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How the Swatantra Divas 2018 pankha came to be

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A year ago, those privileged enough to be invited to the Swatantra Divas (Independence Day) celebrations at Red Fort, New Delhi, finding the weather warm and the nearest pedestal fans too far away to be of any comfort, gripped their invitations firmly and used the stiff, printed souvenirs as fans while listening to Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak.

They were under-secretaries, deputy secretaries, directors, joint secretaries, additional secretaries and secretaries of what are called by the Ministry of Defence (it’s their show on 15 August) “attached and subordinate offices, commissions, public sector undertakings, autonomous bodies” of the Government of India. (Officers below the rank of under-secretary who are “desirous of witnessing this ceremony” may be accommodated “subject to availability of seats”.)

The defence brass (from the rank of Lieutenant General and above, and their equivalents from the three services, but also from the Armed Forces Tribunal, Inter Services Organisations, Armed Forces Medical Services, Border Roads Organisation, Directorate General of Quality Assurance, Kendriya Sainik Board, etcetera) were also present. They, being rather more used to sultry conditions outdoors than the babus, seldom fan their faces.

There are several thousand invitees, and a good number of them are fanning themselves with the expensively printed souvenir, but why not give them a true fan, a beautiful pankha (a hand fan), which they can use and which will do the work of keeping them cool and which they can take home with pleasure. So thought Jaya Jaitly (of Dastkari Haat Samiti) to herself and resolved that on Swatantra Divas of the next year, 2018 and the 72nd Independence Day, there must be a pankha at hand for every one of those invited.

On 15 August 2018, there will be a pankha for each invited guest to the Swatantra Divas celebration. This is the outcome of a lanmark collaboration between Trifed (an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs) and the Ministry of Defence.

“This demonstrates the government’s care and concern for sustaining simple livelihoods practiced in the rural and under-developed areas that are home to India’s tribal population,” Trifed has explained. “It also brings into focus eco-friendly goods. The pankhas we create use natural materials, unlike plastic and non-biodegradable products which only add to our crisis of pollution.”

The pankhas of Swatantra Divas 2018 helps to keep the crafts alive which would otherwise languish because of the lack of demand. When the turn of a switch can set a desk fan running, who gives the humble, but beautifully painted and designed pankha a second look? “The pankhas offer comfort and dignity in the heat and humidity,” says Tribes India of the handicraft, which have been sourced from many artisans in Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat and Jharkhand.

Tribes India supports almost 70,000 tribal artisans all over India by directly buying from them at at fair and remunerative prices, paying them in full for their work and then retailing the products through 92 retail outlets. spread far and wide in the country. If you are not likely to be the babu getting hot under the collar on 15 August 2018, nor the retired brasshat embellishing your memoirs with one last tale that the pankha in your hand reminded you about, then Tribes India can provide you one from its online store, which is sure, as it says, “to bring back memories of childhood when these pankhas were a permanent fixture in every household with stories woven around it by your grandparents”.

Those familiar with Dilli Haat will recognise right away the source of the creative leap needed to turn a seat in the middle of an Independence Day celebration into podium for the simple yet attractive tribal pankha. It is the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of Indian crafts people established in 1986 by social and political activist, writer, and crafts patron Jaya Jaitly. It consists of a large membership of crafts persons as individuals, family units, cooperatives, associations and societies.

“We believe in sustaining traditional skills and livelihoods and in ensuring the continuity of India’s cultural heritage through crafts, arts and textiles by according respect and dignity to practitioners of handwork,” says the Samiti about its view and purpose. “We work to raise the social and economic status of crafts persons by infusing innovation and introducing new modes of creativity to widen the perspective of crafts persons so that they can be part of the contemporary world and marketplace.”

Those characteristics that were seen as weaknesses in the craft sector, such as lack of standardisation, the inability to provide large quantities of any one given item, inexpensive and sometimes earthy packaging methods, are areas of strength in a world where everything else is homogenous, synthetic (and boring). Today in India there is a new awareness of eco-friendly lifestyles, organic products and vegetable-dyed fabrics, the incredible potential of embroideries and jute ware, and the use of silk floss, banana fibre and other such materials to produce handmade paper.

I see the Swatantra Divas 2018 pankha as the most authentic proof that ‘Make in India’ emerges first and foremost from our rural homes and our local knowledge systems, to provide handmade products from a vast resource base that exists nowhere else in the world.

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Why India needs a national culture policy

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‘Culture’ in India is an idea influenced by two contrasting views.

Either, India possesses a superabundance of culture and a great pool of talent – which takes inspiration from excellent Akademis – to work at preserving traditions, re-inventing them with new orientations and new media, and supplying burgeoning cultural industries with material.

Or, India has a creaky government framework to interpret culture and administer it, which is headed by the Ministry of Culture – a framework entirely without policy direction, surviving at whim on a shoestring national budgetary allocation.

Both these views are true, each incumbent upon where ‘government’ is located vis-a-vis culture. The former view is what we find the Ministry of Culture preferring to portray, ignoring the latter view, with which it does not engage. The ministry has since the years following Independence occupied a high ground and, having fortified itself with institutions and centres, is unable to speak a language other than the rosily administrative.

For this reason, because India in 2018 has a Ministry of Culture so utterly out of touch and out of tune with the teeming types of current discourse about culture (expressions, industries, media, collaborations), the insistence that a culture policy is needed, and needed quickly, is a welcome one. This need was given substance by an article in Swarajya titled, Whose Culture Is It Anyway? Why India Needs A Comprehensive National Cultural Policy by Vikram Sampath, and I am thankful to both the magazine and the writer for having opened a space to consider, debate and act on the subject.

To the question – why should India not have a national policy on culture? – the most dismissive replies have come from a constituency which says that we are a civilisation whose recorded histories stretch back at least five millennia, whose puranic histories reach back further still, and therefore have no need for such new artifices like culture policies.

This article was published by Swarajya in January 2018. It is a shortened version of the commentary available in full here: click for the pdf.

Whereas for artistes and practitioners, who are entirely submerged in their fields, the question of such integration is superfluous, there is the matter of Indian society: our families and households inhabiting more than 4,041 ‘statutory’ towns (465 of which have populations of above 1 lakh), and about 597,000 villages. It is for these families and households, and for the many kinds of social, community, economic, geographic and occupational networks that link and support them, that a cultural policy is to be considered.

Defining culture is certainly not what the policy is for. Doing so is unnecessary and will also lead to contentious arguments over definitions, which will inevitably distract one from why a policy is needed in the first place, as Sampath has set out in detail in his article. But a policy needs a statement about the subject it is setting a direction for, and in such a spirit, distilling the many excellent statements which our Akademis, artistes and intellectuals have given us, what emerges is that in India, culture is elaborated by us as expressions of our creativity and spirituality, including our language, architecture, literature, music and art.

It is also the way we live, conduct ourselves with each other, before nature and before god, the way we think, and the way in which we see and perform the world through attitudes, customs, and practices. Our cultures transmit to us an intrinsic understanding of the way our world works, and leads us to see what is important within that world, thus our values.

This is an organic view. The Ministry of Culture, the institutes and centres it runs directly and those autonomous to it, and state government cultural departments take a state view, seeking a connection with the Constitution of India. Article 29 of the Constitution states that “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same” and Article 51 A(F) of the Constitution states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”.

The language and import of these Articles have very much to do with the Constitution’s overall message of rights and duties, and therefore it is not able to embrace the creativity, ways of living, understanding between human and nature and traditions of expression that contribute to ideas about and practices of cultures.

In his article (based on a concept paper submitted to the Ministry of Culture and NITI Aayog) Sampath has listed and explained the important elements a national policy on culture must contain. These are: (1) Complete overhaul, rationalisation and effective management of existing cultural bodies under the government, (2) Enhanced funding for India’s cultural industry, (3) Bringing culture to young minds by allowing education to inculcate a sense of national identity, pride and self-worth, (4) Enabling skills development and vocational training so that artisans, weavers, artists, painters and craftsmen find markets, (5) Integrating culture with tourism, (6) Disseminating cultural knowledge to the public through media including digital, and (7) Educating an international audience about India’s culture, heritage, traditional knowledge, performing and visual arts.

