The nomads who fly…
TSI | July 22, 2007 00:00
…sometimes on the sly! TSI earns the confidence of the Hakki-Pikkis, a tribe of jet-setting traders.
How would you imagine the livelihood of a community of illiterate inhabitants of the Sahyadri valley in Karnataka? They are nomadic bird-hunters, sacrifice animals and sell handicrafts door to door… but what if we told you that they are frequent fliers to United States, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Tibet and China?! They may not even know how to spell ‘visa’ or ‘passport’, but the 300-odd families in the Hakki-Pikki camp, called Gowthama Nagara, are equally at home at the JFK International Airport in New York, Pashupathinath temple in Kathmandu, Beijing or Bangkok, as they are in this hamlet only 15 kms from Shimoga, a cultural hub in the state of Karnataka.
A community that straddles both the ancient and the contemporary with practiced ease, the lifestyles of the Hakki-Pikkis is a whirl of routines ranging from netting birds (especially vultures, hawks and kites) for food to flying out to international destinations for peddling their wares that include precious gems, kasturi (musk) rudraksha (sacred beads), or even tiger nails and skins. When TSI visited the camp, there was a Satyanarayana pooja in the premises on the occasion of the inauguration ceremony of a new ration shop. Fashionably dressed (coloured hair even!) women and men zooming around on the latest bikes provided for an admirably avant-garde sight for a rural hinterland.
According to the elders in the camp, they came here 25 years ago from Rajasthan. Out of the current population of 1500, not many of the Hakki-Pikkis (‘melsikhari’ or bird hunters) are into government or private services, save for one selected as a teacher recently. Around 30-40 of their members possess passports, with visas of at least 4-5 nations on each of them. Many including Balaram (who converted to Christianity recently), have export and import licenses.
Says Balaram, with the wisdom of the-much-travelled (what with hundreds of visas on his passport), “A few days ago, I was in Kuala Lumpur, where I used to buy gems in wholesale. The last time I was there, my stay lasted for nearly 15 days during which, having accomplished the purpose of my visit, I learnt the local craft of making some orchid flowers in plastic. I intend to do good business here with that new-found skill. On my visit to Bangkok last, I realized the Thai government accommodates investment on travelling businessmen and artisans, those who are there for even as little as one or two weeks. In our country, there is such a long wait for an ordinary trade license.” Speaking in Kannada, Balaram could’ve repeated the same in English, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Nepali or even Chinese.
Used to feeding raw on scavenger birds of prey, the Hakki-Pikki ceremonies are a rousing carousal, merrily indulging on flesh and firewater. During the Goddess Chamundi and Yallamma poojas, buffalos or goats are sacrificed after skinning them alive (see box ‘Heady Punishment’) and the blood consumed right off the dying corpus! Juxtaposed against these virtually aboriginal practices, are their new-fangled areas of work, travel, knowledge of languages etc., making for an adaptation hard to witness. While their adeptness and creativity at fancy handicraft sold locally was until a few years back their means of sustenance, the Hakki-Pikki entrepreneurship has come a long way now.
The trade bags that once contained hand-made items and flower garlands now usually brim with gems, kasturi and tiger products and take them beyond the native dusty streets to international alleys. While the traders use donkeys for cross border transactions on land routes, they rely on baggage plainly for air travel. For kasturi, spatika (crystal) and pearls, they fly to Myanmar and Bangladesh, for rudraksha, to Nepal and Tibet. The markets are a source and supply for tiger skin, teeth, and claws lie in China and our very own West Bengal. Not that there is any guarantee of authenticity! For, they confess, there have been cases where ordinary crystal powder in the name of kasturi and dog’s hide for tiger skin have been foisted off! Of course, the craftsmanship is such that the swindles, usually restricted to local trading, have barely come to light.
The increasing exposure has introduced new-age fancies in the community, like bikes and jeans, particularly in the younger lot. However, there are still some who are interested in continuing with their generational craftsmanship and local trade. Most Hakki-Pikkis have only played into the hands of the poacher and illegal trade mafia, who’re drawn to these hunters for their adventure and travel proclivities. Thus, many unsuspecting members become ‘human couriers’ for criminal cliques, with names like lorry, bus, biscuit etc (See Box – ‘What’s in a name, indeed?’)!
Prof. Rachappa, lecturer at DVS College, Shimoga, and also a campaigner for the rehabilitation of the Hakki-Pikkis, points out, “They are very religious and essentially remain hunters, but they have been used by criminal forces for nefarious purposes. We are trying to rehabilitate them, but there is no adequate government support. For the last 25 years now, we have been working with them; the new generation at least gets through matriculation. The only way to save them from the anti-social elements is to educate them properly.” For the Hakki-Pikkis, education remains the greatest leveler. Heady punishment!
Settled around Joladalu and Gopanal of Chennagiri taluk of Davanagere district, Angadihalli of Hassan district and Pakshirajapura of Mysore district in Karnataka, are tribal communities similar to that of the Hakki-Pikkis. These are rehabilitated villages of gypsy communities with equally brazen traditions. During their rituals, it is the norm to flay a goat alive, that too, with their teeth! After the skinning, the animal’s throat is slit in the most leisurely manner (to the wild thumping of music).
Arrack or toddy is a pre-requisite for every ceremony and gathering. The punishment for violating the community code is some form of boozing! The guilty has to ‘host’ a ceremonial bacchanalia, whose scale depends on the nature of the ‘crime’ committed! A small theft will be compensated with a few swigs of arrack, while something as grave as adultery will call for many rounds of whisky! What’s in a
While on a round, when TSI knocked on one of the doors, a woman at the door hailed someone from inside: “Ye saikal (cycle to the non-kannadigas); someone is asking for you.” Zapped, we were a little worried in anticipation of a bicycle riding out to greet us. Our apprehensions were not to stay for long as we realized that ‘Cycle’ was the name of the man of the house! It was yet another wild revelation to know that this tribal community had the most weird names to christen their new-born members. The mother would usually choose a name as randomly as recalling the object she must have set her eyes on when in labour. Say, if she would’ve seen a bus pass by, the baby would be called that! There were men and women responding to peculiar names like Bus-stand, Lorry Kaichuur (piece of coconut), Deccan (name of a train), Van, Biscuit, Chocolate, Mysorepak (sweet), Tarzan, Naagin, Abhimanyu (cinema) and so on!