Gond and Baiga: A Tale of Two Tribes in Madhya Pradesh

A long time ago, legend has it that Baiga ancestors were created by God from the womb of Mother Earth. They became the keepers of the world. And, after God had finished creating the world, he offered to make them king. However, they declined because they wanted a simple life. “Give the kingship to our brothers, the Gonds”, the Baigas told God. He did so but also blessed the Baigas. “All the kingdoms of the world may fall to pieces, but he who is made of earth and is lord of the earth, shall never forsake it. You will make your living from the earth but without ploughing it, as you must protect the earth. You will never become rich because to do so would forsake the earth”. The Gonds revered the Baigas as spiritual healers and protectors, and invited them to preside as priests in their ceremonies. Yet, as per God’s blessing, the Baigas have never prospered financially.

The ancient Baiga tribe is indigenous to central India. Many of them can be found in the Mandla district, near Kanha National Park, in Madhya Pradesh. They live traditionally, in villages with mud huts and no electricity, completely untouched by modern development. They cook using primitive implements, cultivate and store their own rice, and brew potent toddy from the flowers of the sacred mahua tree. Throughout various phases of their life, Baiga women get tattoos on their head, arms, chest and legs, representing aspects of nature integral to the Baiga way of life.

The Baigas still coexist with the Gonds. Yet, the Gond villages tell a different story of how this community has prospered while the Baigas have not. Artwork, which the Gonds have become well known for, has provided them with a lucrative source of income. Their homes have more facilities, often including electricity.

As I prepared to visit a local Baiga tribal village, while staying at Singinawa Jungle Lodge near Kanha National Park, my guide and naturalist told me we needed to get there well before sunset — that is, before members of the tribe became inebriated.

For many Baigas, the consumption of mahua toddy has become a part of their daily routine. A way to escape. It’s a concerning indication of the troubles faced by this tribal community.

As we got out of our jeep, the head of the village came over to greet us. He was a slightly built man clad in white, with a large sliver earring in one ear.

“He’s already started,” my guide and naturalist commented, as I caught a whiff of the alcohol myself. It became apparent that it wasn’t only the men who had been drinking, but women too.

A friendly young woman with a tribal tattoo across her forehead came over to us, carrying a baby. Aged in her 20s, it turned out that the baby was one of her five children. Which one was her husband? She pointed to a man lounging on a charpoi nearby. Lack of education and things to do in the village meant that having babies was a way to keep occupied.

For the Baigas, India’s efforts to conserve its national parks and protect tigers has come at a huge price. For generations, they lived peacefully in the forest, in harmony with nature. However, following the establishment of the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2005, thousands of Baigas have been forcibly evicted from Kanha National Park. The Authority wants to make the national park free of humans to maintain a safe habitat for tigers. However, ironically, it’s the Baigas that are facing quickly dwindling numbers and the threat of extinction.

The eviction from the forest has upended the Baiga tribe’s lifestyle, and left them feeling displaced and confused. The land that they’ve been relocated to is bare and unfamiliar. They are worried that their children may never learn about medicinal herbs in the forest. To earn a livelihood, some have had to become menial laborers in the area.

One man who has been helping the Baiga tribe is talented self-taught local artist and snake rescuer Ashish Kachhwaha. Brought up in Mandla, about an hour from the main gate of Kanha National Park, remarkably he now lives among the Baiga tribe just outside the gate. “I could speak their language, so it wasn’t difficult to integrate into their community,” he tells.

Ashish was attracted to the tribe by their peaceful relationship with nature. Their culture, and the pressure that the tribe is facing from the outside world, is reflected in his art. He has also devoted time to reinvigorating the tribe’s traditional dance, as a way to supplement their income. This dance, and the use of traditional instruments, had faded in the community. However, members of the tribe are now performing the dance for the public.

What satisfies Ashish about his work the most? “Whenever I make a painting of a Baiga, it brings me much happiness,” he says.

Singinawa Jungle Lodge offers the opportunity to connect with local tribes through visits to the Baiga tribal village that they support, and painting classes with a local Gond artist. Named Most Inspirational Eco Lodge of the Year in the 2016 TOFTigers Wildlife Tourism Awards, the lodge also has a unique Museum of Life and Art that showcases the region’s tribal culture.