sky). For generations, this textual tradition has been monopolized by the Brahmin community who formed bulk of the scholars, teachers and priests. At the same time in India live thousands of other communities are expected to have their own oral traditions regarding the bhutas. We could indeed hope for a wealth of information and concepts emerging from this probe into the oral tradition of these diverse human groups who live in a bewildering diversity of ecological conditions prevalent in this country. However, it should be noted that, for more than 2000 years, most of them have been interacting with the influential Brahmin community, more so in the plains and plateaus of India, and is expected to have imbibed from them the textual tradition, displacing or modifying the oral tradition. In the last century, with the universalization of education, the flood-gates of knowledge have opened for all. Nevertheless, we can attempt to reconstruct the oral tradition from the rather isolated human groups, like those living in the hilly areas and are expected to have a more secure oral tradition.

Uttara Kannada or North Canara is a district of Karnataka situated towards the middle of the western coast of South India. The hills of the Western Ghats cover major part of Uttara Kannada except a narrow coastal strip, the continuity of which is broken by wide river mouths and backwaters. Bountiful rainfall promotes the growth of luxuriant forests which, though subjected to heavy commercial pressures, specially in the last 150 years, cover about 60 per cent of the district's 10,000 square kilometres of the land surface. The cultivation is mainly of rice, coconut, areca nut, spices like cardamom and pepper, other crops like banana, sugarcane, groundnut, cocoa, nutmeg and vegetables, as well as fruit trees like mango, jack, garcinia, cashew, etc. These are grown on about 13 per cent of the land surface.

Though the first man did appear along the west coast and Western Ghats in the pre-historic period, these regions were colonized by agricultural communities only after the introduction of iron in India around 1000 bc (Bhat, 1979). Historical evidecne shows that the influence of Buddhism in the district could be as old as the third century bc (Sundara, 1979). Agriculturists and pastoralists who colonized this region between 1000 bc and ad 300 (Bhat, 1979), in the special ecological situation of the west coast, evolved a combination of rice cultivation in the estuaries and valleys with growing of millets in the slash-and-burn style along the hill slopes. This was supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering of forest produce and, to limited extent, pastoralism. The natural resources were largely controlled by the village communities with several regulations to ensure sustainable utilization (Gadgil and Iyer, 1989).

The oral tradition of the early peasantry, related to the perceptions of bhutas, in a region with high amount of heterogeniety in nature, is expected to have undergone a tumultuous effect with the arrival of the Brahmins in the region. They were probably introduced by the Kadamba king of the fourth century. The Havik Brahmins, who claim to have descended from these early Brahmins, have even today considerable influence on the peasant population. Though originally they were all engaged in priesthood, in due course a major section of them became experts in raising the well-known spice-gardens of the region. Exponents of Sanskrit textual tradition the Haviks became keen observers of natural phenomena and formed important links between textual and oral traditions. In course of time the illustrious Haviks became consultants to the local peasants in many matters pertaining to culture and religion, climate and soil and even astronomical and astrological phenomena. Nevertheless, compared to most other regions in India, in the hilly and wooded Uttara Kannada, with several physiographic barriers, there persisted a wealth of oral tradition.

Though there are equivalent words for the five bhutas among all the peasants, most of the non-Brahmin peasantry are not aware of the pancabhutas of textual tradition. The names of the bhutas are bhumi (earth, also mannu which is more a term for soil than earth), neeru (water), benki (fire), gali (air) and vaana or akasa (sky).


The peasant perceives the bhumi as mother or Bhumitati. She is also a divinity Bhumdevi. The agricultural operations begin with bhumipooja (worship of the earth). It may be for the peasant gaddepooja (worship of the field). The peasants often identify themselves as mannina makkalu (children of the soil). Traditionally, the peasants have a terriotorial distribution based on soil or other earth-related characters. For instance, the Gamvokkals or Patgars are found in the coast and are specialized in cultivating the estuarine salt-resistant rice and protect their crops from inundation of salt-water by building earthen dams called gajanikettu — their fields being known as gajanis. The Halakkivokkals cultivate rice and vegetables in the coastal plains and valleys. The Karivokkals grow rice in hill-top villages. The Namadharis combine rice-cultivation with toddy-tapping of the wild palm Caryota urens in the interior hilly villages (Kandivar group) or practice rice cultivation in the coastal villages and tap toddy from coconut tree (Tengidivars). In this fashion the different communities of peasants divided the resources of the earth, without unhealthy competition, between them and on sustainable basis. These peasants are knowledgeable about various qualities of different soils as related to the crops each type could support. These qualities include particle size, fertility, water-holding capacity and drainage characteristics.

