Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Culture and Development SeriesThe Cultural Dimension of Ecology

know about Janapada Sampada 


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

The Warlis and the Dhangars 

The Context of the Commons

Ajay Dandekar

In this paper we shall discuss the specific problems faced by communities occupying different econiches and different geographical and environmental zones, the Warlis and the Dhangars, hunter-gatherers and cultivators and pastoralists of Konkan and western Maharashtra. Occupying opposite ends of the continuum, with one being sedentary and the other semi-nomadic, they are confronted with a problem similar to the tragedy of the commons, due to reasons, it will be argued here, which are external to them yet have affected them severely. In the first part of this paper we shall briefly discuss the context within which the problem of land use is faced by the Warlis and the Dhangars. The subsequent sections discuss traditional knowledge systems and resource use against this background.

Bio-diversity: plants

The following are the chief trees found in the Thane forests: ain, Terminalia tomentosa, is tall and very useful. Its wood is durable and hard and is used both for building and as fuel. The bark is much valued in tanning, and its sap yields a gum which is largely eaten. Alu, Vanguieria spinosa, has worthless wood, but its leaves are useful as fodder. Amba, Mangifera indica, the mango, is valuable both for its timber and its fruit. There are three well-known varieties, aphus (alphonso), the best; pairi, also excellent; and raival, the common sort. The first two are believed to have been brought from Goa by the Portuguese. Ambara, Spondias mangifera, is a large tree with soft coarse-grained useless wood. The fruit has an astringent bitter taste. Apta, Bauhinia racemosa, a small fibrous tree, has leaves used for making bidis. Asana, Briedalia retusa, a good timber tree, whose wood can last under water, is much used for well kerbs. Its fruit is one of the wild pigeon’s favourite articles of food. Ashi, Morinda citrifolia, has very poor wood, but its roots yield a scarlet dye. Avla, Phyllanthus emblica, yields the emblic myrobalan, which is very bitter but much used in pickles and preserves. Its wood is strong and durable in water, and its leaves contain 14 per cent of tannin. Babhul, Acacia arabica, though too small to be of much value as a timber tree, makes excellent firewood and yields pods of which cattle and sheep are very fond. Bakul, Mimusops elengi, is a large and handsome tree well-known for its fragrant flowers which are strung into garlands and worn by women. Beheda, Terminalia bellerica, and hirda, Terminalia chebula, though their wood is poor, are both well-known for their myrobalans. The beheda can be told from the hirda by its much greater size and its bad-smelling flowers. Bhava, Cassia fistula, is a beautiful tree, especially towards the close of the cold weather when it is hung with long clusters of pale yellow flowers; its wood is valuable and its pods are much used in medicine. Bhendi, Thespesia populnea, though rarely found in sound condition, has good wood which is used for making the spokes of wheels and cart poles; its flowers are a cure for itching. Bhokar, Cordia myxa, is a fibrous tree whose leaves are a useful fodder and whose fruit is much eaten; it yields a viscous gum. Bibla, Pterocarpus marsupium, a large tree, yields a useful gum; its wood, though of fair quality, does not last long. Bibva, Semecarpus anacardium, the common marking-nut tree, is very little known but for its nuts; the wood is in no way useful.

Bondara, Lagerstroemia flos-reginae, is a very beautiful flowering tree with red, strong wood. Bur, Zizyphus jujuba, is a common tree bearing small fruit which is much eaten by men, beasts and birds. Burkas, Elaeodendron roxburghii, is an ordinary tree whose wood makes good fuel. The tree is named tamruj in Bombay and its wood, whitish or light reddish brown, is even, compact and durable. It works easily and takes a fine polish. Chamal, Bauhinia speciosa, a tall handsome tree, has very soft and close-grained wood. Chapha, Michelia champaca, the well-known flowering tree, has close-grained wood when fully grown. Chamari, Premna integrifolia, a large shrub or middle-sized tree, has a white, moderately close-grained wood used for rafters. Chithari, Caesalpinia sepiaria, is a splendid hedge plant, and its bark is of much service in tanning. The Tamarind, chinch, Tamarindus indica, a large and handsome tree, has hard wood which is used in a variety of ways. Ohira, Erinocarpus nimonii, is a common tree which grows rapidly and forms good coppices. Its high stems, though not very durable, are much used for rafters. Dundoshi, Dalbergia lanccolaria, is a small tree whose wood is used for making field tools. Dhaman, Grewia tiliaefolin, is a small tree yielding small edible fruit, tough wood and bark that provides a strong fibre. If rubbed over the affected part, the bark allays the irritation caused by cow-itch. Dhavda, Anogeiessus iatifolia, a very valuable fibrewood tree, produces a gum which is eaten by the people. Besides as fuel, its tough wood is much used for axles and poles and also in cloth printing. The leaves yield a black dye and are very useful in tanning. Dhayti, Woodfordia floribunda, a small shrub tomentosa, is a middle-sized tree with smooth grey bark which gives out a thick milky juice. Gehela, Randia, is very little known but for its fruit, which is used to poison fish and for its medicinal properties. Gharbi, Entada scandens, is a very large creeper bearing pods about four feet long. The seeds are turned to use in several ways, small snuff-boxes and other articles being made of them.

