Mangaluru: Living in an age that is increasingly losing all semblance of past and preservation, it can be difficult to come across living proof that illustrates the evolution of mankind. Luckily, India is one amongst those few nations that is flushed with such markings proving the storied past of the human race. This is even more apparent in the various indigenous communities of the country, such as the Halakki Vokkaliga tribe of Uttara Kannada.
Intrigued by the ways of this 400-year-old tribal community, two foreign travellers recently visited their humble abode in the Ankola district, situated at the foothills of the expansive Western Ghats. By the end of their experience, they were left with a sensation of pure awe and a grounded connection that surpassed cultural differences.
Journeying their way across India, Maximilian Nerling and Valerie Strobl are history graduates from Kassel University and University of Vienna respectively. They received the opportunity to meet the Halakki tribe through a mutual contact they shared with well-known artist and environmentalist Dinesh Holla. The two-day excursion to Ankola was arranged by Swaroopa Adhyayana Kendra, a private institution that seeks to reconnect individuals (especially students) with nature and ethnic roots.
Speaking to NewsKarnataka.com, Maximilian gleefully recounted the activities that the two of them, along with a group of 20 students, carried out on the visit. He said, “We listened to the chants of the tribeswomen and participated in some traditional dances, like a rain dance. Valerie and Haseema Ismail were invited to wear the traditional Halakki sari. We also shared delicious foods and went hiking with the kids.”
The group also got the rare opportunity to meet Sukrajji, the tribal head, and witnessed her singing of traditional Halakki songs in a Nightingale-like voice. “Sukrajji has a very strong presence, yet she is a very welcoming and kind person with a heartwarming smile,” Maximilian stated.
Highlighting a few key takeaways from their interaction with the Halakki tribe, Maximilian pointed out the strong female presence in the community. “Really, the main takeaway from the visit is that tradition and modern empowerment of women totally go together. In combination with a young generation that cares about the environment and respects nature, you get a cocktail of change that will nurture Karnataka and maybe the whole of India. This is also the credit of the Swaroopa approach,” he observed.
Talking about the warmth and affection shown to Valerie and him by the community, Maximilian further noted that it caught him off-guard. “We were very grateful for that opportunity. It caught us by surprise that the villagers also welcomed our presence. Many greeted us smiling and waving with their hands. We didn't expect that,” he said.
The excursion to meet the members of the Halakki tribe was a success, according to environmental activist Dinesh Holla, who is closely associated with the tribal members including Sukrajji herself. Taking to Facebook, Holla had posted about the visit and wrote, “They (Maximilian and Valerie) were so impressed with Sukrajji’s songs, dance, talk, and love that they promised to bring more friends from Germany along with them next time. Valerie also participated in a traditional dance with Sukrajji and the rest of the Halakki women.”
“The Halakki culture and Sukrajji’s abilities are such that she brings everyone close to her by treating them with love and respect,” he added.
Who are the Halakki Vokkaligas?
Often likened to Africa's Masai tribe, Halakki Vokkaligas are agriculturists who occupy a relatively small portion of the land existing between the stretching foliage of the Western Ghats and the unending waters of the Arabian Sea. They possess a rich and ancient folklore that shares a close bond with the practice of singing. Singing, in the Halakki community, is regarded as a highly sacred activity that sees a continuous presence in all events from birth to death. In fact, the songs themselves have been diligently passed down from generation to generation for over 400 years of the tribe’s existence.
At the helm of the community is Sukri Bomma Gowda, fondly known as Sukrajji, who is often described as a living encyclopedia owing to her efforts in preserving the ancient heritage of the tribe. She was subsequently conferred the prestigious Padma award by the Government of India in 2017 for her perpetual battle against social evils.
‘Strong women who don’t accept their fate’
There are many enriching features that one could list when talking about the Halakkis. However, the community has caught the gaze of tourists and academicians alike for being an exemplary showcase of powerful women who are unafraid to assert their identities in the midst of rapid globalization and modernisation.
This sentiment was unmistakably present in the lasting impression that the Halakki women left on Maximilian and Valerie as well. When asked about it, Maximilian astutely remarked, “We got in contact with an indigenous tribe of India, got to know their culture and ways of life, which might be minimalistic but also generous and welcoming. The most important impression is that they are strong women who don't accept their fate but take action and arise against violence and isolation. This is not only what India needs, but the whole world.”
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