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Friday, October 7, 2022

Pardhi Tribe: Tiger Hunters Turned Tiger Warriors

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Pardhi Tribe

Till recent past Pardhis were stigmatized for being a notorious tribe, responsible for the depleting tiger population in many forests in India, one of them being Panna Tiger Reserve, and hence are looked down upon with suspicion. Living with a stigma of distrust has been very challenging for them. Having worked with the Pardhis in Panna (for their reformation), gave me an opportunity to delve into their daily lives and know them very closely. Pardhis are some of the warmest people I’ve met.

Panna is known as a land of temples, lakes, diamonds, and stunning landscapes with gorgeous gorges that define its wilderness, attracting visitors to this 543 sq. kms. reserve for its incredible wildlife. To add to its richness, the Pardhi tribe – the community who knows how to track animals (from hyenas to snakes, bears and monkeys, tigers and leopards) like no other, are the other treasure of this spectacular reserve. If anyone can navigate this landscape, it’s these experts. 

Who are the Pardhis?

Pardhis are nomads, scattered over a wide area in central India i.e., Madhya Pradesh, parts of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the south. They are rather unusual people in comparison to the other tribes in the region. Well, some also feel they are the descendants of the Rajputs – belonging to the royal family. Because of their refusal to become a part of the caste system, they are a predominantly isolated group. They migrate from one forest to another in search of livelihood. Being a nomadic community, children are therefore forced to tag along with parents and are thus deprived of being educated. The word Pardhi is derived from the marathi word Paradh, meaning hunting.

Once upon a time Pardhis were highly skilled hunters known for their impeccable acumen. In 1871 the British colonial officials labelled them a ‘criminal tribe’ due to their outlawed existence. Despite this humiliation, Pardhis were regularly exploited for their tracking skills to help the English men’s trophy-hunt game. They exiled the Pardhis from the mainstream Indian society throughout history. However, the tribe was finally denotified of this label in 1952. But the persecution and stigma has been etched painfully and too deeply in their mindset, difficult to change. 

By 2009, Panna Tiger Reserve faced extinction of tigers owing to the Pardhi community’s activities inside the forest. It was then that the Panna Forest department took stringent actions and resettled approx. 50 Pardhi families outside the tiger reserve. The brilliant idea of building hostels for Pardhi boys and girls made a notable change. This initiative was primarily to dissuade the younger generation from hunting and to live a dignified life in the society.

Convinced by the forest dept., Baatal Pardhi (fondly known as Batal bhaiyya) was the first to give up hunting and opted for a dignified way of life.  He along with his wife Mahila bai, have been pioneers in convincing and changing the mindset of their community members to give up hunting. Their sheer dedication and persistent efforts over the years have won them ‘Change makers of the society’ award, a lifetime wildlife award from Sanctuary magazine. Today, one will find Pardhis settled in villages and are no more nomads.

Due to the continuous and relentless efforts by the Panna Forest Department and NGOs like Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF) working for the reformation of the Pardhis, there has been a remarkable change in the attitude of the community members. The adults and also the children are keen in joining mainstream society with regard to education and extra- curricular activities. Pardhi children are now studying well in schools. Not just academics, but some have shown exemplary performance in sports such as kabaddi which have won them many awards. 

Over a decade of untiring efforts have started bearing fruits. One can now find Pardhi youth helping the village kids in their academics, few in college pursing a degree course in agriculture, young men and women learning to drive 4 wheelers, few driving e-rickshaws to earn a source of income. 

The masters of mimicry!

Having spent their lives in many forests across the country, Pardhis are not only experts at mimicking the call of different birds and animals, but are also a treasure house of the flora and fauna and the denizens of the jungles, unparalleled to any other. On one of the trails that I went to, I witnessed the mimicking of the leopard call, the francolin and other birds by one of the older Pardhi members. He stated that the leopard is the most elusive and cleverest animal from the cat family and that it’s very difficult to track this cat. Pardhis can roar like a leopard, bark like a wolf, screech like a monkey, and mimic the magnificent bird calls of the peacock and peahen and many more.

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Pardhi Tribe

All these years Pardhis made a living through foraging and hunting animals and birds, something they are no longer permitted to do in the forests. However, to keep their traditional skill sets thriving, their impeccable knowledge of the forests, along with the acquired skills of tracking and mimicking the birds and animals and help in preservation of their culture, all this was put to use by the Forest Department along with LWF. This was a great opportunity to provide the Pardhis with a source of livelihood wherein their skill sets (tracking abilities) will be used to earn them their source of income. A win-win situation for all! The forests are saved, the wildlife preserved, the Pardhis earning and living a dignified life. 

‘Walk with the Pardhis’ is an initiative undertaken by LWF with Taj Safaris and Panna Forest Department. This is an experiential walk in the wilderness with the people of the forest i.e. the Pardhis, who are trained to lead a nature trail for tourists in designated trails in Panna. You’ll be fascinated to listen to their amazing jungle stories while stumbling upon pug marks or listen to them mimic the partridge.

Pardhis – the creative one!

Intricately carved beads purely by hand and with the help of a knife is another skill which this community possesses. With great precision they can carve a barking deer, spotted deer, pangolin and pugmarks and a tribal tiger on dried fruits. The bead carvings apart, they also carve beautiful teetar whistles from the bark of a Tendu or Khair tree which can be worn as a pendant or wildlife collectible. (In earlier times, a teetar whistle was worn and used by the Pardhis to lure the francolins, said to depict the call of the bird impeccably). 

Indeed, a remarkable U-turn! Once tiger hunters are now tiger warriors. 

To meet the “Paw-fect” Pardhis, don’t miss your ‘Walk with the Pardhis’ while in Panna.

This blog is contributed by Roshni D’ Souza.

Know About Roshni

Roshni is from Mumbai. Though a city girl, she generally spends her time with the tribes in India, understanding them and also writing about them.

She has a corporate experience of 12 years. Currently, she primarily works with NGOs in wildlife conservation,rural empowerment, education in village schools and youth rural development.

Know more about Roshni in the link below

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