Ghot, Zizyphus xylopyra, supplies fodder for cattle and yields nuts whose charcoal is used as blacking. Gorakhchinch, Adansonia digitata, said to have been brought by the Arabs from Africa, grows to an immense size. Its wood is believed to possess antiseptic properties, and its bark to be capable of being made into paper. The pods are used by fishermen as buoys for nets and the seeds as febrifuge. Iled, Adina or Nauclea cordifolia, is a large and handsome timber tree. Logs more than thirty-five feet long are sometimes cut from one. For their durability in water and their length the logs are much prized for fish stakes. Humb, Saccopetalum tomentosum, is a fine and tall tree bearing edible fruit. The wood, though suited for house building, is little used. Jambul, Eugenia jambolana, is a useful tree whose wood is very durable under water, and, when of large size, makes good planks. Its fruit is eaten and its bark is much used in tanning. Kakad, Garuga pinnata, is a common tree making fair fuel and supplying wood used for the beams and posts of huts and sheds. Its bark is soft and elastic and is much used for flooring cattle sheds. Its fruit is not unlike the avla in appearance. Kalak or padai, Bambusa arundinacea, is the well-known and very useful giant-armed bamboo. Kalamb, Stephegyne or Nauclea parvifolia, is a large timber tree used like hed for making fish stakes. Kanchan, Bauhinia variegata, is a tree of little consequence, supplying but very poor wood. Kandol, Sterculia urens, is an ordinary tree bearing edible fruit. Though its wood is useless, its bark is fibrous and its leaves are often used in native medicines; its sap yields a poor gum. Karambel, Dillenia pentagyna, bears fruit on which deer feed; its wood is worthless. Karnad, Carissa carandas, is a small but well-known tree bearing edible berries. Karanj, Pongamia glabra, is a handsome shade tree; the leaves are used as manure, and from the seeds an oil is extracted and used as a cure for itch. Karvati, Streblus asper, is a small tree, the dry leaves of which are used like sandpaper to rub and clean woodwork. Karvi, Strobilanthus grahamianus, which reaches its full growth in eight years, bears a cone-shaped mass of calices from which appear beautiful blue flowers. After the flowers fall the cones become covered with a sticky exudate called mel. The seeds remain in the cones till they dry and fall out. The stems are largely used as wattle for huts and cottages. Kavath, Feronia elephantum, is a strong tree yielding fruit much used in cooking. It produces valuable gum. The oil made from its fruit is supposed to be good for leprosy. Khair, Acacia catechu, is a very valuable tree both for timber and for fuel; from its juice the substance known as catechu is made. Khirni, Mimusops hexandra, famous as a shade and fruit tree in north Gujarat, does not flourish in Thane. Khivan, Helicteris isora, is a small fibre tree whose seeds are supposed to be a cure for snakebite.

Kinhai, Albizzia procera, is a large and graceful tree of very rapid growth; its heartwood, which is dark in colour, is very durable and strong, and is much used for making rice-mortars, ukhli. Its bark, pounded and thrown into ponds and pools, stupefies fish. Kokamb, Garcinia purpurea, a common tree, yields a very pleasant fruit. By boiling the seeds, an oil is obtained which is much mixed with clarified butter and is often used as an ointment for sunburn. Koketi, Sterculia guttata, yields fibre and an edible fruit. The wood is very poor and is rarely used. Koshimb, Schleichera trijunga, is a useful tree growing best in ravines. Its very heavy and dark red heartwood is mostly used in making oil and sugar mills. Its leaves, especially the young leaves, are elegantly cut into six leaflets, three on each side, and have very beautiful red and yellow tints. Kuba, Careya arborea, is a fibrous barked tree furnishing a fairly good wood used for field tools. The bark is commonly used in dyeing. Kuda, Wrightia tinctoria, is said to have medicinal properties. When of large size the wood is good. Kura, Ixora parviflora, is a small tree used for torches. Mershingi, Spathodea falcata, is a rare tree whose wood, though of a fair quality, is not much used. Moha, Bassia latifolia, is a well-known tree whose flowers yield liquor and whose fruit yields oil. Its wood, though of a good quality, is seldom used. Mokha, Schbrebera swietenioides, a middle-sized tree, yields fair firewood. The wood is close-grained, hard and durable, and has some of the qualities of boxwood. Nana, Lagerstroemia lanceolata, is generally used as firewood and sometimes for fish stakes, and is also fit for house building.

Nandruk, Ficus retusa, is one of the best roadside trees. Nimb, Melia indica, well-known throughout the district, is much esteemed for its medicinal properties. Nivar, Barringtonia racemosa, bearing spikes of beautiful pink flowers, is common in hedgerows on the coast. A tree of the same name, Barringtonia acutangula, grows near salt water beyond the tidal range. The wood is tough and heavy, and among other purposes is much used for making well kerbs and boat knees. The tree bears an edible fruit, and its bark is a fish poison. Padvai or Pejvi, Melia azedarach, is a large and handsome tree of the nimb kind. Its hard berries are strung together and worn as necklaces. Palas, Butea frondosa, is common. Its wood, though of fair quality, is not much used for building or other purposes. Its flowers yield a dye and the roots a fibre. A watery fluid gathered from its roots is considered a cure for fever. Pangara, Erythrina indica, is a middle-sized quick-growing tree. Its wood, known as moshi wood in Madras, is used for making rafts, and when hollowed, it makes good cattle wood. Panjambul, or water jambul, Eugenia salicifolia, grows generally on river banks. Its wood is used for making rafters. Payar, Ficus cordifolia, is a large shade tree, but from its awkward shape is less suited than either the ved or the nandruk to roadside planting. Petari, Trewia nudiflora, a small bush-like tree, has a soft wood which is used for several purposes. Phanas, Artocarpus integrifolia, the well-known jack tree, bears a large fruit which is much prized by all classes. Phalari, Albizzia stipulata, is a large tree at Vadavli, 20 miles north of Bhiwandi, with a girth of 46 feet 9 inches.

Pun, Sterculia foetida, resembles koketi in almost all points. Ranundi or forest undi, Ochrocarpus longifolius, yields fair wood and a favourite fruit. Ritha, Sapindes emarginatus, the common soapnut tree, is grown in many parts of the district. Teak sag, Tectona grandis, though never found large except in some remote places, grows throughout the district in great abundance. An oil employed as a remedy in certain cattle diseases is extracted from its wood. Savar, Bombax malabaricum, the well-known silk cotton tree, has very light wood which is hollowed for canoes and water troughs. It grows to a large size. Its cotton is used as tinder. Shembat, Odina wodier, yields fair firewood. The wood is also used in building huts. Shiris, Albizzia odoratissima, is a large tree whose leaves yield good fodder. Shisav, Dalbergia latifolia, is a useful timber tree, but seldom grows to any great size. Shivan, Gmelina arborea, is a large tree of the teak kind yielding edible fruit; its glossy wood takes a high polish and is much used in panelling. Sura, Casuarina equisetifolia, grows freely near the sea especially in Salsette; its wood is heavy, strong and tough and makes good fuel. Tarbor, Flacourtia, or Xylosma, a tree found generally on high hills, bears a sub acid red-coloured fruit enclosing three or four seeds in its strong and thick pulp. It is not known if its wood is in any way useful.