This is a sound list as it blends current concerns (they have been current since the early 1960s!) with contemporary ideas of arts management, the place of cultural industries and the need to place culture more centrally in education. As part of my work for the UNESCO 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage, the management of creative products and goods, the matter of livelihoods and incomes (not only of artistes but what the Convention refers to as tradition bearers), and infusing formal curricula in schools and universities with an understanding of cultures and their practicing, are all indeed central.

Moreover, it is over a decade since UNESCO itself began to not only re-frame but to act towards greater cooperation and collaboration between its cultural conventions and between several long-running programmes in which culture is central. These are the 2003 ICH Convention, the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme, and the UNESCO Memory of the World programme. Whereas earlier these functioned quite isolated from one another (largely because of the structural barriers in the ways they were conceived to work and be administered) today integration has become visible.

I mention this because governments often look to an inter-governmental system for guidance or direction, and India takes a justifiable pride in being a member of UNESCO since 1946, with 36 monuments, sites and structures on the World Heritage List, with 13 elements listed by the ICH Convention, with 10 protected areas and natural reserves under the Man and Biosphere programme, and with nine archival and textual repositories in the Memory of the World programme.

Such integration is a far cry from what we inherited as being legislated ‘culture’ which had to be ‘administered’. Hence young post-Independence India considered culture and heritage as being born out of enactments of government, an attitude that ossified itself so solidly it continues into 2018. As examples we have The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act, 1958 (and Rules, 1959), The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 (and Rules, 1973), The Delivery of Books’ and Newspapers’ (Public Libraries) Act, 1954, The Public Records Act, 1993 (and Rules, 1997). We even had The Treasure Trove Act of 1878!

Likewise, institutes and centres that have to do with manuscripts and books, archives, libraries, cultural objects and art holdings, museums, classical arts foundations are governed by acts and rules, and these include some of the most well-known centres of India: the Asiatic Society, the Victoria Memorial, the Salar Jung Museum, the Khuda Bakhsh library, the Kalakshetra Foundation and the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial.

It may not be poetic licence to claim that imagining the forms of national cultural administration through these legislations, rules and acts would cause the younger generation of Indians to call to mind gloomy hallways filled with massive bookcases, whose great keys lie rusting on pegs in some dim anteroom, attended to by geriatrics who may have been the only readers if at all of the mouldering tomes they watch over.

It is a picture not altered by bright paint, shiny new racks and computer terminals because the vintage grip of these legislations has not relented, nor has the opportunity such cultural ‘legislation’ gives to those who would command and control centres as petty administrative fiefdoms. Sampath says as much: “everyone seems to be intent on rediscovering the same wheel, and that too over and over again” and “regional centres are set up as further money-guzzling mechanisms, with no sense of mission, objectives, or agenda”. This is what points to a signal difference between institutions established by legislative fiat, and those which emerge from an application of cultural policy, regardless of whether they are state-controlled or receive budgetary support from central or state governments.

In September 2015 when the UN member countries adopted what is called ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development’ (the 2030 Agenda in short), also adopted were the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs). UNESCO had since 2013 argued for the greater inclusion of culture, if not as a standalone SDG then as central to several SDGs. An SDG on culture did not materialise, but the efforts to have one did lead many countries to think more holistically – and inventively – about the place of culture in national development. Today, there are 111 countries that have adopted a national development plan or strategy, and out of these 96 include references to the cultural dimension.

It is far from a template adoption. The UNESCO 2018 report, ‘Re-shaping cultural policies: advancing creativity for development’, which explains how the 2005 Convention on Diversity of Cultural Expressions is being implemented, has sounded a note of worry that there are a large number of countries which acknowledge the cultural dimension “primarily as an instrumentality, as a driver of economic or social outputs” and moreover that “across the board, the environmental impact of cultural production and artistic practice itself is not yet taken sufficiently into account”.

How important are development – by which is meant a development that is ecologically harmonious and which contributes to social cohesion rather than inequity – and environment in the framing of a cultural policy? I would like to illustrate using two examples from my work for UNESCO in recent years.

Our neighbour Sri Lanka in 2017 embarked on a drafting of a national policy on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which would supplement, enlarge and strengthen the work being done under the country’s National Cultural Policy and its National Policy of Traditional Knowledge and Practices. This drafting (advised by UNESCO) was steered by the Ministry of Education, Government of Sri Lanka, which ensured a wide-ranging series of consultations to assist and benefit the tradition bearers and practitioners of ICH and local knowledge systems in Sri Lanka. For the practitioners of these arts and crafts, every kind of material they use, every way in which it is fashioned, every place from where it is gathered, the functions which their creations fulfil, the meanings attached to those functions, all these are guidelines considered cultural.

The second example is from Cambodia, where UNESCO’s work towards deepening and strengthening the recognition of and support for traditional practices, knowledge and cultural expressions had as its backdrop the needs of a population for which four out of every five households lived in villages. Reliable sources of income throughout the year, securing multiple streams of livelihood for the members of a households, finding income and livelihood from activities that were tied closely to agriculture and cultivation or fishery, ascertaining the role and potential of handicraft and hand weaves – all these proved to be concerns that fundamentally tied culture with the environment, and the training, consultations and distillation of learning from meetings over six years (2011-16) had emphasised this tie.

In both countries – just as it is in India and throughout South-East Asia – the use of nature’s resources is as common as is its integration with culture and heritage. The connection with the natural world, for communities in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, has been particularly intimate. Traditional names of villages reflect their inhabitants’ perceptions of the environment that surrounds them. Place names incorporate kinds of vegetation. Paddy lands are classified in a number of ways, where the grain is threshed and winnowed are given specific names. So too are river floodplains, groves of low trees, highland and lowland cultivation areas. Biodiversity is the basis for indigenous and local systems of medicine and treatment, and are extremely significant in social practices.

Is such an approach possible with the government cultural machinery? I take as an answer a statement in the ‘Report of the High Powered Committee on the Akademis and other Institutions under the Ministry of Culture’, 2014: “What is most crucial today is that the Ministry of Culture accepts that it is stuck in antediluvian systems and that change is inevitable. Indeed, it must guide that change assiduously, else the bureaucratic control centre would be ‘out of sync’ with the outside environment.”

This latest report on the Ministry of Culture and its institutions was referred to by Sampath, who in an exasperated tone noted that its recommendations at the time of his article (2017) had not been acted upon, and such inaction followed exactly the same responses to predecessor reports completed in 1990, 1972 and 1964, all having made recommendations with none being acted upon. If cultural institutions such as the three Akademis (Sangeet Natak, Lalit Kala and Sahitya) are to be managed and budgeted for, and a training centre (the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training) is to be maintained, do we need a Ministry of Culture for the purpose?

The 2014 High Powered Committee report has explained that we do, because the Ministry has to work as a “point of coordination for cultural expression, and a catalyst for the dissemination of that expression through the encouragement and sponsorship of multifarious artistic activity”; it “has to guide the people towards higher expressions of the arts, and enable us to differentiate between mediocrity and excellence” and has also “to protect our heritage, both tangible and intangible, through research and documentation, and at the same time prepare us for new pursuits in the creative world.”

I agree with these reasons, but do not think it is or ought to be the prerogative of the Ministry alone (zonal cultural centres included of which there are six) to accomplish these tasks. Neither does this work become the responsibility of the constellation of centres, institutes, libraries, archives, arts foundations and research societies recognised by the Ministry. This is why a national policy on culture for India is needed, which will help explain the duties we have towards our inheritances, and will help construct a superstructure of competencies and human resources, supported by relevant pedagogies, financial channels, collaborations with allied sectors of the formal and informal economies, and which will inform policy and its implementation with the values that sustain our society.

It was as long ago as 1993, at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, that the basic distinctions that exist between anthropocentric and cosmocentric approaches to the question of cultural identity and development were reflected upon. The participants discussed what constitutes culture and development not individually, but as an integral holistic notion including linguistic, ecological and ways-of-living identities. It is in this spirit that I once again thank Swarajya and Vikram Sampath for reopening a discussion which should never have gone out of vogue, and which, I hope will take on both a new urgency and a new vibrancy.

[This article was published by Swarajya in January 2018.]

Written by makanaka

February 5, 2018 at 22:38

Taxing knowledge and nature

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The success of GST cannot come at a cultural cost to India. A well-informed tax system must widen the dialogue finance has with handicrafts and hand weaves. [This article has been published by The Pioneer, New Delhi.]

