In the forests of southern India, tribal people have lived for thousands of years. One such forest is Biligiri Rangana Hills (B R Hills). The B R Hills are home to one of the few forest-dwelling tribal communities, the Soligas and supports a variety of habitats and wildlife. Several dolmens found in and around these hills date back several thousand years to the Megalithic period, testimony to the early human presence in these forests. Dolmens characteristically consist of a circular arrangement of large stones with a central pit, walled off by granite slabs. Whether these sites belong to the ancestors of the present day Soliga or other tribal peoples of this region is not clearly known.
The Soligas believe their ancestors originated from the bamboo. The etymology of the term ‘Soliga’ is possibly a “corruption of Tamil word Colai or Solai, meaning thickets in which they live” and hence Soliga is ‘the one from Solai’ says Luiz in his book Tribes of Mysore (1963).
In his account of the Soligas (Shōlagas — as spelt in colonial texts) in early nineteenth century, the Scottish physician Francis Buchanan writes “…they speak a bad or old dialect of the Karnāta (Kannada) language, have scarcely any clothing, and sleep around a fire, lying on a few plantain leaves, and covering themselves with others. They live chiefly on the summits of mountains, where the tigers do not frequent, but where their naked bodies are exposed to a disagreeable cold. Their huts are most wretched, and consist of bamboos with both ends stuck into the ground, so as to form an arch, which is covered with plantain leaves.” This is possibly the first ever written record about Soligas. Today, the Soliga population is spread in and around the forests of Chamarajanagar and Mysore districts of Karnataka, with smaller populations in neighboring states of Tamil Nadu.
Both their oral history as well as linguistic analysis reveals their close relationship with nature.
The lifestyle, culture, and tradition of Soligas are closely linked to the forest. They worship trees, forest streams, animals, and birds. Habbi is a small stream or spring considered sacred by the Soligas; Maramma is the goddess worshiped by Soligas; Devaru is the presiding deity, represented by one or several stones referred to as linga ( a form of Lord Shiva).
Doddasampige, one of their principal deities on the banks of the stream Bhargavi is a large Michelia champaca tree, which is several hundred years old, in a valley at the heart of the forest. Tigers are worshiped as Donniganayi (Big dog in Kannada) and elephants are also worshiped as Anedevaru (one who protects one’s family and crops from harm).
Till date, 489 sacred sites have been mapped in and around the forests of B R Hills. Sacred sites like Doddasampige bring together the modern ideas of legally protected areas and people’s traditional methods of conservation.
Having lived in the forests for generations, the Soligas have an intricate understanding of the flora and fauna. Their folklore, songs, and dances adopt several elements from their life in the forests. The songs commemorate animals, insects, trees, flowers, birds and seasons.
annane kadiganadaru nadeyanno
annane kembarabareyalli jenade
annane tenkalakki nudidade
annane donniganayi bandade
annane karadibhava bandhavane
annane nodinadeyanno kadiga
annane nodikuyallu jenanna
annane kuguruambina kudimalu
annane podiganadaru nadeyanno….
— a Soliga folk song
This “honeybee” song, sung during honey harvests, talks about the animals and birds of forest one at a time, and advice how to harvest honey.
brother, come let’s go to the forest
there is honey at Kembare Bare
brother, the Woodpecker is calling
the tiger is on its way
our borther- in-law, sloth bear is already here
brother, be cautious while walking in the forest
careful while cutting the honey &
send the honey pot down using the wild creeper
brother, come let’s head back home
(You can listen to this song here, sung by Basavaraju, a Soliga, and president of Pusumale Soliga Kala Abhivruddhi Sangha)
These song cycles (haduke as it is called) are sung through the night at festivals. Many of the songs describe the types of forest, trees and their uses, the behavior of local animals and their god-like status.These songs are passed from one generation to the next; thereby helping the younger generations understand and relate to the forests and their environment.
The Soliga children learn about various forest areas, ecological features and the flora and fauna. They also learn about the names and uses of different kinds of trees, plants, creepers, and herbs.
The skills required to keep away from the danger of wild animal are taught and are encouraged to go out and play, which helps them to adjust to different environs in the forest in later years of their life.
