The Colour of a People (The Ivory Throne-Part 3)

“who hold the secret of a perfect barter…”

The Ivory Throne can also be imagined as a palace in Travancore with its many chapters as many gateways of the palace from where caressing breezes and strong winds went out and, in the palace bringing with it many a tales of origin, exaggerated orders, larger than life anecdotes, thrilling mysteries and many a truths.

Sometimes these rained a river and some fell on the leeward side. Tea and troubles is one such gateway to the tale of origin of beverages in India. Verdant and humorous history of tea’s legendary rise in the life of an Englishman as his darling afternoon tea. And what followed were oh so English tea pots; even the clinking of cups became the sound of English. For many years it was not tea but coffee that grew in Kerala and we passed time imagining them having tea at 5 ‘o clock in their sprawling lawns, akin to the expansive tea estates sprinkled over India. At the insistence of the East India Company, coffee estates were set up along the coast of Malabar.

It is rather ironical and funny to read about the Maharajahs of Travancore who were frightened of the towering mountains that guarded their eastern frontier, sources of exotic forest produce and elephants. Hence, allegiance was pledged from the local tribes, leaving their habitats alone. And just like that we are introduced to the ancient tribe of Travancore in such organically written lines: “The ancient tribes of the forest lived and died in primitive simplicity, unconcerned by any knowledge of, or contact with, the millions who lived below on the plains. They ventured out occasionally to exchange their cardamom and honey for salt and textiles.” It is a testimony that these children of forests were self sufficient units. India was a treasure trove of such cultures that wilt behind concrete walls and as labourers, much like the one of many Chenchu tribe, itinerant and nomadic by nature. Understanding and respect given to islands, which is not given to the marine life anymore, still existed for tribes who might hold the secret of a perfect “barter” with nature.

The English, however, were determined to convert these hills into plantation districts. The Indian eye and the English eye shared a profound contrast, reflected in the line above – Indians have always enjoyed mystification and must have been the largest propagators of myths; they saw beauty in mystery and mystery in beauty while the English expected things to yield to them so that they could be put to use. Though they made sure each yield looked visually magnificent, a thing of beauty.

The English succeeded in their quest, making inroads into the forest hills, building hospitals, schools etc for economic advancement. How is it then, that it took us 14 years to make a stretch of road in Chhattisgarh, labelled as Maoist area by all who came and sat at the lofty “centre”? How did we let our vibrant and self sustaining tribes become so miserable and agitated? Is it because the adivasis take pride in calling themselves not the first residents of India but the continuing force of resistance  against the ‘disguised hegemony’ of the Indian Govt. The book notes that the transformation of these hills is “well worth the telling, for it is a story of enterprise, courage and self reliance.” What happened of these tribes remains ambiguous while it is vividly noted that many local English planters were plain practical men many of whom died, some became seriously rich.

Almost every article pertaining to the tribe that I have recently read, comes with British baggage. One such research wisecracks- “The fact that Chenchus enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the Nallamala was recognized early by the British, who controlled the Southern part(now Andhra) and gave them rights not just to stay inside the forest but also do subsistence farming and grazing.” On the other hand, “the Northern part(now Telangana) was under the Nizams of Hyderabad, who maintained the forest as a hunting reserve for the nobility and royal guests.” However, the Englishare in the dock when it comes to the burning stomachs of the Soligas of Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve(BRT) as it was them who banned forest fires, a practice they found primitive to colonial forest protection and conflicting their economic effort of timber operations.

It is interesting to realize that we wouldn’t have been talking about many of these topics if we were not reaping what the British sowed.

The training they received from Europe, Indian scientists continue to distrust burning, as though it were still a stigma of primitiveness, a leprosy on the landscape. Soligas carefully cultivated forest fires every year which kept the forests going so people could harvest tubers, animals had enough fodder and in the most interesting fashion catered to the rulers of Mysore, who could hunt down game.

At this juncture of the book, I’d like to take a breath and accept that there must have been numerous conjectures on account of bootlicking and imaginative thinking by the early Europeans about the land that became British’s India. Therefore, one of the living proof which is like a sutra dhaar from then to now is the Adivasi or tribes. The records of their unrest have been found in the exploitative hands of landlords and the effervescent lathi wielding cops: Telangana armed struggle and Tebhaga Movement manifested in the 40s. It was these movements that triggered the first Mao movement in 1967 in a sleepy town of North Bengal, called Naxalbari. It is referred to as the peasants’ uprising of 1967 which was fought with bow and arrows. It must be looked as a turning point as it inspired the concept of rebellion amongst the poorest of poor of India with earnestness as its essence. The origin of this rebellion must always be remembered.

The English as colonisers definitely erased our culture and constricted our instincts but as people looking to dwell, they had all the intentions of making it home, whatever said and done they did give a damn about what surrounded them. Where are we lost though- making villains (Maos) out of tribal and martyrs out of CRPF men?



Note – This is the concluding part of the series. Read the first part here and the second part here.


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