OT Wedding Wednesday: Sustainable Wedding Traditions Of Maharashtra's Gonds

As the wedding season arrives in full gusto, here's a look at how the Gonds' deeply rooted respect for the forest colours their weddings
Sustainable Wedding Traditions Of Maharashtra's Gonds
A painting depicting how Gonds live in harmony with natureArtwork by Japani Shyam, 15x7 feet, acrylic on canvas. Collection: Gallery OED Kochi

Congratulations!" said Dulal Madawi, "Let us have sweets to celebrate."

Madawi was rejoicing on a cold January evening in Dhamditola village, Gondia district, Maharashtra, because the dates for his youngest daughter, Kavitha's June wedding had just been finalised. In the tradition of the Gonds—one of the largest tribal communities in India—festivities begin at least five to six months before the wedding day. Understandably, there was much delight and excitement at the Madawi residence.

Like any big fat Indian wedding, the preparations start with discussions and debates over the menu. However, what sets Gond weddings apart is their strong link with forests and their inclination towards sustainable practices.

A Gond wedding
A Gond weddingShutterstock

The first thing to take care of is the collection of fuelwood and its storage, which will eventually be used to cook for the wedding invitees—essentially the entire village. Usually, one of the eldest family members, either the bride's eldest paternal uncle or father, if he is the oldest of his siblings, will visit the forest with several youths to collect dead and dried logs. No one dares cut a living tree.

Weddings are the only times when draught animals are allowed in the forests to transport the fuelwood. Locally called bail bundi, a bullock cart, Gram Sabha rules forbid the entry of draught animals in the forest to keep a check on fuelwood extraction. Anyone who wants fuelwood must carry it on their head and select only dead and dried trees. There are penalties if someone is caught violating these forest management rules.

Setting The Stage

As the wedding day nears, with all the invites sent and the duties delegated, the stage is set. At the crack of dawn on the wedding day, all the men in the bride's family, and other locals, go into the forest to select strong trunks to make the wedding platform or the mandap. Four to six sturdy trunks of palash or bamboo are collected. The vibrant red flowers of the former are used to extract colours for different festivals and rituals. In case there are no dried trees, an exemption is made, only because it is for a wedding, and a few living trees are cut down. The mandap's roof is usually made from the leaves of jamun and, at times, tendu.

A set of Gond women
A set of Gond womenShutterstock

Tendu is a significant commercial forest tree whose leaves are used for making local cigarettes (bidis), which provide livelihood to hundreds of forest-dwelling communities that depend on it for subsistence. Since tendu leaves are commercially significant for this village, the young trees are usually not used for the mandap.

Rooted Traditions

In Gondi folklore, the salai tree is deemed an indispensable element of everyday life and personified as a deity. The tree has proven medicinal properties and is said to heal and treat wounds, arthritis, the common cold, and respiratory disorders. A young tree is brought to the mandap and placed in the centre.

Locals, primarily women, display their creativity by carving a range of figures and symbols on the body of the salai tree after it is placed on the mandap; similar paintings are depicted on the pillars of the mandap as well.

The composition of the pictures gives a holistic sense of tribal lives, socio-religious belief practices, and their association with forests. On the wedding day, the bride will first venerate the salai tree before all the wedding rituals begin.

In certain tribal groups such as Korku, there is a ceremonial practice of "gadli" centred around the salai tree. It is connected to the haldi (turmeric) ceremony, where people playing small drums and flutes collectively sing folk songs. All the married women dance around the salai tree when the bride smears haldi on the tree, marking the formal inception of wedding festivities.

For serving the food, the leaves of the mahul plant are used as plates and are sewn into takeaway containers. For desserts, gum from bhutya or karaya is used to make items like laddoos.

Bhutya translates to ghostly in English since the tree is coated with a silvery-pink bark that reflects in the dark, giving it an eerie glow. The locals select mature trees and make incisions up to one square foot for the gum to seep out. The process is done for three to four days before the wedding to ensure enough gum is collected.

When the Gonds seek to use the forests, only requisite amounts of plant parts (be it bark, fruit, flower, or leaves) are taken.

They offer prayers and gratitude to the forest before transacting with it. It is this cultural, emotional, and social affiliation that has kept the forests of our nation still "alive"—breathing and beating across the perils of annihilation.

Anirban Roy is a PhD candidate at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE)

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