Nirmala was celebrated by a local official in India’s Chhattisgarh state for being the first Birhor girl to complete class 12. A photo that accompanies the Times of India news story last week shows the District Collector for the Jashpur District, Nileshkumar Mahadev Kshirsagar, congratulating the girl in a ceremonial setting.

A leaf from a sal tree in West Bengal, India
A leaf from a sal tree in West Bengal, India (Photo by J. M. Garg in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Nirmala says she hopes to continue her education at a college. Her parents, like many Birhor, work as day laborers and gather forest products for a living, particularly leaves from the sal trees. Her father, Kunwar Ram, was immensely proud of his daughter and said that she should “follow her dreams.”

Nirmala credits the support of her father for her success so far. He has encouraged her to get an education. She said that her parents “want to send me to college and I will definitely fulfill their dream by studying hard. It is a huge thing for people like them to even think of me going [to] college.” The family lives in Jhargaon, a village of 1,100 people in the Jashpur District of Chhattisgarh.

The reporter quoted the comments of the father, who said, in part, “I am proud of my daughter’s success and she can study further as much as she wants.” But Jageshwar Singh, the chief of the local Birhor community, explained that the family’s support for the girl is not shared by many others, who are opposed to Nirmala going to school.

The cover photo on Adhikary’s book Society and World View of the Birhor shows a Birhor man cutting Bauhinia vines in a forest tree
The cover photo on Adhikary’s book Society and World View of the Birhor shows a Birhor man cutting Bauhinia vines in a forest tree

Confirming that she is the first Birhor girl to complete her general schooling, he explained that the community is still generally opposed to girls getting educated. “The tribal people are highly superstitious regarding girls’ education,” he said. They pressured the family to remove the girl from school and though the parents wavered at one point, they swung back to give her their support.

The reporter concluded by quoting the supportive local chief again: “I try my best to convince people of my tribe to shed superstition and let girls study and become self-reliant.”

This Times of India article reaffirms and punctuates the point made in last week’s report in this website about gender equality among the Batek: that the peaceful societies vary widely in their attitudes toward women’s equality. Some, like the Batek, treat women as equals while others like this Birhor community do not—though that appears to be changing.

 

It is not too soon to begin celebrating the centenary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees American women the right to vote. Already, our news media are reporting on local celebrations of the growing gender equality in the U.S. that the amendment symbolized, which will presumably culminate on the actual anniversary of the amendment, August 26, 1920. But the celebrations of the right to vote can’t mask the fact of hidden, and not so hidden, discrimination that persists against women in this country and in the other nations of the world that also guarantee women the right to vote.

ing two of his kids in a stream, a tributary of the Lebir River in Malaysia
Batek man bathing two of his kids in a stream, a tributary of the Lebir River in Malaysia (Photo courtesy of Kirk and Karen Endicott)

It might be tempting to explore the issue of gender equality in the peaceful societies, but such a task would be beyond the scope of one news report. Besides, the fact is on this particular issue, the societies differ widely from one another. While they typically accord a high measure of respect to women, and there is little actual violence against them, equality is a different story. Except in one society—the Batek.

The Batek have a highly egalitarian society. Unlike many hunter/gatherer societies, which accord more value to men’s hunting than to women’s gathering, while the Batek men normally hunt and the women usually gather the vegetables, both foods are valued equally. Both sexes are part of the sharing network of foods in their camps. In essence, men sometimes gather vegetables and women sometimes (though rarely) hunt—they have no rigid rules separating their gender roles. Both sexes gather the rattan which they trade for outside goods, and men and women both participate in government-sponsored agricultural activities.

Marriages are based on equality, compatibility, and affection; couples make joint decisions about movements and food-getting. They live companionable lives, working together and enjoying their leisure time with one another. If the warmth of the relationship erodes, either can divorce the other and count on the support of the band to assist with child-support and food-sharing (Endicott, Karen Lampell, 1984).

Kirk Endicott speaking at a conference in 2011
Kirk Endicott speaking at a conference in 2011 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Kirk M. Endicott and Karen L. Endicott define gender equal societies as ones where neither sex controls the other or has greater prestige. By this definition, the Batek enjoy one of the few gender equal societies on earth—at least they did in 1975 when the Endicotts did most of their fieldwork among them.

