JAWAI is located in the wilderness of the ancient Aravalli Hills. Within these hills lies a semi-pastoral agrarian settlement with wild leopards and an untouched historic culture. Nature is a part of us and we are at one with nature, we are not separate identities. This is what makes JAWAI special. For centuries humans and animals have shared these hills in harmony. Spirituality and culture have been associated with this harmony. People who live with wildlife, shape the future of conservation in the country. At JAWAI, we look into this traditional model of animal-human coexistence. We aim at sharing this relationship as a model for other such wildernesses across the world and with those who visit us.
In India it was common to spot a predator in one’s backyard. Traditionally, villagers depended on forests for their resources. They knew how to make the best use of these resources without wasting them. When the British came to India, they set up the Imperial Forest Service which governed the usage of forest resources. Villagers were levied taxes depending on use and consumption of these resources. Here is where some of the confusion started. Villagers wondered why they should pay for the resources for their family consumption when they were not provided with alternatives by the government. The princely states also held hunting grounds as a part of their historical tradition. With the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, many forests became protected areas and a few people were relocated to other and safer areas. People drifted into these protected forests to fetch resources, but using these resources was not legal as it fell under protected land. Animals drifted out of these artificial boundaries as they were obviously unaware of boundaries laid down by the government. In the long run this arrangement has benefitted animals as they now have havens of protected areas where human development is barred.
Jawai, fortunately has remained as traditional as possible. It is a natural eco-system where installation of boundaries has not been required. The local community has lived with wildlife without boundaries and hence this relationship has been harmonious. Many elements have added to this relationship. Some of these are; peaceful co-existence over centuries with no mutual interest in each other, leopards being the guardians of hill and cave temples, big cats being associated as vehicles of gods and princely estates not permitting anyone but the main royal family to conduct hunts.
Old Hindu texts also mention animals in various forms and at various places in harmony with gods and deities.
“The rain began to fall and all the Earth was peaceful. In the forests of Kailasa, while the rain fell day and night, the animals were talking—the yak and the deer, the monkeys and boars and bears, the elephants and oxen, lions and leopards, buffalo and tigers—and the frogs ran joyfully about, and the sparrows and cuckoos sang.” (Mahabharata 167)”
When the fire god, Agni, is hungry and needs to consume a forest in order to regain his strength, he asks permission from Krishna. Krishna asks if there are any people, animals, birds, or trees that will be harmed. Agni replies that the animals will run away, the birds will fly away, and “the trees have their roots beyond my reach” (Mahabharata 81).
The Rabari or Devasi community of Rajasthan occupies a prime position in the communities that exist in this region, owing to a large population of them settling down in the surrounding villages and using community grazing lands for their cattle. The Rabaris lose some livestock every year to leopards, but for centuries have been tolerant towards them. They hold beliefs that predators exist in the area, that livestock is prey and this is how god made nature. Madha Ram Devasi, 38, has seen his father and his family lose many goats and sheep to leopards, over the years but his elders have always taught him that leopards were created by Lord Shiva and they must be looked after. Goddess Parvati had requested Lord Shiva to create camels, and Rabari’s to look after these camels. Similarly Lord Shiva created leopards and they must be left alone and not harmed. These spiritual teachings are passed on from father to son and also taught in the temples by the Bhopa, or head priest of a temple. So, along with being a belief from within, there is an element that relates itself to gods and local deism, of an existence which coexistence cannot be altered.
The Bhopa ji is proud of the close bond between the leopards and the Rabari community. Over years, the Rabari’s have sacrificed their livestock to leopards, considering it to be a feast to their mother goddess and Lord Shiva. They do resent their livestock being taken away and killed by a pack of wolves however, animals they do not worship. The Rabari community protects trees since it is a resource for their daily living. They know how to make optimal use of a natural resource without depleting it, but it is sometimes very hard for the community to make ends meet. The income they get daily is the bare minimum to survive and sometimes even this is insufficient.
According to the Bhopa, if no help is accorded to them by the government, later generations will take jobs in cities or as labour and the community with its traditions and customs will start dying out. This will lead to a depletion in the domestic prey for leopards and in turn could possible alter their behaviour and population in the future. Ideally, a Rabari family consisting of four to five brothers may own up to 120 goats and sheep. On an average their source of income comes from a few months of milk supply, selling of animals for meat, wool and trade. The income is not as much as desired, as the cost of living has risen. The Bhopa adds that their community leaders levy a fine on individuals who break laws and this protects the environment. A good example of this being the felling of trees amounting to monetary and social punishment. Hence they play a good role in a social form of environmental protection and are aware of the importance of their natural surroundings.
Another issue is the new generation not wanting to take up what their elders do. They are attracted by the glamour of fast paced city life and move in search of jobs at a young age. Since they are not educated well, they are often at a loss in an urban environment, sometimes exploited. They sometimes end up borrowing money as they are enticed into bad deals which can also lead to debt traps. Some of them do not even wear their traditional attire as they consider it to be too old fashioned. This is another concern, as it all roots back to the fact that the leopards and Rabaris have lived together in these hills for centuries. Removing any of these elements would cause a disturbance in this harmonious eco-system. This is a summary of how important the Rabaris are for this region and conserving their dying traditions and culture is of utmost value and priority – not only for their community but for the local ecology as well. In the coming blogs we will examine the happy conditions which are helping to preserve these aspects of local culture and the Rabari lifestyle.