In Langscape Magazine Articles

Monocultures of the Fields, Monocultures of the Mind | The Acculturation of Indigenous Farming of…

January 12, 2018

by Kanna K. Siripurapu, Sabnam Afrein, and Prasant Mohanty

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A Kandha woman with the distinct facial tattoos of her sub-group (Kutia Kandha). Photo: Sue Price, 2017

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The connection between agriculture and major festivals of India, traditionally and predominantly an agrarian society, is unmistakable. The Indigenous agro-biodiversity and cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent likely co-evolved over thousands of years in synchrony and harmony with each other. The winds are fast changing, however, and there is a shift in traditional culture and practices across the subcontinent, perhaps from the influence of globalization and aggressive industrialization of the agriculture sector. Fortunately, a few pockets of the subcontinent, inhabited predominantly by Indigenous communities, still retain remnants of the otherwise fast-eroding Indigenous agro-biocultural diversity.

This is the story of the agro-biocultural diversity of the Kandha community, one of the main Indigenous communities of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, India. The Kandha population is unevenly dispersed across the state, with main concentration in the central and southwestern regions of the state. The word Kandha means “hillock,” a name given to these people by mainstream society. The members of this community, however, prefer to identify themselves after the language they speak, known as Kui loku, Kui enju, or Kuinga, which belongs to the Dravidian linguistic group.

The agrarian Kandha community worships nature, and their main festivals are celebrated around agriculture and agro-biodiversity. The four main Kandha festivals all have a strong connection and are directly linked with the crop-growing season and agricultural practices and with agro-biodiversity. The agriculture season opens with the observation of the festival known as Podho Jatara (or Meriah Jatara), followed in order by Bihan Puja (or occasionally Burlang Jatara), Tako Jatara, and Anaka Jatara.

By and large, the Indigenous agricultural system maintains the vestiges of the ancient shifting cultivation culture and practices and still follows a similar cycle. At the beginning of the cycle, people hold Podho Jatara. Podho Jatara is a communal event, which is celebrated once in three to seven years by a group of six to seven neighboring villages that work together to clear a patch of forest for cultivation. The three- to seven-year cycle of the festival coincides with the local shifting cultivation cycle. That cycle, however, varies for different groups of villages, and so does the celebration of Podho Jatara. As the villages usually are a large network of extended families who are invited to participate in the celebrations, that circumstance makes this festival an annual event for most of the villages.

Depending on the local seasonal pattern, Podho Jatara takes place in March or April, in anticipation of the upcoming kharif season (agricultural season, during the monsoon period). Preparations for the celebration, however, happen much in advance. The chieftains and priests of different villages come together during the months of January and February to talk about which fertile forest patches in the hills to choose for cultivation. The hills are locally called gudia, hence the word gudia chaso (hill cultivation). After the decision is made on the hill to be chosen and the patch of forest to be cleared for shifting cultivation, the village leaders will send a message to all the partner villages. Either the village chieftain or the priest takes the lead and decides which rituals should be performed during the clearing of forest vegetation and the following Podho Jatara celebration. The village priest performs a brief ritual at the forest patch selected for cultivation. A tiny earthen mound, called a terupapkoni, is erected, and chicken are sacrificed to satiate Mother Earth, locally known as Dharani Penu.

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Symbol of Dharani Penu (Mother Earth). Photo: Aditya Singhdeo, 2015

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The residents of all the participating villages share both the costs of the festival and the labor needed to clear the forested land. People donate money, livestock, or grains towards celebration of the festival. The festival includes Indigenous rituals and animal sacrifice, usually the buffalo (podho meaning “buffalo” in the local Kui language), to satiate Dharani Penu. The celebration normally lasts three to four days, and a buffalo will be prepared for sacrifice. On the first day, it will be taken on a procession around all the participating villages. After the procession, the buffalo will be brought to the host village, put on a leash, and tied to the totem pole (Dharani Manda) carved out of a huge log and usually standing right in the middle of every Kandha village.