Tembhurni, Diospyros melanoxylon, is everywhere common. The black heartwood of old trees is used for cart wheels and for bracelets, and, instead of sandalwood, is ground into a paste and smeared over the face and body after worshipping the gods. The leaves, like those of the apta, are so much used in rolling cigarettes that shiploads are every year sent to Bombay. Tetu, Calosanthes indica, a useless tree as far as its wood goes, is said to have healing buds and leaves. Tivar, Avicennia tomentosa, a firewood tree, generally grows in salt marshes. Tivas, Ougeinia dalbergioides, a large but scarce tree, grows best in the north of the district. Its hard and heavy heartwood is used for house building and for field tools. Tokar, Bambusa, is of two kinds, the common unarmed bamboo, vulgaris, and the male armed known by the name of bhariv tokar. Toran, Zizyphus rugosa, is a creeping shrub, which, when cut young, sends out a watery fluid. Its tough and strong wood is much used for making field tools. Umbar, Ficus glomerata, is the wild fig tree. Undi, Calophyllum inophyllum, is a very handsome tree growing near the coast. The wood is very useful, and from its nuts a thick oil is extracted. Vad, Ficus indica, is a well-known shade tree. Varas, Spathodea quandrilocularis, has soft, easily worked wood and leaves much eaten by cattle. Vavli, Ulmus integrifolia, is a large and common firewood tree whose leaves are given to cattle as fodder.

The Warlis, according to the gazettes (DG Thane District 1984:182) are mainly located in the Dahanu Taluka of the Thane District. They are also to be found in the adjoining areas of Murbad, Talasari, and other areas of the Thane District. Some of the Warlis are also located in the adjoining district of Nasik. It is generally believed that the Warlis once inhabited the region near Dharampur. Megasthenes describes this region as the Varalata, and thus, perhaps, the Warlis acquired the name that they are known by today (Sanskriti Kosa, 19, 608).

An interesting legend is a fair indication of the position and the prestige that the Warlis once enjoyed in the region that they occupied and the reasons why they lost these. ‘The Koli Raja, Popera, invaded the Warli kingdom of Jawhara. Popera demanded only that much of land that could be covered by cattle hide. The Warli King agreed to this demand, since he felt that it was a reasonable demand to make. Popera then covered the entire kingdom of Jawhara with the cattle hide and thus the Warlis lost their kingdom’. The Warlis even today remember this legend fondly and the folk memory thus preserves whatever remains of the past in their mind-set.

The Warlis completely identify themselves with nature and their identification with the forest is legendary. It is this identification with the forest that has now become a problem, especially since colonial forestry and the draconian laws of the Raj. The forest plays a pivotal role in shaping the Warli mind-set. The field-work carried out in the Ashagadh and Dahanu regions reveals not only complete identification with the forest but also seasonality, which is in fact central to the Warlis. In order to understand the problems of resource management, which incidentally are external to the Warlis, a brief account of the ‘fight for the forest’ (Gadgil and Guha 1992:146) is required.

The forest communities, especially the hunter-gatherers and the pastoralists, have always been subjected to pressure by the agrarian communities. At times such pressures have been successfully resisted;but the colonial forest laws proved to be a watershed in this fight for the forest. The emergence of forests as a commercial entities altered the situation and the colonial state asserted its control over them, which in turn meant an active intervention in the day-to-day lives of the communities who depended on the forests for their survival. The colonial state not only took effective control over the forest, it also changed property rights, rights of use, traditional rights and obligations. This was in sharp contrast to the earlier system of local use, based on traditional rights and obligations to the use of the forests. The colonial state also promoted species which were of little use to the local population, namely teak, pine and deodar, in different ecozones, while it sought to replace oak, for instance, which again went against the interests of the local communities (Gadgil and Guha 1992:147).

The forest laws of the colonial state affected the communities occupying the different echo-niches in different ways. The Chenchus were, for instance, denied their traditional right of hunting and were forced into a subordinate relationship with the powerful cultivators of the region. This in turn resulted in their being driven into banditry (Furer-Haimendorf 1943). We can in fact map out the cumulative effect of the forest laws on the hunter-gatherers in more than one way. As Elwin noted, the Baigas of the Central Indian Plateau lost much of the hunting skill gathered over a long period of time, though they live for the hunt and the meat existed (Elwin, 1939). A number of such instances could be cited where communities have suffered due to forest laws.

The Warlis too were severely affected by the laws and the cascading effect that they had on their ecosystem. The Warlis were pushed into rice cultivation and the original affluent society (Sahlins 1971) was reduced to struggle to make its living. Today the Warlis find themselves in a state of transition. This transition is vividly reflected in the seasonal cycle and in the life-style that the Warlis have been forced to adopt.

Customs of Marriage and Festivals of Death

Marriage is the most important ceremony in the community. The Warli marriage lasts for four or five days and many minor rites are scrupulously performed. Marriage is not so much a sacrament with the Warlis: it is a contract in as much as there is an agreement in the form of betrothal and a consideration in the form of a bride-price.

Girls are usually married at the age of seven or eight years and boys at twelve. Marriage within the clan is prohibited. Parallel cousin marriages on both paternal and maternal sides are prohibited.

Polygamy is allowed but has been stopped due to local influence. The system of gharor exists, in which a man is permitted to marry a girl by offering his services to her father. A man and woman are also allowed to lead a marital life without undergoing a regular marriage ceremony. The regular marriage may be performed at their convenience later, even after children have been born to the couple.

Divorce is granted by an assembly of a few influential men. Divorce is granted on account of adulterous connections on the part of the wife and criminality. At the time of granting divorce the old and new husbands take cups of palas (leaves) filled with tea into their hands. A stick is kept on their cups which is later on broken in the middle by the chief of the Panchas.

If a man dies his widow, with her consent, is allowed to marry her late husband’s brother even if he has a wife. Remarriages are allowed. A man whose wife is dead can marry again by pat marriage. Widows and divorced women can also remarry by pat.

A birth in a family is an occasion for joy and various ceremonies are performed. The children live with the father and go with their mother in case of divorce.

