Keeping the Hills Alive: Kondhs and shifting cultivation

The story of shifting cultivation among Kondhs is one of deep love for the land and crops as well as one of intense knowledge of the land and crops. This story is told by the Majhi, village headman and bejuni, village priestess. Shifting cultivation is called ‘nehela thasa’ in Kui, language of the Kondh people. Nehela thasa keeps the hills alive said the bejuni and so let us know how ?

“The process of nehela thasa starts with the cutting and cleaning the hill slope of small plants. But we do not cut small plants that belong to families of sargi, kendu, harada, bahada, anla, bhalia, etc because these are very useful and scared trees for Kondhs. This is one of our many rules and regulations that we follow while practising nehela thasa. The plants which have some medicinal benefits or provide us other benefits, we never cut those plants while preparing the hill slope land for nehela thasa. Besides that, while cutting the trees, we take care that soil does not erode. For this, we have constructed contours of stone bunding called pathar ghatu in Kui. The trunk and branches of the trees and plants that are cut are used as fuelwood.

Once the trees and plants have been cleared the twigs from the cut trees and other dry twigs are gathered in patches across the hill slope land and set on fire. We do clear forest areas for making land for farming and burn the cut down trees for our cultivation but we use dried leaves and twigs to make fire and we know ways to control the fire so that it does not spread beyond our land. We never set fire to any extra tree or patch of forest than required. But if we will not burn the land areas, then we will not get good yield from the cultivation. The ash generated is good for soil fertility and benefits our cultivation since it works like compost.

The next step is to plough the hill slope land which we do using hand agriculture implements like small spade called kodki. After this we sow seeds in three or four phases. In all we sow makka or maize, jhudunga (labia beans), kandula (chick pea), mandia (finger millet), khed jana (sorghum), kangu (foxtail millet), suan (little millet), kungeri (pearl millet), khanda dhana (an indigenous upland paddy variety), kujaka, alasi (niger), dongaradi (an indigenous variety of pulses), etc. If we use plough then all the seeds have to be sown at the same time like in mixed farming. But if we do not use plough then we can sow our crops in phases.

Thus we first sow paddy with pulses and millets, secondly we sow mandia with few more pulses and millets and last we sow oilseeds with some other crops. Here in our area we do not cultivate turmeric and ginger but that can also be grown in the nada thasa lands. We also arrange the inter cropped varieties in a way that if the birds or pests attack on crop they do not jump to the other. The most important crops we put in the middle and the hardy crops like pearl millet, alasi, jada, dangaradi or jana, we use as boundary crops so that they distract birds and pests and they do not eat or attack the main crops such as mandia, khanda dhana or suan. Oilseeds like castor, niger, white sesame and pulses along with maize are generally planted in the fourth phase of sowing.   

Just like we sow in phases, we also harvest in phases. The first crops that we harvest are suan, khanda dhana, mandia, makka, jhudunga and last crops that we harvest are khed jana, ganthia, kandul, chana, jada, biri, etc. We use the suan as our first offering to out village deity during nuakhai parab (first food festival). We use cow dung manure sometimes if there has been a lot of rain and soil erosion has happened. But most of the times just the ash from the burning of twigs and dry leaves is enough as organic manure and fixes soil fertility of our lands.

On one patch of nehela thasa land we cultivate for three years. After that we shift to another nehela thasa land and follow the same process as we explained before. We leave the pieces of all the roots and tubers we eat and these grow back every year after the monsoons and we harvest them during the winter season every year. This way we also visit our old nehela thasa lands every year and observe the regrowth of plants and trees.

Generally, we cultivate our different nehela thasa lands on a rotation basis and come back to our old lots after a cycle of six year. We have a rule not to cultivate the upper slopes of any hill or mountain because we leave the trees there for wood to make our ploughs and other agriculture implements. We do not have patta(record of rights) over these nehela thasa lands but we have an understanding among ourselves about ownership of nehela thasa lands in our area. Generally each family 1-2 nehela thasa plots and some also have 4-5 plots but no one has more than that. We know who will cultivate which patch of the land each year and if there is any dispute, the whole village sits down and mutually resolves the disputes. We also leave stones, trees or wooden pillars as landmarks of our nehela thasa land boundaries. Sometimes Majhi and Jani, along with village elders, decide if any new family which settles in our village requires nehela thasa lands for starting cultivation. They will allocate a patch to that family after collective consensus. There are some hills and forests which we do not cultivate or allow anyone to cultivate or cut trees. These hills and forests are the ones where we worship our traditional gods and goddesses like Poru Penu, Bui Penu, Horu Penu, etc. We also do not touch the forests and hills that are designated as kara basa or sacrificial lands which have crucial religious significance for the Kondhs.

But in the last few years we have been noticing some changes in the crops and practices being adopted in nehela thasa. Suan or little millet cultivation has almost disappeared wth only a few elder Kondh farmers growing suan. Some of the younger farmers say that they have stopped suan as the seeds are not available. But all elders like us known that of all the crops suan rice is the most tasty and nutritious and has medicinal qualities as well.

We try and teach all these knowledges and practices to our children by taking them along with us from when they are young to the fields and explaining to them everything we are doing on the nehela thasa lands. Our children can only learn about nehela thasa or any other practice by seeing us and listening to us. We are happy that many of our children are actually learning from us. But there are also some who do not want to learn and go away to the cities looking for other work. These days the younger children learn only when they come home during their school holidays. The first thing we teach our children about nehela thasa is ‘dangar re bara bihana’ means that on the hills there are twelve kinds of seeds which means that there is the greatest diversity in crops only when you do cultivation on the hills !

Profile of the Village : 52 households, 40 Kondhs, 12 SC and 2 Sundhi families
Village Details : Pipli, Dukum Panchayat, Bissamkatak Block, Rayagada District      

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