There was a time when the Indian sub-continent was blessed with an amazing variety of natural life, made possible by diverse geographical features and climatic conditions.
Innumerable early communities, which we now refer to as tribes or Adivasis, lived as an integral part of nature, harvesting its bounties. Even though each tribe had its own lifestyle, specific habitat, food habits, customs, and rituals, it shared a common divinity with the others. Nature was their God, their guide, their very reason for being.
However, as we all are so acutely aware, radical change has mutated the sub-continent. The abundance of natural life has been depleted and towns, cities and metropolises have mushroomed.
Even though these changes have taken place, tribal communities still persist, holding on to their way of life, in settlements spanning the length and breadth of the country – sometimes living in little pockets very close to highly civilized and modern cities, sometimes far away in isolated cloisters, along the sea coast, in dense forests or snow clad mountains. They are a vital part of the country’s living heritage.
In the state of Maharashtra alone there are communities belonging to forty-seven different tribes living along the western coast of India. This accounts for 9% of the total population and ranks third with respect to the tribal population in the country. One of the communities living here are the Warlis. Although in recent years their decorative art has been celebrated and has gained wide acceptance, little is known about these people.
The Warli community is an indigenous tribe of people who have lived in the Thane district of Maharashtra for centuries. They were originally hunters but with deforestation and access denied to the existing forests, paddy farming is now the main stay of their existence. Even today, their entire life revolves around nature. Seasons dominate every aspect of their life with the year getting divided into various periods of rice growing. All the work is done manually with no help whatsoever of machines. The entire family, including women and young children, get engrossed in work throughout the year, leaving old women at home to look after the babies.
Change is not a constant here
Even today, their entire life revolves around nature. Seasons dominate every aspect of their life with the year getting divided into various periods of rice growing. All the work is done manually with no help whatsoever of machines. The entire family, including women and young children, get engrossed in work throughout the year, leaving old women at home to look after the babies.
The Warli community has developed an astonishing set of eco-indicators with the help of which they can predict the coming of the monsoon. Minute changes in sunrise and sunset and the cry of a particular bird, herald the onset of the rainy season – ushering in a period of plenty and cause for joy. The first rain in June announces the birth of a new cycle of life. The seeds are sown and the first seedling that sprouts is celebrated as a gift from Dharitri (mother earth) with a rite known as Kaavali Khaane. The seedling is cooked into a curry and shared by all the family members. Transplanting of seedlings takes place after this rite has been performed.
From June to September, the Warlis are busy in their fields, managing water, weeding, tightening plants that have become loose, chasing away rodents and cutting the abundance of grass and storing them for their cattle. Nature responds and by September the crops are standing tall in the fields. The Warlis then harvest the crops, but only after Saavari the field Goddess is thanked for her generosity.
After harvesting, it’s time to celebrate Diwali. Entire clans come together under the same roof and prepare to eat the newly harvested grain for the first time. This is accompanied by joyous dancing, singing, drinking, and merry-making. More celebrations follow with the propitiation of Vaghadeva (the Tiger God), Kaansaari (the Corn Goddess) and a host of other Gods and Goddesses. The harvest is threshed and the new grain is brought home and stored in a kaangii which is a circular rice bin.
Craving more? What’s the whole fuss about Warli?
Written by: Erica Taraporvala Photographs: Vikas Shinde, Sunil Gokarn Copy editor: Priyanka Brijwasi