Early morning traffic
I woke pre-dawn to the chanting mixed with the sounds of birds.   It came from less than a mile away, but the womens’ voices pulsed with energy as they repeated a mantra for hours. 
It had started the night before and continued until I finally went to sleep. I awoke in the middle of the night to silence. But they were at it again this morning. 
That was nothing compared to window screen rattling,  drum-driven celebratory music and enthusiastic singing that started about midnight the night before and rocked on till at least 3 AM. That, we were told, was most likely a wedding.
The womens’ song was low, rhythmic, energized and conveyed purpose. None of the Hindu drivers or speakers at the hotel knew what they were saying – they only said it was tribal. Micheline, my roommate, and I lay awake speculating what they could be singing about. We guessed it was not death or mourning because it lacked sadness and keening. But perhaps a woman was in labor? Or someone was ill. Or this was an important time that needed a call out to the gods?
Tribal.  Yet another thing I knew nothing about.  Another example of the gaps in comprehension that block understanding what you see and only assuming you understand.
But that’s why to travel, No? Not just to learn facts, but to be reminded of how much you don’t know, and why it’s important to put yourself into places and situations where you are challenged to learn rather than contentedly functioning on autopilot in the safe and predictable world at home.
But here are some facts after I understood how to ask the right questions: 
Apparently Gujarat is the most ethnically diverse state in India.  And the Lonely Planet – defacto bible for many travelers – says that the Adivasis (tribal communities) pre-date the ancestors of modern Indians and still make up around 8% of the population and there are over 400 tribes in India. Many are in Gujarat and Rajakastan where we’ve been traveling. Some stay on their ancestral land – like those who we heard singing.  Others are more nomadic, and I’ve seen blue tarp tents set up off the roads the last few day and near camps needing laborours that I now understand to be tribal nomadic people drifting for work.  Some of that labor is likely exploited with LP alluding to systematic dispossession of tribal lands and exploitation of tribal labor has been allowed by the government. 30% of Adivasis are literate compared with a national average of 65% of Indians (2000 census).
After my eyes were opened to this, I could look back at the past several days and the people I saw and also at those we moved passed today. I’ve learned to better recognize likely tribal people when I see them: smaller, thinner,more prominent cheekbones. Also maybe poorer, less well-dressed. Poorer housing.  Were those women laborers building roads in the heat and dirt Adivasis?  Possibly.  Are those folks working in the gravel pit and living around the edges make shift tents Adivasis? Likely.  What about the thin, dark dreadfully impoverished children from the last few days who would see you coming and cup their hand in the universal sign of begging?   Not sure. It’s risky to assign identity, and I’m likely to get it wrong.  As usual, what is underneath is more complex than the initial glimpse.
Today was a beautiful, relaxing short ride to Narmada Dam.  The landscape changed as we rode southwest towards Mumbai –from desert to lush irrigated agriculture of corn and cotton. The cotton was ready for picking, and I could see women in the fields working to bring in the crops.  Beautiful old trees line the roads making for blissful shade.  
Gujarat village
It looked more prosperous through much of this country. While I’ve noted it elsewhere, people here seemed to take a lot of pride in keeping their yards or spaces in front of their homes clean – sweeping the trash and leaves off the dirt with long brooms made of bundled thin sticks and then burning it away in the early morning.  
Animals – even cows – are more likely to be tethered here than roaming free.  Further north it’s clear that the pigs and goats and dogs and cows are all part of a practical garbage disposal system.  They roam freely through the streets or sides of roads and eat any organic waste – and often inorganic cardboard or paper. The rest is swept into piles for the morning trash burning fires that dot villages and yards the first couple of hours after dawn.  Any unclaimed places that no-one cleans near populated areas are covered with garbage. More of that further north, less as we move southwest.
The morning burn pile
The mountains we will approach tomorrow and cross the next day are visible now in the horizon.  The ride description says only “big climb”. This leads to a lot of speculation, as the last climbing day we had was noted as “some climbing” but actually entailed many kilometers of climbing with some sections of the early pass going over14% grade (which is stand out of the saddle and wheeze your way up a big hill heart pounding through your chest steep).  Hmmm …
Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA

3 thoughts on “Tribal

  1. Keep posting Leigh — continue to enjoy it very much. You have not connected people to caste practice yet. Wondering if this is intentional, or just not able to determine that from where you are pedaling. This tribal group would seem to fit into that somewhere, no?

  2. have quite enjoyed reading. just a thought- perhaps you passed by a muslim area the other night. it was the "night of power" or Mohammeds birthday where people stay up all night chanting, praying and some sing. just a though 🙂

  3. Chantelle,that makes more sense than any other explanation I've heard. Thanks! Chris it's my understanding the the tribal system is outside the caste system. And I know the Caste System is more complex than I understand yet but will keep working to get it.

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