Kalahandi - The Land of Great Forest

Honey Harvester of Kandhamal Forest, Odisha, India

Mithun Bhotra,  began the practice of honey hunting at the age of 20; he is now 45, said: "forests give us everything, we revere and worship our forest and environment and do not let anybody cause harm to it. The forest department, however, says, we are Maoists".

Organic Wild Honey Harvesting has been since generation in Kandhamal Forest of Odisha

Mithun belongs to Bhotra tribe of Kalahandi, was also known Mahakantar i.e. land of great forest, had a glorious past and great civilization in ancient time. The Kalahandi was ruled by Naga dynasty for a record of thousand years, Kalahandi is largely an agriculture-based economy and forest-based products like Mahua, Kendu leaf, wood, timber and bamboos contribute local economy largely. Kalahandi in the 60's was known as Ethiopia of India for its acute starvation triggered by long periods of drought. It is also land of Rajgond, Maria Gond, Kondh, Kui,Bhottada, Dhotada and Bhotra tribes.

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Mithun says forests are intrinsic to the well-being of tribes, we can’t always travel to the nearby hospital which is 18-20 km away. If we suffer from fever, we take crushed leaves of Nyctanthes, black pepper mixed with Baghua. Forest honey is locally known as “Baghua”, known for its high medicinal properties and nutritional values. Any type of festival, worship or function cannot complete without Baghua.

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Apart of seasonal honey hunting, Mithun and his tribe use to collect Sialilata in the dense forest. “We often face intimidation from the forest authorities while collecting sialilata in the forest. “Without siali fibre and honey hunting, we can’t survive,” said Mithun. If we don’t go to the forest, how will we survive? We can’t depend only on the public distribution system.” 

The collection of minor forest produce (MFPs) contributes significantly to the livelihood of tribal communities. One of the community’s primary income-generating activities is conducted by women, who make ropes from sabai grass. Bamboo crafts sold in weekly markets are a recent income addition for their households.

Honey hunting is male dominant tradition in India; however, Mithun was trained by his mother how to hunt honey in the forest. Mithun has begun honey hunting at the age of 8, however, most of the tribal honey hunters starts this dangerous honey hunting of Apis Dorsata honeybee at the age of 12-14 years. For Mithun, honey hunting is a tradition, and he would continue it even if it weren’t a cash commodity. He remembers the days when collecting honey was only for food, not business. Being a well-seasoned honey hunter, he has trained many peoples in his village the art of honey hunting.

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Mithun also believes strongly in the connection between the honey hunter and the honeybee – if the hunter comes with a good purpose and pure heart, then the honeybee will give way and you will not be stung. Hence why he does not fear collecting honey during the day, like most honey hunters, because he has faith in the honeybees and the connection, he has with them.

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The best gateway to see and interact with the highly protective Bhotra tribal community is their weekly market. A separate space is given to tribesman for weekly market which held in village Sundrib to sell their product in the local market. It is a great place to observe and interact with Bhotra tribes and experience little about their life.  

Tribal Honey Hunter India

(The tribal Indian local market is a vibrant and bustling place, where people come together to buy and sell goods, share news and stories, and interact with each other. The market is typically held in a central location in a tribal village or town, and it serves as a hub for commerce and social activity.

In the tribal Indian local market, you will find a variety of goods for sale, including agricultural products, such as rice, vegetables, and fruits, as well as handmade crafts, textiles, jewelry, and other items. There may also be vendors selling traditional medicinal herbs and remedies, as well as food stalls offering local cuisine.

The market is a bustling and colorful place, with vendors shouting to attract customers, bargaining taking place over prices, and the sound of people talking, laughing, and singing filling the air. Despite the hustle and bustle, there is also a strong sense of community in the tribal Indian local market, with people interacting with each other and forming connections that can last a lifetime.

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In recent years, many of these tribal Indian local markets have begun to integrate technology and e-commerce, with vendors offering their goods for sale online, and customers able to purchase items from the comfort of their homes. However, the traditional local market remains a vital part of life in the tribal Indian communities, providing not only a place to buy and sell goods but also a space for social interaction and cultural exchange.)

The most prominent forest products are:

  • Bamboo (for use as fences around houses, myriad utensils and their sale in weekly shandies)
  • Edible fruits such as mango and jackfruit
  • Firewood
  • Gum karaya (Sterculia urens)
  • Honey
  • Broomstick grass
  • Adda (Bauhinia species) leaves (for paper plates)
  • Tubers (for domestic consumption)
  • Toddy from Caryota urens and Borassus flabellifer (palm toddy)
  • Beedi leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon)
  • Amla (Phyllanthus emblica) fruits and several wild mushrooms

Besides these, they also collect tamarind, mango, jackfruit, soap nut (Sapindus emarginatus), locally called kunkudukaaya, sheekaya (Acacia sinuata) and karakkaya fruits for sale to local cooperatives GCC. They harvest naramamidichekka (Indian fir or Polyalthia longifolia); collect Ippa (Madhuca longifolia) flowers; fodder for cattle; access medicinal plants and mushrooms, and hunt. 

