History Part 2: Three Trees

Sanjay Mohato (whom we call Tinku) is the man who really makes things work at Prabhatalloi Foundation. He grew up in Dabar, a nearby village, and he remembers this place 40 years ago. Even then he says it was like heaven; a paradise. The fruit trees bore mangoes, jack fruit, and guava. As children they would sneak onto the land to steal a juicy fruit.

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Budhu shows off a Jack fruit tree

I found that very surprising. To steal from this village today and not be considered malicious, you would have to be pretty desperate. Some people are; this is a poor area. Some chickens were stolen a while ago, which means that now the chickens have their own room in the middle of the men’s quarters for protection. A meeting was held to discuss where to safely keep the TV we will soon be installing. A month ago we caught a woman cutting at the roots of one of their trees, which can be used in cooking; Tinku was asked to scold her since that could kill the tree.

“Most are shocked to learn that we’ve just installed the village’s first electric lights.”
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They’ve been using a homemade lamp

Despite the fact that many local people have meager resources, when we speak about the conditions today most are shocked to learn that we’ve just installed the village’s first electric lights. Other towns and villages got electricity in 1980, but that was never connected here. Since PAF started paying a man with a microphone to solicit in town several months ago, people now come here every puja (festival) day to donate food or sweets. Fortunately there are a lot of festivals! This is all to say that the decline in conditions is a recent phenomenon, and when donors come from even 7 km away they are surprised by it. These people have led rich lives in spite of their current circumstance. 40 years ago, kids would steal fruit.

Even 40 years ago people were thriving. So what happened?

The Decline
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Remnants of the hospital beside the river

This village was founded as a leprosy asylum in 1884. In 1888 they received a permanent grant from the British Leprosy Mission (a Christian charity organization). When WWI broke out the Germans had to leave India, so the British Leprosy Mission took over this responsibility. That continued approximately until British rule ended in 1947. After that it became the responsibility of the Indian government to provide for them. At that time the village didn’t require much attention as it was still thriving. In the 1980’s there were approximately 300 villagers. Many were young, and some were just arriving.

In 1992 a bad flood hit. It washed out a huge portion of the village alongside the river. The small hospital collapsed, killing 12 people sleeping inside. There used to be couples living here; 4 people died during that flood trying to save their partners from building collapse. Others left for fear of what might happen next, and because many of their houses had been destroyed. That flood wiped out an entire road, the buildings which lined one side, and a soccer field. The flood left everyone devastated. Half of their land had literally been pulled out from under them.

Villagers used to be passionate about music and drama: They played folk songs and acted in plays. They once even had a Chhau Dance team, which involves impressive acrobatic feats. (This is particularly astounding since most have serious disabilities, especially on their hands and feet.) Their arsenal of props included drums, hats, swords, costumes, and wigs.

Their Kirtan drumming team was very good, and once they performed at a competition in a neighboring village. Many had opposed their entry out of fear for their disease, but eventually they were allowed in – on the condition that they were quarantined on the stage with no one allowed to enter a radius around them, nor touch anything they touched. Then they began to play. The audience leaned forward in their seats. They were so talented that after a few minutes the crowd completely forgot their fear, and they moved right up to the stage to take it all in.

During the flood most of these instruments and props were swept away. After that they stopped drumming. They stopped singing, dancing, and performing. The once vibrant community was filled with fear, and many left the village because their homes had been destroyed.

Dhuku’s Nightmare

In 1997 some prepared food was donated from outside the village. It was brought to the women’s section where a number of people enjoyed it. Three or four men ate it as well. However this food was not properly prepared, and contained a bacteria which often afflicts people with no access to clean water. You’ll likely know it as cholera.

At that time there was a small infirmary where you would be quarantined when sick. One man named Dhuku had a reputation as a very good grass cutter. One day around this same time he got sick twice with stomach problems while working in the field. He was subsequently sent to this infirmary. In the middle of the night he started to feel trapped, thinking that having entered the building he would never make it out alive. Terrified that he’d get cholera, he rushed back to the men’s quarters. The men sleeping there were startled, half thinking they had heard his ghost. The prodhan (head man) managed to calm him down, assuring him that he wouldn’t die. Just take rest in the infirmary, he said. If you stay in your quarters then other people could fall ill. The prodhan managed to assuage his fears and Dhuku returned, ultimately surviving that bout of sickness. The others weren’t so lucky. Within two days, 14 people were dead.

