After stopping a dam from destroying their forests, the Koya – humans – here have set up their own, independent system of governance
Is there a place anywhere on this earth where there are no temples, no churches, or mosques? Where there is no religion, no caste, nor upper or lower class, no rape nor crime, no one murders and none commits suicide? In that village, be it bamboo trees or the common broad-leafed ‘plates’ to eat food from, or it is paddy swaying its leafs in the merry wind or any other farm produce, everything belongs to the village community.
As the sun penetrates the dense forests of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, the road through the thickets takes you to Mendha-Lekha village. Take any road you wish to, but one must visit Mendha-Lekha at least once, they say. You may ask, what is so special about Mendha-Lekha?
If you take a right turn from Ghanaura Tehsil and move further ahead by less than a kilometre, Mendha-Lekha comes into view, seemingly just another non-descript village. You could possibly be greeted by a dark-complexioned, short and most ordinary looking man. He is 64-year-old Devaji Topa. On seeing our team, some equally ordinary looking men and women cackle out of their very modest houses made of earthen half-pots and some dried local grass.
They stare at us and us at them. For both, the other is a curiosity. We, along with the villagers enter the ramshackle village community hall. We sit down, but Devaji stands there with his hands folded. “We are blessed that such eminent people like you have graced our village. We heartily welcome you!”
“We have heard a lot about you, so we wanted to visit you,” we say.
But Topa demurs: “What is there in our village which is not there in yours? The sun that shines here is the same as in your village. The stars that twinkle in our skies is the same that smiles on you. The wind that caresses you and us is not different either.”
“All you say is true,” we said softly, in deference to the old man. “And yet, there are some things so different here, and that is what has brought us from afar.”
“So Devaji, what is your religion?”
From the look on Devaji’s face it was apparent that the question escaped him. So one of us repeated: “We are asking whether you are Hindus or Muslims or may be Christians.”
“Religion? I am not sure. I am not able to answer that one,” Topa said in the end.
“I see… so what are you called?” a friend asked.
Just a single word emanated: “Koya.”
Now it was our turn to be perplexed. “And what does Koya mean?”
“Humans mean Gond tribals?”
“People visiting us have their own understanding of what we are,” said the wise man.
“Okay, who is the god you worship?”
“Our village god,” Topa seemed to falter and then said: Budha Dev, Saat Dev, Panch Dev, Chhah Dev. Ours is an extension of Bastar’s Abujmarh. Our ancestors lived in Rajnandgaon of Chhattisgarh, which is about seven kilometres away.
One villager said that some people from here had converted to some new religion but soon came back to their faith.
“ We are Koyas, sahib, Koya. Is it not enough for humans to remain just humans?” Topa asked, completely silencing our prejudice to try to understand them from our narrow perspective.
He informed us that there are 105 families in Mendha-Lekha and a total of 500 people. A lady said: “There are no big or small persons in our village.” But there is a difference, as another lady said: “Yes there are differences in gotras(clans). Gotras are different during weddings, like we are Panch Dev and in one marriage the partner was Saat Dev.
Talking of weddings, we asked: “Who arranges for the feast during the weddings?”
“The groom’s family.”
“So in your village does the bride go to the groom’s house or is it the other way round?” Topa said that the bride goes to the groom’s house.
And what about the panditji, was our next question.
“And what is that?” came a surprised response.
“I mean, the priest, the one who conducts the rituals during the wedding,” one of us explained. But they just couldn’t get it, and ripples of whispers and suppressed giggles did the rounds of the meeting hall.
But Topa got the question finally and said: “We do not have any priests or anyone of that sort, the sarpanch conducts the wedding.”
And what about some dance and celebrations during the wedding?
“That depends on the groom’s family. If they want to, they organise that.”
Devaji very innocently opened up about all the major incidents from 1927 till now, and then asked: “You people can see the internet in the cities. Did you read all these things on the internet?”
As we remained silent, Devaji resumed: “Well I shall tell you everything that is not there on the internet. He explained how bamboo traders and paper mill owners colluded to rob the forests from 1950 till 1980, settling in the area in large numbers.
Our eyes ran outside the room and surveyed the hills surrounding us. They were thick with bamboo forests.
Devaji said: “The original Koyas were completely forest people. There was a time when we used to hide in the forests if any outsider entered this area.
“But now it is so different. In 2003, you visited Durban in South Africa to speak at a conference. And so many scholars from across the world are coming to study your life and culture. You yourself are an icon.”
But one of us suddenly said in irritation: “Wrong, absolutely wrong. Devaji, Hiralalji cannot be icons. Our icons are Sachin Tendulkar, Madhuri Dikshit or Amitabh Bachchan. Devaji, have you heard of them?” A simple question from Devaji then stunned us: “Have they laid down their lives for the poor people of the country?”
Devaji went back in history: “In 1970, the government declared that they will create a big dam in Madhya Pradesh. We shall get hydro-electricity, they said. But we realised that our forests will be destroyed, so we went on an agitation in Madhya Pradesh.
“On our return from Madhya Pradesh, we did some serious thinking. We asked ourselves, instead of our random ways, why don’t we get organised and usher in independence and self-rule? This discussion went on for four or five years. Then we decided on doing just that. We made a small dam and constructed village roads, and even this community hall. Everything was done by our own hands, completely voluntary service.
“We are hunters. The forest is our existence and the bamboo our spine. The movement ‘save forests, save bamboo and save humans’ started from Mendha-Lekha. Young and old, men and women, we all were in it. Baba Amte and others gave us the leadership. Our slogan was, ‘Our government will be there in Delhi and Mumbai, and in our village, we are the government. We ourselves shall decide the rates for selling charoli seeds, tendu leaves that are used to make bidis, mahua and bamboo. We erected a bamboo fence over 118 hectare of forest land. Here even leaves cannot rustle without our permission. One commissioner had sent an order, written in English. We sent it back, saying, if you have to talk, talk in our language,” Devaji concluded.
The most amazing institution here is the kurma ghar, where women reside in all dignity during their menstruation periods, so that no one asks them to do any work.
In the cities, we save nothing, consume everything like gluttons and kill the environment. In the end, Devaji had answered his own question that he had started the conversation with: ‘what is so special about us’?
Without boasting, he made us realise this in one word: “Everything!”
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