When they arrived at the Batek settlement, the anthropologists discovered (Endicott, Kirk M. and Karen L. Endicott, 2008) that the people did not follow the patterns of other hunting and gathering societies, with only the men doing the hunting and women doing the gathering. Batek society was different. The men and women sometimes worked together on hunting or gathering tasks, at other times each sex separately hunted or gathered, and frequently they assisted each other with childcare.

The “headman” of the band was a woman named Tanyogn, a born leader of her community. A middle-aged, energetic individual, at times she had to strenuously advocate for her people by confronting outsiders. For instance, one day outside traders tried to blame the Batek because some cut rattan had floated away on a flood. She shouted at them that they were the fools who had piled the harvest on the bank of the river. The Batek, she said, would have had the common sense to pile products like that safely in the forest.

Another time, some Malays took corn from a Batek garden. The head lady confronted them and demanded that they pay the victims two jugs of rice or she would report them to the government. They paid.

Tanyogn was constantly involved in the affairs of the community and she led by example, pitching in to work with others on many projects. She got the two anthropologists involved by having them weigh produce for them, in order to help keep outside traders honest. She was a hands-on leader, a strong personality, and an expert on many subjects. The Batek were under no obligation to follow her recommendations but they normally did.

A Batek man shows tourists how he uses his blowpipe in a village along the Tembeling River
A Batek man shows tourists how he uses his blowpipe in a village along the Tembeling River (Photo by chee hong on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The Endicotts did notice that the Batek recognize physiological differences between the sexes in addition to the obvious reproductive functions. Men have a stronger breath than women, they believe, which explains why they can use blowpipes more effectively to hit monkeys higher in the trees than women can. They also think that men have greater strength for climbing tall trees, though young women also climb reasonably well.

Among the Batek, the nuclear family is formed by a willing agreement between a man and woman to live together. After they are married, the couple make all decisions jointly, though one or the other may be the more vocal. Either can simply walk away from the marriage at any time. The Batek do not always favor meat, the normal result of men’s efforts, as the preferred food. During the season when fruit is plentiful, they will eat it instead of everything else, including meat. Karen Endicott concluded that the domination of men over women in many societies is based on established authority structures; that male domination is not universal, hunting is not necessarily a pre-eminent role, and meat is not necessarily the most highly prized food.

A Batek woman
A Batek woman (Photo by Heng Fu Ming on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

However, after a number of years of exposure to the outside world, gender relationships appear to have been affected in some Batek communities, as a few news stories over the past 15 years have described. The status of women may be starting to fray in some communities due to outside influences. Patrick Mills, the author of a scholarly report published in 2015, observed that recent developments such as the employment of Batek men may be threatening their traditions.

Mills provides careful background in his report. He writes that the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MyCAT), organized in 2003 as an association of several Malaysian conservation organizations, recognizes that the Batek possess a special knowledge of the forest and of wildlife patterns in them, particularly the habits of the threatened tigers. The group began employing the Batek in tourism activities. MyCAT started what it called “Weekend CAT walks” (“CAT” stands for Citizens Action for Tigers) in the region between the Taman Negara National Park and the central forest reserve. Volunteer tourists hike through forested areas along with experts, documenting such signs of tiger activity as nests and pug marks—as well as poaching activities, which the teams carefully dismantle when they see them. MyCAT includes the Batek as guides for these expeditions.

A Malayan tiger
A Malayan tiger (Photo by Jean on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A Malaysian social organization, Ecoteer, became the organizer of these weekend projects. It employs the Batek as guides in the Weekend CAT Walks. Mr. Mills, who is the Volunteer Coordinator of the project for Ecoteer, focused his report specifically on the Batek community of Batu Jalang, located on the western border of the national park. Mills made many observations about the Batek based on his experiences and his research, but his comments about their knowledge and connections to the forest and the possible deterioration of their gender relationships may be of most interest to those concerned with their peacefulness.

The author pointed out that the Batek near the national park have become more and more dependent on farming and wage labor, which help separate them from their connections to the forest and threaten their traditional social structure. Furthermore, most of the jobs have been reserved for men, prompting them to become the primary wage earners in their families, much like the surrounding majority Malay society. As a result, Batek women in that community have become dependent on men and have taken on more subservient roles in their families.

