Tribal culture is the primitive culture of prehistoric era. Today, tribal groups are settled on different Padas (pieces of land). Even though the distance between the tribal people living in valleys and cities is decreasing with the increasing transportation facilities and improving infrastructure, their traditions and culture are alive. Their primitive lifestyles and motivations, both are quite different from ours.
I’m working with a tribal community in Kotra block of Udaipur, Rajasthan. Their way of life still depends entirely on nature. They consider earth, light, air, and sky as essential elements at the root of their existence. It shows not just in their festivals and rituals but also in their art and everyday life. I was interested to know more and so, I would talk to people about it.
Whenever I went to the village for meetings, I would engage myself with the tribal people. One day, at ‘Mamer‘ village, Satyendra*, a resident, told me a bit about a custom called Mautana, where if someone kills a person, the entire community will support the victim’s family by making the suspect’s family pay the price. A lot of questions arose in my mind about the origin of this custom and if there was any involvement of the government. But due to lack of time, I could not inquire further. I had to leave early as the last taxi was about to depart.
The next day, I met Chandrakant ji, president of Adivasi Vikas Manch, the local collective of tribal people. The moment I saw him, all the questions about Mautana started coming to my mind again. I went ahead and asked him all about it. As I sat in front of him, he gave me all the information he could, about the practice. He began from the tribal history.
According to him, this custom goes back several ages. When the human race was not so evolved, we were dependent on the forest. In those times, for resources, they used to attack the other groups and amidst all this, people lost their lives. If one of the members was killed, the villagers would gather to discuss the death after the funeral of the deceased. It was decided that the person who has killed the deceased, would give cattle (livestock) to the deceased’s family. Once that is done, the people gathered for the meeting would end the case by eating jaggery.
Gradually, humans evolved, the population of tribal people increased, and they started living together in villages. People of other castes also joined them. But when money came into circulation, they started asking for money instead of livestock in this practice. That’s where the term comes from – ‘Maut’ means death and ‘ana’ means money and the word together means money against death.
In the present time, the nature of this death ritual has completely changed. Within the system of Mautana, people of certain caste have started bluffing. They try to link every incident with Mautana. Even if the person has died due to an accident or got bitten by an animal or has committed suicide, they would try to put it under this custom.
If the body of the deceased is found in someone else’s village, field, or house, then the owner of that property is asked for money. Until then, the body is not moved from its place. If the person has been murdered, a huge amount is demanded from the culprit. There’s no choice but to pay. If they do not have money, they have to give away their land or house. They also have the choice to give away their animals like Cow, Buffalo, Ox.
Under any circumstances, if the accused is unable to pay the amount or give away his house or livestock, then he is asked to leave the village. This has become the tribal custom here.
According to the elders of the tribal area, this rule was made for the benefit of the family of the deceased. All the villagers have to follow it. I was first shocked to hear about this, and then was surprised at any new information coming on the topic. In today’s times, even when there are several laws and rules in our country, the tribal communities follow their own age-old rituals and traditions.
I could be wrong but it appears to me that their lack of interest and awareness about our country’s laws is the prime cause behind the on-going pratice of Mautana. As long as I am in Kotra, I will try to fill this gap.
Note: This story is about the specific tribal community I’m working with. Please don’t generalise it for other tribal communities.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality