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  • Writer's pictureMahima Thakur

Nila Yatra: An immersive journey into the life and culture around an endangered river called Nila

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

From the start of time society have derived their culture, tradition and practices from nature. Nature is what sustains and regenerates life. A river which may be technically presumed as only a water body, if understood scientifically is the source of life forms. Traditional society respects nature, as it knows that it is what we are dependent upon.

The story of river Nila is quite similar to many rivers in India. But what this Yatra gives us is it’s not only a river that is dying. It’s the art, culture, music, dance, theatre, livelihood, professional self-sustaining skills, marine species, plants, and lives of people which are lost with the river. What difference does it make to lose out rivers for humans, of course for people who are lost in material wealth and western development, losing a river may only be a compromise for the larger goal of so called development of society. But what we need to understand is the balance Nature requires to let humans be alive. The earth shall not collapse, but humans would, and like dinosaurs, we will only be known as a species that existed in the past which used the brain too much with respect to the body and destroyed themselves.

The Yatra started on 19th October 2019 from a farmhouse called Farmer’s Share at Shornur, Kerala. Connections and fun are the most important elements of a learning journey which not only facilitates the learning but also keeps the process lively and exciting. The first day was about bonding with the group and settling down. There is something about each group and there is always that one element that brings us together. For adults here, slowing down in life was one thread that all of us held. We walked to river Nila in the evening.

Is rochak safar ki ek sham Hamari is nadi se mulakaat Nila nadi ki khubsurti Aur aas paas ki Faili hui prakritik chaadar Mohit kar rahi thi Sham ki roshni Kuch ajeeb si shanti Kuch ajeeb sa sukoon Chu gaya mujhe Is mehkti sham me

Vayali group, which has coordinated this Yatra with Traveller’s University, is involved in preserving the roots. Connected together since 2004, they started with the idea of providing platforms to local arts and crafts, but has extended to preserving the culture through different means and also working for the conservation of river Nila.

We met with bell metal craft artist, puppet artists, handloom weavers, potter men, an artist who makes toys out of tender coconut leaves, grass mat weavers, bamboo basket weavers, fishermen and others which were dependent on the river for their livelihood directly or indirectly. Most of them used resources available around the river which are now owned by the Government. For example, the bell metal craft artist and pottery person require clay from the river bed for which they have to pay now. The cost of traditional arts has increased due to the ownership of resources by the State rather the inhabitants who need it. The young generation is unwilling to take these art forms forward due to the low remuneration and also the lack of respect of these communities in the globalised outlook. Young individuals have lost their connection with nature, and hands-on activities. Only economic standing is respected in today’s world.

Globalised products have taken over hand made products and are way cheaper. The quality of consumption and its environmental impact is disregarded, which these artisans have kept alive in tough times and yet we see it all dying today. Most of these communities also have to go and work in factories or as daily wage labourers in cities at times when there is not enough income generation from the art or handicraft. The Kerala Government and groups like Vayali have emerged to support them it is not for long that this may go on.

There was a great sense of satisfaction in seeing communities lead their lives close to family and nature in a traditional manner. There is self-respect and autonomy which they refuse to trade for money. A handloom worker said he wants to live with his family, take care of his elders and children, work together and lead their life with whatever amount it generates, rather than working in the power loom industry staying away from his family. That they value togetherness of the family rather than material benefits. Their dreams are not money centric as they believe that there is a life beyond it. In all these arts there is also hands-on work and creative element which itself is meditative and greatly satisfying. The grass mat weavers told us how immersive it was to keep doing this work for the whole day.

We got the opportunity to watch a puppet show, which as a north Indian I had never even heard of. A community which has been in the puppet art for generations and uses puppets made of goat, buffalo and deer skin. Such puppets are of intricate details and are painted with natural colours. The family that we met had 4 to 500 years old puppets used to depict the story of Ramayana. This community came a few hundred years ago from Andhra Pradesh and settled in this part of the country. They only performed Ramayana in Bhadrakali temple for months. A story associated with the tradition is of Lord Shiva who wanted to tell his daughter Bhadrakali the story of Rama, which is why in these Bhadrakali temples there is Ramayana depiction. The traditional puppets have serene mudras, which depict peace as their way of life even if they are involved in war at that point of time. The background of the screen was lit with oil lamps and they put some natural powder in lamps when they wanted to create fire effects. According to public interest in changing times they have begun to perform in various languages, various stories in various places.

Another interesting presentation that we came across was the performance by Vayali folklore group. They showed a Goddess Kali and Mahishasur story depiction in their traditional form and dressing. There were a lot of different songs and dances which were performed on different occasions like festivals or harvesting or marriage etc. They called us all and made us dance with them so many times.

Vayali bamboo music group was an altogether different group which made all of their instruments from bamboo only. They had 8-10 different kinds of instruments. A very special piece which stayed with almost all of us was the forest sounds that they made, which had sounds of different birds and water and what not! They got this idea from a Japanese music group and sparked up as why we can not utilise the vast availability of Bamboo varieties in Kerala.

On the last day of our journey, we went to Ponnani where Nila meets the Arabian sea. The merging of the sea and river takes us to a realization of how we all are a part of something larger than us and one day we also shed our individual existence and merge into nature seamlessly. During the ferry ride, as we felt the sea and the river we saw communities existing near the seashore. We also came to know how much the water level rose during the recent floods and last year. This part of the sea is not that deep and Miriam (one of the sahyatris) told us how they could know the depth of the sea by putting a long bamboo. Here we got a chance to have a conversation with a fisherman who changed his profession due to very fewer fishes available now. He also told that there was overfishing due to the increase in human population and greed. Overfishing has led to a decline in the fish population as fishermen have gone farther into the sea to get fishes and hence disturbed the number of fishes that can be regenerated. Now that they have to go even far to get fishes is further depleting the fish population.

We spent the evening at the beach when I let myself be touched by the sea water. As and when I met river Nila I felt something that was helping me flow. These communities which have existed along the river, have a connection with the river. Their childhood is spent playing in the river water and watching it travelling. The river that always keeps moving shows me the path to keep moving in life. These communities have courage and endurance like nature to bear with beauty and grace whatever has come across in life. In whatever tough circumstances they are we never found anyone of them crying on lamenting, they just said what it was like.

Believing that the universe is our learning space and exploring it through travel is the philosophy that guided the Yatra. To learn from society and nature, through experience and to think for ourselves as to what is right and wrong. How beautiful this world is and how corporations have taken the responsibility to burn it down. Where we stand and see what is happening and to wait and cry for what they did. The strongest lessons are those we draw for ourselves as compared to those which people tell us. It is saddening how this education system has almost killed our sense to learn through observation and experience, and to slow down and listen. There is shallowness of word and character due to disconnect from nature.

One must slow down to listen to the river. There is great lesson in the silence of this river. And if we miss out in life the opportunity to listen now the river would die, making millions collapse with it.

Ek safar pe nikli hai Nila Ek safar abhi bhi baaki hai Ek sire se duje sire me Milne ko behti hai Nila Jeevan ko saath bahati hai Sabhyata ninbhaati hai Nila Iske dam pesab jeevit hai Fir bhi ghamsehti hai Nila Hai to kuch maa ke jaisi hi Kayi rang chalkaati hai Nila.

Mahima is from Bhopal and is currently a Khoji at Swaraj University. She is interested in building alternatives in politics and mind-body healing processes.

P.S: The images used in this post are clicked by Aravind Gopinathan. Rights are accredited to the photographer.

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