Monday, May 31, 2010

The Traditional Knowledge of the People of Kosi Basin


The Traditional Knowledge of the People of Kosi Basin

By Dr. Omprakash Bharti

Kosi may have become a cursed river for the people of today but the Kosi land itself has never been cursed. The Kosi region is densely populated. Right from the Rigvedic period, the region has been a centre of human habitation. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries many rivers of west India drying up turned into deserts. Pastoral people coming via the bank of Ganga settled on the low wet land of Kosi in very large numbers. These newly displaced people started living their daily life in association with the rivers. Farming and cattle-rearing advanced based on the riverine system. Farming and cattle-rearing became the chief occupations of the people of the Kosi basin. Fertile land fit for cultivation, green pastures for cattle, and inexhaustible reservoir of potable water just fifteen feet below the ground level are all available in the Kosi basin. That was the reason why the people braving the tragedy caused by Kosi for thousands of years did not migrate to other areas.
A minimum of three crops are grown in the Kosi basin. Ten kinds of pulses are cultivated here. These are: moong, chana, khesari, kurthi, masur, kelaai, arhar, bora, beem and matar. More than fifty-five varieties of paddy are grown in the fields of the region. The farmers of the region possess the knowledge regarding the cultivation of these varieties. The farmers know how much water there would be in which field before the floods come. Fields in which water remains standing five or six feet for at least thirty-five to forty days are good for sowing rice varieties like sangra, belor, barogar, dabra, dasariya, kashan, malida and bake etc. In fields where water remains standing two to three feet the varieties sown are: sorna, badhari, cheetal, sugwa, pavapankhi, ranga, chinma, satariya,saathi, dasariya, chananchoor, kaiyakamore, rajni, mansuri, paanijhali, singra, ladga, belor, karravati, ulaanki, jagranthiya, jasua, dhumma, chauntis, radha, parvati, nagir and jalli. The other varieties are sown in fields that are high and where water stays for a shorter duration. Thus people of the Kosi basin possess the traditional knowledge relating to sowing of rice according to the riverine system.

