The year was early 1997. We were on an anthropological field study of the Hill Hill People, as they called themselves, who were inhabitants of the southern parts of the Western Ghats. There were a dozen of us, and each of us was studying a particular aspect of their culture. Rather grandiosely, I took it upon myself to study their cognition of life, death, space, and time.
Part of that involved understanding how they viewed their surroundings — in this case the dense semi and wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. One of the elders of the village was known as the Blue One, and for some reason, he took a liking to me, and would not tire of all the questions I would keep asking him. He was of indeterminate age, and in our typically superior ways, we estimated him to be upwards of seventy years old. But of course, he could out-walk or out-climb any of us – this was after all his world.
The Hill Hill People had a none-too-elaborate mythology that accounted for the world around them and everything they saw and interacted with. There were intersections with Hindu tales at times that did not add up and could have been examples of assimilation. They called the village they lived in, with typical nature-people nonchalance, Little River Plain. You know, because a stream, which they called Little River, ran through it.
There was an abandoned settlement higher up in the hills, which the Blue One remembered living in when he was a boy. This place was called Bow Rest. Sometime in the distant past, a hunter was in the forest when he was attacked by a leopard. The hunter rested his bow on the ground as he released an arrow, killing the leopard and saving himself. At the place where he rested his bow, it sunk into the rock, and the hole it made can be seen even today. The Blue One narrated this story to us as we were walking around the remains of the abandoned settlement of Bow Rest. He pointed out the remains of some of the houses his folk had built there.
And then he led us out onto the bare rock, and in the middle of nowhere, there was a small stone. He moved it aside, and beneath it was a hole a few inches deep. It had neat sides and looked like a bore hole. “This is the place where the bow was rested. That’s why this place is called Bow Rest,” said the Blue One. “If we do not cover it, and leave it open, there will be rainfall so heavy that all the land will be flooded, and we cannot go back to our homes,” he added, carefully replacing the stone so that it covered the hole.
We tarried awhile on the great black rocks, since the weather was nice and the Blue One was in a talkative mood. That’s when this picture was shot, and it is perhaps the only picture I have of me in action in the field.
In the picture: The Blue One (telling his stories) with 2 anthropologists on a hillside near Bow Rest