The peasants have a strong tradition of using different local strains or varieties of crops, each suited to the type of soil. For instance, in Kumta taluk, only about one-fifteenth of the total area of the district, has about fifty local varieities of rice, suited to different soil conditions. This fact reflects that the peasants know their soils well and through generations have developed by selection and introduction the different varieities suited to the habitat heterogeneity. Further, they also understand that the river floods, bringing materials from the forest-clad hills, enriched the soil and gave bountiful crops. The peasants who cultivate the hill soil understand their proneness to severe erosion and quick depletion of feritlity. To overcome this, they have developed hakkal (shifting cultivation) involving a rotation of fields. During the fallow period the growth of vegetation in the field built up the soil and restored its fertility. This vegetation is chopped and burnt into ashes which return the depleted elements back to the soil. Further, traditional cattle-keeping in the district is mainly for manure. The peasants also understand that organic matter like leaves from plants contain the necessary components helpful in restoring soil-fertility and structure.

The estuarine farmers realize that the ideal time to grow rice is when the salinity of the soil declines during the rainy season. The tradition of planting mangrove trees along the earthen protective bunds not only prevents their erosion but attracts flocks of birds, the castings of which enriches the rice fields with phosphates and nitrogen.

The Havil Brahmin farmer is one of the best experts in soil management. Buchanan, who travelled through Uttara Kannada in 1801, reports about three grades of areca garden soils — cagadala, gujiny, and betta. The farmer uses various soil and water-management practices in these different soils and has different manuring practice (Buchanan, 1870).


In most parts of the country water sources and water bodies are considered sacred. In Uttara Kannada many of the water bodies like hole (river), halla (stream), kere (pond), bhavi (well) are supposed to be guarded by spirits. Choudi or Choudamma is the most common water-guarding spirit. Spirits like Kere Bhutappa or Bhuta guarding the kere are also worshipped (appa is suffix for father, therefore Bhuta is considered a fatherly spirit). In the densely wooded lime-rocks of Yana, an interior village of Kumta taluk, are numerous springs, which are sacred to the people. During floods pesants offer prayers to the rivers and even throw eatables into the flood waters.

Rain (male) is the most important cosmic phenomenon influencing the life of the peasant. The panchanga (almanac) prepared by the Havik Brahmin is popular among the Hindus and widely used to decipher the timing of different rainy spells so as to co-ordinate with the agricultural operations. The panchanga divides the time span of a year into 27 periods, each presided over by a nakshatra (star). The rainy season of Uttara Kannada commences under the Rohini nakshatra in early June. The early agricultural operations continue up to the commencement of ardra, the peak of rains in July. In the coast of Uttara Kannada the harvesting of rice is completed during Swati nakshatra in October.

The peasants have their own oral tradition pertaining to the rains. They can read the imminence of rainy season from several environmental phenomena. One indication is the blowing of wild west wind (birugali) for seven to fifteen days. The first rains are preceded by minchu (lightning) and gudugu (thunder). The peasants correlate the high temperature and high humidity of summer months as indicating the formation of moda (clouds) and possible thunder-showers towards the evening. The karimoda (black clouds) are considered a sign of the rains, unlike the bilimoda (white clouds).

The profuse fruiting and simultaneous ripening of neerilu (Syzygium cumini) is a signal of the approach of rainy season and commencement of the agricultural operations. Profuse flowering of nandi tree (Lagerstroemia microcarpa) is yet another sign. More fruiting of the kanigala tree (Dillenia pentagyna) towards the base, middle or top foretell poor, normal and excess rains respectively during the season. A Havik Brahmin priest-cum-farmer told me that the climatic phenomena which promote heavy fruiting of neerilu also promote high production of rice. Mass movements of ants related to shifting of their colonies also point that the rains are around the corner. A species of spider weaving its web in the grass is taken as indicating the end of the rainy season.