“The once vibrant community was filled with fear, and many left the village because their homes had been destroyed.”

People were afraid to even handle the bodies for fear of falling ill from the contact. Finally a man came and, lifting the bodies over his shoulder, took them away one after another to clean them and bury them. In Hindu religion there is no rule set in stone regarding burial versus cremation, however Hindus are usually cremated. Some of their ashes are scattered, and a shrine is built around the rest. It’s a cross between a crypt and a gravestone, and a medical plant is grown on top of the structure.

You won’t find many of these shrines in the leprosy village. That’s because when people are cremated you need a lot of wood, or a lot of coal – something they were just not able to afford. For this reason their bodies are normally buried, which created a degree of discomfort for those who wished to be cremated. One man who aged in this village actually requested before his death that he be buried. Surprised, they asked why. The man explained his reasoning: He eats chicken1, goats, and other living things. When he dies his body will also be consumed by insects and other animals under the soil. If his body were burned then nothing could eat it. Most of them after that buried the bodies.

When the cholera epidemic hit they weren’t able to hold a proper funeral. Without a funeral, your spirit will not be freed from this earth. We don’t have the names of all the villagers lost over the last 40 years, but today we recorded ten of the villagers who died of Cholera in 1997. They are listed below as a sort of tribute. I don’t pretend to know how life after death works, but if you have beliefs, consider adding them to your prayers. In Varanasi next month we plan to celebrate their souls on the banks of the Ganges in the hopes of releasing them from the earth.

Josoda Maji

Tumki Maji

Bosona Mahato

Saroti Mahato

Adori Mahato

Mano Mahato

Sotyo Poramani

Sugdebi Goala2

Orjun Mahato

Bhim Mahato

Three Trees
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Two Banyan and one Peepal tree across the street from the village entrance

When you arrive at this village from the main road there are three large trees on the left. Two are Banyan trees, and between them stands a Peepal tree. They’re fairly old, and each is named after one of the late villagers who had tended them. Although they differ slightly in significance, both Banyan and Peepal trees are worshiped as folk totems. They have medicinal properties, they provide wood for construction and for fuel, their leaves filter dust from the air, and their roots hold the earth together through storms. Banyan and Peepal trees stay green all twelve months of the year, while other trees lose their leaves in the dry season. Due to this many birds nest in their branches.

A persistent theme in mythologies worldwide relates trees to the heavens, and this exists in Hindu mythology as well. The Peepal tree, for instance, is sacred in Hinduism as well as Buddhism. Buddha is thought to have found enlightenment under its branches, so it is a totem of knowledge and wisdom. It is also said to be the favorite tree of Lord Vishnu, one of the main deities in Hinduism, so when you care for the Peepal tree you are also pleasing Vishnu. The Banyan tree is more of a folk totem and represents the village god3. Each village in this area worships a Banyan tree to bring prosperity to their people. After the hardships endured at the Leprosy Village, prosperity and wisdom were worth praying for.

The NGO

After the flood and the cholera epidemic people were scared. They thought they were in good hands when an Non-Governmental Organization came to help. They were, at first. The NGO supervisor was a good man, and by all accounts he was well-respected among the residents. He made improvements over the course of several years. However the organization was a large one, and eventually he was needed elsewhere. He was transferred, and a new man was brought in.

The new supervisor was different. He was a local man, and a converted Christian. He fancied himself a missionary and wanted to show his church that he was converting people, perhaps as a way to prove his devotion and seal his fate. Most of the villagers are Hindu, or tribal. (If they’re tribal and not Hindu then that means they have their own religion which is ingrained in their culture and actions, but not institutionalized.) They have temples, and worship at those temples or at other designated sites. They celebrate many ceremonies each year. When this new supervisor came he stopped all these things. He forbade the ceremonies and kept them from worshiping, forcing them to change their religion. If anyone resisted they would stop receiving food and medicine.