Ideas about chastity and morality are not very rigorous. Pre-marital sex relations are not considered serious. At the most the young man and woman are asked to get married. If the girl develops pregnancy as a result of such relations, the seducer is forced to marry her under threat of a heavy fine. In case a women if found in illegal connection with a person of a lower tribe she is outcast. There is no problem of illegitimate children among the Warlis.

The institution of adoption is widely prevalent among the Warlis. It is very rare that a man has no issue. If one wife is barren, he can marry another. If he has only daughters, he may choose such bridegrooms as may be willing to stay with his own family. It is only when a man has no child and is rich enough to possess a well-built hut, cattle and corn, that he adopts a son. The man usually selects a boy from his clan, with the consent of the boy’s father or guardian. No ceremonies or rites are performed. A few relatives and influential men from the village are invited and served with toddy in order to make it known to the public that the boy has been given in adoption. The natural father has no claim over his son after the adoption is publicly declared.

An adopted son takes the name of his adoptive father and his family. He is however prohibited from marrying a girl from his natural father’s clan or from his new one.

Grown-up boys erect their own huts and live with their wives separately from their parents. So the question of inheritance of household property never arises.

A very few Warlis have land of their own. A majority of them are tenants of landlords and sawkars. The property owned by a Warli is inherited by his sons. Similarly, a charor inherits the property of the father-in-law if the latter has no sons, and stands on an equal footing with his sons.

The death anniversary ceremony is called ‘kaj’ by Warlis. The anniversary is observed for the first time preferably in the month of Margshirsha (December) or on any convenient day. The anniversary is not necessarily observed on the completion of a year and is not repeated. The ceremonies relating to the anniversary begin in the evening and last for the whole of the night and the day after. The male and female relations and inhabitants of the hamlet are invited and served with food and drink. For this purpose a small booth with six bamboos is erected outside the hut in the yard. The roof of the booth is thatched with thorny bamboos and grass. The ground in the booth is cleaned with cowdung and flowers and red lead are sprinkled on it. A winnowing fan with a little rice and a coconut in it is kept on the roof of the booth. Two lines of rice are drawn in this mandap. Between these of two lines a human figure is drawn by means of red lead as an image of the dead. A nickel coin is placed on the figure and some coins on the rice lines. The figure is then covered with cloth.

Two more lines are drawn with grain husk outside the mandap. A heap of grain husk is placed between them. An earthen pot filled with fresh water is placed on this heap. One more heap of husk is made at a little distance, on which is placed another earthen pot of the same size. Red lead masks are applied to both pots. A coconut is placed on the second pot. A string is tied from the roof of the booth to the mouth of the second pot. To this string twelve betel leaves are tied.

Small rice cakes, cooked beans and vegetables are brought in a little basket as an offering to the pitar. A portion of this offering is placed in a dron (a cup made of leaves) and fixed in the mouth of the first earthen pot to which no string is tied. Another dron is similarly filled and taken up to the top of the mandap and brought down to the ground five times by the chief mourner and placed in the winnowing fan on the roof of the booth. These offerings are made at midnight. If the deceased is a woman, whether she died as a suvasini or a widow, a glass bangle and kumkum are offered, among other things.

The conductor of this ceremony is the Kamadi. He sings death songs throughout the night to the accompaniment of musical instruments. The Kamadi himself beats a handy drum. His assistants play on cymbals. At the end of each song the singer shouts the name of deceased, which serves as a signal for the women to begin crying loudly. This general weeping lasts for three to four minutes and is almost mechanical. The singers are served with drink at intervals.

In the morning a lamp is lit and all the relations of the dead are called forth to touch the string hanging from the roof of the booth. The chief mourner touches the string first and all others stand behind him in line touching the person in front. The chief mourner then waves a lamp to the booth. This is divalya, waving of lamp.

The Kamadi resumes singing. A medium sits in the booth opposite the singers with earthen pots in front of him and tries to get the spirit of the dead into him. He violently shakes his body and songsters sing loudly. All the persons eagerly watch the coming of the pitar. He goes during afflatus to a place formerly visited or inhabited by the dead. He finds something which was presumed to be placed by the dead. By this act, the people believe that the spirit has already entered his body. He also acquaints the people with incidents which occurred in the lifetime of the dead. Some of the secrets of the dead are also revealed by him. He catches some of the relatives of the deceased and takes them to places familiar to the dead. This goes on for a short time and the medium again sits in the booth. The relations of the dead embrace and hug him one by one, weeping bitterly all the while and sincerely believing that they are meeting the deceased, only in different form. This quietens down after a time.

In some places the medium invokes the spirit of the dead during afflatus, makes a small hole in the hind portion of his head above the neck with a sword or a knife, and drops a little blood in the earthen pot. This process, which is called doki kapne (head cutting), is entrusted to a member of a particular clan in the locality. The idea of the offering is that no offering is perfect unless it culminates in the giving of human blood.

In respect of the anniversary ceremony of a dead person who was only buried and not burnt, a figure is made of rice flour at the end of ceremony and burnt near a pool or stream where a final purificatory bath is taken.

In the afternoon the pots are taken to a stream or pool and broken there. All take a final purificatory bath. This terminates the anniversary ceremony, which is never repeated.

A single ceremony can be performed for more than one person during the year. In this event the expenses are shared by all concerned. But a large portion has to be borne by the one at whose place the ceremony takes place, and the pitar he worships is regarded as principal. A poor man who finds it monetarily difficult to perform the ceremony avails himself of the opportunity of sharing expenses with somebody else in the village. Without such a performance, it is believed that the spirit of the deceased does not become free from bondage and the family may incur its wrath in the form of disease or other calamities. These ceremonies are performed within a year of death and on may on no account be postponed. A member of the family in which a death has taken place cannot marry unless these death rites are performed.


Warli life revolves around the cycle of seasonality, which for them begins with the advent of the monsoon. The Warlis have developed an amazing variety of eco-indicators with the help of which they can predict the onset of the monsoon. Minute change in the time of sunset and the cry of the pavasya (bird), are two of them. They also identify change in the ayan sthan of the sun to predict the onset of the monsoon. The arrival of the monsoon heralds the season of plenty for the Warlis, as the first crop of paddy becomes a virtual certainty for them.