The peasant community, in general, holds the view that the forests have a favourable effect in rainfall. The Havik priest-cum-farmer is of the opinion that deforestation need not be followed by a local decline in the rains; if there is better vegetation elsewhere, even that contributes towards attracting the rains. The peasants believe that water is more in the forest areas. That evergreen sacred groves (kans) were important sources of water was known by both the British administrators as well as the forest-dwelling peasants. Several of these sacred groves are associated with water-bodies even today.

Most peasant settlements are, for obvious reasons, located in places where water is easily available. The Havik Brahmin priest-cum-farmer explained how an ideal location is chosen for digging a well. An important sign indicating water at a shallow depth is the type of tree-growth present around it. If trees llike alu (Ficus bengalensis), atti (Ficus glomerata), neerilu have bright green foliage throughout the year as well as symmetrical branching, then ground water is available nearer to the surface. Huthu (anthill) also indicates water at short depths — say within 20 to 25 feet. The reasoning here is that the white ants bring wet soil from not-so-deep in the ground. Anthills are sacred in Uttara Kannada also because of their association with the cobra.

The early peasants who experienced the phenomenon of quick loss of soil and soil fertility, especially in the hills, attributed this to the torrential rains of the region. To combat this, they evolved hakkal, terracing of hill slopes and building of stone wallls around the fields. Moreover the clearances were small with belts of forests left in between. For the regularly-cultivated fields, the peasants added large quantities of leaf-manure to improve the fertility and protect the soil structure. The Havik spice-gardener usually makes an elaborate system of channels for drainage during rains and irrigation during the dry period. He has also developed the practice of covering the entire soil-surface of the garden with leaf-litter and dry grass to prevent erosion, moisture loss during dry season and to increase soil fertility. In fact, for the purpose, every gardener maintains special leaf-manure forests (betta) near his garden.


Fire has a prominent place in every household. The hoge (smoke) emanating from the hearth of the household is considered an auspicious sign — of life and warmth. The peasants light the lamps before the household gods, within the sacred groves and below the sacred trees. More lamps are lit on special occasions and sacred fires lit with plant exudates like frankinscence, camphor, a balsamic exudate from wild trees of the region like Vateria indica, Canarium strictum, Ailanthus malabarica, etc. Oil lamps are lit on all important occasions like birth, marriage, death, etc. In certain temples and sacred groves dedicated to Masti and Gramadevaru, annual fire-walking programmes are organized and the devotees, to fulfil their vows, walk over the kenda (burning ember).

Fire is widely used for hakkal. The farmers are knowledgeable about the power of fire to convert plant biomass into elemental nutrients necessary for the crops. The ash from the household is carefully conserved and used as a fertilizer. The rubble of the field and dry leaves gathered from the forest are set on fire to enrich the fields with nutrients. Fire is used to destroy weeds and insect pests. The peasants inhabiting the forest tracts know the value of fire to keep away wild animals detrimental to life and property. Fire-based systems of traditional vegetational control, as practised by the peasantry of Uttara Kannada, resulted in the region becoming a mosaic of plant communities in different stages of vegetational succession in harmony with climax patches of natural forests. The rich habitat heterogeneity made the district a haven for wildlife. The peasantry carried out subsistence hunting unimpeded, up to the advent of the British period in the nineteenth century (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1991).

Air or Wind

The changing patterns of wind also bring changes in the routine of the peasants. When birugali (strong winds) blow from the west, beginning towards the end of May, the peasants expect the rains to follow in one or two weeks and start preparing the fields for this great cosmic phenomenon. The moisture-laden monsoon winds from the south-west (neerugali) last up to the Deepavali festival in early November. Then the mudagali (east wind) begins. This is a drying wind, signalling the end of the rainy season (malaikala) and beginning of winter (chelikala). Special prayers are made to the spirits of the sacred groves and sacred trees. A season of leaf-fall and drying up of karada grass starts. Most of the peasants plant broad beans (Dolichos lablab), groundnut (Arachis hypogea) and other legumes favoured by mudagali. Winter vegetables like raddish, knol-kohl, onion, cabbage and different varieties of brinjal, gourds, amaranthus are grown by the peasants. The tropical sun and the drying winds kill the weeds and insect pests of the ploughed fields. The peasants rise in the pre-dawn hours, as soon as Belli (Venus) is sighted in the eastern sky, and start their work. Many go to the nearby woods to gather dry leaves for manure and dead twigs for fuel. The karada grass is cut from the bena (pasture) and stored.

