Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Non-Literate Traditional Knowledge Systems with Special Reference to Himalayan
by D.P. Agrawal
For Shruti Seminar, IGNCA, New Delhi 19-23 November 2000
Countries with cultural continuity and ancient traditions have a rich legacy
of folk science and Traditional Knowledge Systems. Only in countries such as
North America and Australia, where the native populations have almost vanished,
has the continuity of folk traditions been disrupted. In Western nations with
large colonies in the Old World, such knowledge systems were looked down upon.
It is this prejudice which denies the importance of folk science and ridicules
it as superstition.
The so-called Western Sciences seldom realize that Traditional Knowledge Systems
preserve the wisdom gained through millennia of experience, direct observation,
and word of mouth. Development projects based on new technologies are pushing
these Traditional Knowledge Systems towards extinction. This traditional wisdom
of humankind needs to be preserved and used for our own survival. Emphasizing
the importance of Traditional Knowledge Systems, the United Nations University’s
proposal says, "Traditional knowledge or 'local knowledge' is a record
of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival
in often unfriendly environment. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical,
social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human
experiment of survival and development."
Traditional Knowledge Systems and Science
We find today that science and folk-knowledge are considered to be contrasting
categories. As pointed out by Nader (1996), the process of contrasting Western
Science with folk-knowledge systems extends to the demarcation of knowledge
systems in different categories of science/religion, rational/magical, and so
on. But we need to assert that these hegemonic categories imposed by Western
Science are contrived and artificial.
Our experts trained in the West go to non-literate cultures and assume that
they are 'knowledge blanks' which need to be filled with the knowledge of science
and technology. Our young development officers flaunt their 'scientific' knowledge
to the primitive rural/tribal people. But cultures are never 'blanks.' Ramkrishnan
(2000), the renowned ecologist, humbly admitted that the ecological management
practices used by the tribes of the northeastern states in India are far superior
to anything he could teach them. The plants, which the tribes cultivated and
gained benefits from, have now disappeared. He says that we are realizing
their importance and gradually documenting them. A good example in this regard
is the alder (Alnus nepalensis), which has been cultivated in the jhum
(shifting cultivation) fields by the Khonoma farmers in Nagaland for centuries.
It has multiple uses to the farmers as it is a nitrogen-fixing tree which helps
retain the soil’s fertility. Its leaves are used as fodder and fertilizer while
the trunk is utilized as timber.
But in the Kumaun and Garhwal region, the government has ignored traditional
knowledge. Where oak trees grew in abundance naturally, the state forest department
started cultivating pine trees for commercial exploitation of resin while completely
ignoring the traditional importance of oak trees. This act has disturbed the
ecosystem of the region.
Documentation of traditional knowledge requires close participatory research
with native communities, as they help in identifying and preserving traditional
knowledge in various ways. For example, there are certain trees and plants
such as the tulsi (Ocimun religiosum), which are considered sacred
and worshipped by the natives. The reason for this devotion may be that such
socially valued trees are of great use. As a result, they have been preserved
in the name of religion.
Let me briefly give some examples from Kumaun. There are numerous references
where the appearance of particular birds and the flowering blossoms of particular
plants are taken as markers of new seasons. The effects of the direction in
which wind blows are predicted by these people. Snowfall on wheat fields is
considered good for the crop. Accurate time is fixed through the observation
of stars. In the Nanda folklore (Anthu), the curses and blessings on
the pine and the oak are in fact descriptions of ecological properties of these
trees. Depending upon on which part of the tree - top, middle or bottom - the
crow makes its nest, the local folklore predicts the severity of the coming
winter snowfall. In the Kumauni folk medicine, the semen of a local fish (Schizothorax)
is used for leucoderma. The Defense Research Laboratory at Pithoragarh in Uttaranchal,
has developed some potent medicines for leucoderma by using traditional medicinal
herbs (Agrawal 1997).
Both copper and iron technologies in the Central Himalayas are very ancient.
