The monkey hunters: The story of Goa’s Vanarmare tribe

How an attack on a small tribe in western India brought attention to a people whose rights had long been denied.

Indigenous/Rosemary Marandi
Gopal shows off his archery skills, learned from his elders [Rosemary Marandi/Al Jazeera]

Nirankal, Goa, India – It was October 2016 and Gopal Powar was out working in the sugarcane fields when he received a phone call from his boss.

His village in Nirankal, 38km away, had been attacked, he was told.

Harvest season had just begun and most of the adult villagers – members of the traditionally nomadic Vanarmare tribe – were away working for a landowner, separating the sugarcane’s lush, dark leaves from its green and red stems, sleeping in tents at night and only returning home at the weekends.

But about 50 children and a few elders had remained in the village and were there when it was attacked.

It was noon when Gopal got the news and the heat was scorching. His newborn child rested under the shade of a nearby tree. But his eldest was back in the village.

A lost day of work meant 60 rupees ($0.79) less in his pocket and the prospect of going hungry. But Gopal immediately began the five-hour journey home – a bus ride followed by a two to three-kilometre walk.

The whole time, he had one thought on his mind: “Nobody will stand by us. [To them] we don’t exist, anyway.”

‘One large family’

Gopal’s is one of three Vanarmare villages in Goa. It is nestled in the rolling hills of the Western Ghats. The winding roads leading to it are lined with pineapple, mango and coconut trees. Forests of acacia trees sprawl as far as the eye can see. It is quiet, untouched by tourists or traffic, a far cry from the bustling city of Ponda just nine kilometres away.

About 15 huts, roofs covered with dried palm leaves and tarpaulin, line a dusty road. They are just big enough for families to sleep in. Clay ovens stand in yards that double as kitchens.

The only audible sounds are those of birds, a great variety of them, and children playing in a nearby field.

The people are soft-spoken. Their days are spent working and they travel to the city only when they run out of food, two or three times a month.

The village only comes alive during festivals.

Gopal has a small garden where he grows bananas, tomatoes, potatoes and mangoes. When he is out in the sugarcane fields, some of the plants dry up unattended.

Indigenous/Rosemary Marandi
The gates that mark the community’s boundaries [Rosemary Marandi/Al Jazeera]

In his early 30s, he is of medium build with a gentle voice and shy smile. He does not look directly into others’ eyes when he speaks.

Gopal is respected as the leader of the tribe. Like others of his generation, he never went to school and grew up helping his elders in the fields they worked for others. They taught him how to climb tall coconut and palm trees, to separate wheat from chaff and other skills. He loves his elders, but despises their drinking habits.

Gopal was young, about 15 years old, when he got married, a common practice within his tribe.

“I borrowed my boss’s car to hunt for a bride in villages far away. It was tiring,” he says, blushing. 

Following the custom, he paid 5,000 rupees ($109) to the family of his bride, Pushpa, before they wed.

“There is no concept of divorce in our community,” he says. “Once you are married, you stay.”

He loves his tribe’s carefree spirit and sense of camaraderie.

“We are very simple people, we are happy with our limited means,” he explains. “We have all grown up as one large family.”

The oldest in the village is a 60-year-old widow called Baby Rama Nikam. She is among a handful of women who still wear the saree in a traditional style, above the knee and wrapped like a skirt. She is too shy to speak of the problems her people face. When asked if she remembers any folklore or traditional songs of the tribe, she shakes her head, “No”.

Indigenous/Rosemary Marandi
The oldest person in the village, Baby Rama Nikam, wearing a saree in the traditional Vanarmare style [Rosemary Marandi/Al Jazeera]

Descendants of Eklavya

The Vanarmares are a subtribe of the Katkari, a nomadic people from the coastal forests of the western state of Maharashtra.

Several hundred Vanarmares, including Gopal’s community, eventually settled in neighbouring Goa.

The Vanarmares are known for their archery. They claim to be descendants of Eklavya, a tribal character in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata. 