Employees were also stealing things from the village and mistreating residents. Still more villagers left during those years due to this poor treatment. Budhu, whom we’ll introduce to you properly this week, recounted that many of their dearest friends left at that time. They weren’t just losing numbers: They were losing positive energy, creative contributions, and loved ones.

“If anyone resisted they would stop receiving food and medicine.”

A day came when the NGO wanted to chop down some of their sacred trees in order to make a boundary fence. Villagers were still desperate after the disasters they’d endured. Reluctantly they agreed. The trees were cut down, but a boundary fence was never made. The trees were sold instead, and that money never turned up either. Furious with this result, the villagers rebelled and threw the NGO out. To this day they are still afraid of working with NGOs. Although technically PAF is one, Tinku has avoided a fearful reaction by fostering relationships with residents. Work being done is referred to by the people they see here organizing it, rather than by organization name.

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These decades of hardships have taken a toll on the mental state of many people. Budhu said that today they are in a depression. They can’t remember the last time they held a concert, something they used to do frequently. In recent years one man and two women attempted to commit suicide by jumping into a well. When the well was dry one woman succeeded. PAF had just installed a hand pump beside it, but the suicide rendered the water from that source unusable. The well is now partially covered, but we hope to cover it completely.

In the meantime, the progress being made here is affecting people in a positive way. The money from this fundraiser alone has paid for some of the building repair and fresh paint. Color may not be a basic necessity to life the way food and water is, but the effect it has had is tangible. It instills in residents a hope that was previously lost. They’re starting their lives fresh. Every morning they are playing music by the temple and taking tea; they are bringing that positive flow to their daily lives. Their only problem is that they have less people. On the 7th of this month a group of residents sang a song typically sung at the beginning of a show, thanking people and asking for forgiveness for any mistakes they may make (since many plays and songs have a religious or mythological basis). Since then they have performed four more times, and yesterday they even donned costumes for the show. We’ll share some videos soon.

As always, we are grateful to our generous donors for their unrelenting support.

Tangents:

1. While most Hindus don’t eat meat, in West Bengal most people do eat chicken, fish, and goats. Tribal communities in the nearby Ayodhya Hills used to rely on hunting for their sustenance. When Buddhists came and tried to convert them, they not only resisted, but arranged an enormous hunting festival on the day of the Buddha’s birthday. It was a wonderfully creative way of spiting their invaders.

Cows are not eaten as they remain a sacred animal and are only used for labor in the fields, for their milk, and for their dung.

2. Goala Caste means milkman or herder.

3. The Banyan tree is also associated with the well-being of children. It protects them during childbirth, when the gods are bringing the child from mother’s womb to earth. Worshiping the banyan tree at this time helps the child to cross this distance safely. When a baby is born it is then given its first rice. However it is first offered to the tree: If the food were bad or poisoned, the Banyan tree will make it safe to eat.

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4 thoughts on “History Part 2: Three Trees

  1. Johannes: “Aggressive piety is a loser. ‘Convert or starve.’ Cutting down the trees and the money for the fence disappears. That portion of the history reminds me of our recent reading, “The Kings of San Carlos,” by James Haley, where the fair and just agent for the Apache tribes was dismissed and replaced by a man dressed in black who handed out Bibles, limited rations, and reinstituted the corruption practiced by the earlier Army and Indian agents in early Arizona.”
    Janet: It is clear from the government history and incidents of the flood and cholera (not to forget the bad NGO) have so caused the village to diminish. The village history of turning to the riches of culture and religion during their isolation and time of handicaps is inspiring, and typical of the various destitute of India, as opposed to some other cultures. Having the music and props for performances washed away during the flood must have been quite a blow.
    This history suggests questions. What is the goal and future vision for this village? It does not seem destined for growth, and the danger of severe flood reinforces this. One need not be ashamed of letting the village finish its destiny with love and decency and joy, as seems to be the effort currently.

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