An elderly Batek man
An elderly Batek man (Photo by Heng Fu Ming on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In a parallel development, Daniel Quilter, the founder of Ecoteer, recognized that the forest knowledge of the Batek made them ideal for conservation work which would help protect the tigers, such as tracking, establishing camera traps, and collecting data. “They have the basic skills to do everything themselves,” Quilter explained. If the Batek had “a bit more focus on things like how to use the GPS and data recording, then we could really start building a good map of animal movements.” Mills wrote that further training for the Batek would allow them to gather data such as seasonal changes of tiger populations that would then suggest better conservation strategies.

Employment in these kinds of forest-based activities would not only be helpful for the conservation goals of the organizations, it would also foster an alternative to wage labor and farming. But the critical issue became the fact that the guiding jobs were only being taken by men, even though Batek women have an equal knowledge of the forest. In order to address this issue, MyCAT and Ecoteer introduced activities that involve Batek women with the volunteer tourists, including leading camping trips and foraging. As a result, the volunteer tourists are gaining a richer knowledge of Batek society, while the Batek are more equally earning income and sharing their knowledge of both their hunting and their gathering. As of the 2015 date of the report, the effort was still rather small, with only a handful of male guides for the CAT walks and a group of 6 to 8 women who were leading foraging trips and camping.

Batek kids
Batek kids (Photo by Heng Fu Ming on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Mr. Quilter held a meeting in August 2015 with members of the Batek village in an effort to explore concerns about the program. The Batek welcomed the new forms of employment but some of their elders were concerned about the numbers of outsiders who might come into their village. Too many visitors might lead the Batek to reveal too much of their traditional knowledge. For his part, Mr. Quilter described his concerns about the lack of sharing among the Batek families of the different opportunities that were being offered to them. The meeting concluded that no more than 10 outsiders per day should be permitted to visit the community, and that the Batek should introduce a rotation system among themselves to better share the benefits of the employment.

The point of all this is hope. If the evidence suggests that even a traditionally gender-equal society can face the stresses of an outside, male-dominated world and reassert its traditional values, dare we hope that women in that world can also overcome continuing discrimination and build a culture of peacefulness based on gender equality? Dare we hope?

 

A nonprofit business flourishing in a village of Mexico’s Oaxaca state is inspired by traditional Zapotec values and the ideals of Mohandas Gandhi. A story in Yes! magazine last week describes the revival of the traditional spinning culture of the village, its adoption of effective business practices, and the influence of the Mahatma.

Dancers from Miahuatlan during a Guelaguetza celebration
Dancers from Miahuatlan during a Guelaguetza celebration (Photo by yaxchibonam on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The story begins in San Sebastian Rio Hondo, a poor Zapotec town in the rugged, forested hills of the Miahuatlán District, in the Sierra Sur Region of Oaxaca State, about 75 miles south of Oaxaca City. Around 50 years ago the economy of the town changed in part from spinning and weaving in homes to the purchase of cheap, industrial clothing.

Eliseo “Cheo” Ramírez, born in the town 32 years ago, tried at age 16 to flee the growing poverty by heading north toward the U.S. But he nearly died while crossing the desert, so he gave up that prospect and focused his energies on co-founding a nonprofit textile business called Khadi Oaxaca. His vision, shared with his co-founder, was to regenerate a sustainable way of life for his community based on their traditional economic activity.

Khadi spinning in India
Khadi spinning in India (Free image from Pixabay.com)

The co-founders of the new business were Mark “Marcos” Brown, the son of an American businessman, and his wife Kalindi Attar. A much older man than Ramirez, Brown had spent time in 1974 as a teenager in San Sebastian and had developed a life-long fondness for the town. He later traveled to India and had the privilege of living for two years in Gandhi’s ashram. There he learned about satyagraha and the importance to the Mahatma of handspun cloth called khadi, which had become symbolic of India’s independence. Khadi signified local pride and resistance to the outside, British industrial, control of the economy.