According to legend, Eklavya wanted to learn archery from Dronacharya, a guru in the royal houses of Kauravas and Pandavas, the ruling family of the ancient kingdom of Hastinapur, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, but was rejected because he was of a lower caste. 

Undeterred, Eklavya constructed a statue of Dronacharya as a mark of respect to the teacher and taught himself. He became so skilled that he once shot a barking dog through the mouth without it bleeding. When Dronacharya’s favourite pupil, Arjuna, heard of this extraordinary feat, he complained to his teacher, as he was supposed to become the best archer. So Dronarcharya called for Eklavya and asked him for his thumb as payment, intending to take away his prowess. Eklavya cut it off and gave it to him.

To this day, the Vanarmares do not use their thumb to shoot arrows.

For hundreds of years, they hunted monkeys, harvesting them for their meat and oil. Dogs would run deep into the forest to chase the monkeys out, as the men waited with their bows and arrows, ready to shoot. They would first target the alpha male, which made it easier to then hunt other monkeys in the pack.

But they were forced to stop in 1972 when India’s Wildlife Protection Act banned the hunting of wild animals.

So to support themselves, they settled on the fringes of communities where they could find agricultural work.

Indigenous/Rosemary Marandi
Children play their own version of cricket; each player has a bat to hit or stop the ball [Rosemary Marandi/Al Jazeera]

Despite the ban, other villages would sometimes ask them to hunt monkeys in secret. Gopal remembers how his grandfather and other village elders would go out with their bows and arrows and a pack of dogs, and return with some rice or fish, and a little money, for their work.

Now, the Vanarmares have laid their bows to rest. “I have learned archery from my grandfather but never used it,” Gopal says. “We do keep bows and arrows in our homes, though, as a memory.”

The Vanarmares’ name, which means monkey hunters, has stuck with them – but so has the stigma of their nomadic lifestyle and the history of exclusion that comes with it.

A ‘criminal’ tribe

The Criminal Tribes Act, passed under British rule in 1871 and expanded through the 1920s, designated India’s nomadic tribes as “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences”. Considered inherently criminal, their movements were monitored by successive governments and, in certain places, they were subject to arrest without due process, the separation of children from their parents, and forced removal of entire tribes or castes into penal colonies.

The Vanarmares were registered as a criminal tribe.

After independence, the Act was repealed but then effectively replaced with the Habitual Offenders Act in 1952.

As a result, the Vanarmares were stigmatised and their relationship with outsiders has remained largely transactional.

“We interacted with people of other villages only when they offered work,” Gopal explains.

People took advantage of their lack of education and paid them poorly, often in food and liquor rather than cash. It fed into the alcohol and tobacco addictions that wiped out an entire generation of the tribe – including Gopal’s parents – and is now consuming younger people.

“Our elders like drinking liquor, but getting payments in liquor made it worse,” Gopal says.

“Children learn and copy their elders. They see their parents abusing alcohol and tobacco and think that it is okay to do it. Parents too don’t control their children as they should.”

Neighbouring villages see them as uncultured and a nuisance.

The attack

It was evening when Gopal made it home from the cane fields in 2016. He found people sitting outside their homes, many crying. Nobody had been hurt but their huts had been destroyed.

Roofs were broken, solar panels provided by the government had been taken down, rice sacks were torn apart and clothes were strewn on the ground. Children cried with fear. They recounted how a group of more than 30 people from a neighbouring village had charged towards them as they ran away. Their attackers told them to leave or face dire consequences.

Fear gripped the community.

For 15 days, Gopal and others who had by now also returned from their work in the fields, would not leave the village, fearing that it would be attacked again. They slept outside. 

It took more than a month for Gopal and others in the community to pool the funds to rebuild their homes.

A blessing

But in some ways, the attack turned out to be a blessing for the tribe.

Gopal and the other villagers are illiterate, so a woman from a nearby village filed a complaint on their behalf with the police and Goa’s Human Rights Commission. A policeman came to the village that evening.

In the days that followed there was widespread media coverage of the attack. Many national outlets were surprised that such a tribe existed. Until then, only a few social workers and surrounding villages had known of them.

Volunteers and NGOs came forward to give them food supplies and money.