Even today, Tamtas make copper jars and other objects. We have found ancient
remains of old copper workings. The discovery of anthropomorphs from the Pithoragarh
district indicates that this technology may go back to II millennium BC. The
rust-free iron pots and pans made by traditional ironsmiths of Kumaun were in
great demand until a few decades back. Copper smithy also has an old tradition
in Kumaun and is still popular although copper is now imported from the plains
(Agrawal & Kharakwal 1998; Atkinson 1980-81). We strongly feel that these
ancient folk technologies should be documented and used for ecology-sustainable
development of Uttaranchal.
The local shepherds travel for hundreds of kilometers in the hills and high
altitude meadows without ever getting lost. They could navigate through observing
stars. They also possessed the skill to calculate time. The whole territory
is in some way mapped in their brains and the geographical features which look
all similar to untrained eye became landmarks for them. These skills need to
be documented and understood.
Ancient Indian Geological Observations
There are numerous examples of accurate geological observations transmitted
through legends and myths. The geological history of the Kashmir Valley is
recorded in the Nilmata-Purana. Similarly, the braiding of the Satluj
is recorded in the story of Vashishta trying to commit suicide. The regression
of the sea (>20,000 yrs. BP) is recorded in the legend of Parashuram who
threw his parasu to push back the sea. Their models were personalized
but the observations were correct. In Nader's words, "The complimentarity
of the literal and the figurative help us to realize that the distinction between
myth and science is not structural, but procedural.... Myths in a broader, paradigmatic
sense are condensed expressions of root metaphors that reflect the genius of
particular knowledge traditions."
Traditional Knowledge Systems in the West
Ancient people in the Western hemisphere have similar folk knowledge traditions
as well. Reporting on the navigational skills of the atoll dwellers of western
Caribbean islands of Micronesia, Goodenough says, "Several things stand
out about Carolinian navigational knowledge. It has all the features of a practical
science. It contains a massive amount of discrete information, which, in the
absence of writing and reference books, has to be committed to memory. The
information is highly organized in a systematic way; the different ways of organizing
it provide much redundancy as an aid to recall. It involves highly abstract
thinking: the compass as a set of imaginary points at equal intervals around
the horizon, named for the stars and abstracted from their perceived motions,
but not identical with them; the use of 'drags' as imaginary divisions of one's
course of travel; the use of imaginary places as points of reference to calculate
'drags'; and schematic mapping in the form of 'trigger fish'" (in Nader
The same Polynesians have taught marine biologists the biology of fish populations.
Johannes says, "The native fisherman searches with his eyes and ears and
he is... more in touch with his prey and their surroundings than his modern,
mechanized counterpart." Johannes admitted that he had "gained more
new (to marine science) information during sixteen months of fieldwork... than...
during the previous fifteen years". He explains, "This is because
of my access to a store of unrecorded knowledge gathered by highly motivated
observers over a period of centuries (in Nader 1996)."
Bielawski finds that the most significant difference between the Western Arctic
and the Inuit sciences is that in the latter systems, humans are placed in the
space of nature and are inseparable from nature. One has to remember that the
Inuit knowledge is formed through 'doing', 'hearing' and 'seeing' - all interactive
and personalized forms of knowledge transmission.
Even if we compare the Traditional Knowledge Systems with modern science, we
see that the former knowledge systems can also be very demanding on human mental
faculties. Folk knowledge was generated through millennia of hands-on experimentation,
observation, and trial and error methods, all the while being a more eco-friendly
system of knowledge, in which humans are part of nature. As a result, in this
system, there is no exploitation of nature but a symbiotic relationship with
India is replete with a variety of folklore and traditional knowledge systems.
Perhaps they are better preserved in the isolation of the Himalayan region.
These knowledge systems need to be studied, documented, preserved, and used
for the benefit of humankind before they are lost due to the onslaught of western
science and development projects based on them. Especially, for eco-friendly
and sustainable development of Uttaranchal, these Traditional Knowledge Systems
would prove very valuable. As far as I know, except in ethnobotany, tribal
iron technology and water harvesting, not much work has been done to study folk
knowledge systems in India.
We are not trying to idealize folk science. Undoubtedly, humans have learnt
and evolved with time. But so-called science should not silence and kill these
ancient knowledge systems. Nader reminds us, "We need not idealize non-Western
science to make the point that there are different types of knowledge that provide
valid truths of use to human kind. If a dominant science silences that knowledge,
we all lose."
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college post-Graduate & Research Institute, 49: 41-42.
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