On 15 September, in a notification about the Central Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act 2017, the Central Board of Excise and Customs exempted “casual taxable persons making taxable supplies of handicraft goods” from requiring to be registered under the Act. The previous day, a similar exemption was given for the Integrated GST, and which concerns the inter-state supply of handicraft and handloom goods, a traffic that contributes a substantial livelihood to many crafts households.

There are a few conditions explained in the stilted language such notifications employ, such as value of sales, the need for craftspeople and artisans to obtain a Permanent Account Number (PAN) and fill out an e-way bill.

Yet these corrections to GST, made by the Ministry of Finance, are the first signals that the entreaties made to the Government of India by craftspeople and artisans are at last being heeded and responded to. They were made, and took shape in the form of a representation, titled “A plea for reconsidering GST rates for the crafts sector” and was submitted in July 2017 to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The reason this representation had been discussed, compiled and delivered was the ruinous effect on the handicrafts and handloom sector of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which came into force on 1 July 2017 under the slogan, “the single biggest tax reform in the history of the nation”. The representation to the PMO pointed out that this single biggest tax reform had been drafted, passed and was being implemented without a single consultation with the largest national number of craftspeople and artisans in the world.

The representation went on to explain that the GST consultations had not included or even recognised “the widespread existence of crafts people, practices and products based on centuries old histories and skills, which give India a unique place in the world and brings economic benefits to dispersed rural artisans”.

Handicrafts and hand weaves provides employment and livelihood which is, in terms of numbers, next only to agriculture (indeed the two are concomitant, being based on nature and the application of knowledge). While many crafts and artisanal products are seasonal, estimates are that over 110 lakh persons are so engaged, with more than 43 lakh in the handloom sector alone.

Click for a pdf file of this article (courtesy The Pioneer).

The GST crisis for handicrafts and hand weaves has shown that this sector is constantly on the defensive. It can only proceed by causing the recognition in economy that this sector (cultivation and its ‘arts and local manufactures’ included) does not produce only food, it also produces feed for animals, fuel (both traditional fuels and biofuels) and fibres and grasses and woods, the minerals and clays, the colours, for artisanal (and industrial) production, and that the maintenance of the bio-economy – that is the service of balancing our ecological habitats upon whose gifts we base our lives, a balancing brought about by the application of uncountable streams of local knowledge – is fundamental to the well being of the country’s peoples.

“One would assume that natural materials, organic cultivation, reduction of plastics and other synthetic materials, and recycling would figure in the Centre’s approach to policies across the board,” Jaya Jaitly has observed. As president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, the conceiver of Dilli Haat and the initiator of several of India’s most innovative programmes to return dignity and viability to craftspeople and artisans, her expectation of policy coherence is well warranted.

Both dignity and viability are important, and for as long as handicrafts and hand weaves were held in high esteem by the ruling administrations of ancient and medieval, colonial and independent India, both were assured. In the 1951 Census, the first of independent India, among the list of industries and occupations according to which the working population was described were herdsmen and shepherds, beekeepers, silkworm rearers, cultivators of lac, charcoal burners, collectors of cow dung, gatherers of sea weeds and water products, gur manufacture, toddy drawers, tailors and darners, potters and makers of earthenware, glass bangles and beads, basket makers.

The liberalisation and ‘market reform’ which swept through the country from the early 1990s brought with them a view of both macro- and local economics that became more distant from ‘arts and local manufactures’. India began to pay more attention to GDP and less to the meanings which handicraft and hand weaves represented. By the middle of the decade of the 2000s, biodiversity, carbon, ecosystem services, and even cultural services had begun to be discussed and considered. Terms and ideas such as ‘externality’ and ‘social costs’ began to be used to describe the changes to society and environment that were under way, visible but never acknowledged, which weakened and sickened both.

Such discussion rarely recalled quiet efforts that had been made in the same direction only a little earlier, such as in the report of the Steering Committee on Handlooms and Handicrafts for the Twelfth Plan, which had observed that “these two sectors constitute the only industry in the country that provide low cost, green livelihood opportunities to millions of families, supplementing incomes in seasons of agrarian distress, checking migration and preserving traditional economic relationships”.

‘Green livelihood’ made a quiet entry into planning vocabulary then. Now, ‘livelihood’ has been replaced with ‘economy’, which is quite a different idea, and the recent loud calls in favour of a ‘green economy’ for India have helped shelter a variety of very ungreen enterprises and practices. Perhaps in the notifications of 14 and 15 September we are seeing the first admission from the central government’s financial and planning authorities, that there is no need for a new ‘green economy’ (especially one based on expensive finance and fickle technologies) when we have had one for all the ages that we can enumerate.

The notifications are a worthy start, and I submit to the Ministry of Finance that these can and should lead it to consider anew how incentives and encouragements in the form of taxation instruments can do much to renew, revive and strengthen a ‘green economy’ that is the only genuinely grassroots activity India has and can have.

Some aspects that still require consultation and an extra-financial view are that crafts and weaves are not commodities and should not therefore be fitted by force into the Acts’ labyrinthine system of HSN codes, that the imposition of taxes higher than 5% on handicrafts and hand weaves discourages both sustainable production and consumption (at a time when such practices are gaining international currency), and that a well-informed system of taxation must include an understanding of the continuum of natural material, habitat, and the knowledge streams that use and transform nature’s materials into craft and fabric.

The origins of spiritual agriculture, 2

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In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

Generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts and here is the first part, The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1.

Taking the ‘yajnas‘ and the injunctions about “annadana” as pointers to the size of a society that placed demands upon agricultural production, and of the size and vibrancy of the cultivators to meet that demand, we find that the practice of spiritual agriculture in Vedic, ancient, earlier and later medieval periods, and during the periods of foreign occupation (Muslim, Mughal and British, such as it was able to continue) required a supporting web of knowledge types. These included knowledge of the organisation and administration of the ‘gramas’ and their groups, of the varieties of crops and their properties (for nutrition under several circumstances, for ritual purposes, for medicinal purposes, etc.), of the soils and the cycles of water, of the calendrical and astrological observances and influencers of the seed and its growth.

The study of epigraphs and inscriptions of the different eras, which the Indologists of the modern era (from the mid-nineteenth century) have served us through their laborious researches, have given us a picture that adds to the profundity and breadth of information contained very much earlier in the ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’. These do in the first place highlight in many ways the size of the populations of the earlier eras and the vitality of the agricultural practices that sustained such large populations. In our times, our view of population and its growth is ordinarily linked to the decadal censuses that began to be undertaken from 1901. The overall trend of these censuses taken together is to show rapid growth in a century, but the trend cannot, in the face of the evidence gathered even by the time of the end of the nineteenth century, be similarly extended backwards.

The records of inscriptions, often copper plates, are from different eras and from a number of locations in Vedic, ancient and medieval Bharatvarsha, include the assigning, by grants, villages, for purposes such as the maintenance of temples and places of religious learning, for senior or high officials of a raja, the maintenance of the families of those who had died on the battlefield. These provide a rich source for understanding the administrative structures to which the ‘gramas’ belonged, and their relationships with the administrators. Under the Chandellas, villages were grouped into ‘vishayas’ or ‘pathakas’, while the heirs of the Pratiharas (of the middle Ganga region) also mention ‘vishayas’ and ‘pattanas’ for towns (as is brought out in ‘The Struggle for Empire’, volume five of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’). In dakshin Bharata, under the Chalukyas, there were regions (corresponding to southern Maharashtra) in which the number of ‘gramas’ were grouped into 500, 1,000 and 2,000 under officers whose title was ‘mahamandaleshwara’. Farther south, the number of ‘gramas’ in large groupings rises to 12,000 and more (there are two recorded instances of a Chalukya queen having administered such a large group, and a Chalukya princess having done so).

With ‘vishayas’ and ‘mahamandalas’ containing within their administrative boundaries, several thousand ‘gramas’, and the kingdoms and empires of Bharatavarsha encompassing an area from Kabul to the river Airavati (Irrawaddy) in present-day Burma, the number and density of provincial divisions and the ‘gramas’ and ‘pattanas’ they sustained can only, pending painstaking research, be surmised. The fertility of the soil, which was already legendary in the wider world of the ancients (as evinced by exports to the regions of Babylonia and Rome), and the application of the interlinked modes of spiritual agriculture are the factors that made this astonishing scale of sustenance possible.

