Last year it was a co-incidence, which brought me in close contact with a group of educated Rathwa tribe men in a remote place called Kawant in eastern Gujarat. I do not want to claim that I have done a thorough research for presenting my view here, but expressing what I sensed through an informal discussion and personal observation both last year and reflections from a travel to a Rathwa Village in 2008.
Facilitating learning on India’s Cultural Diversity to children of various backgrounds is my passion. Sometimes I find it highly challenging while interacting with tribal kids especially in languages that are alien to me. But that does not stop me as I use all my organs and visuals for effective communications.
In order to pursue my passion, one fine afternoon I reached Kawant, a tribal town in Eastern Gujarat. The town was unknown, but I had established contact with the principal of the Eklavya Model Public School for the visit. The school is part of a central and state government funded institution for meritious tribal students. However at the time of my visit the school was run by a Jain trust.
As expected I faced a bit difficulty as the children were from the Rathwa community and they were the first generation learners. In the evening I was accompanied by the principal, who himself was Rathwa man, to the guesthouse in a hilltop, 20 km away. I was introduced by another teacher who also taught in the same school. Three of us had a long conversation on problems and issues related to teaching. Initially the discussion was more or less confined to the students’ inability of learning because of their dialects. However, as the discussion progressed, we turned into the cultural aspects of learning. It was shocking.
The Jain Trust which runs the school is imposing its belief and ideals on poor Rathwa children. As a result the innocent children find restless – they are prohibited from eating potatoes and onions.
Rathwa is a forest based community and deeply connected to its surrounding world. Mahuda is drunk as a delicious drink and there are celebrations through dancing and singing. They also eat meat. No harms! They worship Pithora, their ancestral God and paint beautifully their mud walls depicting Pithora and scenes of everyday life. The missionary by both Hindus and Jains have led to their conversations. Some of them also converted voluntarily. They are called bhagats, and have given up most of their tribal identities. But those not converted have retained their strong tribal characters and the children belonged to them. I was also told that in the town of Kawant, the tradition of Rathwa festivals and fairs, especially the bridal festival and holi are no more popular sights as the moneyed Jain and Hindu rituals, processions, and festivals have gained prominence.
I simply did not know how to react to the teachers as I found them totally down with tears. They themselves were caught in the midst of confusion – what lies ahead, would they be remained as the same tribal Rathwas or the followers of some neo-Hindu sects. At that point of time I realized the importance of identity, especially tribal identity, which has always been venerable, earlier it was Christian missionary and now Hindu and Jain, however in a subtle way.
I left Kawant next day and took a different route via Chota Udaipur and Devgadh Baria, the heartland of Rathwa tribe, to reach Ahmedabad. In the jungle route I stopped in an isolated hamlet of Rathwa tribe. The hamlet consisted of 2/3 huts allured me to step in and explore the simplicity of tribal world. There were chickens around, a usual sight in any tribal hamlet. But when enquired I discovered that these people had become bhagats and had given up some of their tribal customs, such as eating meat. However, nothing had changed in their ascent and other tribal behaviour. When asked about chicken rearing, they told, the family in backyard eat meat, not us. Earlier, we lived together, but now separated as we have turned into bhagats.
In this context, as I write this I remember yet another of my experience with the tribe. In 2008, I had made visit to a Rathwa Village located nearby the World Heritage site of Champaner. The village located near a rocky outcrop had rows of huts facing each other and belonging to Rathwa community. This was quite contrasting to other Rathwa villages, where the houses are spread in dispersed pattern. While enquiring I was told that all of them have become bhagats. But they still practice the Pithora painting. As I discussed more became close to a community member, who worked as a teacher in a local school, he suggested me to visit a shrine where terracotta horses are offered.
My curiosity dragged me to the remote forest shrine of Meldi Mata and a temple dedicated to a yogi, named Raj Rajeshwari who had divine vision and spread bhakti among Rathwas. I saw a large crowd, mostly tribal men and women, who had assembled from nearby villages. One interesting sight was tiny terracotta horses, many of them were hanging from tree branches. These were markers of Rathwa identity amidst kanku, coconuts and other Hindu ritual objects. But what fascinated me were devotees holding chicken to be sacrificed, yet privately outside the temple premise. This was indeed a unique site experiencing a process of conversion, conflict in faiths and marginalisation of tribal customs.