Mohan Guruswamy | Why is Gondwana’s land of Koitur left neglected?

Wherever the Gonds still speak their own language, they refer to themselves as Koi, or Koitur

There is a vast and mostly forested region spanning almost the entire midriff of India from Odisha to Gujarat, lying between the westbound Narmada and the eastbound Godavari, bounded by many mountain ranges like the Vindhya, Satpura, Mahadeo, Meykul and Abujhmar, that was once the main home of the original autochthonous Indian, the Adivasi. Though this is the home of many tribal groups, the largest tribal group, the Gonds, dominated the region. The earliest Gond kingdom appears to date from the 10th century and the Gond rajas were able to maintain a relatively independent existence until the 18th century, although they were compelled to offer nominal allegiance to the Mughal Empire.

Jadunath Sarkar, the great historian, records: “In the sixteenth and seventeenth century much of the modern Central Provinces (today’s MP) were under the sway of aboriginal Gond chiefs and was known under the name of Gondwana. A Mughal invasion and the sack of the capital had crippled the great Gond kingdom of Garh-Mandla in Akbar’s reign and later by Bundela encroachments from the north. But in the middle of the seventeenth century another Gond kingdom, with its capital at Deogarh, rose to greatness, and extended its sway over the districts of Betul, Chindwara and Nagpur, and portions of Seoni, Bhandara and Balaghat. In the southern part of Gondwana stood the town of Chanda, the seat of the third Gond dynasty and hereditary foe and rival of the Raja of Deogarh.”

But the glory of Deogarh departed when the Maratha ruler of Nagpur annexed Deogarh after the death of Chand Sultan. Incidentally, the Gond ruler of Deogarh, Bakht Buland, founded the city of Nagpur. Jadunath Sarkar writes about him thus: “He lived to extend the area, power and prosperity of his kingdom very largely and to give the greatest trouble to Aurangzeb in the last years of his reign.” In fact, the one big reason Aurangzeb could not deploy all his power against Shivaji was because the Gond kings were constantly at war with the Mughals and kept interdicting the lines from the Deccan to Agra. But, of course, the history of modern India is not generous to them.

During the British days this region constituted much of the Central Provinces of India, later to become Madhya Pradesh. This is the main home of about 13 million Gond people who are India’s largest single tribal grouping. The Gonds are now a culturally and linguistically heterogeneous people, having attained much cultural uniformity with the dominant linguistic influences of their region. Thus, the Gonds of the eastern and northwestern Madhya Pradesh region that now includes the new state of Chhattisgarh speak Chattisgarhi and western Hindi. But the Gonds of Bastar, which is at the southeastern end of this vast region and a part of Chhattisgarh, are different in this respect.

Though there are many tribal groups like the Halbas, Bhatras, Parjas and Dorlas, the Maria and Bison Horned Gonds are the most numerous. The language spoken by them, like that of the Koyas of Andhra Pradesh, is an intermediate Dravidian language closer to Telugu and Kanarese. There is a history to this.

According to Sir W.V. Grigson, ICS, who in 1938 wrote The Maria Gonds of Bastar (which is still widely referred to), the Bastar princely family was descended from the Kakatiya kings who reigned at Warangal from AD 1150 to 1425. According to Bastar tradition and folk songs after Pratap Rudra Raya, the greatest of the Kakatiya kings was killed in battle with the invading forces of Ahmad Shah Bahmani, his brother Annam Deo fled across the Godavari into Bastar. Bastar was then constituted of a group of loosely held feudal dependencies of Warangal.

Wherever the Gonds still speak their own language, they refer to themselves as Koi, or Koitur. It is only in the Telugu regions that a name close to what they call themselves, Koya, is used for them.

Anthropologists generally refer to only these “Teluguised” Gonds as Koitur and even though there are large groups of Koitur living in Andhra and Maharashtra, Bastar is truly the land of the Koitur.

Dr Kalyan Kumar Chakravarthy, director of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal, has written eloquently and cogently on this in his concluding chapter “Extinction or Adaptation of the Gonds” in the book Tribal Identity in India, also edited by him. The Sangrahalaya established for the exclusive study, research and preservation for posterity the unique aspects of India’s tribal societies and their culture, has most beautifully and imaginatively recreated these on the Shamla Hills overlooking Bhopal’s magnificent lake. If you visit Bhopal, this institution and the beautifully laid out and imaginatively mounted depictions of Adivasi homes and lifestyles in the Tribal Museum are a must.

Public attitudes in metropolitan India however seem to have been conditioned by the works of artists like J.P. Singhal, who has through his popular calendar art of bare-breasted tribal women titillated millions and served to establish the generally prevalent view of these people.

Popular Indian cinema has consistently depicted tribals in a lurid and garish manner. It is common to have them painted black and dancing in grass skirts in a new musical genre called the Bollywood Tribal Fusion. Even the Ramayan cannot be deemed exempt of having nurtured certain attitudes about Adivasis. What was the monkey army all about?

Much of the dense forests of the Bastar region have since been chopped down and the animals hunted to near extinction. Once great herds of wild buffalo have been reduced to a mere handful precariously surviving near Kutru. There are only a few tigers left in the beautiful Kanger Valley Reserve. The traditional existence of the Koitur is as much threatened. Migrants from other parts, now increasingly from the Hindi-speaking areas of old Madhya Pradesh, have settled in large numbers and have reduced the indigenous population to a minority in many areas particularly in and around Jagdalpur and Kondagaon.

The National Mineral Development Corporation, a PSU, operates India’s largest iron ore mine in Bailadilla in Dantewara district. Instead of bringing prosperity to the local people, it has done irrevocable harm. Few benefits of this economic exploitation have trickled down to them, while the ecological degradation of the area is devastating. Even worse has been the social degradation that has visited the Koitur Gonds, in general, and the sexual exploitation of their women, in particular, by people from the so-called civilised sections and regions of India.

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