Suggi celebrations of the Halakkivokkals, during March, coincides with the Holi festival, the mudagali slows down and besigekala (summer) starts. The samudragali (west wind) from the Arabian Sea starts. It is a humid wind and is associated with the sprouting and flowering of several cultivated and wild trees. This is the seasaon for collection of fruits, like mango, jack, garcinia, neerilu, karvanda (Carissa carandans), sampige hannu (Flacourtia montana), etc.


The Havik Brahmin farmer's knowledge of vaana or akasa (sky) is more rooted in the textual tradition. For him akasa is space. It is the home for countless nakshatras (stars) and other celestial bodies like surya (sun), chandra (moon) and grahas (planets). The brahmanda (universe) is endless. Many nakshatras are visible and many are not. Among the stars knwon to him may be mentioned Arundhati, Dhruva or pole star, Saptarishi or Seven Sages, etc. Out of the multitude of nakshatras the most influential on man and his environment are 27 in number. Their influence is felt during different times of the year. The influence of some of the stars on the monsoon rains has been already mentioned. The Haviks are experts in preparing the panchanga. Most peasants refer to the panchanga to know in advance about the proper timings under different ruling stars for any agricultural operation as well as find auspicious timings, free from any evil influence, for the commencement of any important activity. It is a common practice for them to consult the Havik Brahmins when they are not literate enough to go through the panchanga. The period under each nakshatra is subdivided between the navagrahas (nine planets) which are Surya, Chandra, Budha (Mercury), Shukra (Venus), Mangala (Mars), Brihaspati (Jupiter), Shani (Saturn), Rahu and Ketu. Of these Shani, Rahu and Ketu have bad influence on people.

Surya has the most important influence on man and the living world. The Havik Brahmin farmer's multi-storeyed spice-gardens, for which Uttara Kannada is famous, are marvellous instances of traditional tropical agriculture attaching great importance to the controlled use of sunlight. The ideal garden is one located in a narrow valley with a perennial water-source and a rising hill to the west to shelter the garden from the western sun, supposed to have a scorching effect on it. Withing the garden, under the unbroken canopy of tall betel trees are shade and dampness loving crops like cardamom, pepper, betel vine, nutmeg and cocoa. Buchanan (1870) found blocks of evergreen forests specially maintained by the peasants in which wild pepper was grown.

The peasants recognize the impact of sun for growth of several plants. Whereas most plants bloom during the day, some like ratkirani, (Cestrum nocturnum), Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, jasmine, etc., bloom towards the dusk or in night hours.

Though the non-Brahmin peasantry do not have the textual tradition pertaining to the akasa, celestial bodies do have an influence on them. The warmth of summer and chill of winter are associated with the phases of the sun. The sunshine produces ubha (steam) from water and the steam becomes moda (cloud) which creates male (rain) and ibhini (fog). The coastal peasants associate waxing and waning phases of the moon with the tides of the sea.

The peasant communities have names for certain stars, constellations and planets which are helpful to them during nocturnal activities like hunting, toddy-tapping, etc. The nakshatras are to the peasants sarkalu, arkalu or chikki. The Halakkivokkals name a cluster of six stars arlu sarkalu, a second one of three is called gotikuli (marble pits); a third constellation of five stars are called gotisarkalu (playing 'marble stars'). The evening star is known as deepa bachuva sarkalu (lamp-lighting star).

The rise of Belli in the pre-dawn hours stirs up activities in the peasant household. The Havik Brahmin considers the rise of Belli as the start of good time, a time free from evil spirits. It is safe to start a journey at this time. Their children wake up soon after the rise of Belli for studies. It is generally believed that the people who get up before the sunrise are healthier.