Brown vowed to live according to Gandhian values and to see how, based on them, he could help his friends in San Sabastian. In 2010 he moved to the town with a charkha, a Gandhian spinning wheel, and a plan to get the women of the community involved with spinning once again. The village carpenter replicated the charkha and Brown gave it to Ramirez and his wife Felipa, teaching them how to spin with it.

With Ramirez and his wife in charge of spreading the spinning, the partners soon had 20 women, most of whom were grandmothers, involved. Their hand labor, combined with the skills of other artisans, began producing a range of textiles that the businessmen were selling widely in Mexico and the United States. The profits went back to the spinners, weavers, and others who had produced the cloth.

Until this spring, Attar and Ramírez attended fashion shows representing their company and found that people would often ignore other exhibitors but stop at their small booth. They were attracted by the hand-crafted textiles on display.

Gandhi spinning yarn on a charkha in the late 1940s
Gandhi spinning yarn on a charkha in the late 1940s (Photographer unknown, in Wikimedia)

Brown, in his comments  to the journalist, Tracy L. Barnett, quoted Gandhi’s outlook on small communities like San Sebastian and their ways: Brown said, “(Gandhi) would always say, when we talk about village economics, if it comes from a place of nonviolence, of a truly sacred economics, then you don’t need any commercialism; you don’t need to market that which has its essence and its beginning in goodness.”

The nonprofit business has grown rapidly over the past ten years. The managers have raised the pay scale for the thread spinners nearly four-fold, from 400 to 1500 pesos per kilo of thread the spinner produces. The thread production employs 350 spinners, a cottage industry that has revived the prospects for prosperity in the community.

The pandemic, however, has shut down the expos, which drew tourists to the Khadi Oaxaca textile products. This development is hurting the sales in a variety of ways that Ms. Barnett explains. In response, the company has developed an online presence and it has not had to cut back on the extent of the spinning. Despite the lockdown policies in effect in Mexico, Khadi Oaxaca has been able to expand its number of active spinners by adding 100 more.

Gandhi would be proud of them.

 

A nightmare for the Kadar is returning. Kerala announced last week that the State Electricity Board has been granted permission to resume planning a large power dam on the Chalakudy River. The proposed dam, which has generated extensive news coverage over the years, would harm or destroy a couple Kadar villages and inundate the habitat for many animal and bird species in the Athirappilly Vazhachal forest.

A stream in the Athirappilly Vazhachal forest
A stream in the Athirappilly Vazhachal forest (Photo by Jaseeem Hamza in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

At least three Indian news sources reported on the renewal of the threat: the New Indian Express, Frontline, and Livemint.com. The news sources reported that since the latest clearance for the project from the national government had expired in 2018, it asked the state of Kerala if it needed another extension. The state government replied that it did and it issued a No Objection Certificate to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). The issuance of the NOC ignited the fervor among environmentalists and concerned Kadar.

The Chairman of the KSEB, N. S. Pillai, sought to reassure those concerned about the renewal of a project that most had thought was sordid history. He said that the issuance of the NOC by the state simply means that the electricity board has permission to continue studying the project, which has been studied extensively since it was first proposed 40 years ago. The NOC simply means that the dam “can be implemented only with the mutual consent of the ruling party and the opposition and all that. That will take another couple of years,” he said.

A traditional Kadar community, photographed sometime before 1909
A traditional Kadar community, photographed sometime before 1909 (Image from L.K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, Cochin Tribes and Castes, vol. 1, p.24, in the public domain)

The news reports included discussions of the effects of the power dam on the Kadar communities as well as the destruction of the forest. The proposed construction will violate the rights of the people, guaranteed under India’s landmark Forest Rights Act of 2006. That act gives the traditional societies the power to reject projects that they feel will adversely affect them.

S. P. Ravi, the leader of the Chalakudi River Protection Forum made that point crystal clear. “The Kadar tribe in Vazhachal forest holds community forest rights over 4,000 hectares of forest land in the area. The project cannot be implemented without their consent,” he said.

Ms. Geetha at the river that she is trying to protect
Ms. Geetha at the river that she is trying to protect (Photo by Parineeta Dandekar on SANDRP website, Creative Commons license)

Ms. V. K. Geetha, the almost legendary leader of the Vazhachal Kadar community, has been monitoring the situation, despite the fact that she is undergoing treatment for a liver disease. She told one reporter that their community at Vazhachal was the first tribal settlement in India where the people gained their rights over their forest lands.

