By Dr Nandkumar Kamat
Their way of life and customs are rooted in the Paleolithic period of prehistory. At Markaim, well known for the ancient Gaude tribal settlements, I met a centenarian by the name Tipu. He was a repository of information on khazan lands. The khazan lands of Goa were created by systematic reclamation of mangroves and estuarine floodplains over a period of one thousand years. This involved complex geo-engineering and hydro-engineering technology. No designs or manuals were available. The Gaude tribals did it with practice. Even today only they hold the traditional eco-technological knowledge to build, maintain and repair the eco-sensitive khazan embankments.
The depth of knowledge of Austric Gaudes can be compared and complimented with the hill and forest dwelling Velip-Kulmi tribals, who apparently belong to a branch of original Dravidians. Their major settlements are found only in south Goa, between the Zuari and Galjibaga river basins.
Without any formal ethnological training or qualification, self-educated folklorist, Mr Vinayak Khedekar published a beautiful monograph on the community in 2004, in Marathi. It was based on his tremendous field documentation. Khedekar loves the tribal community and his book shows the way to future sociological and anthropological researchers. But to see and experience is to believe. One has to visit the Velip-Kulmi areas and interact with the community members in their own language to get a peep into the storehouse of their knowledge. For several years the Adarsha yuvak sangha, Gaudongri, Canacona has been organising a multidimensional tribal cultural festival -Lokotsava - under the leadership of a teacher, Mr Ramesh Tavadkar, who also represents the Poinguinim constituency in the Goan Assembly.
The main attraction of the festival is the exhibition of crops, handicrafts, medicinal plants and herbs, and traditional food items. At the stalls I could find more than 50 different herbal preparations - a virtual tribal pharmacopeia. Most of the plants are not even mentioned in Ayurveda. The choice and variety of plant and plant parts explained the robust health of the tribals, who have managed to survive for thousands of years, against all odds, and without any modern medical facilities.
Gaudongri is an ideal eco-friendly village. The settlements are encircled by a ring of tall mountains. The village derives its name from the topography. As soon as you enter the village, the examples of sustainable agriculture are seen in front of you. The natural hill ecosystem transits into a terraced farmland. The designing of Velip-Kulmi agro-ecosystem are done on the basis of natural contours, local geology, and direction of monsoon runoff from higher to lower ground and the availability of light and shade. The farms have raised wooden platforms to stack hay. The idea behind this was protection from fire. The cattle are kept inside bamboo huts. Small plots are made for vegetable nursery beds. Vegetables grow luxuriantly in the clayish soils. The whole area faces acute water shortage for drinking and irrigation. But wherever water is available the tribals actively cultivate the land.
Their agricultural equipments are made up of locally available materials. The designs have not changed for the past three thousand years. At Gaundongri I could see a tribal farmer preparing a vegetable garden in front of his small house and just across the road there were houses with Direct to Home satellite dish antennae. The digging/boring stick which he was using for making holes in the ground for sowing seeds reminded me of the primitive agriculture before the advent of the plough. On other side was modern technology - the satellite TV signal reception facility. But the Velip-Kulmi farmer had staunch belief in his simple agro-technology, which has given him results generations after generations.
For me he represented Goa, a culture which was timeless. His wife was working with him. Together they would produce sufficient plant biomass for their own consumption and for feeding the livestock. The small houses lying at the feet of tall mountains spoke volumes about the tremendous survival instincts and the success of their survival strategies. Survival would not have been possible without their wisdom. Everywhere I could see that the people were busy. There were no heaps of solid waste. The Velip-Kulmis have unique environmental ethics. They’re non Vedic, non-icon worshippers. By identifying the spirit and essence of life in every natural material they have made themselves an integral part of the web of life. Just 50 kms away lies the urban culture of Goa’s second wealthiest city, Margao. But these urban influences have so far not polluted the Velip-Kulmi way of life or their attitudes towards the natural resources on which they depend.
Velip-Kulmis have a very small carbon footprint. They produce their own food, conserve energy and recycle agro-waste. Their sustainable, spiritually intimate lifestyle is a lesson for the highly consumptive, polluting, energy guzzling urban communities. A visit to a tribal village like Gaudongri is a revelation. What is the meaning of quality of life and prosperity? In terms of material assets and wealth the Velip-Kulmi community may not have been successful. But in terms of continuing an ecologically and economically sustainable model of living, they’ve been successful.
After having a careful look at the design of their agro-ecosystems, means and mode of irrigation, water harvesting, energy use, waste recycling, food production and preservation, treatment of minor ailments and diseases, I could see the tremendous efforts the elders of the community have made against all odds. They fought all types of natural calamities. They did not depend on external subsidies. The tribal festival was just to showcase to the world the wisdom of the simple community. Such communities are solid cultural backbones of our civilization. The more we learn about their traditional ecological and technological knowledge, the better it is to build a creative, dynamic, and all inclusive nation, which will survive only by adopting a sustainable lifestyle.
Goa has a multilayered culture and the deeper you delve the more the wisdom of the ordinary people strikes you. By learning through simple observations, making and correcting mistakes, discovering complex uses of simple materials, demystifying natural cycles, identifying appropriate technology for survival, the tribals of Goa have enriched traditional ecological and technological knowledge of Goa. While working on a government panel from 1990 to 1992 on the ‘khazan’ lands of Goa I was overwhelmed by the eco-technological expertise of the simple Gaude tribals, who belong genetically to the Austric language group of the first human migrants.