Forests of Plenty : Forests as food source for Kondh peoples

Forests are not just trees that give timber. This may be how the non-adivasis look at the forests. But for the Kondhs the forest s more a source of food than of timber and they believe that as long as the forest is there no Kondh will ever die of hunger. Let us explore this relationship and understand the relevance of forest foods in the lives of the Kondh peoples.

“Let us start with the forest foods we get during the different seasons of the year. In monsoons, we get different types of mushrooms, bamboo-shoots and green leafy vegetables. Generally, we get about 7-8 varieties of mushrooms like kala chchatu, dangu chchatu, ranga dangu chchatu, bali chchatu, etc. Also we get tenkar anda or buduki in our Kui language in the monsoons (eggs of wasps) and we burn the buduki and eat the soft part of the insect. We eat this with either kangu or suan rice. Among the tubers, we mostly get bhat kanda during this season.But we get about six varieties of kangaor berries like dhamma, banasala, ambli, kuyyan, ec. We get kusuma berries just before the monsoons.We get all these forest foods from different places in the forest and not from just one place so if you don’t know your forest, you will spend the whole day roaming the forest and not get one small tuber or berry. During the monsoons sometime we also hunt for the small animals and birdlings like gundri (bush quail) and wild pigeon. But monsoon is generally not for hunting so we collect eggs of different birds and eat them as curry.But during the monsoon we get plenty of fish, crab, prawns, snails, etc from the fields as well as the hill streams. We also get some fruits like dimri or dahaka in Kui (figs), podei, sitaphal, kamala (oranges), etc. From the forests we also collect certain wild grass seeds which we pound and make into rice and eat as jau (fermented porridge). We also get a lot of leafy greens which we cook with the tubers and eat as curry. We have to be careful while plucking the greens because a lot of worms and insects get stuck in the leaves !

In the winters or cold season, we get banabhalia (wild cashew) and siali seeds as forest foods. We do not get many fruits in this season. But we get lot of salapa (sap of sago palm) and khajuri (sap of date palm) to drink. It is a form of natural forest liquor for us Kondhs ! Besides this we also get different types of tubers, almost 10-11 like kara, mundi, apelka, godinga, dakunanga, bhat, tela, dabi, kheta, heta and hua. Sometimes we also get simli kanda during the winters. Actually we find more food in the winters from the forest than during the rainy season. All forest foods, mainly the tubers, begin growing in the rains and by winter they are ripe enough to be eaten.But most people think that monsoons is the best time for forest foods !

In the summer or hot season we mostly get many kinds of fruits in aplenty. We also get tubers and wild animals as meat. The fruits we get in summer are amba (mango), panasa (jackfruit), khajuri koli (date palm), kanta koli (thorny berry), saru koli, kendu, etc. Actually more non-timber forest produces is available in the forest duringsummers. We go hunting in the summers and shoot small and big animals like kutra, bariha (wild boar), garandi, thekua (hare), guruti, neula (mongoose), etc. We go most frequently during summer to the forests. While women go to the forests for collecting tubers, berries, mushrooms, leafy greens,etc the men go for hunting in groups and sometimes alone for fuelwood and foraging for bhat kanda. The womenalso go to the forest in the early mornings to collect the fallen mahua flowers and later in the summer for collecting mahua fruits called tola. However hunting has become a very tedious affair so few people are interested in hunting as most of the favourite animal species have almost got extinct like sambara which is not available any more, mayura also is not available, bana kukuda or jungle fowl are very few and so are gayala. Earlier these were the favourite hunting targets as their meat is the tastiest and also used for many traditional medicines.

In fact we are able to survive because of the forests and our women because it is they who find the food for us if nothing is available. However our elders were able to survive for even 110-120 years of age because they ate mostly foods from the forests. Our elders even knew of many herbs and medicines from the forests to cure themselves and so they were also able to fight any illness on their own. But we are eating only rice and pesticide induced vegetables and hence our bodies are weak and we need doctors to cure us. Actually even when we were children we used to eat locally available cereals, pulses, lentils and millets. And in our vegetable basket there was no potato or onions. Our food basket was very different. But since the last few years we have started eating potatoes, onions and cooking the vegetables. Earlier we used to boil the tubers and roots and garnish with salt and chillies before eating. But now all this has changed. However some elderly people are still boilingtheir vegetables and tubers and garnishing with salt and chilly for eating while most others are cooking with oil and masala.