The government gave them a small water tank so they no longer have to walk miles to a river. Gopal says they also gave each household 2,000 rupees ($26) to rebuild their homes.

Indigenous/Rosemary Marandi
The government gave the tribe a small water tank that they use for bathing [Rosemary Marandi/Al Jazeera]

The following year, Gopal and the rest of his tribe received government ID cards for the first time and, with them, the right to vote. 

As the villagers have no birth certificates, each of their ID cards gives January 1 as the date of their birth and their age based on guesswork.

With his new ID card, Gopal was able to apply for a driving licence and work as a driver.

Before, it had been a struggle to enrol the tribe’s children in schools without birth certificates and when they did manage to, they had to walk long distances to school.

“Earlier the children would walk some 2km to reach school,” Gopal explains. “But now, primary schools send buses.”

His five-year-old son, Krishna, still walks three kilometres to pre-school each day with other children from the village.

“I would like him and my daughter to study and learn skills. It is very important for them,” he says.

‘Not enough’

India’s schemes for affordable housing for the poor and access to sanitation, enjoyed by other towns and villages, still remain beyond their reach. Electricity has yet to be connected to their homes – only a streetlamp is lit – and they still live in leaf and grass huts.

“I had asked the authorities to build homes for us, or at least provide us with tin roofs,” says Gopal. “But officials said they could only build just two concrete homes for us, which is not enough.”

The tribe believes that they are not a priority for local politicians because there are not a voting bloc.

Ponda Deputy Collector Kedar Ashok Naik, an official with the municipal corporation under which Nirankal falls, says: “For electricity I had told them how to go about it. I had asked them to apply to me [for connections inside their homes], and then I will process it. [The] housing issue was never raised before [with] me.” 

“I don’t know if they have applied for the toilet scheme, because we did have a panchayat [village council] scheme where toilets were constructed in houses. I will try and cover them in the scheme … In the immediate future, we can give them electricity and bio-toilets.”

One problem is the ownership of the land on which their village stands. It belongs to a comunidade, or a village cooperative, part of an age-old system that grants land ownership to the original founders of villages. There are about 90 comunidades across Goa, each controlled by a collective of landowners.

Naik says one way to get better housing for the Vanarmares would be to relocate them to government-owned land. “The other option is to seek [the] comunidade’s approval to build houses for them in the same location. If [the] comunidade committee agrees then houses can be built there.”

A better future

Gopal says the tribe never considered retaliating after the attack, in part because they worried that no one would support them. But there was another reason.

“My grandfather always used to tell me, ‘No matter what people say I should never answer back or retaliate’,” Gopal recalls.

It is part of their culture to live peacefully with those around them, to not disturb or interrupt the life of the villages on whose fringes they traditionally settled. They have stuck to these values.

Indigenous/Rosemary Marandi
Gopal sits in the courtyard of his hut with his wife and children [Rosemary Marandi/Al Jazeera]

It is now March 2020 and at the entrance of the village stands a tall wooden pole decorated with mango leaves, part of the recently concluded celebrations for Holi, the festival of colours, that marks the arrival of spring. The pole is still stained blue, red, green and yellow, the smell of the coloured powders still fresh. 

Nearby sits the small water tank given to them by the government, and the village’s only tin-roofed hut, which was built for the policeman who stayed for a year after the attack to ensure life returned to normal.

In some ways, the tribe and their neighbours now live harmoniously, celebrating festivals together with dance and music. As people from the neighbouring village began requiring labour for their farms and plantations, they approached the Vanarmares again for work and relations improved.

In other ways, however, doubt and stigma remain.

“They will never change even if they go to schools,” quipped a woman from a neighbouring village, referring to a group of Vanarmare children, all under the age of 15, who were chewing tobacco. They were “not clean enough”, she added.

But Gopal is determined to give his children a better future. 

As he sits in his courtyard, neatly wiped down with cow dung, his children playing in the mud beside him, he says: “They should be able to lead better lives, not struggle like we do.”

That, he adds, is all he wishes for.

Source: Al Jazeera