Warlis avoid eating certain things from the first showers of rain to the time of threshing new corn: coconut, plantain, betel leaf, betel nut, turmeric, sugarcane, beans, cucumber, etc., are taboo to them. These are avoided because they must not be partaken of unless offered to God and the deity of corn. The head of the family has to observe this taboo. Young men who are being trained under a Bhagat, the Bhagats themselves, snake charmers and medicinemen do not eat fish or flesh either.

The successful completion of sowing operations is celebrated by the festival of Koli-bhaji. The entire family gathers around the deva medhi (principal pillar that supports the structure of the house) and prays for the pavasya deva, the rain god. Cereals and rice are offered to the rain god and to the forest and to all the living beings of the forests. Offerings are also made to ancestors, and the family then prays for the well-being of all. The newly arrived crop is celebrated by the festival of Navabhat, literally the new rice. The rice is offered to ancestors and to the forest. The rain god is offered the new rice and the Warlis dance to the tarpa, a musical instrument.

The next important festival is after the paddy is harvested. The Warlis then are in the season of plenty. Marriage ceremonies take place, and important functions which might have been held up due to a variety of reasons are performed now.

This season of plenty comes to an end in March, and the wait for the rains begins in right earnest. The Warlis report that the situation was not so bad when the forest was thick, as they had access to it and the game it provided. Because of the forest laws of the colonial state, continued after Independence, the Warlis have been denied their traditional access to the forest and have perforce had to transform themselves into cultivators.

This cycle of seasonality occupies an important niche in the world-view of the community. Its importance is also reflected in the way the Bhagat transmits knowledge to the next generation. Usually the fifth day in the month of Shravan is earmarked for the initiation of the younger generation into the traditional knowledge system. The teacher takes his students to the forest and introduces them to the medicinal uses of various plants and teaches them the methods of preservation of the varieties of paddy. The Bhagat also tells the young to respect the living beings in the forest and in the settlements. This respect is so complete that the Warlis never go for a hunt unless there is absolute necessity, and they ask the pardon of the guardian deities of the forest before they commence hunting.

The Warlis are now coming under a stress due to factors such as the denial of access to the forest and forest products. This has resulted in the tragedy of the commons, as some have argued, but in an entirely different context than visualized by Hardin (1968). The tragedy of the commons as propounded by him is a powerful and controversial theory. It poses irreconcilable contradictions between individual and system interests. It locates the source of the problem in common property, broadly understood to mean free and unregulated access to scarce resources (Macay and Acheson 1990:1). We shall discuss the tragedy of the commons in the context of the pastoralists also, as it has been attributed to them as well by sedentary society. It will, though, be our endeavour to argue that the tragedy, though it has occurred, has been hastily applied to pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, in this case the sheep-keeping Dhangars and the Warlis of Western Maharashtra. It is therefore important to understand Hardin’s proposition and how it may work at different levels due to communities utilising a variety of methods to combat scarcity and make a living which is ecofriendly. Hardin argues that all the resources owned in common — air, oceans, grasslands, forests, space and so on — will be over-exploited.

The Dhangars

Now when we start from the wada at Jawli, our first halt is at Naikoba Wadi. Next day we start from this wadi and, using the water in the nearby ponds and the grass, we start going towards the west coast. At times we find that pasture is not enough to sustain us, yet we have no alternative but to go on. From Phaltan we go towards the coast and reach Kajal and then on to Lonand. From there we reach Bhajor, where we do all our shopping. Next we descend the ghat and offer a sheep as sacrifice to the goddess. After that each of the flocks splits and I reach my village near Mahad. The farmers are usually waiting there for me because the sheep have to be penned in the field. We decide on the field and pen the sheep. Each farmer gets his turn and they get enough manure for their crop.

We have been going to these villages traditionally and there is an understanding that one family will not encroach on another’s territory. In my memory such cases have been rare, but whenever they have happened the community has taken severe action against the erring family.

This description is from a Dhangarwada of Sakharam Lakde and his yearly transhumance to the west coast. This practice has been a hallmark of sheep pastoralists of the semi-arid plateau, and it involves the communally owned and operated pasture lands. The method of dispersal and the even distribution of the pastures has taken care of the sustainability of the pasture land.

Enthoven in his observations has listed 22 endogamous and 108 exogamous groups of Dhangars (Enthoven 1920:311). Enthoven, precise in his calculations, noted that there were 467,622 Dhangars in all and that they were found ‘all over Deccan, Konkan and the Southern Maratha country’ (ibid.). Six decades later, Irawati Karve in her observations recorded that the Dhangars were found in what is today known as ‘Madhya Maharashtra’ (Karve 1968:20). Kailash Malhotra in his most recent findings notes that the estimated population of Dhangars is nearly three million, and these people are spread over all the twenty-six districts of Maharashtra (Malhotra 1984:298). He further notes the major occupation of the Dhangar caste cluster. According to his figures, sheep-rearing Hatkars, Ahirs, Thellari, sheep-rearing and wool and blanket weaving Khutekasrs and Kannade, blanket weaving Sangars, buffalo-rearing Dange, and the meat-selling Khatiks occupy a predominant position over other castes. Compared with these communities the Nikhar, Ladshe, Hande, Kurmar, Kannade, Telangi and others number only a few thousand, and obviously are a minor component of the Dhangar spectrum (for details see Malhotra 1978,1979,1979b,1980; Malhotra and Gadgil 1981). These figures also include cattle-keepers, and hence we may not get a clear picture of the sheep-keeping population of the area. But if we look at the Bombay Presidency gazetteers and compare the total with the post-Independence demographic chart, a significant correlation is established. The Hatkar Dhangars, according to the latter figures, are 573,000 in number and are found in the districts of Ahmednagar, Akola, Amravati, Aurangabad, Bhir, Buldhana, Dhulia, Jalgaon, Kolhapur, Nanded, Nasik, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Pune, Sangli, Satara, Sholapur, Wardha and Yeotmal. The estimate arrived at by Enthoven does not appear to be far-fetched.

Significantly, Malhotra also notes that ‘their main concentration, however, is in the semi-arid tract of central Maharashtra, which has a rainfall of 800 mm or less per year’ (Malhotra 1984:450-1). The district gazetteers come remarkably close to the figures mentioned above. Sontheimer’s observations, based on his field data, correspond with other observations. We can thus safely conclude that the sheep-keepers today, and since the time from which demographic data are available, are a major factor in the semi-arid zone.