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Dharani Munda, the totem pole of Mother Earth. Photo: Aditya Singhdeo, 2015

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On the second day, residents of all the participating villages congregate at the host village. Guests are invited into the village, and a feast filled with traditional music, songs, and dance follows. Guests are offered the local beer (called katul), which is brewed from little millet (Panicum sumatrense). Both women and men relish katul, as it is believed to be an amazing body coolant for this time of the year, which is the hottest season, heralding the onset of summer. The festival also provides a crucial opportunity for socializing and for strengthening and reinforcing social bonds and social networks.

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Little millet beer served during a communal feast. Photo: Aditya Singhdeo, 2014

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During Podho Jatara, men play the traditional musical instruments, and both men and women sing duets, which are as follows:

Men: “Oh! My dear brothers and sisters and everyone, please come together; let’s go, let’s go and prepare the land, together.”

Women: “Yes! Let’s go, let’s go… let’s prepare!”

Men: “Oh! My dear brothers and sisters and everyone, please come together, let’s give Mother Earth the presents of food, grains, chicken, beer, and wine.”

Women: “Yes! Let’s give, let’s give to Mother Earth!”

Men: “Oh! Mother Earth, we are neither rich nor affluent; we are poor and can’t offer you expensive gifts every year. So, we offer you the gift of a buffalo, food, and wine once in three to seven years; please accept our gift, and protect our seeds and crops and bless us with the bounty of harvest.”

Women: “Oh! Mother earth!!”

After two days of feast filled with traditional food, drink, music, and dance, the buffalo is sacrificed, and its blood is offered to Mother Earth and to water bodies located in and around the village. Residents of all the participating villages receive small amounts of buffalo blood, which they will carry back and offer to Mother Earth and water bodies in their respective villages. Both the carcass and the blood of the buffalo are carried up the hill to the forest patch that has been selected for cultivation and are offered to Mother Earth. After satiating Mother Earth, the forest patch is cleared communally, and the land is prepared for cultivation before the advent of the monsoon season.

Following Podho Jatara is another communal festival, Bihan Puja (seed festival), celebrated in May or June, just before the inception of the sowing season. During the annual Bihan Puja, heirloom seeds are collected from every household of the village and deposited in one place, usually near the totem pole of Dharani Penu. The heirloom seeds thus collected are piled in a heap and mixed together. The heap is divided into equal parts, proportionate to the number of households present in the village. Every household receives its share of heirloom seeds, which the family will use for cultivation.

The agrarian Kandha community worships nature, and their main festivals are celebrated around agriculture and agro-biodiversity.

There are many remarkable aspects of this extraordinary festival: among others, it secures heirloom seed availability for every household of the village, it helps in conservation of the Indigenous agro-biodiversity, and it reinforces social bonding. The equal-sharing mechanism ensures that every household receives the same amount of heirloom seeds regardless of the amount a person contributes, and nobody is deprived of seeds, thereby ensuring food security for the entire village. In some instances, when a person develops an improved seed variety, that variety too will be distributed among the entire village through the equal-sharing arrangement, thus improving and conserving the Indigenous agro-biodiversity. The entire village is served a feast with traditional food (usually of millets and both cultivated and wild yam and leafy veggies), country beer of little millet, and country wine prepared from the flowers of the mahua tree (Mahua longifolia).

Burlang Jatara is a similar festival, but celebrated only occasionally at a much larger scale by a group of villages. Burlang Jatara (burlang meaning “punnet,” or small basket for fruit and vegetables, in the local language) is celebrated only during a large-scale seed deficit or an unexpected natural calamity due to which heirloom seeds are lost in the entire region. Several villages come together as a group to celebrate this festival, during which they will display and exchange heirloom seeds. The festival usually lasts for over a week. The host village will be selected by the chieftains, and a message will be sent to all the neighboring villages. Both men and women arrive at the host village in a procession, usually men playing the Indigenous musical instruments and women carrying different varieties of Indigenous heirloom seeds encased in small, decorated earthen pots or punnets.