In the 'gramas' were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated 'mathas'.

In the ‘gramas’ were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’.

At its base lay the ‘grama’. Around the ‘grama’ lay its ‘khettas’ or pastures, and its woodland or uncleared jungle. Agricultural land is considered among the ten kinds of external possessions (other being buildings, gold, seeds of grain, collected wood (for fuel), grass, friends and relatives, means of conveyance, furniture and utensils). The ‘khetta’ was divided into ‘setu’ and ‘ketu’, the former being irrigated by water-wheels (also called Persian wheels, or ‘arahatta’) and the latter by rainfall. Agriculture was required ploughing. There was a ploughing deity (‘Sita-janna’ is one such given name) in whose honour a festival was held. “In a prosperous country, the land was ploughed with hundreds of thousands of ploughshares; and sugarcane, barley and rice were cultivated by ‘karisaya’ (farmers),” as explained in ‘Life in Ancient India as Depicted in the Jain Canons’. “There is mention of the limiting of the cultivable land for each plough could plough one hundred ‘nivartana’ of land (as stated by Baudhayana), which is described as an area sufficient to support one man by its produce.”

Indian farmers in their wisdom have followed certain precepts throughout history. For example, on sowing of seeds, a handful bathed in water and a piece of gold was sown first with the following mantra (as transmitted by the Arthashastra):

Prajápatye Kasyapáya déváya namah.

Sadá Sítá medhyatám déví bíjéshu dhanéshu cha. Chandaváta hé.”

(“Salutation to God Prajápati Kasyapa. Agriculture may always flourish and the Goddess (may reside) in seeds and wealth. Chandaváta hé.”)

They likewise took guidance from Rishi Parashara (about 400 BCE), who wrote a general text on field crop agriculture and whose contents are so arranged that they may with scarcely any alteration be followed today as a book on introductory agriculture:

“Even the rich who possess a lot of gold, silver, jewels, and garments have to solicit farmers as earnestly as a devotee would pray to God.”

“An agriculturist, who looks after the welfare of his cattle, visits his farms daily, has the knowledge of the seasons, is careful about the seeds, and is industrious, is rewarded with the harvests of all kinds and never perishes.”

“Even a fourfold yield of crops procured at the cost of the health of the bullocks perishes soon by the sighs of their exhaustion.”

As the predominant grain harvest was rice of different varieties, the methods for its storage was a science unto itself. The paddy was sown during the rains and when ripe was harvested with newly sharpened sickles, threshed, winnowed and then taken to the granary, where it was stored in new earthenware jars, says the Vyavahara Bhasya. Elsewhere, piles of rings (‘valaya’) made from interwoven straw and leaves also served as receptacles for the grain. The floor beneath these receptacles was coated with cow dung and dried. Such heaps of grain were arranged close to the wall, besmeared with ashes, sealed with cow dung and screened with straw and bamboo. In the monsoon, the grain was stored in a variety of ways: in earthen containers, in receptacles of woven straw and bamboo, in granaries that stood on pillars, in upper storeys of houses, always well sealed with fresh clean mud and cow dung, often sealed with earthen seals. ‘Kumbhi’, ‘karabi’, ‘pallaga’, ‘muttoli’, ‘mukha’, ‘idura’ and ‘alindaa’ are among the more common forms of storage. “Those, who stored crores and crores of ‘kumbhas’ of these grains in their granary were called ‘naiyatikas’,” the Vyavahara Bhasya has tantalisingly mentioned, indicating the great yields and the equally great responsibilities of those, the ‘naiyatikas’, in whose care the stored grains reposed.

Such a person represented the harmonious combination of a practitioner, administrator, and a religious institution (in the form of a temple or a temple complex with an associated seat of learning, a ‘matha’) that characterised agrarian-centred life in Bharat. Crop production, ownership, land tenures, assessment and revenue were the subjects that brought together the three parties locally and the fourth, the administration of the desa or the kingdom, distantly. Two kinds of land tenure, ‘agrahara’ and ‘devadaya’, were followed in the lands being utilised and belonging to one of the better known of such temple complexes in dakshina Bharata, that of the Somanathapura, on the banks of the Kaveri, in Mysore district. Teachers attached to the temple were given land grants in lieu of salaries, thereby illustrating the continuum of education, sustenance from the produce of the land, the crop cultivation knowledge ‘parampara’ of the region, and the support of the ‘parampara’ scripturally with the participation of the teachers.

Under the Hoysala (and subsequently the Vijayanagara), temple lands were managed by the ‘sthanikas’ or managers and the tenants of such lands were named differently from tenants of other cultivated land. Whereas the Somanathapura of Mysore was relatively large, well known and attracted large numbers of worshippers, its regular daily and festival consumption of agricultural and non-agricultural produce is common to all such temples and temple complexes. The ‘mahajans’, ‘sthanikas’ and ‘nambis’ of the Somanathapura temple purchased locally: rice, paddy, wheat, toor dal, green gram, black gram, soapnut powder, turmeric, jaggery, pepper, cardamom, sesame, arecanut, oil, sandalwood, ghee and curd. Where such temples and temple complexes thrived, they motivated agricultural expansion, mobilised and redistributed royal resources, linked ‘mandis’, gave employment to craftspeople and a great diversity of non-agricultural professions, all on the basis of the inseparable ties between the cultivator and the temple.

The complaint that though the Hindu rulers spent very little on themselves, they suffered from “two great vices”, which are the giving away of most of what they had to the Brahmins and to the temples, was made by an early governor-general of the British occupation, and by several of his predecessors and successors, as recorded by Dharampal. He has remarked that it is possible that the terms ‘Brahmin’ and ‘temple’ were used in a much wider sense and included all who were given to scholarship and support of one kind and another, and to institutions which catered not only to religious needs, but which also served purposes of scholarship, culture, entertainment and comfort. “It does imply that every person in this society enjoyed a certain dignity and that his social and economic needs were well provided for,” Dharampal has written. “Food and shelter seem to have been a natural right, given India’s cultural norms, and made easier by [the] fertility [of the soil].”

Hence, it is the village communities, by which term is meant the ‘grama’ with its cultivators, its professions and vocations agriculturally related and not, the associated temple (or where extant a temple complex with possibly a ‘matha’), with its intricate and mutually supportive webs of knowledge and scriptural practices, which altogether was later described as the agrarian institutions of Bharat. In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the twelve ‘ayagars’ contributed to the growth and the self-sufficiency of the village. “The village hardly received anything in return from the towns. The village produced all its own needs from within. The affairs connected with agricultural production were conducted by the cooperation of a body of these twelve village functionaries. Each one of them rendered service to the economic well-being of the village. The office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village. The British in the early 19th century were struck by the vitality and usefulness of this system.” Shivanna has quoted Mark Wilks, who spared no admiration for the timeless resilience of the system, he had beheld, one which no conquests, usurpations, or revolutions have been able to influence, whose whole frame of interior management remain unalterably the same, with “every state in India is a congeries of these little republics”.

Such self-sufficiency and insulation as ‘little republics’ can in no way be interpreted to mean that the ‘gramas’ stultified in any respect. On the contrary, particularly for cultivation (and animal husbandry) techniques, aspects concerning the employ of water and soil, and innovations in the use of the many materials of natural origin (furniture, vehicles, basketry and crafts), the network of markets served as mediums of exchange. The renown of regional and local varieties of cereals owed much to the exchange of method and modification between the ‘gramas’ that had been conveyed through such media. For example, in aromatic rice, following local varieties had attained renown: the ‘panarsa’ of parts of modern Himachal Pradesh, ‘laungchoor’ of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, ‘ambemohor’ of Pune district in Maharashtra, ‘badsabhog’ of Paschimi Champaran in Bihar, ‘borjoha’ and ‘krishnajoha’ of Assam, ‘chinoor’ of Bhandara and Gondia districts in Maharashtra, ‘katanbhog’ of Coochbehar in West Bengal, and ‘vishnuparag’ of Barabaki and Bahraich districts of Uttar Pradesh. Aromatic rice varieties such as these, prized for centuries, require a depth of knowledge and application of practice that must nonetheless be added to with every season, to judge the ‘gunas’ of their favoured soils, supervise the passage of ‘jala’ into and from their fields, gauge the temperatures, plan their sowing by the ‘nakshatras’, time the festivals and then proceed to the labour.

