By Wyatt Westerkamp
This week at the NFLC was full of twists, turns, long bus rides, and piles upon piles of food. It was also one of the most thought-provoking and stimulating weeks of my life. I witnessed and took part in rituals, dances, festivities, and dramas, trekked through mountains, and was the guest of many kind and wonderful people. In the process another world unfolded before my eyes.
My first glimpse into this world occurred at a Kota festival at their temple in the richly foliated Nehru Park at the center of Kotagiri. The festival celebrated Kambatrayan, a word that we were told, meant both“unity” and “god”. The festival is important on a spiritual level, but it also served to unify the community, solidifying and pronouncing their Kotahood. What immediately struck me was the dance: all acted as one, slowly circling as if in orbit around a massive tree in a sea of twirling white shawls.
We attended a Badaga water festival the next day. The function of this event was to worship the holy spring around which the village was centered. This involved giving offerings to the spring water, but it also included prayers to the gods along with dance, food, and festivities. Both the Badaga and Kota festivals seemed to develop a connected and entangled trinity of the divine, the natural, and the human, each of which interacted and blurred into each other.
Nearly every village I went to reflected this trinity. Often built directly into the forest or grasslands, the villages were full of life, including roaming cows, goats, dogs and birds. They were mostly small, relatively self-contained, and had very tightly knit communities. Each village also had its own temple or temples for use exclusively by the community. All of this was a far cry from the neatly compartmentalized world I grew up in in Cincinnati, Ohio—there were no empty green lawns, no manicured parks designated as “nature,” no megachurches to churn out spirituality like a product for mass consumption.
Although these traditions and lifestyles in many ways exemplified an idealized community model, there were many contentious issues. Unity is a great concept to strive toward, but its actualization takes care and upkeep. Festivals and ritual provide important arenas for this, but sometimes they are simply not enough. As more and more people leave their villages for well-paying jobs—and why shouldn’t they?—inequity grows, jealousy festers, traditions get left behind, and the foundation of unity begins to crack. Irula and Kurumba healers we met and spoke withboth claimed that some community members practiced seivinai, roughly translated to sorcery, on more well-off members. They also lamented people’s quickly fading interest in tradition, expressing a very real fear that their knowledge would be lost to the world upon death. I hope that some middle ground can be established between the benefits of development and the rich perspectives and traditions I witnessed, for their loss would be tragic— not only for these communities, but for a humanity that desperately needs to open its eyes to the interconnectedness of the world around it.