A peek into their superstitions, marriage, strange names and language.
Spending a day with the Gihara tribes children in Pehchaan Nagar, located in Phagwara, Punjab was a surreal experience for me. I witnessed first hand how the lives of children belonging to a rural, nomadic tribe were influenced by urban city life. It all began after I met Lalit Saklani, a 41 year-old woman who spent her life as a social worker teaching underprivileged children along with her friend Jaspal.
The Gihara tribes children were unique. They were blissfully unaware that negative human traits like jealousy existed. Their hearts were pure and they were eager to learn. While many of the children struggled to learn alphabets and numbers during their initial years of education, years later, many of those children were beating Saklani and Jaspal at a game of chess. The duo believed that many of the children had logical and creative minds guiding them through tasks in life.
After meeting the children, I learnt some fascinating things about the Gihara tribe. I was told by Saklani that even the adults in the community failed to understand concepts like lying or being diplomatic. They too were apparently clean at heart and untouched by the evils of modern society. I presumed that this was the only positive aspect that came from isolating themselves from the world.
In order to communicate with the children, Saklani and Jaspal had to learn their language. It took the two of them around six to eight months to learn Gihari. Saklani claims that there are very few words in Gihari and expressions are repetitive. Their language is greatly influenced by Urdu and Malwai, a Punjabi dialect spoken in the Malwa region of Punjab.
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Child marriage in progress
One of the biggest cultural challenges Saklani and Jaspal dealt with, included the tribal culture of child marriage. It’s customary for the community to ensure children are married at the age of 13 or 14. When the tribe did not listen, both Saklani and Jaspal approached the police and the human rights commission to help prevent child marriage in the community. While the latter was a disappointment and failed to take up the matter, the police shamelessly accepted hefty bribes and made sure the children got married, referring to it as an integral part of the tribe’s culture. “No social body did its duty,” said Saklani. A prominent aspect of the child marriage custom involved marriage between first cousins.
A prominent ritual followed by the Gihara tribe also includes men consuming a large amount of alcohol at an early age, which often increases the likelihood of them becoming alcoholics in future. This often results in women becoming the chief of the family. As a result, children often have closer relationships with the maternal grandparents, as they are held in high regard.
Besides this, the community was also skeptical about modern medicine and healthcare. When Saklani first met them, they were skeptical about hospitals. They feared oxygen masks, tubes, and needles. In a medical emergency, Saklani and Jaspal would carry the patient to the hospital every morning and bring him or her back during the night and follow the same routine for days. During the 90’s there were multiple instances of infants dying during birth, due to hospital staff refusing to help the tribe or completely avoiding them during a pregnancy. Today, the tribes people are accustomed to visiting the hospital for varied medical concerns. Saklani personally maintains a vaccination and general health record of the children.
It’s important to note that the Gihara tribe follows a matriarchal system. Female infanticide is especially viewed as a grave sin amongst the tribe. “A girl child’s birth is celebrated the same as a boys. In fact during marriage, it’s the groom’s family that bears the expenses of the bride’s guests and both sides get money as shagun. Recently the community has decided to utilize the money for building infrastructure for a school,” said Saklani.
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While the tribe believes in gender equality, their religion is largely focussed on nature worship and is similar to Hinduism, but is still different. They appear to believe in a form of paganism, with an emphasis upon ecology, where they worship nature and their ancestors. Once a year they pay a visit to their departed ones, near Faridabad in the river Kosi. “The locals living there call them the wild ones,” muttered Saklani. Every year when they visit the river, the tribe eats all the turtles and monitor lizards in the region. They keep their items of worship at elevated places, believing that their ancestors are observing them from above.
School for all ages
One of the most surprising aspects of their lives is that they don't do much to keep themselves warm during the winter. “In summer they feel very hot and in winter they don’t even realise that it’s cold. It is only after we convinced them and bought them warm clothes that they began to bother,” mused Saklani.
Over years of evolution, the community could have developed food habits that keep them safe from Punjab winters. Giharas live on meat. They feed on monitor lizard, cat, tortoise amongst other kinds of meat that must have some influence on regulating body temperature. According to Saklani’s research, during the days of Shivaji and Maharana Pratap, Marathas used monitor lizard to climb forts by tying the lizard at the end of the rope. When kings and dynasties ended, one of their tools became a staple item in the Gihara tribe’s diet.
Like most tribals, the Gihara’s are highly superstitious, they believe in ghosts and were initially fearful of stepping outside their homes after sunset. They believe ghosts roam the earth during the night, the way humans do during the day. Earlier, any noise outside would scare them but now they are less fearful.
Sanjay Dutt, Sunny Deol, Chipkali
Another major influence that Saklani and Jaspal have had upon their lives, is the naming of their children. Names held no importance when she first met them. They named their kids Chipkali, Daddu, Kenkda, amongst other odd names. Naturally, Saklani believed registering children’s identities with those names would be unacceptable, but renaming them was an entirely different issue. Grandparents of the children tried to bribe the kids with the promise of throwing a party, if they were named after their favorite actors. Some of these names included Sanjay Dutt, Salman Khan and Sunny Deol. Saklani and Jaspal put their foot down and decided to take matters into their own hands and name children based on their personalities.
Kashish, Chetan, Mayank and Sarthak were some of the names they used. The challenge lay in the using them. Nobody responded to the new names till it was enforced as an informal rule. Parents accepted the change and learnt that it was important for the children’s future.
People sometimes ask Saklani what living with the Giharas has taught her. She claims to have grown as a human being and to have earned love and respect from this small, ‘non- existent’ world.
“How many people have the love of so many children and the kindness of so many parental figures in their day to day lives? I could not ask for more,” said Saklani, beaming with pride.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Jincy Chacko
Photographs by Jincy Chacko