In this, our agriculturists met and even excelled the expectations of the vaidyas, who had long ago enumerated the foods, their qualities and their uses based on the principle that there is no medicine comparable to food and it is possible to free a person of ailments solely through diet. One such compilation is the treatise, the Bhojanakutuhalam of Sri Raghunathasuri, which in 44 sections deals encyclopaedically with foods. In this, rice is classified as growing in burnt soil, wet lands, uncultivated soil, by cultivation, from fresh paddy, grown after harvesting. As major groups, they all have combinations of properties and tastes, and affect the three ‘doshas’ (‘vata’, ‘pitta’ and ‘kapha’) differently. The ‘kutuhalam’ dwells on certain rice species that are valuable from the perspective of ayurveda. Amongst these are the ‘rajanna’ of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; ‘krishnasali’, which is famed for growing on the banks of the river Godavari; ‘raktasali’, which is highly valued for its effect on all three ‘dosas’; ‘mundasali’, which treats poisoning and wounds; ‘sthulasali’ or ‘mahasali’, which is sweet and wholesome for children and youth; ‘suksmasali’, ‘gandhasali’, ‘tiriya’, ‘sastivasaraja’ and ‘gaurasali’.

These few examples is sufficient to illustrate the presence of wide range of crop varieties and their associated, abundantly spiritual webs of knowledge, throughout Indian history. This article and its earlier companion article provide a very brief outline of the spiritual basis of agriculture in Bharat, the characteristics of the ‘gramas’ in which the practitioners of such agriculture were to be found in earlier eras, and the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’ – with respect to the administration of the region and of the raja. The practice and the application of generationally transmitted knowledge, strengthened by the dharmic principles retold in each age, and the expectant resting of an exacting ayurvedic tradition (itself as ancient as the texts in which the nature of food is revealed to us) upon the methods of the cultivators, serves to illumine the integral whole that is ‘prana’, desh and ‘anna’.

Subhash Palekar, who is Bharat’s foremost ‘karyakarta’ of spiritual agriculture, has often, and in writing, rued the slow, but inexorable dismantling of the little republics so admired by Dharampal, Wilks and Shivanna. He has said that when farmers began purchasing their seeds from the towns, when fertilisers (instead of the ‘bijamrita’, ‘ghanjivamrita’ and ‘jivamrita’ that he makes) is bought from the town to be applied to the fields of the ‘grama’, when the flow of goods that was earlier from ‘grama’ to town has been reversed, that is when the natural order was upturned, and that is why spirituality in agriculture must be restored. Over the last three or four decades, ideas from the west, which are termed ‘agro-ecology’ or ‘organic farming’ or ‘bio-dynamic agriculture’ or ‘holistic farming’ have found currency in the Bharat, whose spiritual agricultural practices are superior to these concepts, in the way that a summit of the Vindhyas is superior to the just-assembled mound of the mechanical earthmover. Palekar and his peers (the late Bhaskar Save and late G Nammalwar among them), the generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. Behind them stands Balarama, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and on his shoulder is the plough.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2017 at 14:39

The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1

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Our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of food. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts.

"Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in 'just' thinking." From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.” From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Pressed (by men at the helm of affairs) in the words ‘Let food be given again and again and (also) article of wearing apparel of various kinds’ many men in that sacrifice did as they were told (freely gave away food and raiment). Numerous heaps, resembling mountains, of rice cooked from day to day in the traditional way were seen on that occasion on the sacrificial grounds. The men as well as the hosts of women that had arrived from different lands were fully entertained at that sacrificial performance of the high-souled emperor.”

Early in the Valmiki Ramayana is the description of the great ‘asvamedhayajna’ of Raja Dasaratha, which required the preparation of the ‘yajna’ grounds on the northern bank of the river Sarayu that flows alongside Ayodhya.

This passage, from canto 14 in book one, the Bala-khanda, of the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, is one of several in the Bala-khanda which describes the principles of the offering of food, with reverence and honour, with the care that the dignity of the receiver is maintained. The scale of Raja Dasratha’s ‘yajna’, with vast complexes having been built to accommodate the multitudes of visitors, huge cantonments having been constructed for the visiting rajas and their armies, also gives us some indication of the quantities of food that were required, cooked freshly and traditionally, served with care, and to the satisfaction of all.

The Srimad Valmiki Ramayana has been described as an epic that begins with the description of one great ‘yajna’, that of Raja Dasratha’s, and which concludes with the description of another great ‘yajna’, that of Lord Sri Rama’s. These are two great ‘annadanas’, the giving of food. While the ‘yajnas’ involve great ritual and recitation by the assembled priests and scholars, in both, the continuous activity that occurs throughout is the ‘annadana’, for all of the multitudes present – whether a great brahmana with hundreds of followers, whether a visiting raja’s army, or whether ‘tapasvins’ (those who practice penances), ‘sramanas’ (those who undertake austerities), ordinary folk, the old, the women and children – are tired and/or hungry. This indeed is one of the important lessons to be found in the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana and when considered closely, it reveals the centrality of ‘annadana’, the giving of food, and therefore that of the creation of food, its cultivation.

Thus, we find that the sages of Bharat, in their advice and counsel to the rajas, insisted upon the protection of ‘varta’ (which included agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade), with a special focus on the cultivation of crops. When the sage Narada, for example, visited Raja Yudhishthira, his concerns were very much more than ordinary (Mahabharata Sabhaparva, the second parva, chapter 5). In a series of questions, which are not couched in an interrogative tone nor are they in the form of any lofty diktat, but which combine simplicity and sound statecraft (among the essences of the Mahabharata), Narada asks:

“Have you had big water ponds constructed everywhere in your realm? Agriculture cannot be done only on the hope of good rains.”

“I hope that the farmers and the workers of your realm are not unknown to you. Are you aware of what they do? Are they happy with you? Their happiness is one single cause of social prosperity.”

“I hope that the crops and the seeds of farmers in your realm are not wasted. Do you do good to each farmer by giving him loans on one percent interest for agriculture?”

Likewise, in the Anushasanaparva (the thirteenth parva) of the Mahabharata, Bhishma pitamaha, instructs those gathered around him, thus:

“The absence of food makes the five principal elements of the body disintegrate, and with the loss of food, the strength of even the strongest is lost.”

“Food is man’s life and it is through food that the living beings are born. The whole world is based upon food. And therefore food is regarded as the highest.”

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

The Mahabharata speaks simultaneously of ‘annadana’ and ‘jaladana’, for the giving of food and water alike are regarded as the greatest of all sharing in life. There are detailed instructions on the giving of water (by constructing ponds, wells and reservoirs). Earth (‘bhoomi’) and trees (‘vriksha’) being inseparable from ‘anna’ and ‘jala’, the Mahabharata instructs ‘bhoomidana’ and ‘vrikshadana’ – the giving of fertile land upon which to grow crops, and the planting of trees – as essential for sustenance and nourishment of all.

This illustrates the consideration given by both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the cultivation of the crops, so that food may be obtained, given and consumed. In both our ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’ are to be found a number of references to food and its cultivation, the manner of its use, its place in the scheme of material things. The Chandogya Upanishad contains a series of discussions on the material basis of life, with the ultimate basis being Brahman. They have stressed the importance of food in the nourishment of the mind. Uddalaka demonstrated this to his son Shwetaketu in quite a practical fashion, when he asked his son to do without food for a fortnight (subsisting on water only) and thereafter to recite the Veda, which Shwetaketu could not do, since, his mental faculties were considerably weakened. These he later regained after eating food. Uddalaka, further, repeated the lesson once more, this time proscribing water as well! Similarly, in other Upanishads, such as Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, and Aitareya, there is to be found an emphasis on ‘prana’ as energy, which flows in many channels in the body, which, like the mind, is to be nourished by food.

Thus, our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of the food. Even as our civilisation passed through many alternate periods of prosperity and disruptions, the fundamental religious and cultural values have remained more or less the same to this day.

