What Is Nature for the Kondhas of Damini?

The language of Kui does not have a word for 'nature' because nature as an entity does not exist outside of, or separate from, the Kondha.

Damini is a small village populated by 133 people, all Kondha adivasi. The village’s name is ‘Dhamalima’ in Odia as well as in official records. For the villagers themselves, as well as for the Kondha in neighbouring villages, it is Damini. It has 28 houses, an anganwadi, a primary school and two hand-pumps, all within an area of 7,500 sq. m. Damini is part of the Rayagada district in southern Odisha.

In Damini, a child wakes up at the crack of dawn. He then wakes his soyi, or friends, to go to the kada (Kui for ‘stream’). Outside his house, stretching from left to right, are more houses in a line, a design typical of a typical Kondha settlement. The kada flows behind these houses, and behind the kada, at some distance, are the Niyamgiri hills – the abode of the relatives of his ancestors, the Dongria Kondha.

The row of houses in front of him hasn’t been completed yet, but there are signs that one day it will be. The houses foreground the Rayagada-Kashipur range of the Niyamgiri. The green of the hills is disturbed by the Koraput railway line, which cuts horizontally across the hills, almost exactly in the middle.

Once the five soyi have gathered, they go to the kada. It flows west of the village, towards the south, where it joins the Nagavelli river. The village is situated at the edge of the trough created by the stream. According to the village’s elders, the children visit the stream early in the morning to attend nature’s call and to bathe. But for the children, it is an adventure; it is to play, swim and run around. Most importantly, it is to fish.

The soyi work as a group to create a small pond on the stream’s bank, where they spend hours catching fish. They return to the village only when it is time to go to school, which starts at 10 am.

The children’s visit to the kada is their response to the rhythm of their reality. Fishing is not a digression from everyday life. In Jambujuda village, barely a kilometre from Damini, fishing isn’t part of the daily routine, but it is in Damini because of its location, the presence of the stream, the act of bathing in it, and the playfulness inherent to catching fish. In a way, the stream defines the essence of being children in Damini.

At the same time, the children’s activities define, alter, change, contaminate and clean the kada. This idea of dialogue between humans and nature is paralleled in the Buddhist concept of dependent origination. Multiple unquantifiable determinants – the Eastern Ghats, the monsoons, the Indian ocean, the stream, the villagers’ decision to settle where they have – have come together to determine a particular kind of individuality for the people of Damini. Without the stream the children would not have been swimmers or early risers, so the stream, the hills down which and the forest through which it flows are all part of the children as well, and vice-versa.

It’s like the shadow that outlines the body and the body that casts the shadow. The shadow signals that the body exists; at the same time, the shadow wouldn’t exist without the body itself. This is exactly how the Kondha perceive their existence on Earth. Humans exist in a relationship with other humans as well as with their natural environment.

The language of Kui does not have a word for ‘nature’ because nature as an entity does not exist outside of, or separate from, them. To them, nature is not a substance nor a non-living thing; nature is part of their selves. The stream feeds them with fish and, like any living being, it dies every year. Then it is born again in July, when the southwest monsoon arrives. The Earth is also living: it births to crops, trees, forests, bushes and shrubs. Their origin myth attests to this as well: it is believed that the Kondha were born out of a hole in Earth. In that sense, Earth is not just a planet, nor just a receptacle or a host of resources. She is for them the first mother, the live giver. Her spirit, named Dharni Pennu, is to be respected; they pray to her on occasion, sometimes with offerings at important festivals, to sustain and protect them.

The Kondha perception of nature shows us the way: that without nature, we are nothing. In the time of global heating, the Kondha invite us to think and act differently, to exist in the world with care and relatedness, to shun our masculine relationship with nature, to stop seeing her as a source of bauxite, to look upon the mountains as mountains instead of as virgin peaks. This Kondha worldview must be protected and sustained for the whole world’s sake, for its human as well as more-than-human elements.

However, educational and development policies designed in Bhubaneswar and New Delhi will only erase this difference because they seek to integrate the Kondha with the rest of us instead of preserving the important ways in which they are not like us. We wish to mainstream the Kondha because we need their bauxite for our utensils, phones and airplanes. We need them to learn that Earth is a container of resources and forget that Earth is their first mother.

Padma Rigzin is an MPhil scholar at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and is a Ladakhi.