Dwelling with Soligas

Dwelling with Soligas

Lifting up the poverty stricken Soligas (a tribal community), and merging them with the better economy of the mainstream. This was a mission often pursued by Varaaha. He had many stints dwelling with them to educate them according to the demand of that time. Go through his own narration (with even the relevant graphic created by him), on how he resolved a problem affecting two families, during one of his stays at B R Hills, the origin of Soligas in Karnataka – India.

I remember with deep reverence the popular Kannanda writer and affectionate friend Siddavanahalli Krishna Sharma. He encouraged my adventurous desire to live in a forest and work for the aboriginal tribes. Gandhi Smarak Nidhi asked me to go to BR Hills (mount of the deity Biligiri Ranga) and work for the Soligas. KV Balakrishna had done an excellent ground work to establish an institution for the welfare of Soligas. My wife insisted upon staying with me in the forest. We had to take our two little children also with us. Balakrishna had got a large hut built for us. It was a nice place for us to live in.

Balakrishna had to go back to his native place. So he felt the need to introduce me to the facts around us before he could hand me over complete charge of the mission. His first choice was to show me the relationship between animals and man in a forest. He took me out into the forest around a small lake. On our way I could hear the noice of barking turigs. I stopped. Balakrishna also stopped. We saw a huge tusker elephant rushing towards us and Balakrishna asked me not to move. Elephant which was rushing towards us with wide spread ears, also stopped. It turned back and moved towards its herd, where we could witness a few female elephants with calves. Another encounter with elephants was when we were walking towards a town. Some Soligas joined us on the way. A group of elephants came very close to us. The Soligas shouted in a shrill voice. We also joined them. The whole group of elephants turned back and ran away. The Soligas also walked away in the opposite direction and vanished behind the trees. They were searching for beehives to extract honey. We were lucky to walk with them when danger was close at the sight.

Balakrishna left me with full responsibility to work for Soligas and returned home. My first activity as a humble worker was a very complicated one. I came to know from a forest guard that a woman had contagious fever and was made to stay far away from her hut. When I went there to see her, I was not allowed to go near her. She was lying under a tree. A plate full of food was kept close to her head. I went to the oldest man in the group of huts and spoke to him. He was happy when I told him that they were right in segregating the patient. But it was difficult for him to accept my suggestion that a doctor may be brought here to check the spread of the disease and also help the patient to recover. At last he spoke to men and women around, and agreed to my suggestion.

I was lucky to find a young doctor who looked at it as a pleasure to work in a forest. He and his two assistants walked eleven miles from the town to reach our hut. Next morning they began inoculating Soligas. Soligas who dislike people of plains were charmed by the doctor and his assistants. All the Soligas in various group of huts were inoculated. The patient also showed symptoms of recovery. An unexpectedly huge number of Soliga boys and girls joined our residential school (we had to permit the children to go home in the evening and return to school before breakfast).

One day a few elderly Soligas, cudgels in their hands, entered our premises. They were angry. They wanted to discuss a very important matter with me. I sat with them. One of them said, We should kill that boy. After a prolonged inquiry I came to know that a girl belonging to their group eloped with a young man of another group. The other man said, The water filled pot is yet lying on the path. The boy and the girl were seen digging for roots near the hillock. It was not easy for me to understand the full story. The story is that when a boy and a girl love each other and know that their parents are against their marriage, they fix a date and time to run away together into the forest. When the people of the girl’s family find the water filled pot lying on the path and the girl missing, they are sure that the girl has eloped. The search for her begins. Soligas are experts in following traces of human movement left in forest, when they move. Somebody finds the couple in a far off jungle. Then begins the firing of insults by the girl’s party at the people of the boy’s household.

I was unable to think of any action in the matter. I only said, Anger ruins the future of your beloved girl. There was an immediate change in their moods. They began a hushed conversation among themselves. The elderly person among them told me, We will ask the father of the boy to build a hut for the young couple. All of them expressed their gratitude to me and left. I stood wondering what I did for them to change their attitude.

A few days passed. I came to know that the father of the boy was reluctant to take full responsibility of building a hut and both the parents of the boy and the girl should together do the work. This was agreed upon as the prestige of both families was retained. The young couple were invited to live in the new hut built near the hut of the boy’s father.

Balakrishna told me the story of a ghost which pestered a Soliga girl. The Soligas warned him against living in his house because a ghost lived on a tree near the house. The ghost in tree is stated to have pushed a water filled pot down her head and broken it. Balakrishna’s thought process went around the possibility of a water filled pot crashing down Soliga girl’s head. He noticed a string tied between a tree and a window grill, to be used for drying clothes.
He convinced the superstitious Soligas that the girl with the pot on her head walked under the string. The pot fell down when it hit the string. The girl agreed that she walked under the string. The ghost left them once for all.

There is a Srivaishnava temple at the top of BR Hills. The story is that the deity married a Soliga girl and decided to stay on the hill. This story did not make much of an impact in Soligas’ life. They continued to follow their own customs while participating in temple activities. They worship Jadaya Swami (a form of Shiva).They celebrate Fire walking. They are very careful about the people from plains and they have contacts with agents who buy forest products like honey, oil seeds etc., from them. Self-prestige is very important for Soligas. Jealousy, hatred and cunning have no place in the minds of Soligas. Though they live in various groups, they belong to a greater harmonious society.

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