The Karivokkaligas call a group of four stars as halkinakudige (assembly of four) and another cluster as vokkaligarakudige (assembly of peasants).

Kandivars, a section of Namadharis, mostly inhabiting the evergreen forest areas, traditionally carry out tapping of toddy from Caryota urens, a wild palm. The tapper goes to the forest after dusk when a cluster of three stars murukashina chikki is visible. In the early hours, the tapper goes to the forest soon after the rise of Belli, or even before that, when the brighter Dodda-arkalu (big star), i.e., Jupiter, rises. The tappers who also did some traditional hunting for subsistence are able to read time in the sky by locating the positions of manchadakalu (legs of the cot), evidently referring to the four corner stars of the Orion or Hunter. Some other constellations are hakkimatti (flock of birds) and dhanakayuva hudugaru (shepherd boys).

The grahana (eclipse), of the sun and the moon, is generally considered as an evil happening. But the observances associated with grahana like fasting and abstaining from any serious physical work and other rituals apparently arose out of the Brahmanic influence in the region. An elderly Gamvokkal peasant expressed that grahana is a difficult time for surya and chandra which are divine bodies benefitting mankind and there is no harm in our viewing it and praying for an early end to it.

Amavasi (new moon day) is not considered a good day. The Haviks hold the view that amavasi has a disturbing effect on the psyche. It is a time of aggravation for the mentally ill. All the peasantry abstain from difficult physical work on amavasi day, neither do they strain their working cattle. Tree-climbing is almost a taboo on this day.

The Cosmocentric Vision

The different peasant communities, each forming a coherent group, notwithstanding the differences between them, which are more due to the diversity of environments in a humid tropical hilly region, are unified in their perceptions of bhutas. These perceptions are reflected more in their practical life and approach to nature than in their views. The peasants live in a cosmocentric universe having accepted them as part of their ecosystems, subjecting themselves to the elemental powers, in spite of their inherent capacities to dominate these powers as members of the human race. The early peasants, who inhabited the difficult Western Ghats region with its torrential rains, dense forests and ocean to the west, in the twilight period of the evolution of Hinduism, were able to preserve their views and life-styles for centuries in spite of the arrival of Brahminism about sixteen-hundred years ago. Along with Brahminism came elaborate ritualism and new textual traditions of religion and culture. Yet, by and large, the peasants lived in close communion with bhutas (elements of nature) without the barriers of elaborate rituals, mantras or priesthood. Many of their practices, carried forth to this day or to recent historical times, form the basis of our study.

The oral tradition and practices of the peasants of Uttara Kannada, in many ways, reflect the cosmocentric vision of man. Major incursions into their lives began with the arrival of Brahmins. Yet the tumultuous impact was with European colonialism — the Portuguese becoming the masters of Goa in the sixteenth century and the British domination in the nineteenth century. Before these incursions, the peasants, including the Havik Brahmin, lived in harmony with their ecosystems, modifying nature in several ways to secure niches of existence for them and, at the same time, making efforts to maintian the balance with its elements. The district is rich in the wreckage of the lofty oral traditions, which, in many ways, are in agreement with modern ecological principles, reflecting the cosmocentric vision of the peasants. We also find many peasant groups, even today, inhabiting some of the interior villages, clinging on to the ruins of their age-old traditions. According to the philosophical tradition, it is generally held that the reality of the subtler planes is responsible for the grosser planes, and, that, at a higher level of understanding, the distinction between the gross and the subtle gets obliterated.

The peasant who lives in the microcosm of his ecosystem is linked to several other ecosystems with material circulation and energy flow between them and all of them together form the biosphere. Indeed, according to the modern landscape approach, the peasant is not merely part of an ecosystem but of several ecosystems forming a landscape. Landscape is defined as 'a wide area where a cluster of interacting stands or ecosystems is represented in similar forms'. No ecosystem within a landscape is an island (Janzen, 1984). All ecosystems are 'open' and exchange energy, mineral nutrients and organisms (Noss, 1983).

