Weave, spider weave that web…Doddasampige, my Lord

Safeguard and protect me, O Lord

Weave, spider weave that web…

Have you come to our forest,
Have you seen our Maari-habba

Weave, spider weave that web…

O the Laughing dove of Boodipadaga,
The same one that cannot be caught!

Behold the Sloth Bear of our forest…

— Gorukana, a Soliga folk song

As I trek up a settlement at the foot of Seege Betta in the Biligirirangan Hills (BR Hills) with Made Gowda, he points to a patch of forest, one of his father’s many ploughing fields. In his younger days, Made Gowda’s father, Chikkananje Gowda practiced shifting cultivation, as was the Soliga practice then. Today, Made Gowda and his father live in Bangali Podu, a Soliga community settlement in the village atop one of the white-cliffs that give the hills the name Biligiri (white hill in Kannada). From shrinking forests to changing lifestyles and from wildlife protection legislation that restricted them to recent forest rights legislations that enabled them, the Soligas have seen a lot.

Origins

The Soliga people of the Biligirirangana betta (BR Hills) have captured the imagination of early travellers. Their first mention in written history dates back to the early nineteenth century expeditions to the region. Sidde Gowda, a Soliga elder from Bedaguli podu, nestled among the moist deciduous forests in the northern parts of BR Hills, recollects an old tale, almost a legend now among the Soliga people, the tale of a God-like man wearing Bilibatte (white clothes; could indicate modern clothing) who came on a horse followed by several people. Perhaps, this is the only remaining memory among the Soliga people of a journey undertaken by a Scottish doctor around 200 years ago. Francis Buchanan left us a journal of his notes from his passage through BR Hills in October 1800, perhaps the first ever written record (in English) of the Soliga people. The book titled “A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar” was published in London in 1807 in three volumes.

 Soliga HutTraditionally, the Soliga tribes have lived in small huts like these, and this family still does.

 
People of the forest
 
BR Hills is a relatively new tiger reserve (notified in December 2010) with a long history of tigers and people. Made Gowda recounts the Soliga origin lore— how the lord Biligiriranga (after whom the hills are named) fell for a Soliga beauty, Pusumale, when she was collecting genasu (tubers) in the forests. His father says, “We are forest people. My son may have gone to the naadu (plains or cities), but he cannot live there for long.” Made Gowda holds a PhD in social work. He has had the benefit of the forest lore and knowledge as well as modern education. However, Made Gowda is an exception.
 
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Soligas grow ragi and collect and sell non-timber forest produce such as honey and amla for their livelihoods.
 
The Soliga people are one among the few remaining forest-dwelling tribal people in and around the forests in southern India. They live in settlements in and around the forests of BR Hills, MM Hills and Bandipur in Karnataka and in Satyamangalam forests in Tamil Nadu. The forests of BR Hills have had people for time immemorial. Burial sites excavated from several areas nearby date back to 3000 years ago to the Megalithic period. These sites characteristically consist of Dolmens, a circular arrangement of large stones with a central pit, walled off by granite slabs. Although, it is not known if these belong to the ancestors of the present Soliga tribe, having lived here for generations, the Soliga people have an intricate understanding of the flora and fauna.
 
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Their lore helps children understand and relate to the forests. Mainstream schooling often does not provide enough space for such knowledge. A deeper appreciation of the land and forests helps build a stronger conservation ethic and co-existence.
 
Soliga lore
 
The Soliga lore traces their origins to the forest itself. Their name Soliga is in itself an indication that they have come from the forests (Sola-forest; iga-belonging to). One of their principal deities, the Doddasampige is a large Michelia champaka tree in a valley at the heart of the forest (read more about the Gods of BR Hills). On the banks of the stream Bhargavi, the large imposing tree perhaps several hundreds of years old is worshipped by a community-appointed high priest, the Thammadi. 