The government will have to recognize the rights of the tribal assembly when it meets to discuss the situation. She told another reporter that the Kadar have not changed their minds about the project. It will be “stiffly opposed,” she said.

 

Dr. Bahari Belaton, a Semai scholar, has been promoted to a high-level academic dean position in Malaysia. According to an enthusiastic news story about him in the New Straits Times last week, he is the first Orang Asli person to reach that level of academic achievement.

The entrance gate of the Universiti Sains Malaysia
The entrance gate of the Universiti Sains Malaysia (Photo by Dyndegger in Wikimedia, Creative Commons License)

Bahari received a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1989 from the South Australian Institute of Technology and a PhD from Leeds University in 1995. He has been employed by the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) for 24 years, specializing in network security and computer graphics. His most recent achievement was his appointment last week as Dean of the School of Computer Sciences at USM. He also serves as head of two different departments in the university.

Audrey Dermawan, the NST journalist, quotes Dr. Bahari’s refreshing approach toward academia: “My aim in life is to serve, provide my expertise and contribute my capabilities to USM, my students, my community and my family.”

A tin dredge at Tanjung Tualang
A tin dredge at Tanjung Tualang (Photo by lets.book in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

He was the fifth of seven siblings and was raised in the remote Semai village of Tangka Cermin, located about 20 km from Tanjung Tualang, the nearest town in Perak state. There was no electric service in the village in the 1960s when he was a child, but the community was fortunate to receive clean water from some tin miners who lived close by. Water from the three pipes was shared by the villagers.

It was clearly a stroke of good luck that he survived. His father died while he was still a child as did five of his six siblings. An elder sister, now retired, became a nurse at a hospital in Gombak. His illiterate mother raised the two children, making ends meet through her work on nearby farms and from gathering in the forests. Although she may not have appreciated the value of education, she supported his needs for schooling by providing funds for his shoes, school uniforms, and pocket money.

Semai village
Semai village (Photo by Albert Freeman on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

While rural life in Perak was hard, Bahari also got support from many outsiders. “Recognition and support provided by teachers and the school community played a crucial role,” he told the writer. His teachers gave him leadership positions in the school.

He concludes that such support from individuals for others at the bottom of the social hierarchy is extremely important. His own experiences were “the game changers for my life,” he said. He urged the Semai and the other Orang Asli people of Malaysia to continue to cherish their own values but at the same time to be tolerant and humble toward others and to get along with the dominant groups in the nation.

Some Amish living in the Central Maine town of Unity were willing to tell a reporter, Hannah Yechivi, how they are coping with the coronavirus pandemic. According to her news report on May 26, they are mostly following the orders from the state without too much disruption in their lives.

An Amish farm in Maine
An Amish farm in Maine (Photo by Katherine H on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

There are about 20 Amish homes in Unity, which is in rural Central Maine. It is on one of the alternative routes from the cities of Waterville and Augusta up to Bangor and Orono. The Amish she spoke with emphasized that they are following the orders of the governor.

Caleb Stoll, the owner of a dairy farm in town, said that they shut down their school. His brother, Abner Stoll, added that they were not allowed to go shopping in stores outside their community. Furthermore, Amish businesses that remained open have tried to limit their contacts.

They decided to spread out their members by holding two different worship services on Sundays in two different places. They also stopped having meals together after their services. And for three or four weeks they did not hold any services at all.

A group of Amish people look out to sea at Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine
A group of Amish people look out to sea at Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine (Photo by Andrea Why on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The Stoll brothers expressed the importance of respecting others in their town. They ended the quarantine period on May 1 but they still abide by the state’s guidelines. “We were very concerned about being respectful, both to the mandate and to our neighbors who were concerned,” Caleb said.

The Amish in Unity keep in touch with COVID-19 developments by reading newspapers, through word of mouth with neighbors, and by calling a phone number to get updates. Abner said that the Amish are still doing well, largely because they don’t engage in frivolous pursuits and because they work hard.

If a vaccine is developed, Caleb told the reporter, it would be up to individual Amish families to decide whether to get vaccinated. They are very careful to give the impression that they are being cooperative about halting the spread of the virus.