In the traditional land use system of Uttara Kannada, the peasants, while clearing natural forests for cultivation, conserved substantial patches of them as inviolable reserves called kans. These kans often merge with ordinary forests (adavi or kadu), shifting cultivation (hakkal) fallows in different stages of vegetational succession, grazing lands (bena), cultivation sites (gadde or bailu), garden (totta), water bodies like kere, halla, hole etc. Such a mosaic landscape accounted for the high diversity of plant and animal life for which Uttara Kannada is famouns. Daniels (1989), in agreement with the principles of modern landscape ecology (Forman and Godron, 1986), recommends for the conservation of the birds of Uttara Kannada a landscape approach which 'ensures that the most valuable birds and also the gamma diversity of birds is maintained in the district'. Thus we find in the traditional landscape management, linkages between ecosystems ideal for conservation of maximum diversity.

The modern alternative agricultural systems, recommended for the Third World farmers, based on ecological principles of sustainability and stability (Altieri and Anderson, 1986) are surprisingly similar to the traditional landscape management system of the peasants of Uttara Kannada.


To the peasant, nature is itself spiritualized. In his world, woods, trees, soil, water, cliffs and caves are animated with spirits. Yet he has to clear forests, work with soil and tame water-bodies as well as hunt animals. The peasant communities, while clearing forests for cultivation or for pastures take care to leave substantial portions of the primeval forests untouched as sacred groves-cum-safety forests. Often known as kans or bana, these forests conserve biodiversity, protect the watershed, increase the heterogeniety of the landscape and supply many non-wood produce to the community which can be safely taken without affecting the forests in a major way.

We studied several of the sacred groves in an area with the least influence of Brahminism. Many of these groves have vacant spots as worshipping places, where the devotees make offerings to deities and stick tridents to fulfil their vows or make sacrifices of fowl or goat to propitiate them. The deities may be sometimes represented by anthills or crude stones. Of late icons with human forms are replacing the older ones, as the wild spirits are getting linked with the gods of the Hindu pantheon. The spirits permeating the sacred groves may be male or female. The common male spirits are Bhutappa and Jatakappa. The common female spirit is Choudi or Choudamma. There may be other male spirits like Betedevaru (hunter's god), Birappa (hero), Masti, Rachamma, etc. There is hardly any difference in the concept of the people between these several male spirits as well as female spirits. In a sense the male and female spirits are comparable to the Purusha and Prakriti of the ancient texts of India. In their original forms, retained even today, in many of the kans or bana the male and female spirits, especially Bhutappa or Jatakappa and Choudamma have no icons, though elsewhere, and more so outside Uttara Kannada, these deities have been identified with gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. These deities permeate the entire sacred groves. The appellations appa and amma applied to the male and female spirits signify that to the peasants these spirits are guardians of fields, cattle, water resources, forests and people. It seeems that these spirits of the village communities have been unfairly treated as evil spirits or shudradevatas in the texts on Indian religion, mainly because they are to be propitiated by animal sacrifices and are notorious for spreading diseases. However, for the peasants of many villages of Uttara Kannada, the sacred groves are temples. They worship the spirits who favour them if they go in the right path shown by the ancestors or do harm if they deviate. It should be noted that the deviations meriting such divine wrath include cutting of trees especially within the groves, untimely hunting, killing of wrong species of animals which may be totemic or sacred ones, as most of these wrong-doings have adverse environmental consequences.

The village landscape is dotted with several sacred trees with or without deities underneath them. For instance, the ficus tree, wherever it occurs, is sacred to the people. Many times the tree itself is permeated with the holy spirit. Recently, biologists have recognized the value of ficus sps. as a keystone plant resources of the tropical forests, fruiting at crucial times when most other trees do not bear fruits and thereby supporting many birds and animals (Terebogh, 1986).


Forests are to be cut down for agriculture, animals hunted for food or domesticated and killed for the same purpose. These activities are inevitable for subsistence. Cycling of elements through living organisms and environment and energy flow from sun passing through green plants to the animal consumers of first (herbivore), second (primary carnivore) or third (secondary carnivore) orders are important attributes of eco-systems of which man (a born omnivore) is merely a part. The peasant understood the inevitability of this destruction. He atoned for this destruction through protection of sacred groves and sacred trees, worship of cows, bull and monkey. Even deadly animals like cobra and tiger were worshipped in sacred groves dedicated to them: Hulidevaru kan for tiger and Nagara bana for cobra.