There are certain other indicators in the data that suggest that the Hatkar Dhangars were not originally sheep-keepers and in fact are late entrants into the field. The Khillari Hatkars have been described as ‘land-holders, potters, messengers, house keepers, shepherds and money changers’ (DG Sholapur 1884:87). Captain Fitzgerald, as quoted by Syed Hussain, observes, ‘the general idea is that originally there were twelve tribes of Bargi-Dhangars who came from Hindustan, and the country around Hingoli was called Barahatti’ (cited by Sontheimer 1989:126; for original quote see Hussain 1920:248).

Lastly, it should be recorded that the list of the 22 endogamous and 108 exogamous groups of Dhangars, as provided by Enthoven, is not exhaustive. For instance, the Bargi Dhangars do not figure in the list because, according to Enthoven, they ‘claim to be Marathas and were perhaps Bargirs or the mounted troopers during the times of the Marathas’ (Enthoven, op cit. 311). But as Sontheimer has recorded, the Bargis could well have been the twelve tribes from the Bara-Hatti.

Thus today a significant proportion of the Dhangar population which is still engaged in pastoral practices consists of sheep-keepers of Madhya Pradesh.

The Gavlis and buffalo and cattle-keepers, who are also called Gavli-Dhangars, are located between 190 N to 130 N latitude, over 11 districts and 47 tehsils of the three states of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka (Malhotra 1984:450-1). In one significant observation, scholars have noticed that Gavlis lack any known genetic defence against malaria (Undevia et al. 1973) and thus seem to consciously avoid malarial tracts of the region mentioned above (Gadgil and Malhotra 1982).

The high-rainfall tract occupied by the Gavlis lies beyond the ‘intersect’ and the Maval and to the west of the semi-arid zone. The environmental conditions of the Western Ghats are conducive to buffalo herding. Over this Western Ghat range the Gavlis are variously known as Gavli-Dhangars, Mhaske-Dhangars, Dange-Dhangars and Gollas. But since they are a single homogeneous group they will be designated as Gavlis throughout this work.

Apart from these two major pastoral groups that occupy the semi-arid zone and the Western Ghats today, there are a few other groups that exist outside this area. We get references to minor pastoralists from Chandrapur, Wardha, Amravati and Nagpur districts, areas of relatively stable rainfall. This area does not form the central focus of this study, nevertheless a brief discussion is necessary before we move on to the other aspects of the pastoral landscape of the Western Ghats and the semi-arid zone.

The Gopals have been equated with the Gollas (Gavlis) by Enthoven. They are a ‘wandering tribe of cattle owners and beggars’ who appear to have originated from a group of children offered to the gods by several other tribes. The Gopals apparently are derived from Marathas, Kunbis, Dhangars, Kasars, Sonaris, Salids, Vanjaras and Mahars. They divide themselves into five subdivisions. These are: Maratha Gopal, Vir Gopal, Pangul Gopal, Pahalvan Gopal and Gurathi Gopal. These people subsist primarily on milk and milk products and are located in the north-eastern corner of the state of Maharashtra.

The Govaris are the cattle-herders of Vidarbha and the adjoining areas. They are largely distributed in the Bhandara, Amravati and Gadchiroli districts. Their population in this region has roughly been calculated at one hundred thousand. Though they are traditionally cattle-herders, they have diversified into agriculture and many are also wage labourers, (Census 1931:88-9; 286-91; 332-88).

The Nandiwalas are a non-pastoral nomadic community located in the Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Nasik and Pune districts of Maharashtra. Their largest concentration is to be found in the district of Ahmednagar. Their traditional occupation is the display of Nandi (the bull) in villages, though this does not rule out a plausible link between them and the pastoralists in the recent or distant past.

The Nandiwalas divide themselves into three groups: Tirmal Nandiwalas, Fulmani Nandiwalas and Devwallas. An ethnographic survey (1982) carried out amongst them indicates that the migration of Tirmal Nandiwalas took place some 800 years ago from the present state of Andhra Pradesh. The Fulmani Nandiwalas migrated a couple of centuries ago. The Nandiwalas are also engaged in the buffalo trade, and this becomes interesting in the light of the entire spectrum of trade and nomads in the past.

The Golkars and Yadav Gaulis are two other groups found in the Gadchiroli district and the Achalour taluka of Amravati district. They are traditional breeders and herders of cattle.

Though the groups mentioned above are roughly scattered over a stable rainfall zone and are marginal to this study, nevertheless they are important to understand the spatial dimension of pastoralism.

The subsistence of any pastoral group depends on the primary herd animal on which it has based its herd system. The requirements of the primary herd animal in turn determine the use of echo-niches, pattern of migration and the necessity of interaction with the other subsistence systems.

The choice of the primary herd animal is determined by environmental and biological considerations. This is not to deny the role of political, economic and cultural factors in the choice of herd composition. For instance, as Lattimore has so cogently argued, the expansion of a dominant and exploitative Chinese civilisation caused a decisive shift on the frontiers of China, where mobile herding became an act of resistance, even freedom (Lattimore 1989; Krader 1957; Sahlins 1936). Though a general applications of Lattimore’s leitmotif is problematic, it still is an important argument: pastoral systems may not develop just because the echo-niche already exists, there might be other political and cultural reasons. We also have the example of the Bedouins of Arabia, who keep horses because they are prestigious, though they are quite unsuited to the environment.

But so far as primary herd animals are concerned, it appears that their choice is necessarily dependent on eco-factors. As Stauffer has argued, the number of sheep and goats maintained by the nomads may also depend upon the distance between markets and pastoral settlements (1965:292). So along with the environmental context as a major factor, a number of other variables operate in the determination of the species composition of a herd.

Sheep, goats, cattle, buffaloes and horses (as pack animals) are the primary herd animals that constitute the herd system. A brief discussion on the nature of these species is required before we turn to other aspects of pastoralism.

The domestic sheep can tolerate a complete lack of shade and scarcity of water but cannot tolerate slushy conditions. The semi-arid tracts of Maharashtra offer the optimum habitat for shepherds. Below is a table indicating the number of sheep which the entire semi-arid zone holds.