But they are not accepting the stimulus checks issued by the U.S. government. They simply return checks that they receive. Although the Amish pay their income taxes, they do not accept any aid from the government—part of their belief in maintaining their independence.

 

A “collective spirit” still sustains Tristan da Cunha, the New York Times argues in a wonderfully illustrated story published on the Times website on May 20. The descriptive text and the photos of the island and its inhabitants are by Andy Isaacson, who spent a month there in 2009. He supplemented his investigation with recent conversations with the islanders.

A sign in The Settlement on Tristan
A sign in The Settlement on Tristan (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

He sets the scene for readers quite effectively by describing the extreme isolation of the island. The settlement, home to roughly 250 citizens of the U.K., claims to be the world’s most isolated human community. Located on a volcanic island roughly 6 miles in diameter, Tristan is about halfway across the South Atlantic between South Africa and Brazil. It has no airport so the only way to get there is to book passage on one of the occasional merchant ships sailing out of Cape Town. The isolation is an important factor in sustaining the culture of the island.

Isaacson briefly reviews the history of the island, which was discovered by Tristão da Cunha, a Portuguese explorer, in 1506. Over 200 years later, in 1817, the British established a garrison there as a measure to prevent the French from using it as a possible base for freeing Napoleon, whom they had imprisoned on St. Helena, another island located 1,500 miles to the north.

When the British government withdrew the garrison, Corporal William Glass and two associates were granted their request to be allowed to stay and establish a colony. The author mentions that the first settlers drafted a constitution of sorts forming “a new community based on equality and cooperation.” He argues that the same spirit established by the founders has sustained the islanders due to the nearly complete isolation.

Conrad Glass, the former Chief Islander, in 2009
Conrad Glass, the former Chief Islander, in 2009 (Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

He spoke with the Chief Islander, Conrad Glass, about this issue during his visit. Glass said that it was important for them to do business with the outside world, especially since they want to import some manufactured goods. The official added, however, that “the world can keep its bombs and bird flu. Whatever we’ve got here is under our control. It’s the remoteness of the island that has jelled us and brought us all together.”

Mr. Isaacson contacted the current Chief Islander, James Glass, a second cousin of Conrad’s, to find out how they are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been no cases so far, but future visits of cargo and cruise ships have been banned. Preventing visitors will certainly help keep the islanders safe and they are not worried about their food supplies since there are plenty of lobsters in the surrounding sea and potatoes in the ground. Besides, their health center has only two beds and no ventilators—clearly inadequate if the pandemic should arrive.

The Potato Patches is a favorite destination for the Tristan Islanders
The Potato Patches is a favorite destination for the Tristan Islanders (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The charm of the article is in the author’s descriptions of his visit and the photos he took while he was there. He was in the island’s café one day when the television was broadcasting one of Barack Obama’s news conference. The President was saying something about missile defense and Russia. It seemed so distant and irrelevant compared with the conversations of the locals about their potato crop.

Another day he strolled out the road to the south of The Settlement leading to the Potato Patches, the relatively level area where the islanders do their gardening. The café, the gardens—those are the realities of life on Tristan da Cunha, in addition to keeping the broader world safely at bay, he seems to be saying.

 

The Peaceful Societies website has moved again. As of May 2020, it is being hosted by the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The website was independently hosted by Matthew Albright from January 2005 through January 2016 when it moved to the Department of Anthropology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham. We prospered there for over four years.

When Prof. Douglas Fry, formerly the Chair of the UAB Department of Anthropology, moved to Greensboro in the spring of 2019, he invited this website to move also. We accepted his invitation, though it is sad to be leaving UAB. The technical support at UAB has been outstanding. We will miss Steven Till’s ability to answer our technical questions and put us in touch with others at UAB when necessary.

But we are looking forward to continuing support plus new experiences at UNCG. We plan to continue reporting on the peaceful societies in our “News and Reviews” feature.

Curiosity about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic to the peaceful societies led to a news report in a major Indian newspaper on April 10 which indicated that as of that date Sikkim had not yet reported any cases of the coronavirus. Sikkim, a small state in northeastern India, is the home of the Lepcha people. All of India is coping with the pandemic by lockdown orders from the national government.