The peasants consider Sunday as the birthday of the coconut palm and abstain from climbing it or hurting it in any way on that day. Most peasants do not plough on Monday, the birthday of the bull. That people do not easily cut down trees or forests is evident from Buchanan's observation made in 1801, near Karwar:

The forests are the property of the gods of the villages in which they are situated, and the trees ought not to be cut without having leave from the Gauda or headman of the village, whose office is hereditary, and who here also is priest (pujari) to the temple of the village god.

Buchaman, 1870

The peasants hunted most of the time, communally, during specific seasons of the year only, and that too with the 'permission' or 'knowledge' of the guardian spirits of the village. They consumed flesh of domestic animals mostly after sacrificing to their deities. The peasants traditionally lived in earthen houses thatched with grass and palm leaves in spite of the abundant and the finest timbers of the world like teak and rosewood. The peasants did not destroy forests for timber and timber was not an important commodity for sale in the pre-British days. Their houses became one with the elements of nature once they were abandoned or when whole villages were vacated.


Hakkal (shifting cultivation), as practised by the small number of peasants during the pre-colonial period of the west coast of India, was perhaps the best mode of cultivation suitable for the hilly terrain. There are instances of land and civilization perishing due to over-exposure of tropical soils. Such may have been the case with the early Mayan civilization. Millet cultivation in the Yellow river basin of China, carried out as early as 4000 bc by unregulated clearing of forests resulted in enormous soil erosion of the uplands (Treshow, 1976). By the system of shifting cultivation, the abandoning of cultivation after a time to allow for the resprouting and reseeding of wild woody growth the soil is replenished by nutrients carried to the surface by deep-rooted trees and shrubs to spread over the ground as litter (Sauer, 1955).


The sacred groves, many of them as they exist today in Uttara Kannada, after over 150 years of forest-management by the state, have reduced to small vegetational islands. According to Mac Arthur and Wilson (1963) small or remote islands and islands with uniform topography have fewer species than large or complex islands or islands nearer the source of colonization. The new arrivals are virtually balanced by the extinction of older species within the islands. There is strong evidence to state that the Uttara Kannada peasants, with their cosmocentric outlook and spiritualization of nature, were able to modify the landscape in such a fashion so as to overcome the isolation effect of islands. The sacred groves were often continous with ordinary forests, shifting cultivation fallows in different stages of vegetational succession, grazing lands and several other natural and man-made habitats which provided continuity for complex cycling of matter and flow of energy. The sacred groves of Uttara Kannada, their attenuated form of the present-day notwithstanding, continue to be the best centres of bio-diversity, sheltering rare species and even helping in the restoration of natural vegetation in the surroundings.

In their view of the ecosystem, all social activities impinge directly or indirectly on ecological processes and are themselves affected by those same processes. Fauna, including man, vegetation, soil structure and micro-climate are intricately linked and mutually interdependent (Ellen, 1932). The traditional peasants of Uttara Kannada basically held such an outlook in his interaction with nature and was conscious in keeping the balance of the eco-system.

Need for Rethinking and Reorientation

Hindu cultural heritage, according to Sharma (1975), identifies and believes the oneness that identity in all lives and the same energy pervade in each and everything. The Bhagavad Gita states in Dhyana Yoga st. 30:

He who sees Me everywhere and sees all in Me, he never becomes lost to Me, nor do I become lost to him.

This approach is reflected in the life of the Uttara Kannada peasants and in his perception of the living and non-living environment. Such perceptions have declined in most of India with the ritualization of Hindu samskaras or sacraments, the pursuit of which according to Pandey (1949), was meant for, 'sanctifying the body, mind and intellect of an individual, so that he may become a full-fledged member of the community'. What caused this failure was that the keepers of these samskaras thought they could not create anything new and their only business was to collect and preserve. They regarded a slight variation as sin. Pandey continues, "To make the matter worse, the language of the procedure and mantras became unintelligible in course of time. This was the stage when the true spirit of the samskaras depart and their sculptures were left behind to be wroshipped by their blind followers."