Pune 320030 325467
Satara 271257  
Ahmednagar 228888 501263
Sangli 227954  
Sholapur 192139  
Nasik 132410 349490
Kolhapur 108075  
Osmanabad 76411  

The Hatkar Dhangars, with an estimated population of 573,000, are distributed in the 19 districts of Maharashtra; their major concentration is in the semi-arid tracts of central Maharashtra, which has a rainfall of not more than 750 mm.

The location of the present-day camp-sites of the Hatkar Dhangars is within an imaginary box beyond a vertical line that connects Junnar in the north to Ajra in the south. The north-eastern boundary is delimited by the Ahmednagar plateau and is sharply demarcated in the south by the Mahadeo range and the Khanapur-Jath plateau. The eastern boundary of this box can be stretched to Osmanabad, where the semi-arid tract rainfall gives way to more stable rainfall. In the area defined above, we basically come across two types of Hatkar Dhangar settlements:

  1. The majority are now are located at the edges of villages. Here we find that most of the Dhangars have taken to agriculture and animal husbandry and have more or less given up pastoral nomadism (by pastoral nomadism we mean a distinct economic activity where the majority of the population is engaged in herding. See Khazanov 1984).

  2. Some settlements are away from villages. Fully nomadic Hatkar Dhangars inhabit these settlements and wear a red turban to distinguish themselves from their sedentary neighbours.

Ethnographic enquiries have revealed that the optimum size of a band of mono-clan Hatkar Dhangars consists of about 20 household units, and each household is composed of 5 or 6 persons (Malhotra 1984:452; Sontheimer 1975:139 ff.). The shepherds reports that they require a minimum of 100 sheep to maintain a family of 5 or 6 persons. This figure is interesting and may help us in throwing light on the biomass of the flock vis-a-vis the area.

The most important seasonal movement of the Hatkar Dhangar clans takes places at the end of the monsoon season. The sheep-keepers are forced to vacate their seasonal monsoonal settlements in the semi-arid zone by October-November (Ashvin-Karttik) and have to migrate to Konkan. They return by June-July, the entire cycle of migration being shaped by the onset and the withdrawal of the monsoon.

The migration route will be analysed in a different context in the next sub-section. Here we will discuss the actual route and the distances covered. The discussion is primarily based on observations made by people in the field over a couple of decades. All the routes discussed below are subject to change. Primarily Dhangars take the following routes to the Konkan:

  1. Settlements in the vicinity of the area from Jejuri to Phaltan in the Upper Karha Valley start from beyond Jejuri and follow the route linking Jejuri-Saswad-Hadapsar-Chinchwad-Dehuraod-Talegaon-Khumset-Lonavala (Bhor-ghat)-Khopali to Roha Taluka of Kulaba District.

  2. Another route frequented by the Dhangars links Phaltan with Mahad through Vadale-Phaltan-Kalaj-Lonand-Bhade-Sirkhimvadi-Rajwadi-Bhor-Manjari (Varandha pass).

  3. Settlements near Gulunce and Baramati take the Bhade-Jejuri-Hadapsar-Kothrud route to Pauna valley and stop and spread out near Paud.

  4. Settlements forming an arc from Dahiwadi-Mhasawad-Pandharpur follow the Diwad-Khatav-Khamgaon-Kuroli route to Satara and then through the Bamnoli pass to the west coast.

  5. Settlements hugging the edge of Maval in the south near Pattankodoli in Kolhapur district go towards Arewadi in Osmanabad district.

The settlements that do not cross into Konkan stop at the Junnar-Pune-Satara-Karhad-Kolhapur axis, the heartland of Maval. As noted elsewhere, all the Dhangar groups do not cross Maval. One of the main reasons for this seems to be opposition from the sedentary population. Recently one group from Phaltan has started going towards Marathwada for the same reason (personal communication). This partly explains the existence of a Dhangar worship centre at Bahadurwadi, to the west of Kolhapur in Maval.

The migration route generally follows an east-west direction from the semi-arid zone. The migrations are uninterrupted and last for 15-20 days. There is no interaction between the villagers and the nomads during the actual period of migration.

Migration Route: Crop Zones

The Dhangars’ seasonal camp-sites are located in an area that is characterised by dry mixed deciduous and thorny forests. Scanty, precarious and often unreliable rainfall supports vegetation of thorn forest, dominated by Acacia catechu and Acacia tundra. The migration route takes the Dhangars to the semi-evergreen and monsoonal evergreen forest formations of the Western Ghats.

Bajra (Holsus spicatus) is the leading crop of the scarcity zone. The reasons for this are not far to seek. This crop can be grown on inferior soils and does not require much watering. It is sown by the end of June and is harvested by October. This entire area is the slowly undulating wild plateau tract supporting a thin millet cultivation here and there. I would, with many others (Sontheimer 1975), like to imagine that the Sangam poets could have found another ‘Mullai’ in the Deccan, but without jasmine creepers, though! (Mullai is the pasture land among the five landscapes (see Zvelebil 1975:1982)).

The migration route crosses the 74o longitudinal line into Maval proper, which also marks the crop transition from rabi to kharif. Jowar-paddy-maize-bajra are the leading crops of Maval. Kharif jowar and paddy are sown in June-July and ready for harvesting by November. Today the extension of irrigation has facilitated a second rabi crop.

The migration route terminates in Konkan, an area predominantly under paddy cultivation. Paddy here is complemented by a coconut-mango-nachani combination.

Stay in Konkan

The Dhangars on an average spend 7 to 8 months in the Maval and Konkan. In Konkan the settlement splits into its nuclear components after the summer pastures are reached. The fields in Konkan are smaller than their counterparts on the plateau, and thus 80-100 sheep are adequate for penning in one field. In exchange for sheep manure the Dhangars receive rice, which is transported back to the plateau. The Dhangars primarily subsist on ragi (Elusine corocana) while they are in Konkan.

The families of agriculturalists and the fields where the sheep are penned have ties. One informant divulged that these ties go back at least four generations, and this was confirmed by the agriculturalists from the plateau.

The sheep are moved to various villages in what can be termed a local migration. The requirement of manure is usually felt after the harvesting of kharif paddy, not before March, in Konkan, when the operations for the kharif crop begin.

