If you have heard of the Gond tribe of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, chances are you know it in the context of the Naxalites it churns out in the country’s red corridor.
But a city-based researcher has recently discovered what few know about Gonds, one of India’s oldest indigenous tribes: that they have their own, well-defined system of astronomy that is much older than conventional Indian astronomy, which is based on the seasons of farming and harvest rather than the Zodiac belt.
“Not much research has been done on the Gonds, and what I have found is precious heritage that must not be lost,” said Mayank Vahia, an astrophysics professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) who believes his trip to Naxal villages in the last week of March was worth the risk.
Vahia’s study of Gond astronomy is part of his work on a long-term project on the ‘Origin and growth of Indian astronomy’ financed by the Tata Fund.
In one week, he covered nearly 2,000 km in and around Kanha forest, interviewing senior residents of 15 Gond villages.
“The tribe is vast and has resisted urbanisation for centuries. Yet, their reading of the night skies is sophisticated, utilitarian, and predates the astronomical system that we have followed for more than nearly a thousand years,” said Vahia.
The Gonds, for instance, perceive the three stars of the belt of Orion, the hunter constellation, as a plough, and also identify constellations representing winnowing and harvesting.
This star system governed every aspect of the tribe’s daily life. The rising constellations told them when the monsoons were due, when they needed to sow seeds and also when it was time to eat dinner.
“All of this has been passed down through an oral tradition, and the new generation is not aware of it,” said Vahia, who plans to write an academic paper on his findings.
In the next two months, Vahia will also bring a group of Gond elders to the city planetarium for an organised mapping of their astronomical charts throughout the year.