CORONA HALTS A FOREST FESTIVAL: Biligiri Rangan Hills, Chamarajanagar District

Samira Agnihotri, Bengaluru

Goru goru ko, gorukaanaa…goru goru ko, gorukaanaa…”

Dodda sampige nanna nodayya, kaadhu kaapadi madgonayya”

The lilting refrain from the gorukaana song cycle of the Solega people of the Biligiri Rangan Hills, echoes through the forested slopes during their festivals. The words pay obeisance to their central deity, the ancient Magnolia champaca tree known as Dodda Sampige.

Once every few years, the Solega celebrate their rotti habba with a grand kondotsava, where the devout walk over stretches of white-hot coals. Preparations for this begin months ahead, and Solega from near and far gather for the community feast, which is followed by song and dance through the night. Ragi rottis baked over coals in Muthaga leaves (Butea monosperma), and kumbalakai-avarekalu palya are placed as offerings to their forest gods. For a people whose marriage traditions commonly involve elopement, these festivals are also opportunities for young men and women to appraise each other, and choose their partners.

This year, however, there cannot be a rotti habba. The forest clearing lies bare, waiting to hear the drums that herald the beginning of the gorukaana. The District Administration has banned large gatherings, and the entire country is under a sudden lockdown.

Like in most situations, the Solega have taken this too into their stride. They watch the news on their televisions, and declare that a “maari” (an epidemic of infectious disease; often attributed to a curse from the gods) has befallen the world. They conduct poojas and make offerings to Maaramma thaai, and to their other gods to forgive these trespasses of mere mortals.

They have recently been given rations through the “Paushtika Aahara” scheme, and the District Commissioner has personally overseen the distribution of extra rations as promised by the Karnataka state government. At the same time, with no buses to nearby towns, and

more time on their hands, many have gone back to the old ways, of foraging for wild tubers and honey. For the Solega, the entire forest is their home, and while the world outside reels under the pandemic, the forest is still a safe haven. It is our collective responsibility that we, the outsiders, allow it to remain that way.