Their folklore, songs and dances adopt several elements from their life in the forests – the four-note call of Kethanakki, the Soliga name for the Indian Cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus) is named after one of their Gods, Ketha. The bird’s four-note call announces the arrival of their God, Ketha (Ke tha ban da – the four note call!). A temple to Ketha gives its name to the hunting lodge of the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore, now with the Forest Department. Every year, Soligas from all around gather for Rotti habba, where they make fresh bread with Ragi to be shared among themselves, as they sing Goru, goruko, gorukana…. a song that calls on its singers to weave lines from their day’s jungle experiences into it as they sing and dance in a familiar rhythm. The song recalls a spider (Goruka in Soliga language) weaving its web, just as they weave their experience into their story. Further down the song, it is common to hear of the cheekiness of the Laughing dove or the ambitious Four-horned Antelope, which dreams of creating dung heaps as large as the hills itself! The song narrates how the Four-horned Antelope piles its dung in a heap, hoping to make the heap taller than Malki betta, one of the taller peaks in the BR Hills range.

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Forests are central to the Soliga culture and lore. Many sacred groves and shrines dot the BR Hills landscape. Their songs and festivals are centred around the local flora and fauna.
 
Having lived for generations, many observations of the life and behaviour of animals are woven into songs and lore of the Soliga people. Among the several stories about animals, the ones about birds are particularly interesting. The late Jallesiddamma, a legend among the midwives of Karnataka and a Rajyotsava award recipient, once described to me the fearlessness of the quails, which she claimed even the elephants wouldn’t dare to step on as it knew a particular secret about the elephants’ testicles. She asserted how the quail does not bother to move out of the way of an elephant while all other animals scurry off to cover. The Soliga lore attributes the absence of scrotum in elephants to its presence in its twin-domed heads, the secret that the quails knew! Elephants indeed are among the exceptional mammals with intra-abdominal testicles and lack an external scrotum. Many such observations of animal encounters find interesting explanations in their stories.
 
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Soliga boys look on outside the Muthugada Gadde podu.
 
Red-whiskered Bulbuls who are very active around human settlements are represented as hungry birds always asking for the food preparation to begin (their call being broken down to gatti-jadeya-rotti-sudu). The minivets, particularly the Scarlet Minivet captures their imagination. The vivid colours and the distinction between the male and the female give them the name Maadihakki, Maada and Maadi, the couple that often travel together. The difference between the fluid calls of the Plum-headed Parakeet and the harsh calls of the Malabar Parakeet have also not gone unnoticed; the former being called geena, and the latter moraa (the one that screeches). The thrushes which nest during the rains, perhaps the Orange-headed Thrush or the Blackbird are often lauded for their courage as malegodda. Perhaps the most spectacularly named among the birds is the Black Eagle, commonly seen making its characteristic slow flight a few feet above the canopy. Called Kaanakattale by the Soligas, they attribute its blackness to that of the darkness under the canopy in kaanu, the shola patches that dot some of the higher elevations of BR Hills. For a detailed discussion on the ethno-ornithology of the Soligas, see this paper by Samira Agnihotri and Aung Si or perhaps sit down for a longer discussion with an elderly Soliga.
 
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Although earlier practicing shifting cultivation, the Soligas now in small settlements called podus. After several decades of being disenfranchised in their own lands, most of the podus have now been recognised as villages under the Forest Rights Act.
 
The rich lore of the Soligas represents a close relationship between their lifestyle and their habitat. Being both economically and emotionally involved with the land and forests around them, the Soligas and many of the forest-dwelling tribes hold to us a mirror; a mirror that reflects the richness of our land, which survives in small islands. They also recall our own rich past when large urban sprawls were much more bio-diverse, with people’s ability to co-exist. With the heavy human modification of most landscapes, our abilities to co-exist and tolerance of natural environments has eroded. The patches of forests that survive such as BR Hills, and the people within and around them remind us of the importance of sustainable living and co-existence.