Oral Tradition of Maldharis of Banni Grasslands, India

A typical Gujharat Session in Banni © Aanchal Mehta

Kutch is a frontier district in the state of Gujarat, India, situated near the border of India and Pakistan. It is surrounded by Great and Little Rann of Kutch on the North, South and East and the Arabian Sea on the West. In the beginning of the twelfth century, Kutch was ruled by Chavda, Sama, Sanghar, Kathi and Solanki dynasties. Banni grasslands of Kutch, comprising of around 3000 sq.km area, is one of the biggest grasslands of Asia. This grassland acts as breeding and nesting ground for more than 250 bird species, including resident, winter migratory birds.

Gujharat is a culturally significant and unique oral tradition of the maldharis or pastoralist community of Banni grasslands in Kutch, which are folk riddles spoken in Sindhi language and are based on the seven traditional folk tales of Sindhi literature. These riddles include descriptions of the local flora and fauna, various elements of the surrounding landscape such as water, grasses, mountains, land etc, and also words related to activities associated with animal breeding. It originated around 1010AD and was practiced widely during the Sumra dynasty.

Gujharat is spoken in a poetic form and hides within itself a hidden words or paya or thip. When a maldhari composes a gujharat, he hides within it at least 2 to 10 payas. In order to decode a gujharat, the audience has to first guess the hidden words. The coded word is generally a common noun such as animal, man, woman, city, soil, wood, water etc. and the aim is to decode the proper noun for that common noun. Once the audience finds the hidden words, they have to start naming all the words related to that particular paya (common noun). Both wit and linguistic skill of the maldharis is tested while decoding the gujharat. Once the noun has been decoded, the narrator of the Gujharat concedes defeat and cries mari vai which means the gujharat is now dead. He then decodes the entire message in the poetic form. This poetic explanation of the Gujharat is called Sail.

The hidden meaning in a Gujharat is called Jhorni. Once the riddle has been broken, the one who narrated the gujharat speaks jhorni in a poetic form. Jhorni has to be spoken in a specific tone so that the sentiments and emotions of the Gujharat are conveyed to the audience.

Traditionally, the maldharis or pastoralists of Banni grasslands would spend their evenings in the choupals (public gathering areas) and have sessions of performing gujharat, while the audience would have fun by decoding them. When the maldharis would gather while their cattle herds grazed in the grasslands at night, the gujharat sessions would go on all night long, with all the villagers participating enthusiastically. Rehan is a place of public gathering where male members of the community would originally gather to conduct Gujharat sessions. Nowadays, such gatherings also take place in Otaq, a room for male guests located adjunct to the main household. Special Mach Kacheri, a performing session of Gujharat is often organized in the Otaq. Mach Kacheri is also organized around a bonfire on a wintery night in open spaces in the village or forest. Maldharis often organize picnics called tola in the forest as well as near tad or sources of water, where singing of Sufi Kalam along with Gujharat takes place.

Gujharat are a unique oral tradition in the sense that they are one of a kind in the world. The whole process of constructing and solving the riddles is, in itself, a means of recreation and entertainment for the local pastoralists. However, the original objective of this oral tradition has deeper roots. The main aim of this oral tradition was to educate the local maldharis about the different elements and resources found in the cultural landscape of Sindh. The riddle decoding process would require the audience to speak out all the different names for the natural resources or animals in their region, which would make the riddle interesting while at the same time educate the audience regarding the flora, fauna, traditional knowledge systems and other resources of Banni. Since most of the maldharis did not receive any formal education, the mode of communication had to be oral, and in a way that would be easily accessible and understandable to the general public.

Kambh: The traditional pose of sitting for Gujharat session © Aanchal Mehta
Gujharat has immensely helped in oral transmission of Sindhi folk tales to the newer generation. All the various aspects of heritage, be it natural or cultural, have been widely expressed through language, specially through the riddles in Gujharat. Due to intergenerational transmission over the years, gujharats have also been able to preserve oral histories, folk tales and have also recorded significant historical events in the region. The names of any extinct species of birds of animals are also preserved In the memory of the locals, through Gujharat. It is due to this reason that this type of oral tradition is considered unique and one of its kind in the world.