The archaeological and paleo-botanical investigations that have been carried out, since the early nineteenth century – using methods which have helped to both redraw the civilisational map and assign dates earlier than was previously done – have shown that domestication of cereals and pulses certainly occurred around eight millennia before the so-called ‘common era’ began (in the Gangetic plains, in the regions that correspond to the Saraswati-Sindhu settlements, and also in the Deccan, home to an abundance of millet varieties).

From the age of Sri Rama of Ayodhya till about the time that the kingdoms of northern and Gangetic Bharat began to be absorbed by the great Nanda empire of Magadha, the precepts concerning the cultivation of crop, and of the centrality of ‘annadana’ (and ‘jaladana’) took hold in practice and in institution through the cooperation of three kinds of institutions, whose connections were maintained until the later medieval period in Bharat, after which the interlinked support they provided for dharmic agriculture began to slowly crumble. These institutions were the state, which is the kingship and a form of enlightened administration, whose intricacies and nuances were so minutely and authoritatively compiled and enlarged by Kautilya, the ‘gramas’ or the villages and their farmers (“It is indeed the cultivators, who carry the burden of the King on their shoulders,” Bhishma had advised), and third, the mandirs and their associated ‘mathas’ as seats of learning and influencers of socio-economic conditions.

The Puranic list refers to the Pauravas, Aikshvakus, Panchalas, Kasis, Haiahayas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Maithilas, Surasenas and Vitihotras. Together with Magadha flourished the Kosala and Vatsa kingdoms. There were Avanti, Videha and Anga. From those eras (typically called the Vedic and later Vedic) and into the ages of imperial dynasties for both Uttara and Dakshina Bharat, it is the relatively less commented upon, quite inconspicuous, sparsely documented, but extremely influential ties between ‘grama’ (and kisan), state (in the form of a ‘kalyana raj’), and mandir (the fabric that maintained dharmashastric society), which weaved closely to the ancient injunctions about cultivation, food and the responsibilities of individual and king alike. From the Mauryas (300 to 185 BCE), the Sunga, Saka, Kushan, Satvahana, Vakataka, Pallava, Pandya, Gupta, Harshavardhana, to the Karkota, Pala, Pratihara, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Yadava, Chola, Hoysala, Kakatiya and Rajput, these ties were responsible for maintaining at a high level the wide set of sciences that supported what we today call krishi, but which had meant very much more, when known as the ‘varta’ of the Vedic age.

The old ‘Hindu rate of revenue’ had indeed been laid down in the dharmashastra, and was one-sixth or one-eighth or one-twelfth the produce, and the latitude provided as to the proportion of collection derived not from the strains of maintaining a treasury or the considerable costs of a standing army, but from the climatic conditions and the ability of the ‘gramas’ to bear payment. If the rulers of southern Bharat at times claimed a share even as large as half the produce, they made continued improvements in cultivation possible by excavating and maintaining vast irrigation works at their own cost (this indeed was the agrarian base of the economy that supported the great eastward seaborne excursions during the Chola period, with Suvarnadvipa, the modern archipelagic Indonesia, becoming Hindu in rule and socio-religious practice) and took their share in kind, not in money.

That there was a steady, incremental and appropriate technology surrounding cultivation is seen from the export, during the eras of the Satvahanas (around 40 BCE to 220 CE) and the Kushans (78 to 144 CE), of steel weapons and cutlery to western Asia, where they enjoyed high esteem. That esteem was due in no small measure because of the widespread manufacture of sturdy agricultural implements: hoes of varying lengths, sickles with variations in both blades and handles for different purposes, and true spades (these found in Takshashila) are testament to how advanced this technology was. As with discoveries of such implements in other places, such as in Sanchi, their workmanship indicates how advanced ironmongery was at the time. There is also the reassurance that our kisans, like their lines of ancestors stretching back into those storied eras, valued the engineering utility of a well-designed implement by continuing to make and use it: the ‘bhakhar’ (a blade-harrow) that even in the 1980s was in use in the black cotton soils of Madhya Bharat has been employed in the same form for centuries.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

In the Arthashastra – that inexhaustible compendium of counsel, example, regulation and precept – there is a mention of the suitability of different crops for cultivation, according to rainfall: “Hence, according as the rainfall is more or less, the superintendent shall sow the seeds, which require either more or less water. ‘Sáli’ (a kind of rice), ‘vríhi’ (rice), ‘kodrava’ (kodo millet), ’tila’ (sesamum), ‘priyangu’ (panic seeds), ‘dáraka’ and ‘varaka’ (the medicinal plant variety phraseolus trilobus) are to be sown at the commencement (púrvávápah) of the rainy season. ‘Mudga’ (black gram or black lentil), ‘másha’ (green gram or mung), are to be sown in the middle of the season. ‘Kusumbha’ (safflower), ‘kuluttha’ (horsegram), ‘yava’ (barley), ‘godhúma’ (wheat), ‘kaláya’ (leguminous seeds), ‘atasi’ (linseed), and ‘sarshapa’ (mustard) are to be sown last” (Book 2, Chapter 24, ‘Arthashastra’ translation by R Shamasastry). No detail was too small to be excluded, no advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

By the end of the period normally taken to be that describing ancient Bharat (the repulse of the first Arab invasions at the start of the eighth century, followed by the fall of Hindu Kabul in 870 CE, as R C Majumdar has written in volume four of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’), the sciences upon which rested the practice of our agriculture, and the dense, inherited cascades of knowledge concerning the material, astrological and spiritual schema of our agriculture had been well maintained. It was recognised that while different districts grew principal crops, this never implied that farmers were growing these mainly. A diversity of crops (cereals, legumes, vegetables both leafy and tuberous, fruit) implied good consumption, good trade and moreover a good basis with which to fulfil the ancient injunction on ‘annadana’.

Our farmers’ cropping seasons were mainly divided into two (with the sowing-to-harvest cycle overlapping the six climatic seasons). Agricultural life has from its earliest organised emergence in Bharat (and Bharatvarsha) been cyclical, based on the luni-solar calendar as calculated for region and province. According to the prevailing calendar, agricultural work is planned and carried out, which in turn informs and guides the cultural practices. The diversity of crops, the characteristics of the land, the practices of cropping, the Devas and the Devis, who presided and the rituals that were to be observed for them, these were the cornerstones of agricultural life.

In most parts of Bharat, the agricultural calendar was (and there are calendric holdouts still to be found) divided into fortnights punctuated by new moon days (‘amavasya’) and full moon days (‘purnima’). The rainfall pattern of these periods was carefully observed and recorded and cropping plans were made on these meticulously maintained records. Proverbs and sayings came to be coined in order to encode and ease the transmission of such climatological and meteorological knowledge. Thus, our agriculturists’ calendars included the 27 ‘nakshatras’ and the months (jyestha, ashadha, shravana and so on) that they corresponded with major festivals – with each month containing one major festival. This remarkable arrangement was noted even as recently as the 1940s in the last of the provincial gazetteer series of British India. The festivals contain scientific principles related to the management of agricultural lands, management of water resources, and the essence of sustainability, and the festivals help valorise the vast experiential knowledge webs of the farmers.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible. What qualities must they have then? The sage Kashyapa, while dealing with the environmental and spiritual aspects of cultivation in his text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’ (written around 800 CE), describes the character of farmers, thus:

“[The production of] grains and other vegetation are the sole purpose for highest fulfilment of the earth. The rich earth full of vegetation is the cause of growth of living beings.”

“They [farmers] are devotees of cow, earth, and gods; they are absolutely truthful in speech, intent on being agreeable to others, and always contented in mind.”

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.”

This affords us a glimpse into the spiritual and scriptural underpinnings of the activities, which we have only recently started to call ‘agriculture’, but which held much greater meaning as ‘varta’ and the more familiar ‘krishi’, because of their inherent connection to ‘annadana’. These are the ancient roots of our bonds with bhoomi, ‘panchabhutas’, and ‘annadana’.

A discussion about the factors that led to the longevity of the tripartite system, which enabled ‘varta’ to function so well for so many centuries, the harmonious interdependence between the prescriptions under Ayurveda for maintaining health and the produce of spiritual cultivation that provides such substances (such as the ‘sali’ families of rice mentioned in the Arthashastra), the assault on the ‘grama’ during the eras of occupation of Bharat by foreign powers, and the much more recent displacement of our spiritual agriculture by what is today called ‘agro-ecological’ and ‘organic agriculture’, follow in the next article.