Thirty-two varieties of fish ( kabai, singhi, maangur, pateria, belauna, buari, baami, gaagar, bhunna, hilsa, ichana, pothi, rittha, bhaura, bhuhala, kokcha, baddo, rekha, tengra, kapati, kauwa, garai, garchunni gaincha, chenga, kotra, latta, kanti, reba, rabchhahi, rohu, chinma, darhi, sauraathi) are found in the Kosi river.
People residing in the Kosi region possess adequate traditional knowledge of pisciculture. Fifty-six kinds of vegetables(kaita, karaila, karaunda, kadima, kumhar, kabchhua, kela, kamalkakri, kathal, khamruha, badhar, parwal, sajmain, jheenga, jheengli, seem(three varieties), baingan(three varieties), sahjan, bandgobi, phoolgobi, shaljam, mooli, gaajar, tamatar, papita, potato, ole, kachchu, tekna, chatail; saag(greens) like raincha, phutia, noni, baradnoni, bhatpoorain, kataiyya, pekcha, patua, sirhonchi, thadhiya, gainhari, chaulai, porey, tori, alhua, bathua, kadimapatta, matar, badaam, doompha, khesaari, and palak, are available in the Kosi basin. Fruits like mangoes (Bombay, malda, gulabkhas, khirmohan, karebi, jardalu, sarhi, sonha, kalkatiya, bhadaiya, krishnabhog, kulhariyais) ,lichi, bananas, kathal, guaves, mahua, jilebi, bair, atta, sapatu, badhar, jamun, shahtoot, pomegranates, coconut, taabneembu, bel, kadam etc are cultivated in the Kosi valley.
People of the region have an amazing traditional knowledge of flood management and steering of boats. Fifteen lakh people live in the nearly four hundred villages between the two embankments. Crops are also grown there. The reason for this lies in the knowledge the people have of flood management and control. These people have an accurate understanding of the flood situation and the behavior of Kosi River. Keeping in view the situation of water, houses in most of the villages are built high on the embankments. They believe that if the water enters their homes, it would also flow over the embankments.
People of Kosi can predict the onset of floods from the colour of water. For example, the colour of the water would be different if the level of water rises because of rains, because of the melting of glaciers, or because of the splitting of a glacier. If reddish water hints at the melting of a glacier, muddy water points to heavy rains. And they can tell which water will rise to which level. This anticipation gives people adequate time to get alerted or escape from floods. Not only that. These people also possess adequate knowledge about forecasting rains. Let’s examine a folk saying: ‘Hathiya laabain taati.’ The ‘hathiya’ planet appears in the month of September. At this time due to the melting of glaciers there are terrible floods in Kosi between the embankments and seven to eight lakh cusec water flows everyday. In such a situation or when hathiya is visible?, the water level will rise to an unusual degree and the flood situation will become grim. When this happens, people will certainly die in large numbers defecate. There is another folk saying which in effect means: It is customary for people in the Kosi region to beat drums in the villages during dushehra days from the day of the first puja to dashmi. Will the beating of drums frighten Kosi away? The meaning is that just as dushahra comes, there is a change in the weather, the pressure in the Himalaya foothills decreases, and because of the lowering of the temperature the chances of glaciers melting become slim. Thus the water level of Kosi starts decreasing and the flood situation comes to an end.
People living between the embankments know how to swim and how to steer boats. There where there are floods following the breach in embankments( 18th August 2008, Kusaha, Nepal) the region is free from Kosi. A hundred years ago people of the region knew both swimming and boat-steering. There have been incidents in which more than a hundred lives have been lost. Most of these incidents were caused by fast water currents and loss of control by the boatman or by the boats colliding with some invisible obstruction. People of the Kosi region are strangely adept in locating invisible obstructions submerged under water. This obstruction is either some root of a huge tree or ‘chahati’ ??formed by the mud brought by Kosi. When the water flows over the roots of some giant tree, these roots are not usually visible to ordinary people. Water currents strike against these roots and this increases their speed. The ferrymen of Kosi recognize these currents from afar and steer their boats away them. ‘Chahti’ poses a big problem to the Kosi boatmen. It is quite possible that while going, the water at some place may be twenty feet deep but while returning (usually after four-five hours) Kosi might have formed a’chahati’ with its mud and the water might be three-four feet or there might even be a dry island there. This kind of ‘chahati’ is both visible and invisible. When it is invisible, there is a chance of the boat striking the chahati and getting overturned. When the water flows over the chahti, creases are formed in the water currents and the currents are shallow and fast. The boatmen of Kosi are able to identify these currents and steer their boats away from them to the safety of the bank.
The people of Kosi build at least five-six kinds of boats. These kinds depend upon the shape and purpose of the boats. There are different boats for different purposes, e.g. for domestic use and for ferrying cattle feed, supervising crops in times of floods, answering the call of nature, catching fish, crossing the river when the currents are fast, traveling long distances, and ferrying heavy loads like foodgrains, cattle etc. The boats are made of jamun, jalebi, and shisham wood. A boat made of jamun wood is considered excellent. Then come those made of jalebi and shisham. A jamun boat lasts about fifteen to twenty years. What distinguishes these woods is that they don’t rot when they come in contact with water and that they are generally heavy in weight. For the fast-flowing Kosi a heavy boat is better than an air-filled rubber boat. A heavy boat is helpful in maintaining its equilibrium in shallow and fast currents. On the other hand a lighter boat runs the risk of getting overturned.
Now however these traditional boats are disappearing. The chief reason is the non-availability of the right kind of wood. No variety of wood is generally available in the area between the embankments. For building boats people residing between the embankments have to depend on those residing outside. Shisham growing in the regions outside the embankments has got dried up because of a certain disease and has nearly disappeared. Jalebi is already a wild wood and it is not put to any other use. So no farmer is enthusiastic in growing it. A jamun plant takes about fifteen to twenty years to grow. Why then would people belonging to Kosi-free regions realize the difficulties of the people of the Kosi region? Why would they plant jamun and jalebi? After all the government has given them assistance for planting semal and saagwan trees and has convinced them about its commercial use.
Apart from boats, the people of the Kosi region make use of Beid and Gairolia for purposes of transport. Like boats beid and gairulia also float on water. Beid is the name given to a bundle of bamboo sticks. Bamboo is used to build houses in the Kosi region. But it is not grown between the embankments. The importance of bamboo has been spoken of at several places in Kosi songs. If a householder has to bring some hundred-two hundred bamboo poles, he doesn’t use a boat to ferry them. Instead he ties them together in a bundle with a strong rope. A wooden plan is also tied along with the bamboos and the pile is released to flow along with the currents of Kosi. The boatman sits on top of the plank. If the beid encounters some obstruction in the form of chahti, the boatman steers the beid away with the help of the long bamboo pole. If the journey takes two or three days, a chulha, firewood and eatables re also kept. One seldom hears of the drowning of the beid. Travelling on the beid is very secure. Actually the bamboo is hollow within and also closed on all sides, so it doesn’t sink in the waters of Kosi. If you have a bamboo pole about fifteen to twenty feet long and if you know swimming, you could cross Kosi with the help of the pole.
Similar to the beid is another conveyance called ‘gairulia’. Gairulia is made by joining plantain trunks together. Bananas are available in plenty in the Kosi region. People belonging to low income group who do not have the means to purchase a boat do their daily household work with the help of gairulia. It is very easy to make a gairulia and it costs next to nothing. The trunk of the plantain tree that has stopped giving bananas is cut lengthwise through the middle and a rectangular platform like plank/strip is prepared. The plantain trunks are held fast together with the help of interwoven reed-stalks. People cross the Kosi currents on the gairulia with the help of a lagga or a long bamboo pole. Recently in Kusaha (18th August 2008) during floods caused by a breach in embankments three children got separated their parents and got left behind in the village. They were all real brothers. The eldest brother made a gairulia and succeeded in reaching a place of safety with its help.
Haven’t small children presented a fine example of self-help before society by making use of traditional knowledge?
The new market-centered orientation has brought in indifference in the traditional basic concept of togetherness. With individualism gaining currency, the society is moving away from the idea of collective responsibility. The power-hungry party-based political system has misled the people. Kosi being what it is, there are bound to be floods and there will be destruction. There will be no jamun,jalebi and shisham trees left. How will boats be made then? The society will have forgotten how to make gairulia and beid. The relief parties will take at least three or days to reach the place. Will it be possible for the government to provide a boat to each family? Otherwise the people of the region would have to re-generate their traditional knowledge and increase their awareness of social responsibility and togetherness. Kosi river is the primary and the biggest problem of the region. The society would have to come forward and own up its responsibility. A problem of such enormous proportions cannot be left to the governmental establishment alone.
( From: The Rivers Sings )

