My co-travellers here on the Road to Nara, must already know and have experienced by now how much there is to absorb in India that is Bharat. Every state works like an organ. Each region in contrast to the other in food, language yet somehow bonded by sense and tradition.
In my brief career as a traveller, I have desired not just to travel as much, but also to learn, research and document life of other travellers who once walked and measured this nation in a different light, time and dimension. The ones who somehow recorded the flow that once was; those happenings which can only be dreamt of today but can never again be touched.
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I was an NCC(National Cadet Corps, youth wing of Indian Armed Forces) Cadet during my university years and had a brief opportunity to rigorously walk throughout the Central Indian State of India, Madhya Pradesh for over a month.
During one such walk on a sunny afternoon, I was passing through the outskirts of an ancient Gond village. When I saw an old man intently looking at me. He looked literally like he had come out of Earth; raw, bare, venerable to my eyes. He was saying something while innocently piercing my gaze, when i realised he was speaking in English. Of course not at all English like but once I put my mind to understand him, he was only asking my name. It amused me. I walked up to him, shook his hand as he started asking me to come to his home, which after my initial indecision gave in and started walking with him towards his home. Those many walks that i was taking everyday with my Unit, that particular short walk to his home remains my most cherished memory that i remember towareds a stranger’s home. Gond women, men, their children and adults started lining up to greet me and follow. It suddenly felt so important. That I was someone important in their eyes. In cities where you hardly get noticed, here they were putting an effort to know me or to show me something of their own. As I walked, there were few laughs and chirps but there were no conversations. They were as amused by my being as i was, looking at them.
I entered his home. It looked huge from inside. It was cold and the air moved like there were fans moving. It was painted green and pink and had many caricatures made on the floor and the walls. After meeting his wife and children, i was looking at things keenly to absorb everything from this limited and extraordinary time when my gaze stopped at a photograph of a man on the green wall which surprised me. Somewhere the man looked like me and it could be one reason why the old man had initiated the talk. It was an image of a foreigner in tribal clothes standing at a local wedding. Which i learnt much later that it was him who was getting married. It was an old black and white image. Upon asking i couldn’t really understand what the old man said and moreover i did not pay much heed soon as i was getting late then to join my unit. But once i got back to Delhi and remembered this incident, I started finding about this man whom I learnt about sooner than i had thought. The traveller on the wall whom i saw in the village, i learnt lived in this village around 80 years ago, then. Even before India’s Independence.
I distinctly remember almost everything i saw that afternoon. Also because i carried no gadgets then. No phone. No camera. And hence, as soon as i got back to my home in Delhi i started finding the whereabouts of that photograph and to my amazement, the man who was walking that same earth almost a century ago was someone named Verrier Elwin.
Verrier Elwin was a British born Indian Anthropologist, Ethnologist and a tribal activist who began his journey in India as a christian missionary. But in due coarse abandoned the clergy to work with Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. He then soon converted to Hinduism in 1935 after staying in a Gandhian ashram.
Verrier Elwin is best known for his early work with the Baigas and Gonds of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh in Central India. He moved to the Gond village in 1937 and married a Raj Gond tribal girl, Kosi- 13 Year old at the time, who was a student at his school in Raithwar. They had one son born a year later in 1941. Elwin later had an ex-parte divorce in 1949. In his autobiography, he wrote “I cannot even now look back on this period of my life without a deep sense of pain and failure”. Elwin remarried a woman called Lila, belonging to the Pardhan Gond tribe in nearby Patangarh, moving with her to Shillong, the hill capital of Meghalaya in the early 1950s.
Verrier Elwin was a prolific writer, and photographed immensely while studying these communities. While researching on his work I came across some writings that he wrote for The Illustrated Weekly of India. I identified some paragraphs written by him that would convey an overview of his personality, experiences and philosophy to accompany the photographs. But his work on field is so intensive that shares conversations, interviews and even philosophies of so many tribal men and women that i must dedicate a separate post for it to take us back to that time and life of Central India.
As time passed and India got closer to the Independence, he became an authority on Indian Tribal lifestyle and culture, particularly on the Gondi People. He served as the Deputy Director of the Anthropological Survey of India upon its formation in 1945. Post-independence, he took up Indian citizenship.
First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru appointed him as an adviser on tribal affairs for north-eastern India, and later he was Anthropological Adviser to the Government of NEFA(now Arunachal Pradesh). And it is believed that his philosophy towards the north-east was partially responsible in its disconnect from the modern world.
The Government of India later awarded him the third highest civilian honour of the Padma Bhushan in 1961. His autobiography, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin won him the 1965 Sahitya Akademi Award in English Language, given by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters.
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But before we end, let me share an account that Elwin had written about how hard the life in a tribal village was around Eighty years ago (1941) :
Elwin recounted how he had endured frequent bouts of physical illnesses and he also commented on the hazards of an isolated existence far removed from any medical facilities. On recollecting a septic boil as one of his more severe ailments, he openly acknowledges that the effort by the village residents to carry him to the hospital over 120 miles away had effectively saved his life. This anecdote specifically highlights his vulnerability and the acknowledgement of his dependency on the local people, as well as the communal engagement and sense of interconnectedness that defines the tribal ethos.
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If today is the first time you have arrived on The Road to Nara, you are heartily welcome ~ Namaste
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I will take this opportunity to introduce you to About me and importantly;
As a co-traveller, will take you through the Ten Lessons I learnt from several years on the road, before you coarse on your own Road to Nara.
Also read: Top 9 Most Read Posts of 2022
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