A World of the Unknown

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Reva Malik

Being with the indigenous is a moving experience that creates a shift in consciousness within one, says Reva.  

For several months now, I have been visiting and living with indigenous people in our land (whom we often call “the tribals”), travelling into the interiors of India and meeting others who have lived and worked for years with them.

Richness is deeply ingrained in tribal life but very little of it is visible in photographs. Their artifacts and designs are a representation of the beauty they have internalised from their surroundings, and their culture and way of life hold many solutions to the crises that the modern world is facing. But, above all, their beauty, I think, lies in their humility, in their not knowing the power they hold. This, I believe, made them take me in so graciously and quickly make me an insider.


What is “indigenous”? Is it a mere geographical or anthropological concept? Or does indigeneity exist in our very consciousness? Would we be indigenous even if we were nomads?

The term “indigenous” is understood and used differently by different people – “native,” “tribal,” “scheduled tribes,” “adivasi,” “original inhabitants of the land,” “the people before colonisation,” “those who have lived in one region for generations, connected to the soil, the people of the wild.” And so on. An international conference, “Narrativising Indigeneity” (organised by Centurion University in Paralakhemundi, Odisha during 24-27 Feb 2016), articulated this in various ways.

A friend, Narendraji, who has spent around three decades living and working with the Abujmaria tribe of Chattisgarh, puts the way of life of indigenous people like this:

Where contours are enmeshed

Where there is no distinction between “me” and “Nature”

Where the wild and the human blend with each other

Where there is not too much of a need to know

Where not many words are used and human activity is minimal

Where there is the silence of one’s surroundings

An example that Narendraji gives is of the Abujmaria definition of “home.” The small bamboo hut in the middle of a forest is just a raen basera, a night shelter – for the father, mother, grandparents, children and a few pigs, goats, cows and hens. “Home” is the whole forest outside this hut. The bamboo hut is just for the night because, during that time, the forest is meant for nocturnal creatures and one’s ancestors, gods and spirits. (The darkness of nighttime is not the absence of light but the presence of a much more powerful realm.)

An integral state of being

Indigenous people never describe themselves. Others do. As far as they are concerned, they exist: they are in a state of being. Also, they hold the individual’s, the collective’s and the planet’s wellbeing equally at the same time, intuitively, unconsciously. Being and living are cyclical, as in Nature. They live the art of maintaining a balance in the ecosystem. Their way of life runs in their blood. They do not talk or write about it, nor do they have a need to preserve it. They just live it.

Invisible boundaries

Thus, the subtle tends to be sensed easily. Very little literal explanation is needed. Rituals, customs and symbolism simplify complexities elegantly. Trust in one’s ambience is palpable. There are no boundary walls, locks or doors – no spaces that exclude others. Ownership is shared. The houses – made of bamboo, mud and hay – last not more than three or four years and demand continuous care. Life revolves around seasonal changes and basic human functions – caring, feeding, etc. Impermanence is embraced as a way of life and a welcoming openness and humility are a consequence.

The world outside

It may be this openness that has allowed the modern world to seep into theirs, reducing their numbers, destroying their craftsmanship and causing their indigenous knowledge to die. And they are losing faith, respect and a sense of the future – their very souls.

The resources meant for them are being mined away to feed the greed of “development” and the conquest of “civilisation.” Their sense of original abundance, contentment and wellbeing is being taken over by scarcity, violence and indignity.