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Kandha women performing a traditional dance during the Burlang Jatara celebrations. Photo: Aditya Singhdeo, 2013

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The host villagers invite their guests with merriment. Country beer brewed from little millet is served, and a weeklong feast filled with traditional food, music, songs, and dance follows. Women arriving from different villages carry different heirloom seeds and place them together at a single spot, usually an elevated stage specially built for that purpose. The containers with seeds are worshipped for the entire week. While the community is engaged in socializing, the chieftains stand guard over the cache of seeds, to protect them from potential damage or theft. At the culmination of the festival, heirloom seeds are exchanged and distributed among the participants; amid dance and music, guests leave for their respective villages with seeds to start the cropping season.

The next main Indigenous festival is Tako Jatara (tako meaning “mango seed” locally), which is celebrated in September or October. This festival marks the harvest of Indigenous maize, millet, and certain strains of Indigenous rice, also known locally as the “early harvest.” The panicles of Indigenous barnyard millet (Echinochloa frumentacea), little millet, and maize are collected. The festival involves the performance of traditional rituals including prayers, sacrifice of chicken, and offerings of millet, rice, yam, and katul beer to Dharani Penu. The festival concludes amid music and feasting for the entire village.

The last main Indigenous festival is Anaka Jatara (anaka meaning “squash” or “bottle gourd” locally), which is celebrated in January or February. The festival marks the “late harvest” of crops of different varieties of pulses and lentils. At this time, the siali shrub (Bauhinia vahlii) also comes to fruiting. Considered a local delicacy, siali pods are roasted and the seeds consumed. Like the other Indigenous festivals, Anaka Jatara is celebrated communally and centers around agriculture. Pods of different pulses and lentils are offered to Dharani Penu wrapped in siali leaves, and katul is served to the entire village in a container made from dried anaka. Music and a communal feast conclude the festival.

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Villagers guarding the cache of seeds deposited during Burlang Jatara. Photo: Aditya Singhdeo, 2014

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Despite its immeasurable socio-cultural, economic, and ecological benefits, the biocultural diversity of the Kandha community is under serious threat from the invasion of industrial agriculture and religious conversions. Many villages have abandoned the Indigenous crops and festivals. People recount that Indigenous rice varieties such as jadumanisaru, nagelsuan, tinguna, sires (aromatic rice), kuiska (aromatic rice with large panicles), and so forth, which were cultivated some thirty years ago, have become extinct locally, replaced by the high-yielding varieties of nabin, sarathi, lalat, and jajati rice strains promoted by the government under the state-supported Large-size Adivasi Multi-Purpose Co-operative Societies. Many Kandha villages gave up cultivation of the Indigenous coarse grains (millets) and pulses that had been grown under the Indigenous millet-based mixed farming systems. Instead, they adopted monocultures of rice, hybrid maize, and cotton.

The festival … provides a crucial opportunity for socializing and for strengthening and reinforcing social bonds and social networks.

The Kandha communities have also started to shy away from celebrating Indigenous festivals and from consuming the traditional katul beer. The shift in the Indigenous culture is due partly to the notion that such practices have become redundant after the government started supplying high-yielding varieties of grains, and partly to the feeling that their Indigenous crops and cultural practices are inferior or against the precepts of the newly adopted religion. The prevalence of an inferiority complex among the Kandha community in relation to their biocultural diversity is a consequence of the doctrine imposed on them by the government’s Agriculture Department officials, according to which Indigenous agro-biodiversity and agricultural practices produce inferior yields, and also promoted by pastors, who preach that Indigenous biocultural practices are contrary to the teachings of the Holy Bible.

