The many keepers of Niyam Raja

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Chances are you would have heard about the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa. Chances are you would have heard about the Vedanta bauxite-mining project there. Chances are you know of the on-going struggle in the hills. Chances are you would not have imagined its significance.

It was a BBC documentary about displacement and mining that first got British photographer Jason Taylor interested in the remote hills of Eastern Orissa. Helped by local NGOs in Bhubaneshwar, Jason visited the Niyamgiri Hills — a sort of international hieroglyph ever since the UK-based company Vedanta announced its extensive bauxite mining project in the region. The visit was meant to last a week, but those seven days among the Kondh tribe changed the normal course of things for him. Jason found himself staring into the face of a loss greater than he had ever imagined and vowed to return.

Shortly after, he took all his belongings — his motorbike, a few clothes — and shifted base for six months to a hut in the middle of the dense forests. He shifted so he could capture the essence of something fragile on the verge of extinction, so he could give colour and shape to the vivid identities that will be lost if the Vedanta project is allowed to go through. But most of all, Jason returned so he could evoke for the urban mind why for the indigenous tribes spread across 200 villages, the Niyamgiri struggle is about much more than the loss of physical living space.

“The first thing that struck me about the Kondhs was their shyness,” he recalls. “They are private and gentle people, incredibly dignified. They would never make eye contact.”

Breaking barriers wasn’t easy. Jason waited and watched. There were local weekly markets that gave young men and women opportunities to dress up and impress the other. There were local witch doctors performing complex wedding rituals. There were boys climbing vines to reach oyster mushrooms that seemed to appear overnight. There was the smell of mahua flowers being ground for food. And on the rocks, there were small round holes that left him perplexed. They turned out to be places where the hunter-gatherer tribes spun their arrows to sharpen them. “These are the marks of our forefathers,” the locals said.

Slowly, Jason made friends with a young boy from the tribe. Travelling with him into the intimate life of the villages, he was struck by the deep and wise coexistence of man and nature. He became privy to the secret myth of the Niyamgiri Hill.

The myth is a fit parable for our times.

At a time when high-powered politicians at high-powered conclaves across the world are struggling to reconcile man and nature, development and sustainability, the story about the Kondh tribe and the Niyamgiri Hills is not just a chivalric tale about preserving a disappearing culture (thought that tale should be powerful enough). It is a story about mindsets. Ways of life. Indeed, the kernel of life itself.

For the Kondh tribe, the Niyamgiri is much more than a mountain; it is a living God, a life source. A thriving ecosystem. They call it “Niyam Raja” and worship the mountain ritualistically through the year. It is the centre around which their social, cultural and religious life spins. They are in complete harmony with it. They do not cultivate on the hilltop as a sign of respect for the spirit within the mountain. In a sense, the bauxite Vedanta wants to mine — to convert it into aluminum foil used for silver chocolate wrappings and potato wafer packets — is the source of that divinity. During the monsoons, the bauxite mountain acts as a sponge soaking in thousands of litres of water. When this bauxite-laden water seeps downstream, it acts as a natural fertiliser and a source of rich nutrients for the fields.

“To destroy this mountain is like destroying the holy Jagannath temple in Orissa just because one finds fields of uranium underneath,” Jason explains.

Diverse ways of life. Diverse ideas of happiness. Living in balance with Nature. The tribals of Niyamgiri are not struggling with the jargon of a climate change era; they are living it. They might want development but not at the cost of life itself.

In faraway cities, it is easy to dismiss the Kondh tribe as “collateral damage” in the great march of development. Jason hopes his photographs will go a small way in making that dismissal more difficult. Earlier this year, on one of his Discover India tours, Rahul Gandhi disappeared one afternoon into the jungles of Niyamgiri. He seemed to emerge with a new empathy. Perhaps Jason’s pictures will have the same effect on its viewers.

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Special Correspondent

Tusha Mittal has been with Tehelka since March 2008. She was educated at La Martiniere, Kolkata, and has a bachelor’s degree from Depauw University in Indiana. While in the US, she worked as a reporter and a special sections editor for a local newspaper in Boston. She also interned with CNN Internationalin Atlanta and NBC Universal in London. In her final year in college, she studied the idea of peace journalism and the role of the media in covering conflict.

She travelled to Kashmir for her graduation thesis, which dissected the role of the Indian and Pakistani media in shaping public perception of the Kashmir conflict. Her journalism interests include reporting on environment, human rights, and conflict. She has recently won The Press Institute of India award for best articles on humanitarian issues published in the Indian media. AtTehelka, she has written extensively on land rights and displacement struggles. She is based in New Delhi.