Forest foods disappeared from our basket when the Government’s PDS rice began to be given. Now only about 30% of villagers eat forest foods and the rest are eating government’s foods ! This trend will increase further because the school going children in our village, 18 of them are in hostel schools, are not eating any kind of forest foods. Further availability of different kinds of animal meat has also reduced tremendously. We do not find peacocks, gayala, sambar, jiada, etc in our forests for hunting and so the only meat we eat is chicken and mutton as we are also not eating beef anymore. This reduction in wild animals is a fall out of the conversion of forests into farm lands and hence farming has increased and forest foraging and hunting has reduced. And increase in population as well as criminalising our entry into the forests which the government took away from us. This forced us to clear new areas of forests for creating more farmlands.

What are the rules that you follow for going to the forest ?Most of us do not go alone to the forests. Like for example, to collect any kind of seasonal forest foods, no one would go alone to the forest. They would go in a group.We do this not just to protect ourselves from attacks by wild animals like tiger, snake, bear, etc but also because going to the forest is a collective activity.Before going to the forest, the previous evening, women call out to each other and ask if anyone is planning in going to the forest. Then they sit and fix a time, direction and group for going to the forest.The main discussion is around which group would go in which direction for gathering foods.This happens particularly during the mango, panas and jamun seasons.And based on the time and direction fixed in the meeting everyone goes to the forest following the rules. If anyone breaks the rules then they are deprived of the day’s collection of foods which are generally distributed equally at the end of the day among all the families in the village. The village’s boys generally accompany their mothers and pick the dates which are also distributed equally among all the families in the village. This is possible in our village as we have few families.

What are the changes you have seen in the culture of eating forest foods ? Till few years back we used to make our own cooking oil from tola and raasi and our body and hair oil from chakunda and jada seeds. For washing our hair and bodies we used to use mud from the river bed and so we depended on the market only for buying masala, onions and clothes. Everything else we used to eat came from the forests or the farms. But since the last few years we are depending on the markets for not only masalas, onions and clothes but also for cooking oil. Now we go to the forest only for leafy greens and fruits. We eat less tubers because these have been replaced with potatoes as our children do not want to eat curry with tubers. They only want potatoes and curry made with fried onions and cooked in market oil.

While even today we do not sell any of our forest foods or buy any kind of forest foods, we have gradually reduced going to the forests for collecting foods though availability of these forest foods has not reduced. Mostly we are only gathering leafy greens from the forest. Collection of siadi seeds, leaves and ropes has reduced a lot, collection of tubers has also gone down from 10-11 varieties to about 2-3 varieties only. This is because many of the young men do not know how to dig in the forest bed for tubers. And their young wives do not k now how to cook the varied kinds of tubers that we get from the forests. Though we have reduced our dependence on the forests yet even today we cannot survive without the forests. If we only farm then we will have a very limited variety of food. So we need the forests to diversify our food basket. But for this forest food culture to survive down the generations we have to teach our children to eat the forest foods, gather the forest foods and cook the forest foods. We must do this when they are at home during their holidays from the hostel schools otherwise later on when they are adults they may end up starving if their farms fail to yield crops any year !

If the forests die or finish then the Kondhs will have nothing to survive with. We need the forests first for fuelwood, them for leaves and then for foods. We feel that our next generation will continue to eat leafy greens but might face problemsin getting tubers as they do not know how to dig these foods. So again as parents we have to teach them how to dig tubers and also how to recognise different types of tubers. Forest foods are also used as offerings to our deities during different festivals. These are all gathered by women. There are also some special festivals meant to celebrate the eating of tubers and without worshipping the tubers no one can go to dig them out or eat them. Then there are festivals for wild cashew and siadi as well. Also a festival after suan nuakhai for pumpkins and bottle gourds and one for wasp eggs or larva after which we can go to the forest to collect the wasp eggs and burn them for a meal with suan rice. There are also some fruits and tubers which are eaten after dhana nuakhai which is around Dasera in October. There are total four nuakhais which we celebrate in a year and each signifies starting of a season for some forest food or the other. There is first the chait parab, then tanku chapa parba, then suan and finally dhana nuakhai. Each of these festivals is linked to the celebration of forest foods as they are offered first to the deities and then eaten by us. These four festivals regulate our relationship with the forests and the foods from these forests.”

We see here that while the forest and its foods are still very much a part of the adivasi food cultures there is a slow takeover of market foods and government’s PDS rice in the food basket of the Kondhs. But with this there is also a realisation among the Kondhs that the cultures around forest foods have to brought back into the basket by teaching the children about the forest foods and this is therefore the time when kutumbs must take charge of reinitiating the adivasi children into the food cultures of the forests.

Profile of the Village : 18 Households, All Kondhs
Village Detail : Gangadbaju, Rasakola Panchayat, Bissamkatak Block, Rayagada District

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