The contributions of Indigenous farmers to conservation of agro-biodiversity are unparalleled, yet they are downplayed and ignored by so-called scholars and professionals. For instance, the International Rice Research Institute has produced only two strains of rice after fifty years of continuous research. On the other hand, research has shown that Indigenous farmers of India have produced nearly 400,000 strains of rice, suitable to different local agro-climatic conditions, cultures, and cuisines.

Heirloom seeds … are piled in a heap and mixed together .… Every household receives its [equal] share of … seeds, which the family will use for cultivation.

Yet, despite their incomparable success and the crucial role they have played as conservationists, plant breeders, and sentinels of agro-biodiversity, Indigenous farmers are still considered as ignorant and as passive recipients of aid by modern-day agricultural extension officers and professionals. Much of this is the result of the top-down formal agricultural education and research system of India, which considers farmers as recipients rather than as equal partners in conservation and improvement of the indigenous agro-biodiversity. The increased industrialization and top-down approach of the agriculture sector in India has led to not only to the alienation of farmers and the curtailment of their rights, but also to a significant reduction in the indigenous agro-biodiversity and to increased dependency on just a few plant varieties to meet food and fiber needs  —  a trend scholars term “genetic erosion.”

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Offerings to Dharani Penu (Mother Earth): little millet beer in earthen jars, millet and rice on siali leaves. Photo: Aditya Singhdeo, 2014

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This genetic erosion, caused by the erosion of biocultural diversity as a result of aggressive industrialization of the agriculture sector and promotion of pervasive monocultures, has far-reaching consequences. A study conducted by Azim Premji University, India, suggests that a changing food culture could be the cause of an increase in malnutrition among the tribes and rural communities of India. The study found that half a decade ago the diet of rural communities in India included “pearl millet, barley, twenty types of green leaves, bamboo shoots, tubers, beaten rice, different types of corn, black sesame, wild berries, a lot more variety of wild meat and many more, but today rice has become the staple food of tribes and rural communities and meat of poultry chicken has replaced wild meats.”

It is a complex situation with many actors and factors actively at play, and we need to learn more about the value of Kandha agro-biocultural diversity and the impending threats it is facing. But it may be safe to say that action is urgently needed to protect this rich and diverse biocultural system, which has served the Kandha community so well for generations, from the homogenizing forces of acculturation.

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Acknowledgements: We warmly thank the residents of Betabadi, Tidipadhar, Ghumuragaon, and Baliapani villages of Tumudibandha block, Kandhamal district, Odisha, India, for offering their precious time and hospitality, sharing valuable information, and providing insights into their incredible culture and knowledge, without which it would have been impossible for us to write this article.

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Kanna K. Siripurapu, Sabnam Afrein, and Prasant Mohanty are affiliated with NIRMAN, a nonprofit that works to promote the sustainable development of marginalized agrarian, tribal/Indigenous, and forest-dwelling communities in India, particularly their food and livelihood security. At NIRMAN, Kanna is Program Manager, Sabnam is a Program Associate, and Prasant is a founding member and the current Secretary cum Executive Director.


Further Reading

Anand, C. (2016). Changing food culture could be cause of malnutrition: Research. The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/Changing-food-culture-could-be-cause-of-malnutrition-Research/article14505988.ece

Kumar N. A., Nambi, V. A., Rani, M. G., King, E. D. I. O., Chaudhury, S. S., & Mishra, S. (2015). Community agro biodiversity conservation continuum: An integrated approach to achieve food and nutrition security. Current Science, 109(3), 474.

Nautiyal, S., Bisht, V., Rao, K. S., & Maikhuri, R. K. (2008). The role of cultural values in agrobiodiversity conservation: A case study from Uttarakhand, Himalaya. Journal of Human Ecology, 23(1), 1–6.

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute. (2013). Kandha. Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India: Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute.

Singh, A. (2017). Revisiting the status of cultivated plant species agrobiodiversity in India: An Overview. Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy, 83(1), 151–174. doi:10.16943/ptinsa/2016/v82/48406


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