Bhuj, Gujarat: Many years back, when Kutch was reeling under drought, the villagers in Salim mama’s village in Banni--Asia’s biggest open grassland--began migrating in search of a more hospitable place. But Salim mama, a Bhagiya, or local expert that the largely pastoral community often sought counsel from for diseases afflicting their animals, or the weather, refused to join the others. His buffalo, he said, was not yet in distress and it was a sign that things would turn. True to his word, the rains came a week thereafter, rejuvenating the grassland and bringing its people and animals back home.

The people of Banni have many such stories of Bhagiyas which they have either experienced first-hand or have heard from elder family members. “If our animal falls ill, we call the Bhagiya--that is how it has always been,” said Samir Mohammad, a Maldhari, or pastoralist, who has 10 buffaloes. “A Bhagiya’s knowledge about animals and plants is vast. He knows which plant can help cure which disease. Over the years, we have started consulting the veterinary doctor too but there are times the Bhagiya has been able to perform, for instance, a complicated delivery of a buffalo when even the vet has given up.”

This repository of traditional knowledge, or Indigenous Technical Knowledge (ITK), is however on a steady decline. Salim mama, for example, is no more. And with him disappeared all the traditional knowledge that was passed on to him by his father, and to him by his grandfather, and so on, down the generations. There is no written record--it’s all oral history.

The science behind ancient wisdom

One of the few attempts at documenting this knowledge was by Sahjeevan, an NGO that works in the region. According to its report published in 2011, there are 337 treatments practised by traditional healers for 39 diseases affecting animals, using 35 native species of plants and herbs in Banni. The report further elaborates which plant is used for which disease, with a separate column on its ‘validation by veterinary science’.

For instance, boiling a stick of the native Desi Baval (Acacia nilotica) tree and rubbing it on the affected part is said to cure arthritis in animals. In veterinary science, the report said, this plant has anti-inflammatory properties. Similarly, grinding the bark of a local shrub, Kerad (Capparis decidua) and putting this on the affected part can treat maggot wounds. In veterinary science, Kerad has astringent properties.

A study on the traditional knowledge system of nomadic herders in Eritrea by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that it is a mistake to think of indigenous knowledge as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘static’. “Such knowledge evolves in situ so that it is specifically adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. It is creative and experimental…to meet new conditions.”

Bhagiyas: a part of Banni’s culture

In Banni, Bhagiyas also have a deep understanding of different animal breeds. Isa bhai Muttwa, coordinator of the Banni Breeders Association, said, “Bhagiyas can tell the purity of the breed of an animal just by taking a look. This is why they are an integral part during the sale of an animal.”

The sale of an animal is like a ritual: The seller’s and the Bhagiya’s hands are first covered by a handkerchief, beneath which the seller indicates the price he seeks with a show of fingers. Then the buyer indicates to the Bhagiya the price he is willing to pay in the same way, under a handkerchief. The negotiation therefore remains discreet, with the Bhagiya as the intermediary whose knowledge is taken into account to decide the price.

“Bhagiyas also help in selective breeding of animals,” Muttwa further said, “This helps in maintaining the purity of the breed.” This is important, both in terms of getting a good price for the animal as well as to ensure that it thrives in this region. The Banni buffalo, which was officially recognised as a distinct breed in 2010, for instance, is known for its high milk productivity, can walk long distances in drought, is resistant to many diseases and can tolerate extreme conditions.

Vijay Kumar, director of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE), said that most of what Bhagiyas counsel has a scientific explanation. “About 15 years back there was a Bhagiya here who could predict the weather by observing the tide and the colour of the sea. His accuracy was almost always 100%. Later he admitted that he could no longer predict so accurately because there are climatic changes--this in itself says a lot about their deep knowledge about the environment,” Kumar told IndiaSpend.

Slowly disappearing traditional knowledge

A 2004 study published in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge says ‘sporadic attempts’ have been made to document traditional knowledge in Gujarat and it has mainly been restricted to ethnobotany. “The rights over any bio wealth of a country can be proved only by proper documentation,” the study said, mentioning issues over patent and intellectual property rights.

GUIDE had, for instance, in 2010, published an ethnobotanical study to document knowledge of medicinal plants by the local community in Bhuj for its “long-term existence and wider use by the society”.

K. A. Vasava, Additional Director of the Animal Husbandry department in the Gujarat state government, said that there have been no “direct engagement” with Bhagiyas in preserving or documenting their traditional knowledge. “We support activities of NGOs like Sahjeevan which is working in this field. So there is indirect engagement.”

In this context, therefore, the slow disappearance of oral history and traditional knowledge of Bhagiyas holds significance. Imran Muttwa, who works as a cluster coordinator with Sahjeevan and is also a community member in Banni, said that the number of experienced, well-regarded Bhagiyas is on the wane. “There are now probably five or six such old-school Bhagiyas left in Banni today,” he said.

Banni has 19 village panchayats and it is not necessary that each panchayat would have one such traditional healer. “There are others (Bhagiyas), but not with the same degree of knowledge, mostly because of lack of interest among the younger generation to carry on this tradition.”

Among the few remaining, well-regarded Bhagiyas is 60-year-old Haji Gul Mohammad of Erandawali village in the Hodko Panchayat whose counsel is sought not just by Maldharis in Banni, but also by those in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. His knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants in particular is said to be exceptional. For instance, Gul Mohammad can identify about 56 types of grass that grow in Banni, and their respective specialities.

“I can tell which grass will help increase milk productivity in a buffalo, or which grass will grow in saline land. I have seen and learnt all this from my father. And also by experience, because I have always had an interest to learn,” he told IndiaSpend. “When I was young, even if an animal was dead and stinking, I would be curious to find out the reason behind its death. My elder son and my nephew are now learning this knowledge from me, but I don’t see the same passion among the youngsters like some of us had.”

The waning interest is evident in 60-year-old Bhim Khan’s family too. A resident of Aadhiang village, Khan is a Bhagiya--and so is his younger brother, 55-year-old Jarar Haji Majid Muttwa. But apart from Khan’s elder son, none of the other children of the four brothers and three sisters in the family are keen on taking this tradition forward. “The other children are working as drivers or doing other work,” he said.

Being a Bhagiya does not provide economic support--they counsel people free of cost because it is a “special gift of God” which they believe must be shared, said Khan. For a living, Bhagiyas, like the rest of the pastoralists, depend on their livestock.

Three years back, Sahjeevan initiated a University Grants Commission-certified course for young pastoralists to learn the science behind the various intricacies of pastoralism as well as traditional knowledge of their elders. “It is a 300-hour course with 12 modules. Students learn about ecology, insects, soil and climate change,” said Kavita Mehta, the interim executive director of Sahjeevan. They also have field visits to interact with village elders to understand the significance of traditional knowledge. Until now, two batches of 50 students have completed this course successfully.

As part of the course, Bhagiya Haji Gul Mohammad has taken a session with the students. “I tried to teach them what I know but it is on them to ultimately carry this knowledge further.”

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