Festivals, both seasonal and religious, are occasions for the community to get together with song and dance, where youngsters learn the songs from the older generation.
The forests inhabited by the Soligas were part of the kingdom of Mysore. In 1879, the area around B R Hills remained within the princely state of Mysore under the administration of the East India Company. Later, on August 2, 1858, the Government of India Act of the British Parliament transferred the entire wealth of India and the forests of the Soligas to the British government.
After India’s independence in 1947, the same laws continued to be in force and with time they got stricter. Forest and wildlife protection acts then, did not consider the rights of local people. Under independent India’s first wildlife protection legislation, the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), B R Hills was declared a reserve forest in 1974, and upgraded to a wildlife sanctuary in 1992. Recently in January 2011, it was declared as a tiger reserve adding further restrictions to lives of the Soligas.
An adverse effect of forest regulations was that many Soliga hamlets deep inside the forests were moved to the government- built colonies in the periphery of the forests.
Although earlier the Soligas practiced shifting cultivation, they now live in small permanent settlements called podus. After several decades of being considered as illegal aliens on their own lands, most of the podus have now been recognized as villages under the Forest Rights Act.
The Forest Rights Act, passed in 2006, for the first time recognised the rights of forest dwelling people over their traditional lands, correcting decades of land alienation among tribal people.
With years of changing and restrictive regulations, this community has witnessed significant changes in their livelihood and lifestyle.
Forests were the main source of livelihood for the Soligas. They used to collect honey, Indian gooseberry, lichen, bamboo, tubers, fruits, medicinal plants and would barter with merchants from the plains for clothes, utensils, and pottery.
Their dependence on forests is slowly decreasing with an increasing dependence on external markets for their resources. They are slowly moving away from their traditional livelihood and have shifted towards cash crops like coffee, pepper, and maize and which are often seasonal.
Aung Si’s extensive work on Soliga ethnobiology shows rich traditional ecological knowledge in the community but also indicates its slow decline.
In this income dependent world, there is very little scope for subsistence farming as more crop means more money like in any other profession. Fortunately, dependence on chemicals and fertilizers are still low in this community but in coming days, this is a serious threat.
The main source of income is still from the harvest and sale of non-timber forest produce such as honey, Indian gooseberry, and lichen.
Traditionally, Soligas were depending on sustenance farming and forests for food. Ragi was their staple food; they hunted small games and supplemented it with the tubers, roots, and shoots, which were available in the forest for free. Their food was not dependent on their income. Relocated to peripheries of the forest with added forest regulations, Soligas today depend less on forests for food. They depend on the subsidized food provided in ration shops set up by the government and the external market, where affordability determines access.
In this increasingly globalized world, the food security of this community is slowly decreasing, as they move away from sustenance farming towards markets.
The transition from nomadic and semi- nomadic ways of life to a more sedentary form of life has had consequences for the Soliga’s mobility practices, which in turn has affected their culture, traditional occupations, and livelihood. The compensation and rehabilitation provided to the Soligas did not benefit them or help to improve their economic and social status.
Today, the Soligas are caught between their identity, traditional lives in the forests and modern ways of living and livelihoods.
- Tribes of Mysore (1963).
- Mapping sacred natural sites in BR Hills by Ashoka trust for research in ecology and the environment.
- The Indian Forest Rights Act
- The Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the Solega: A Linguistic Perspective
- Implementation Research Project on Maternal Health
- A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar
This series of photo essays talks explores issues on access to government health services by tribal communities in south India by bringing together perspectives of both community and health workers from the hilly and forested areas of Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka.
This series is part of a research project titled ‘Participation for local action: Implementation research with indigenous communities in southern India for local action on improving maternal health services’ . This project is implemented by Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra in partnership with Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivrudhhi Sangha (in Kannada for District indigenous forest-dwellers Welfare Society), District Reproductive and Child Health Office, Chamarajanagar, Karnataka State Health Systems Resource Centre, Bengaluru, and Institute of Public Health (Bengaluru). It is supported by the Alliance for Health Policy & Systems Research, World Health Organisation and United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF) under the decision-maker led implementation research call.