Calling Halma: Indigenous Approaches to Modern Problems
Arvin Raj Mathur, Anthropologist & Research Intern, US
28 MARCH, 2017
Culture fundamentally molds the ways in which an individual perceives and interprets their surroundings. As human beings, we use culture as a means of categorizing our surroundings so that each element becomes a coherent aspect of reality in our minds.
This combination of behaviors, worldviews, and values is communicated among groups of individuals and is manifested as a sense of similarity between members of a group. Concepts that fall between or outside of this range of categories may be rendered incomprehensible to members of a specific culture. It is for this reason that this heuristic concept of culture is the focus of much anthropological study and must be central to any discussions regarding development in India.
Many activists and NGOs have learned this lesson when attempting to use western ideas to assist remote societies. Reviving the practice of halma is one attempt to utilize an indigenous concept in order to assist the Bhil people of Jhabua District, Madhya Pradesh in remediating the effects of environmental degradation. By framing the idea of water conservation around an existing concept, Shivganga Samagra Gramvikas Parishad was able to unite members of the Bhil community and put them into action.
The Bhil People
The Bhil people are indigenous to the Malwa Plateau and Narmada River area and inhabit a domain which extends through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Due to their history of seclusion and suppression, the present-day government of India designates the Bhil people as a Scheduled Tribe. Bhil subsistence strategies were based primarily on hunting and gathering as well as subsistence agriculture in the forests that used to occupy the Malwa plateau. Due to customs that call for feasting and communal celebration in the event of a surplus, Bhil culture was one which discouraged trade. Due to their isolationist tendencies, the Bhil have developed a culture which is characteristically different from that in surrounding regions.
“Many activists and NGOs have learned this lesson when attempting to use western ideas to assist remote societies. Reviving the practice of halma is one attempt to utilize an indigenous concept in order to assist the Bhil people of Jhabua District, Madhya Pradesh”
Ecological Problems in Jhabua District
The Jhabua Hills are situated above a rock structure which does not lend itself to water retention (Banerjee, 2). This was furthered by deforestation of the area, resulting in a loss of water and increased aridity in the area. In the past, the Bhil would respond to a decrease in fertility by migrating to areas with an abundance of fertile land, however, since the disruption of this practice, many Bhil have begun to suffer increased hardship in the face of water scarcity. In order to provide assistance to these farmers in times of need, an NGO known as Shivganga attempted to instruct Bhil communities in methods of water conservation. Unfortunately, this proved to be an alien concept for the Bhil. Therefore, a new approach became necessary in order to introduce a solution that operates within existing cultural schema.
When searching for a new solution, Shivganga activists discovered a potentially useful indigenous concept that could be utilized to produce a solution to the area’s environmental concerns. Halma is a traditional adaptive strategy implemented by the Bhil people in order to assist members during times of hardship. For example, in the case of a house fire, a member of the community can call halma and inspire his community to come to his assistance. However, the practice of Halma began to decline in recent years due to its misuse as a means of reducing labor costs on personal projects.
As a proposed solution to current ecological problems, members of Shivganga called together halma to save the local ecology. This required the organization of thousands of local and distant Bhil members to gather and the dedication of a three-day period to the digging of trenches and the planting of trees. Through cooperation, members of various communities can unite under a single banner and work towards a brighter collective future.
A traditional way to gather people and celebrate the spirit of Halma.
Indigenous Solutions to Modern Problems
As culture plays an integral role in shaping a community’s worldview, it is imperative that all solutions must operate in a way that resonates with the local ethos. The adaptive nature of cultural traits provides each group with numerous elements which can be broadened to include and facilitate new concepts. Framing these new ideas within older concepts allows members of the society to relate to and easily understand the new concept.
Such ideas can be extrapolated from the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology and history. Anthropology is the study of human diversity in terms of culture and biology. Due to the complex nature of human societies, anthropology attempts to maintain a perspective that is both holistic and comparative. When conducting their research, cultural anthropologists become a part of the societies that they study and provide information that can be used to assist India’s many cultures in developing an indigenous solution to their problems.
“As culture plays an integral role in shaping a community’s worldview, it is imperative that all solutions must operate in a way that resonates with the local ethos”
Although history provides a wealth of information regarding our development in the past, it can sometimes provide a view which is restricted to the perspective of the literate. However, through archaeology, one can reconstruct and study a diverse array of adaptive strategies that are left frozen in time. Through changes in the archaeological record, one can understand the effectiveness and possible limitations of each adaptive strategy and use these ideas to predict the success or failure of future problems.
(Author, Arvin Raj Mathur, is an alumni of Empathy Connects Halma Yatra. He is an Anthropologist and currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.)
Halma Yatra begins in
Call: +91 99307 48239
+91 78957 94177