he only way forward, if we are going to improve the quality of the environment, is to get everybody involved,” says Richard Rogers, a British architect. Unfortunately there is no dearth of those in denial about the environmental degradation. Those making dedicated efforts to protect the threatened ecologies in these times of blinding consumerism and alarming insensitivity towards the environment are true heroes.
Syed Najam-ul-Hassan is one of such ecological rescuers.He has been documenting the lives or aboriginal tribes called the Mohanas of Indus and their relationship the ecology of Indus river delta. He has consistently argued that they needto be included in all development planning in the region as they bring a wealth of wisdom as earth-keepers. The Mohanas are tethered to the banks of Indus system rivers. Hassan published a book, Mohanas of Indus: A Photographic Odyssey, in 2021, documenting the true caretakers of the earth. Ironically, the very caretakers face impending displacement and increasing environmental poverty. Hassan has spent around a decade photographing Mohanas’ day-to-day lives, their indigenous culture, and their life threads pegged to the river. The effort marks an excellent confluence of ethnographic and longitudinal research. The lens-man has spent 10 years producing the visual documentation and observed Mohanas in all kinds of situations and their dependency on the river.
These earth-keepers claim lineage from Indus Valley Civilisation. They are viewed as the last surviving practitioners of the indigenous culture. They have been living in their boat houses for centuries. Their early documentation had traced them to Manchar Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the country and considered one of Asia’s largest.Theonly source of income for most Mohanas of Dadu district in Sindh is fishing. In the 1970s, when the fresh water reserve was polluted and the fish started dying on account of the industrial waste being dumped inthe lake, many of the Mohanas lost their livelihoods. In the end, the Mohanas had no other option but to leave the Manchar and shift to other water reserves. Most of them left in their house boats.
In 1974, the community settled near Ali Pur, Ghazi Ghaat and Taunsa Barrage areas in the Punjab. Hassan says there were 3,000 Mohana families in the area in 1960s and a total population of 50,000. Following the 1974 failed displacement, some of these familiesstarted living on land. The number of the people still living in houseboats and off the river has been fast declining so that there are only 200 families comprising 1,500 people left.
In their life on Manchar Lake, some of the Mohanas had been quite prosperous. They had owned mighty multi-storey boats. When they arrived in the Punjab, the bigger vessels were found unsustainable. The architecture of boat houses changed then to adapt to the local conditions. While the woodwork had much more detail in Sindh the boats manufactured in the Punjab have a marked preference for brighter colours.
An aspect of the Mohanas’ life is their skill and willingness in cohabitating with other species. They have been living with birds for centuries. They are sometimes called ‘blood brothers’ to the birds they keep as pets.
An aspect of the Mohanas’ life is their skill and willingness in cohabitating with other species. They have been living with birds for centuries. They are sometimes called ‘blood brothers’to the birds they keep as pets. When a child is born,little birds are placed in its cradle so that the birds and the babies grow together. The Mohanas claim that they understand the ‘language’ of the birds. Many of them are skillful mimics of the birds’ voices. An Indus Civilisation seal shows a boat carrying two pelicans. It is claimed that the birds helped Mohanas catch fish. The other ‘blood brothers’ to Mohanas are grey herons, claremont, spoons, bills and coots.
Mohanas don’t like to eat bird meat and seriously dislike hunting of birds by their neighbours. In the breeding season of fish, they eat coot or cook lotus. A recent report by the UNESCO says, “1 million animal and plant species are on the verge of extinction.” ‘Development’ for one, then, is development for none; since satisfaction for one species which spells doom for another is neither equitable nor fair. Chief Seattle of Sioux said, “What is a man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to beasts soon happens to man. All things are connected.” It is said that scarcity is wisdom, but in our case, it seems untrue as we are insensitively destroying scarce natural resources.
It is unfortunate that the wisdom of earth keepers like the Mohanas is misunderstood. Sadly, 70 percent of the population of the floating villages does carry identity cards. A picture by the lens man shows that the flags of dominant political parties are hoisted on the boats of Mohanas, but a large number of Mohana children fall prey to polio as vaccination drives miss them. There are no schools for thechildren, and they don’t have reliable access to health facilities. Even as they live on water, they have to carry drinking water from distant earth-borne resources.
Hassan has tried for long to help cultural preservation through pictorial documentation. In this he has not been helped by writers and media men. The situation calls for key stakeholders to pay attention to the river people who will disappear if they are not looked after now. This would be a grave injustice. Chief Seattle says, “We did not inherit the earth from our parents. We borrow it from our children.” Unfortunately, man has been invested in working against Nature by polluting the environment, poisoning streams and rivers, and deforesting jungles instead of being one with it. Man will fail as he is not well tied to his fellow beings.
On the contrary, Nature is very well-connected in its fabric though the threads are complicated and dynamic. There is an urgent need to attain harmony with Nature. There is a Tshi proverb that “if everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become exhausted from the effort.”
Living in modern settlements, many of us have lost touch with creative innovation of aboriginal people. The Mohana scan teach us the ways of living in harmony with the environment instead of fighting against it. The Mohanas are a cloistered society but not because the cloister is an end in itself, but because it is theirway of reaching outwards. The Mohanas thrive, not with a chip on their shoulder, or anything to prove, or a political statement to make;they do so by living and letting live.
The writer is a performing arts educator and a photographer