Written by makanaka

November 4, 2016 at 20:01

Environmental law and the dharmic principle

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RG_tree_om_blog_20160829The recent history of “global” approaches to the environment has shown that they began full of contradictions and misunderstandings, which have continued to proliferate under a veneer of internationalisation. To provide but a very brief roster, there was in the 1970s the “Club of Rome” reports, as well as the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in 1972 (which produced the so-called Stockholm Declaration). In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro) was held and was pompously called the “Earth Summit,” where something called a “global community” adopted an “Agenda 21.” With very much less fanfare also in 1992 came the Convention on Biological Diversity, and signing countries were obliged to “conserve and sustainably manage their biological resources through global agreement,” an operational conundrum when said resources are national and not international.

In 2000 came the “Millennium Summit,” at which were unveiled the Millennium Development Goals, which successfully incubated the industry of international development but had almost nothing to do with the mundane practice of local development. In 2015 came the UN Sustainable Development Summit, which released a shinier, heftier, more thrillingly complex list of sustainable development goals. During the years in between, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its associated satellite meetings (three or four a year) spun through every calendar year like a merry-go-round (it is 22 years old, and the very global CO2 measure for PPM, or parts per million, has crossed 400).

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

Looking back at some five decades of internationalisation as a means to some sort of sensible stock-taking of the connection between the behaviors of societies (ever more homogenous) and the effects of those behaviors upon nature and environment, I think it has been an expensive, verbose, distracting, and inconclusive engagement (but not for the bureaucratic class it sustains, and the “global development” financiers, of course). That is why I find seeking some consensus between countries and between cultures on “ecocide” is rather a nonstarter. There are many differences about meaning, as there should be if there are living cultures left amongst us.

Even before you approach such an idea (not that it should be approached as an idea that distinguishes a more “advanced” society from one apparently less so), there are other ideas, which from some points of view are more deserving of our attention, which have remained inconclusive internationally and even nationally for fifty years and more. Some of these ideas are, what is poverty, and how do we say a family is poor or not? What is economy and how can our community distinguish economic activity from other kinds of activity (and why should we in the first place)? What is “education,” and what is “progress”-and whose ideas about these things matter other than our own?

That is why even though it may be academically appealing to consider what ecocide may entail and how to deal with it, I think it will continue to be subservient to several other very pressing concerns, for very good reasons. Nonetheless, there have in the very recent past been some efforts, and some signal successes too, in the area of finding evidence and intent about a crime against nature or, from a standpoint that has nothing whatsoever to do with law and jurisprudence, against the natural order (which we ought to observe but for shabby reasons of economics, career, standard of living, etc., do not).

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

These efforts include Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, whose elaborate elucidation in 2010 gave environmentalists much to cheer about. They also include the recognition by the UN Environment Programme, in incremental doses and as a carefully measured response to literally mountainous evidence, of environmental crime. This is what the UNEP now says, “A broad understanding of environmental crime includes threat finance from exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, oil, timber, charcoal, marine resources, financial crimes in natural resources, laundering, tax fraud and illegal trade in hazardous waste and chemicals, as well as the environmental impacts of illegal exploitation and extraction of natural resources.”  Quite frank, I would say, and unusually so for a UN agency.

Moreover, there is the Monsanto Tribunal, which is described as an international civil society initiative to hold Monsanto-the producer of genetically modified (GM) seed, and in many eyes the most despised corporation ever-“accountable for human rights violations, for crimes against humanity, and for ecocide.” In the tribunal’s description of its rationale, ecocide is explicitly mentioned, and the tribunal intends to follow procedures of the International Court of Justice. It is no surprise that Monsanto (together with corporations like Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and DuPont) is the symbol of industrial agriculture whose object and methods advance any definition of ecocide, country by country.

This ecocidal corporation (whose stock is traded on all major stock markets, which couldn’t care less about the tribunal) is responsible for extinguishing entire species and causing the decline of biodiversity wherever its products are used, for the depletion of soil fertility and of water resources, and for causing an unknown (but certainly very large) number of smallholder farming families to exit farming and usually their land, therefore also exiting the locale in which bodies of traditional knowledge found expression.  Likewise, there is the group of Filipino investigators, a Commission on Human Rights, who want forty-seven corporate polluters to answer allegations of human rights abuses, with the polluters being fossil fuel and cement companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP, and the allegations include the roles of these corporations’ products in causing both “global warming and the harm that follows.”

A 'gudi' and 'bhagwa dhvaj' hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

A ‘gudi’ and ‘bhagwa dhvaj’ hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

Such examples show that there is a fairly strong and active manifestation of the movement to recognise ecocide as a crime under international law. However, to find such manifestations, one has to look at the local level. There, the questions pertain more tangibly to the who, what, and how of the ecological or environmental transgression, and the how much of punishment becomes more readily quantifiable (we must see what forms of punishment or reparation are contained in the judgments of the Monsanto Tribunal and the Philippines Commission).

Considering such views, the problem becomes more immediate but also more of a problem-the products of industrialised, mechanised agriculture that is decontextualised from culture and community exists and are sold and bought because of the manner in which societies sustain themselves, consciously or not. It is easier to find evidence for, and easier to frame a prosecution or, the illegality of a corporation, or of an industry, than for the negligence of a community which consumes their products. So the internationalisation (or globalisation) of the idea of ecocide may take shape in a bubble of case law prose and citations from intergovernmental treaties but will be unintelligible to district administrators and councils of village elders.

My view is that searching for the concept which for the sake of semantic convenience we have called ecocide as an outcome of an “internationally agreed” idea of crime and punishment will ultimately not help us. I have such a view because of a cultural upbringing in a Hindu civilisation, of which I am a part, and in which there exists an all-embracing concept, “dharma,” that occupies the whole spectrum of moral, religious, customary, and legal rules. In this view, right conduct is required at every level (and dominates its judicial process too), with our literature on the subject being truly voluminous (including sacred texts themselves, the upanishads, various puranas, and works on dharma).

Perhaps the best known to the West from amongst this corpus is the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a remarkable legal treatise dealing with royal duties which contains a fine degree of detail about the duties of kings (which may today be read as “governance”). This treatise includes the protection of canals, lakes, and rivers; the regulation of mines (the BCE analogue of the extractive industries that plague us today); and the conservation of forests. My preference is for the subject of ecocide and its treatment to be subsumed into the cultural foundation where it is to be considered for, when compared with how my culture and others have treated the nature-human question, it becomes evident that we today are not the most competent arbiters, when considering time frames over many generations, about how to define or address such matters. The insistence on “globalising” views in fact shows why not.

(This comment has been posted at the Great Transition Initiative in reply to an essay titled ‘Against Ecocide: Legal Protection for Earth’.)

Food, climate, culture, crops and government

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The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

In November 2015, the Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Agriculture of the Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, invited suggestions and submissions on the subject “Comprehensive Agriculture Research based on Geographical Condition and Impact of Climatic Changes to ensure Food Security in the Country”.

The Committee called for inputs on issues such as the need to evolve new varieties of crops which can withstand climatic fluctuation; requirement to evolve improved methods of irrigation; the need to popularise consumption of crops/fruits which can provide better nutrition; the need to develop indigenous varieties of cattle that can withstand extreme climatic stress; the need to develop a system for precision horticulture and protected cultivation; diversification of species of fish to enhance production from the fisheries sector; the need to strengthen the agriculture extension system; and means to focus on agriculture education.

I prepared a submission as my outline response, titled “Aspects of cultivation, provision of food, and use of land in Bharat today and a generation hence”. The outline I provided includes several issues of current urgency and connects them to scenarios that are very likely to emerge within a generation. My intention is to signal the kinds of pathways to preparation that government (central and state) may consider. It is also meant to flag important cultural and social considerations that lie before us, and to emphasise that economic and quantitative measurements alone are not equipped to provide us holistic guidance.

The outline comprises three sections.
(A) The economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives.
(B) The social, ecological, and resource nature of crop cultivation, considering factors that influence it.
(C) Methods, pathways and alternatives possible to adopt with a view to being inter-generationally responsible.

In view of the current climatic conditions – heat waves in the central and eastern regions of the country, stored water in our major reservoirs which are at or near ten-year lows – I reproduce here the section on the economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives. The full submission can be found here [pdf, 125kb].