Baandh Tutne Do - A play telling story of the Kosi river, Written by- Dr.O.P.Bharti

Dir- Satish Anand

Om Prakash Bharti’s Hindi play ‘Baandh Tootne Do’[‘Let the embankment be breached’] hits several targets at the same time- the tragedy of Kosi floods, the story of turning an innocent river into a cursed one, building embankments on rivers and the frequent breaches that take place in them, a thoroughly corrupt government establishment, the increasing tendency of the people to depend on government dole, and the society ‘s shirking of responsibility.
Rivers have been the nurturers of civilization and have rightly been endowed with a maternal instinct. With the process of development began the exploitation of rivers. The human community’s effort was to make rivers subservient to them. If a river served the interest of man, it was a blessing and a boon; if it fulfilled its own dharma, it was stigmatized as a curse. Flooding and changing its course are a part of a river’s dharma, an inevitable consequence of its instinctive behavior. This conflict between man and rivers turned the rivers into curses. As a result rivers emerged as a social problem. Initially man tried to deal with the problem collectively and in the process enriched the society’s knowledge relating to rivers. There was economic progress. Political awareness increased. A nation came into being. A government was established followed by the formation of a republic. The responsibility of tackling the problems relating to rivers devolved on the government machinery. Lust for power and position gave rise to a new culture of assurances. Awareness of social responsibility decreased. And society came totally to depend on government machinery. Government negligence has led to the death of thousands of people in floods and breaches in embankment. It is around these issues that the play ‘Let the Embankment Get Breeched’ revolves.
The play has a story, a river, a region, and the events that take place there happen in a village located on an embankment on Kosi River in Saharsa district .