A more informative piece about the ways the Lepchas are handling the crisis appeared in a different news story the next day, April 11. That report indicated that they are turning to their traditional religious practices for support. Olley Lepcha, a bongthing, their term for a traditional priest, performed appropriate rituals in his village, Naga, in North Sikkim, a district with a lot of spectacular scenery. His rituals sought to expel the coronavirus demon and keep Sikkim, the rest of the Himalayas, and all of India safe from the aggressive disease.

The news article goes on to report that the bongthing is the head of a school for bongthings located in the village and that his students helped him perform the “wonderful ritual.” He chants, offers prayers, and performs rituals to help people cope with various social issues and calamities. The bongthings, the article concludes, are traditional healers who appease the gods and chase away the demons that cause the suffering of humanity.

More information about bongthings turns up in the literature on the Lepchas. These priests of their faith, referred to as “Bon” or “Bone,” are representatives on earth of the Mother Creator. The bongthings used to be present at all Lepcha rituals to appease the demons and gods and make proper offerings. The shamans retain all the sacred knowledge of the people and they serve as the keepers of Lepcha culture and tradition.

The virtual disappearance of the shamans in recent times is one of the major factors that is causing the abandonment of the Lepcha’s localized knowledge and ritualized life, which is weakening their society and culture. A news story from November 2011 indicated that the performance of the rituals at Mount Kanchenjunga would soon be lost since the bongthing there, Sandup, had discontinued performing them in the mid-1970’s. In fact, the rituals were preserved, recorded by the Danish scholar Halfdan Siiger, who had gained the confidence of Sandup’s father, the previous Kanchenjunga bongthing, in 1956. The elder priest had allowed him to record the rituals.

The rituals that Samdup used to perform at Nung, his village, were the basis for Lepcha nationalistic pride. Other bongthings also offered rituals to Kanchenjunga, but the one at Nung was the most important. The secret ritual, and its accompanying processional song, would now be lost except for the recording that Siiger made and transcribed into his book The Lepchas: Culture and Religion of a Himalayan People.

The gradual influx of Buddhism into Sikkim had begun to dilute the Bon nature worship several hundred years ago. The annual Kanchenjunga rites at Nung were the strongest surviving relics from that earlier era. The bongthing from Nung used to process to the seat of Sikkim power, the capital at Gangtok, where the Chogyal, the Buddhist king, would honor him with many gifts and a symbolic yak, obtained from much higher mountains. The bongthing would take it all back to the altar at Nung with great ceremony.

So while the bongthings now may not be much involved in grand ceremonies, it is interesting to learn that in these times of great stress, a low-key, peaceful society such as the Lepchas can still turn to their traditions for help. And that at least one surviving priest and his students will respond.

 

The government of India’s West Bengal state is taking pains to keep the Birhor and the other tribal groups safe as long as the COVID-19 pandemic lasts. While most of the earlier news reports about the Birhor focus on their lives in Jharkhand state immediately to the West of Bengal, a news story dated April 12 concentrates on the work of the West Bengal government for the tribal community within its borders. It also provides some useful information about the small Birhor village there.

The reporter, Pritesh Basu, writes that government officials in West Bengal are taking all possible steps to keep the Birhor and the other tribal people safe and well fed during the national shutdown. The news story focuses on a Birhor community of 89 families, about 300 people, living in the town of Bhupatipalli, in the Purulia District of West Bengal. The town is very near the border with Jharkhand and is quite close to popular tourist destinations in the Ayodhya Hills.

The Birhor live in the forested hills on the east side of the town where they collect firewood to sell for fuel. Many of them also work as agricultural laborers. In recent years their children have started attending school and their young people have been given training as beekeepers.

The Kendumundi resettlement colony consisting of pukka houses
The Kendumundi resettlement colony consisting of pukka (or pucca) houses (Photo copyright by Deborah Nadal and used with permission)

Over the course of the past nine years, the state government, under the direction of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has been working hard to promote the welfare of the Birhor, the reporter writes. They have received pucca (or pukka) houses. Elderly people over 80 are now receiving a pension from the state of Rs 1,000. As of April 1, over 160,000 tribal people in West Bengal have received the new monetary benefits.