This framework considers the agriculture and food sector, including primary agricultural production recorded, the inputs and products of industry based on agricultural raw material (primary crop whether foodgrain, horticulture, spices, plantation, ruminants and marine, oilseeds, fibres), agribusiness (processing in all its forms), supply chains connecting farmers and farmer producer organisations to primary crop aggregators, buyers, merchants, stockists, traders, consumers, as well as associated service providers. This approach is based on the connection between agricultural production and demand from buyers, processers and consumers along what is called the supply chain.

 

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir's full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir’s full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

If this framework is considered as existing in Bharat to a significant degree which influences crop cultivation choices, the income of cultivating household, the employment generation potential of associated service providers, then several sets of questions require answers:

* Concerning economic well-being and poverty reduction: what role does agricultural development need to play in promoting economic stability in rural (and peri-urban) regions thereby contributing to poverty reduction and how can the agrifood sector best contribute to jobs and higher incomes for the rural poor?

* Concerning food security: what role can agricultural and agro-industry development play in ensuring rural and urban communities have reliable access to sufficient, culturally appropriate and safe food?

* Concerning the sustainability of food producing systems: how should agriculture and agro-industry be regulated in a participatory manner so as to ensure that methods of production do not overshoot or endanger in any way (ecological or social) conservative carrying capacity thresholds especially in the contexts of climate change and resource scarcity?

When viewed according to the administrative and policy view that has prevailed in Bharat over the last two generations, there is a correlation between agricultural productivity growth and poverty reduction and this is the relationship the macro- economic and policy calculations have been based upon. Our central annual agricultural (and allied services) annual and five-year plan budget and state annual and five-year plan budgets have employed such calculations since the 1950s, when central planning began.

However the choices that remain open to us are considerably fewer now than was the case two generations (and more) ago when the conventional economic framework of the agriculture and food sector took shape.

恭禧發財 for the Year of the Monkey

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Monkey-themed stamps are being issued by postal services all over the world to welcome the Year of the Monkey; Chinese television audiences are angry that a popular monkey king actor hasn’t been invited to big broadcaster CCTV’s Spring Festival gala; but they may be mollified by plans to release the fantasy epic ‘The Monkey King 2’ in 100 cities in 30 countries on or around 8 February; amidst the many festivities for the lunar new year, monkey-themed designs are found on stamps to commemorative coins, fashion and handicrafts; it is also the start of spring in the P R of China and there’s a lot to learn; folk gong_xi_fa_caiartists are making traditional paper-cut monkeys to celebrate the new year (red paper, always red) as the paper cuts symbolise best wishes for the new year; figurines made out of dough of popular Chinese opera characters have been made to welcome the New Year; and Chinese ink painting masters have made monkey portraits in techniques that use few colors (black, yellow, and a bit of red) in a calligraphic manner; and if you are one of the 100,000 waiting for your train at the Guangzhou railway station, let’s hope you’re on your way home in time for the many new year activities. Welcome to the Year of the Monkey.

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Written by makanaka

February 5, 2016 at 11:33

Wind and soil, culture and change

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RG_WHR_77_main_sm

With soils and humus, with grasses wild or cultivated, with water whose form may be a hill tarn or a great tropical river, has intangible cultural heritage found expression and renewal. Whether in the Himalayan hill districts of northern India, the central province of Sri Lanka with its hydraulic wonders, the great basin of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia whose bidirectional water flow is the basis of both ritual and an aquacultural livelihood, or the highland ‘aldeias’ of central Timor-Leste, in which an age-old institution that bans exploitation of the forest continues to be respected, the bio-physical foundation on which so much intangible cultural heritage depends has remained plentiful and as reliable as the seasons.

RG_WHR_77_coverBut no longer, for new disturbances have shaken this relationship and they are depleting these fundamental materials just as much as altering their very nature. The new uncertainty is undermining the intimate knowledge held by communities of natural processes in their specific locations, such as inter-annual variations in weather or the cycles of certain plant and animal species. Protecting such knowledge is of critical importance – not only for its role of being cultural heritage, and for respecting the wealth of accumulated and transmitted knowledge – but because it possesses the keys to living with change, and especially living with the effects and impacts of climate change.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is ICH practitioners and the communities they belong to who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with, besides possessing the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observation. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

[This short extract is taken from ‘How intangible cultural heritage adapts to a changing world’, my article in the current issue of the UNESCO World Heritage Review. The entire article can be read here (pdf 558kb).]

Between Berar and Nizam, a taluka in Maharashtra

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This is a small taluka in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. To the north, not far away, and visible on the horizon, is the line of hills called the Sahyadriparbat, which is also called the Ajanta range after the site with the remarkable frescoes.

Also due north is the city of Akola, and a little farther away north-east is Amravati, named after Amba whose ancient temple the old city, with more than 900 years of recorded history, is built around. To the west, in a nearly direct line west, is Aurangabad. To the south had stretched, not all that long ago, the dominions of the Nizam of Hyderabad, to which this little taluka had once belonged.

RG_Hingoli_Sengaon_201601Sengaon is the name of this taluka (an administrative unit unimaginatively called a ‘block’ by the administrative services, elsewhere a tehsil or a mandal) and today it is one of five talukas of the district of Hingoli, which itself is only very recent, for before 1999 it was a part of the district of Parbhani. But Hingoli town is an old one – its cantonment (old bungalows, large compounds) was where the defenders of this part of the Nizam’s northern dominions resided (over the frontier had been Berar), and there was a large and thriving market yard here, as much for the cotton as for the jowar.

The villages of Sengaon are mostly small and agricultural, which is how the entire district was described in the district gazetteer of the 1960s. There are today 128 inhabited villages in this little taluka, and this chart (click it for a full size version, data from Census 2011)  shows how their populations depend almost entirely on agriculture – for the group of villages, 92% of all those working do so in the fields, whether their village is as small as Borkhadi or Hudi, or as large as Sakhara or Palshi.

There were Bhois here (and still are), the fishermen and one-time litter-bearers, there are ‘deshastha‘ Maratha Brahmins, there are ‘Karhada‘ who take their name from Karhad, the sacred junction of the Koyna and the Krishna in Satara district, there are the former leather-workers and rope-makers called the ‘Kambhar‘, there are the weavers who are the ‘Devang‘ (with their four sub-divisions, and themselves a division of the great Dhangars or shepherds), there are the ‘Virasaiva‘ or the ‘Shivabhakta‘ or the ‘Shivachar‘ (all Lingayats) who have for generations been traders and agriculturists.

RG_Shengaon_villages3There are the ‘Pata Jangam‘ still who must lead a celibate life and could be distinguished by the long loose roseate shirts they wore and who spent their days in meditation and prayer, there were the ‘Mali‘ the fruit and vegetable growers the gardeners and cultivators (and in times past their society was divided according to what they grew so the ‘phool Mali‘ for flower the ‘jire Mali‘ for cumin seed and the ‘halade Mali‘ for turmeric), and there are the Maratha – the chief warriors, land owners and cultivators – and the 96 families to which they belong, there are Maheshvari Marwaris, the ‘suryavanshi‘ or ‘chandravanshi‘ Rajputs, the Lambadi who at one time were grain and* salt carriers but also cattle breeders and graziers, and the ‘Vadar‘ or stone and earth workers.

This is who they are and were in the taluka of Sengaon, beyond and away from the dry and terse descriptions contained on government beneficiaries lists and drought relief programmes. They know well their trees in the expansive grasslands of the north Deccan – the Indian bael, the ‘daura‘ or ‘dhamora‘ tree, the ‘saalayi‘ whose bark and gum resin treats all sorts of ailments, the ‘madhuca‘ or mahua, the amalaki – and do their best to protect them; the twigs and sticks that fuel their ‘chulhas’ are those which fall to the earth.

It is a small taluka but old, like the others in the ancient north Deccan, and in Marathi, some of the elders of the villages here explain, with great embellishment and pomp, how the Brihat Samhita contains detailed instructions of what to plant on the embankments of a water tank, especially the madhuca, which they will add could be found in villages whose names they all know well: Pardi, Shivni, Karegaon, Barda, Sawarkheda, Suldali, Kawardadi, Datada, Jamthi, Sabalkheda …

Written by makanaka

January 6, 2016 at 12:22