Honey collectors of Royal Bee Brothers understand the process of harvesting organic raw honey and selling online through various ecommerce websites

Most interesting part of this market is to see a group of tribesmen roaming around the market and trying to sell their Mahua drinks* and few other handmade products. 

*Mahua wine is an alcoholic beverage made from the flowers of the Mahua tree, which is commonly found in the forests of central and eastern India. The process of making Mahua wine typically involves the following steps:

Collection of flowers: The flowers of the Mahua tree are collected when they are fully blooming and have a strong fragrance.

Fermentation: The collected flowers are crushed and mixed with water to create a mixture that will be fermented. Yeast is added to the mixture, which begins the process of fermenting the sugars in the flowers into alcohol.

Aging: The fermented mixture is then aged in containers, such as jugs or bottles, for several days to several weeks, depending on the desired strength and flavor of the wine. During this time, the yeast continues to ferment the mixture, and the alcohol content of the wine increases.

Straining: Once the aging process is complete, the wine is strained to remove any solids, and it is then ready to be consumed.

Serving: Mahua wine is traditionally served in small clay pots, and it is enjoyed either on its own or as an ingredient in various dishes and drinks.


Tribes selling the natural forest honey in the local market

 

Honey hunting was once solely for the purpose of survival, to have food, however, it seems there is a loss of interest an ancient tradition because there is a modern supplement to provide for immediate wants and needs. According to Mithun, “Tribal communities are the best guardians of forests and wildlife. It is high time we understood the traditional conservation and coexistence nature of our forest dwelling communities.”

The Kalahandi forest honey hunters are skilled individuals who possess an intimate knowledge of the forest and its inhabitants. They are part of the tribal communities residing in the Kalahandi district of Odisha, India. These honey hunters have a unique relationship with the forest, where they have honed their traditional honey-hunting techniques over generations.

The Kalahandi forest honey hunters venture into the dense forests, equipped with their ancestral knowledge, minimal tools, and exceptional agility. Their expertise lies in locating wild beehives tucked away in the crevices of trees, cliffs, or even on rock faces. They carefully observe the behavior of honeybees, deciphering their flight patterns and buzzing sounds to determine the location of the hives.

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Once the honey hunters locate a hive, they meticulously plan their approach. They may use smoke to calm the bees and protect themselves from stings. With great skill and precision, they harvest the honeycomb, ensuring minimal damage to the hive and the surrounding environment. The honey hunters are well aware of the delicate balance between taking honey and preserving the bee colonies to sustain their population and ecological function.

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The harvesting process is a daring endeavor that requires agility, bravery, and a deep understanding of the forest ecosystem. Climbing tall trees or scaling cliffs, the honey hunters navigate challenging terrain to reach the precious honeycombs. They often use traditional tools like long bamboo poles, ropes, and smoke pots to aid their efforts. The entire process is a display of exceptional physical prowess and cultural heritage.

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The Kalahandi forest honey hunters have a profound respect for nature and its resources. They follow sustainable practices, ensuring that their activities do not harm the environment or deplete the honeybee populations. By selectively harvesting honey, they leave enough for the bees to continue their essential role in pollination and maintaining the ecological balance of the forest.

The honey collected by the Kalahandi forest honey hunters is unique and highly sought after. It is known for its distinct flavor, aroma, and medicinal properties. The diversity of floral sources in the Kalahandi forest contributes to the richness of the honey's taste, reflecting the flora and fauna of the region. Kalahandi forest honey is prized for its purity, as it is free from any artificial additives, chemicals, or preservatives.

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For the tribal communities in Kalahandi, honey hunting is not only a means of sustenance but also a cultural tradition deeply rooted in their identity. It is a way to connect with their ancestors, preserving their knowledge and passing it down to future generations. Honey hunting rituals and festivals are celebrated, where the entire community comes together to honor the forest and its bounties.

However, it is essential to note that honey hunting can be a dangerous undertaking. The honey hunters risk their lives while navigating treacherous terrain and encountering aggressive bees. Environmental factors, such as deforestation and habitat loss, also pose challenges to the practice of honey hunting.

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Efforts are being made to support and promote sustainable honey hunting practices in Kalahandi. Organizations and governmental initiatives aim to provide training, equipment, and resources to honey hunters while ensuring the conservation of forests and bee populations. These initiatives help in preserving the cultural heritage of the honey hunters while safeguarding the delicate balance between human activity and the natural environment.

 

In conclusion, the Kalahandi forest honey hunters embody a profound connection between humanity and nature. Their traditional honey-hunting techniques, passed down through generations, showcase their expertise, bravery, and deep understanding of the forest ecosystem. The honey they harvest is a testament to the richness of the Kalahandi forest and is highly regarded for its unique flavors and medicinal properties. By supporting sustainable honey hunting practices, we contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage and the conservation of the forest and its valuable resources.