Such a stage in the cultural and religious life of the Indian elite had adverse consequences on the peasantry as well. His attitude towards elements changed gradually as is reflected in his treatment of nature and the quality of his cosmic life which got eroded as well. His life which became more individualistic and discrete, estranging him more from the environment. The spirits pervading his universe vanished, subdued as rakshasas or evil bodies by the gods of the Hindu pantheon which evolved side by side. The more benevolent spirits or deities inhabiting the sacred groves or hill tops related to the major gods of the Hindu religion idolized in temples which replaced the sacred groves.

Dr. Radhakirshnan (1949), in his discourse on the conflict of religions, refers to the epics which relate the acceptance of new tribes and their gods into the old family circle. "The clash of cults and the contact of cultures do not, as a rule, result in a complete domination of one by the other. In all true contact there is an interchange of elements, though the foreign elements are given a new significance by those who accept them. The emotional attitudes attached to the old forms are transferred to the new which is fitted into the background of the old. Many tribes and races had mystic animals, and when the tribes entered the Hindu society the animals which followed them were made vehicles and companions of gods. The enlistment of Hanuman in the service of Rama signifies the meeting-point of early nature worship and later theism. The dancing of Krishna on Kaliya's head represents the subordination, if not the displacement, of serpent worship. Rama's breaking of the bow of Siva signifies the conflict between the Vedic ideal and the cult of Siva, who soon became the god of the south."

Kumar (1974) affirms this by pointing out to the cult of Shakti in India, which "has been an offshoot of primitive and universal worship of the cosmic energy visualized as the Divine Mother. This concept of Shakti, as we find in the Puranas, and other literature, is related more to the creative faculty, whereas in the Tantras and primitive beliefs, her descriptive aspect, is elaborately described." It may be observed that the concept of Choudamma in Uttara Kannada, as it exists in many interior villages unaffected by Brahminism, is more related to this creative faculty.

Bhattacharya (1975) is more specific in this matter. He considers aboriginal, tribal, non-Aryan genesis of the Mother-power who lives in the mountains, valleys, dales and caves. "In the Sakti temples of the South India preponderance and importance of tribes as chief participants is cleverly kept under cover by Brahminical interests. This cover is easily supplied by legendary tales about the Great Mother assuming many forms." In the more populated areas of Uttara Kannada, temples were erected to house this newly-evolved mother goddess. In the whole of Kerala, Bhagavati temples appeared presumably replacing the groves, a process which is infilterating into the remotest villages of Uttara Kannada. This is the repetition of the process started during the epic period and it has had a significant influence on man's approach to the elements.

Similar transformations have taken place for the male spirit also. Williams (1883) points to the classical male deity, Ayenar, of South India. He is a very popular village god, who guards the fields, crops and herds of the peasantry and drives away their enemies the devils and fiends. Ayenar was always associated with groves of trees. He was also known as Sasta. Thus we find that Ayenar’s concept role are similar to the roles of the Bhutas of Uttara Kannada. Just like Ayenar is addressed as Ayenar-appan (father), the Bhutas are known as Bhutappa to the peasantry. The popular deity of Kerala, Aiyappa, is also known as Sasta. Most of the Aiyappa temples are situated in groves or dense forests, e.g., the famous Aiyappa of Sabarimala forests. It is significant that this Aiyappa has been accepted in the Hindu pantheon as one of the sons of Shiva.

With the evolution of the Hindu gods and the arrival of the "popular Hinduism" in a big way, the masses became more estranged from the elements, as represented by nature itself. The sacredness of the plant kingdom itself got reduced to a few symbols like the peepal tree and tulsi plant and of animal kingdom to the holy cow or monkey. The elaborate ritualism prescribed by the scriptures and blindly practised by the priests symbolized the Hindu culture and outlook, and narrowed down the cosmocentric vision.

The peasants of Uttara Kannada, isolated as they were through several centuries in densely-forested hilly terrain of torrential rains and ferocious wild animals, have suddenly woken up to the 'development of' the rest of India. As modern ecology grapples to trace its links with the elements and marvels at the discovery of the amazing resource management systems of the traditional people (Gadgil and Berkes, 1991), the simple life-style of the peasants of Uttara Kannada, is rapidly transforming into an anthropocentric one and losing its millenia-old links with the primary elements.


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