Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps, the quaint 3,000-acre Aarey Milk Colony of Mumbai lies in a world of its own. Flanked by the green belt of Aarey forest, the colony is home to nearly 8,000 men, women and children belonging to the tribal communities of Maharashtra. Spread across 27 padas (hamlets), people from the Warli, Kokna, Mallar Koli, Katkari and several other indigenous tribes residing in the Aarey Colony strive to keep their traditions, cuisine and culture alive, amid the encroaching urbanisation.
The Better India spoke to Prakash Bhoir, a prominent tribal activist from Aarey to know more about their way of life.
“Traditionally, we procure all our dietary ingredients from the forest. Now, we grow paddy, some vegetables and fruits like banana, guava, jackfruit, mango, Sapodilla (Chikoo) etc. In fact, I myself might have planted over 500 fruit trees around my home which provide for a lot of families.”
The walls, floors and ceilings of the Bhoir household is adorned by intricate Warli paintings since his daughter, Shital Bhoir, is a skilled Warli artist – upholding one of India’s primitive art forms in the best possible ways. Her adept skills are evident from her Warli artworks on walls, canvas, paper and even dried wild mushrooms!
Art, craft, music, and cuisine — all the fine things of life in the Aarey Colony stem from their traditional roots of wisdom that flows from generation to generation. Prakash gets nostalgic recounting his childhood, a time when basic necessities of modern civilisation like calendars, clocks or televisions had not made their way into the Aarey colony.
“My mother and other women would rehearse songs while toiling on the paddy fields, that’s how we would sense that the festive season is near.”
Aarey Colony and their Gastronomical Art
Fresh jheenga (shrimps) from the river, soft bamboo shoots from the forest, a tinge of salt, turmeric, few cloves of garlic and the quintessential tamarind water – that’s all is needed to churn out vaste or vaskal, an ancient recipe of Aarey forests.
This is one of the many hundreds of minimalistic forest-based recipes from the Aarey tribal kitchen. Interestingly, tamarind is an indispensable ingredient in their recipes, since the fruit is abundantly available in the wilderness. The soupy texture of tamarind water mixed with some condiments serve as a substitute for ‘dal’, as pulses are often expensive.
Karande, a locally-sourced aerial yam is also a favourite staple, though its proper preparation demands strict adherence to the traditional style. Unless cooked overnight on coal, karande might be too bitter to consume. The first harvest of karande every year is offered to the god during Diwali.
Incidentally, Prakash Bhoir’s son, Shyam Bhoir, has taken up the initiative to present their indigenous recipes to the world through YouTube, in collaboration with the social media platforms – Adivasi Lives Matter and Qisa Lab. In his recent video, he has shared snippets about the Kadha (Adosa/Adulsa) leaves – a potent herbal cure for the common cold and cough.
Aarey Colony—A history
Once upon a time, before the ever-expanding Mumbai city spilled over onto its surrounding lands, Aarey was a dense forest inhabited by tribal communities, living in perfect harmony with the beasts and birds of the jungle. Since they were not essentially cultivators, they sourced most of their food from the wild— fruits, vegetables, tubers and herbs. The fish, shrimp and prawns thriving in the adjacent Oshiwara river also featured steadily on their platters. Alongside, the forested communities often reared poultry and goats.
The Aarey Milk Colony was officially established in the year 1949 by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, based on the ideas of Mr Dara Khurody who pioneered the white revolution in Mumbai. At that time, some of the tribal settlements were displaced to set up dairy farms, but the affected tribal people were compensated with jobs at the farms and factories.
However, over time, urbanisation penetrated into the pristine Aarey colony to accommodate the exponential expansion of Mumbai. Slowly, the deciduous forests and lands, which once solely belonged to the tribal communities, were utilised for various purposes – ranging from a Film City to metro railway projects.
The Carefree Way of Life
At present, though the Aarey Milk Colony spreads over 3165 acres, only a small percentage of it is inhabited by the tribals. But, amidst the hullabaloo of a thriving city around, the Aarey tribals still cherish the rustle of fallen leaves, the rustic drum beats on an autumn evening or the tangy sting of tamarind with their Bombil fish fry (Bombay duck).
The Aarey tribal festivals are drastically different from any known religious or cultural festival of India. Unlike other known religious sects, these people are nature-worshippers – Vagh Baras (which celebrates the power of tiger), and Gaon Devi puja (the Goddess of villages) are some of their main festivities.
They also organise one annual programme which particularly hail all aspects of their culture, heritage, language, attire, music and dance, and most definitely, the food.
Even in the face of ongoing controversy with Aarey Forests and the looming fear of encroachment, the tribal families of Aarey ensure to celebrate their distinguished culture and pass it on to the younger generations.
“We are not poor. Maybe we do not have enough in monetary terms, but we are enriched by the blessings of nature,” says Prakash Bhoir.
Picture Courtesy: Ankush Vengurlekar
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)