The Warlis or Varlis are an Adivasi tribe living around the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. The Warlis have traditionally worshiped nature and have their own animistic beliefs, customs and traditions. The Warli people are famous for their beautiful and unique style of painting which reflects the close association between human communities and nature.
It is thought that the Warli culture goes back to the 3rd century BCE, although there is no hard evidence for it. It is true however, that the community has been living in the Thane district of Maharashtra for a really long time and call the forests in those regions their home. Over the years, they have made subsistence on agriculture, animal husbandry and collecting forest produce and it is through these activities that they have developed very close associations with nature. This association comes out through their drawings, which are quite simplistic in fashion, yet provide a great deal of information about how the Warli community lives and probably, our ancestors lived thousands of years ago.
You can read more about the Warli art in this article on Biodiversity of India
This is a mythological story of the Bhil tribe that is settled in parts of Central India, primarily in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra,and Rajasthan. The Bhils live in a highly arid and drought-prone part of India. Thus, farming cannot be their primary occupation. Traditionally, they have been hunter-gatherers and engage in animal husbandry. The Bhils are quite economically backward. I found this story interesting because it is being passed on through generations in the Bhil community, the elders explaining to the new generation why they are so poor and why they cannot engage in farming. This story also illustrates the importance of animals, especially domesticated animals, in helping tribal people achieve prosperity.
As the story goes, once Parvati and Lord Shiva were sitting in their abode in the Himalayas having a discussion about the mortal world. Suddenly, Parvati realized that her brothers were coming to meet her. Parvati greeted her brothers with great joy and spent some time chatting with them. When the time for them to leave came, she asked Lord Shiva to give them a parting gift. Lord Shiva said, “I’m just an Aghori Sadhu! I dont have any material possession to give as gift to your brothers. I’m sorry”. Hearing this, the brothers felt sad and left. But Parvati insisted and Lord Shiva, unknown to the brothers, placed a silver pot in their way. But the brothers failed to notice the pot and walked away.
Parvati felt sad. She thought, “If my brothers failed to notice a gift from God, how will they achieve any success in their life?”. She went to Lord Shiva again and asked him to give her brothers a valuable gift that can help them learn and achieve success. Lord Shiva said, “Alright! I will give your brothers my precious bull (Nandi).”
Parvati was happy. She said to her brothers, “Oh my dear brothers! Take good care of this bull and you will become rich and prosperous.” The brothers were very happy and took the bull to their home.
However, after reaching home, the brothers started to get very impatient. They thought that since Parvati asked them to take care of Nandi, there must be something valuable in it. One of them suggested that they kill the bull and see if there’s any treasure inside. Another brother resisted but in the end, all of them became greedy and agreed to kill the bull.
When Parvati heard that Nandi had been killed by her brothers, she grew very angry. She confronted them and said, “You fools! Nandi was the most powerful and the most sacred bull in all the three worlds. You could have used him for tilling your barren land and for farming, however, you gave up this opportunity and instead killed him.” So she cursed her brothers – who belonged to the Bhil community – and their descendants that they will never be able to farm again. And so the story goes for why the Bhils do not (cannot) farm on their lands.
Such stories also pass on an important lesson of respect towards the natural world to the younger generation.
PS: On a lighter note, a little bit of irrigation and proper groundwater management practices may help some bit in lifting Parvati’s curse
India has a rich cultural tradition extending back over three millenia. Given the multitude of species found in the nook and corners of the country, the Indian cultural tradition has a heavy dose of biodiversity deeply embedded in it. Examples of such associations abound – from Lord Ganesha having a mouse as his vehicle to basil being worshipped as Goddess Tulsi. Such stories are being forgotten and lost in the fast-paced world of today. The problem is more acute for the tablet-totting, television-hooked generation of today. Question is, in what way can we effectively deliver these stories to the children of today?
Muriel Kakani, a Belgian national living in India for the past 20 years, has been trying to do just that through her website Ecology for Childrenand a number of children’s books she has written. Muriel believes that the Indian lifestyle and cultural traditions are most well suited for environmental conservation. From maintaining agricultural biodiversity in fields through traditional farming methods to protecting trees by setting aside sacred trees and groves, Indians have been engaging in eco-friendly practices for the past several thousand years. Muriel tries to tell such stories through her books geared towards children.
In one of her stories, the The Honey Gatherers of Sunderbans, Muriel teaches the value of respecting Mother Nature while taking benefits from her. The story, told rather succinctly and in an engrossing manner, explains the pitfalls of exploiting Mother Nature while forgetting the need to do our bit towards its protection. Even though the story is told in a manner understandable to children, such stories hold valuable lessons for even the adults of today.
Muriel says on her website that “Love and empathic feelings are the greatest stimulant to the will…Feelings are more important than facts when talking about saving the Earth, preserving the environment and ecology.” I whole-heartedly agree with that approach. I also believe that feelings, coupled with knowledge, can be the most potent agent for change in this world!
For more information about Muriel’s work, check out the website and her project Ecology for Children.