Several years ago while shooting for “Urdu Hai Jiska Naam” Subhash Kapoor, the director of the series and I had gone to Bhopal because we wanted Habib Saheb to anchor the series. While location hunting we went to see the Museum of Man – a sprawling open-air campus, spread on one side of the famous Shaamla hills in Bhopal. One area of the museum is dedicated to tribal myths and their theories of creation. The Gond myth of creation fascinated me greatly and I narrated it to Habib Saheb in the evening. Habib Sahib liked the story and took it down in as much detail as I could remember. Sometime later when I saw a performance of Zahreeli Hawa, Habib Saheb’s play on the Bhopal Gas tragedy, I realised that he had woven the Gond myth in the preamble of his play and had very effectively incorporated contemporary environmental concerns and the pillage of MNCs in this primordial tale of great simplicity and beauty.
From the time I heard the news of his death the story has been coming back to me. I rang up an old friend Alakhnandan, the director of Nat Bundele, a Bhopal based theatre group, Alakh put me in touch with Shampa Shah of the museum of Man. It turned out that Shampa had first heard the story in or around 2000 from Pyare Lal Vyam, a Pradhan Gond from Mandla near Amarkantak. It was Pyarelal who came to Bhopal and built the traditional Kothar (granary) of the Gonds upon which he wrote the myth that is reproduced below. Incidentally the kind of granary Pyarelal built is called a Lillar Kothi, Lillar is akin to one’s inner most being, with constant comings and goings of thoughts, ideas and influences. The Lillar Kothi is likewise filled with and emptied of grains. The story is reproduced below in a hurried translation of the text that Shampa read out to me.
The Gond Mythology of Creation
Bada Dev was sitting on a lotus leaf when the idea of creating the world came to Him; He needed clay to create the world. He looked down but all He saw was water, He rubbed His chest and removed some of the congealed muck from His breast and fashioned a crow out of it. Bada Dev now sent the crow in search of the Clay.
The crow flew away in search of the clay. He looked everywhere but all he could see was nothing but water, tired and exhausted he settled on a stump that protruded above the endless sheet of water. He had not even settled down properly when a voice asked him “who is this sitting on my claw”.
The voice belonged to Kekda Mal, the crab, the crow narrated his woes to Kekda Mal and sought his help in finding the clay. Kekda Mal said to the crow, “the clay has gone to the nether world and is being eaten up by the earthworm. The crow requested Kekda Mal to somehow bring the earthworm out of the netherworld.
Kekda Mal dragged the earthworm out, but the worm was not ready to let go of the clay, because it was his food, Kekda Mal caught the earthworm by the neck and squeezed it really hard, the earthworm spat out the clay. The crow grabbed it and flew back to Bada Dev.
Bada Dev now asked Makda Dev, the spider to spin a web across the sheet of water, Bada Dev spread the clay on the web and released all the animals and birds and other living being on the earth.
Man asked Bada Dev “what do I feed my children”, Bada Dev plucked three hairs from his head and threw them on the earth, they took root and grew into Mango, Teak and Kassi Trees. Bada Dev now gave an axe and a hatchet to Man and asked him to make something from the wood of the three trees.
The moment Man began to chop the tree, Kathphodwa – the woodpecker, began to imitate his actions, Man got distracted and ended up giving glancing blows to the wood. Man ended up destroying the trees all that was left with him were crooked pieces of wood. In frustration he threw the Hatchet at the Kathphodwa, the woodpecker flew off and the Hatchet disappeared in the skies.
Man went back to Bada Dev for help, Bada Dev gave him some ash from his fire and asked him to bury it in the roots of the trees, Bada Dev also told Man, “there has to be an explanation for all the wood getting chopped in this manner”.
The moment man placed the ash on the roots, the trees flowered and the earth was filled with forests. In an attempt to understand the secret of the crooked piece of wood the man threw it on the earth.
The bamboo maiden emerged from the place where the piece of wood had fallen. The Goddess of grains who was hiding inside the bamboo maiden, now emerged and spread herself all over the earth.
The crooked piece of wood turned out to be the first plough and from then on man learnt to cultivate crops. In order to prevent the goddess of grain from disappearing once again the Gond woman learnt a thing or two from the white-ant and built a Lillar Kothi (granary), she filled it up with grain to feed the whole world.
There are a couple of very interesting touches in the story that point to the humanness of tribal gods. Bada Dev obviously did not enjoy the luxury of a daily bath. Bada Dev is not like the gods of “civilised beings” and works, unlike other Gods that one is more familiar with.
The fact that the crow, the crab and the spider, living beings that have generally been presented in the company of evil by “more evolved” civilisations but shine in the Gond Myth in a constructive and positive light, is probably suggestive of the relations that the tribal peoples established with their environment.
Incidentally the Gonds are the original inhabitants and rulers of this region and Dost Mohammad Khan, the Afghan founder of the Bhopal reyasat in the early 18th century had married a Gond Rani to start his family.
The Gond Woman have for long built Lillar Kothis in order to have enough food for everyone. The loss of this minimum security of food for the survivors of the killer gas in Bhopal was probably what made Habib Saheb use the story. I never got round to asking him.
(First published in Mainstream.)