The Return

The Dhangars vacate Konkan with unusual alacrity at the onset of the monsoon. The sheep cannot tolerate slushy conditions, and they therefore have to keep ahead of the ferocious downpour in Konkan and on the ghats. But the Dhangars tend to spend some more time in Maval, where sometimes the resources of 3-4 settlements are mobilised to provide manure for the larger fields. At times 2,000 to 3,000 sheep are penned in the fields. The return to the seasonal monsoon camp is conditioned as much by the monsoon as by the requirement of the agricultural system. The sheep finally return to the summer camps at the end of June or the beginning of July, i.e., Ashadh.


We are attaching a chart which explains this entire migration circuit, manure requirement and the seasonality of crops.

  1. The Dhangar migration circuit and the cropping cycle reveals that no manure is required by the sedentary agricultural population in October-November. No exchange between the two subsistence systems take place.

  2. Not only is no manure exchanged, but the Dhangars have to avoid the fields, for the kharif crops are still standing and the rabi preparations are still at least a month away.

  3. The requirement for sheep manure is intense in Konkan by March, when the usual preparation for the kharif crop begin. Similarly, the rabi jowar is harvested by March in Maval and kharif operation begin there by April.

  4. This means that between the months of November-December and March-May there is a demand for manure by the agricultural system.

  5. After May, the sheep-keepers becomes foreign elements and thus find it difficult to manage decent pasture land for their sheep.

  6. It is quite surprising to note that clarified butter, meat and blood, major items of exchange elsewhere (Barth 1962; Swift 1977) are not major items of exchange in the Dhangar scheme of things. Sheep manure, on the other hand, is extremely valuable.

The key to this seemingly symbiotic relationship lies in the exchange network based on sheep manure. This relationship, given the pulls on each side, is held together because of the mutuality involved.

The possible tension point that emerges out of this complex web of relationships is the foundation of the system itself. Given the tendency of sheep to move into standing crops or tended fields, and of nomads to encourage it on one side, and a fear on the part of agriculturalists that the nomads can and may refuse sheep manure or drive a hard bargain, a precarious balance is deliberately maintained.

This tension reflects itself in yet another significant way. Ethnographic accounts suggest that the migration to Konkan is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that the earlier circuit extended only up to Maval (Sontheimer 1975:161). This excursion into Konkan is perhaps due to the increasing pressure of the expansion of agriculture and resistance of the sedentary agriculturalists to have the nomads in their fields. Though it is clear that with the spread of irrigation the ‘sedentists’ will gain the upper hand in the mixed agro-pastoral economy, but earlier the situation would have been different. In a situation where agriculture itself is confined to pockets, the pastoralists would play a critical role in maintaining the system, with the supply of manure as the crucial variable in the relationship.

The symbiosis between the two subsistence systems is thus fraught with tension. We have not come across any explicit points of tension but there are indicators, like the extension of the circuit itself. This symbiosis, we suspect, is a modus vivendi guided not just by economic considerations but more by the correlation of forces ranged on each side. The complexity occurs also because of the various econiches that are utilised by other groups that intrude in the migration circuit.

Lastly, the circuit and the general movement from east to west and back are indicators of the movements of the pastoralists in the past, thus establishing the ‘commons’ in history.

The tragedy of the commons argues that the use of common property resources inevitably leads to the degradation of these resources. There have been powerful arguments in favour of the tragedy of the commons. These arguments have been used to justify the deprivation of the CPRs to the hunter-gatherers and the pastoralists, the two communities who have nursed these resources over thousands of years and continue to do so.

In this context the degradation of the CPRs cannot be attributed to their use by the Warlis (in the case of the forests) and the Dhangars (in the case of pasture lands). The degradation of the CPRs in both cases is in fact attributable to commercial interests and the greed of market forces. The answer therefore does not lie in depriving these communities of their traditional rights on the CPRs but in taking a hard look at modern development processes.


Barth, F., 1969, The Basseri of South Persia. London.

Bombay, 1884, Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Thane.

Enthoven, R.E., 1920, Tribes and castes of Bombay Presidency. Bombay.

Elwin, Verrier, 1939, The Baiga. London.

Furer-Haimendorf, C. von, 1943, The Chenchus: jungle folk of the Deccan. London.

Gadgil, M. and R. Guha, 1992, This fissured land. New Delhi.

Hardin, G., 1968, ‘The tragedy of the commons’. Science, 162

Joshi, M., comp., 1974, Sanskriti Kosa, Vol 8, Bombay.

Karve, Irawati, 1969, Maharashtra, land and people. Bombay.

Krader, L., n.d., ‘Culture and environment in interior Asia’, In Studies in human ecology, social science monograph. Washington.

Lattimore, Owen, 1989, Inner Asian frontiers of China. Oxford University Press.

Malhotra, K., 1978, ‘Natural selection and colour blindness: fresh data on Indian castes’, In Genetic research, 31.

———, 1980a, ‘Inbreeding among the four Dhangar castes of Maharashtra. India’. Collegium anthropoloquium, 3

———, 1980b, ‘Matrimonial distances among four Dhangar castes of Maharashtra’, South Asian Anthropology, 1

———, 1984, ‘Population structure among the Dhangar caste cluster of Maharashtra’. In J.R. Lukacs, (ed.), The People of South Asia.

Malhotra, K. and M. Gadgil, ‘The ecological basis of the geographical distribution’, In People of South Asia.

McCay, B. and J. Acheson, 1990, ‘Human ecology of the commons’, In B. McCay and J. Acheson, (eds.), 1990, The Question of the Commons. Arizona.

Sahlins, M., 1963, Tribesmen. Englewood Cliffs

———, 1971, Stone age economics. Chicago.

Sontheimer, G.D., 1975, ‘The Dhangars’, In L.S. Leshnik and G.D. Sontheimer, (eds.), Nomads and pastoralists in South Asia. Wiesbaden.

———, 1989, The pastoral deities of western India. New York.

Undevia, J.V. et al., 1973, ‘G-6 PD deficiency and abnormal haemoglobin among the Dhangars of Maharashtra’. Proceedings of the Conference of Indian Physicians. Udaipur. 1973. Abstract No. 41.


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi