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Welcome to the Ghotul: the swinging nightclub of the Gond tribals

Deepak Sharma | Updated on: 18 July 2015, 15:41 IST

Ancient tradition

  • Ghotul is the Muria Gond tribal community\'s learning centre for children
  • It\'s essentially an earthen or wooden hut on the outskirts of the village
  • Girls and boys become automatic members at age 10
  • Daytime is for lessons in community living, hygiene; evenings for singing and dancing
  • Physical intimacy is an integral part of the ghotul tradition

Modern misconceptions

  • Outsiders call it a debased ritual of \'savage\' people
  • BBC documentary, news reports have tarnished the tradition
  • Influence of \'outsider morality\' has led to ghotul\'s decline
  • The Maoists too have cracked down on the practice, want youth to be schooled in their ranks instead

Open a newspaper and it's hard to escape news of rape, sexual assault and honour killings. Sex education classes in schools often meet parental protest. Somewhere, jeans are banned. Online, conversations about banning porn are constant.

This is contemporary, 'modern' India.

Step out of the progressive big cities, though, and you'll stumble upon a people who live by a very different cultural ethos.

Welcome to the ghotul, the no-holds-barred 'nightclub' of the Muria Gond tribals of Bastar, where the sexes work, learn and play together from puberty - and where intimacy is just one more facet of growing up.

The ghotul, an earthen or wooden hut built on the outskirts of the village, is essentially a learning centre for children.

It's central to the social and religious life of the Murias. They believe their supreme deity, Lingo, created the first ghotul.

As soon as children hit the age of 10, they automatically become members of a ghotul; a female member is called motiari and the males, chelik. Their leaders are called, respectively, belosa and siredar.

Interestingly, while there is adult supervision in the form of a 'facilitator' - who serves to teach the children about cleanliness, discipline and community service - it's kept to a minimum; other than the teacher, only the young boys and girls are allowed in the ghotul.

Every evening, the beating of drums signals the motiaris and cheliks to gather in the ghotul for a few hours of 'leisure'. They sing and dance, and tease each other; tobacco and local toddy is available to all. There's local versions of antakshari, poetry and games, with revelry continuing late into the night.

Post this, elders come to check the children's 'homework' - making bamboo combs, stitching leaves and suchlike. Just like in a regular school, students who perform well are appreciated, the others pulled up.

While they're given an education in both work and leisure, the ghotul serves a third purpose as well - bringing young adults into the larger community, complete with its customs and responsibilities. No important ceremony of the community, including death rites, happens without the presence of the ghotul members.

Sex is one of many learnings

Physical intimacy is an integral part of the ghotul tradition; ease with one's own body, with the bodies of the opposite sex, and with sexual desire are encouraged. It's perfectly normal for adolescent boys and girls to swim together naked in the river. They start 'dating' as soon as they reach puberty - flirtation is common and often initiated by the girl. If a motiari likes a boy, she steals his comb to indicate it.

Proprietary behaviour, on the other hand, is sternly discouraged; no ghotul member is allowed to shower special attention on one boy or girl. They are, in fact, punished for doing so.

Promiscuity is a norm for a Muria bachelor, but strict monogamy is expected of the married

That doesn't mean it's a community with no boundaries; while sexual fidelity is not the norm for a Muria bachelor, strict monogamy is expected of the married. Straying is punished severely, sometimes even by death.

The discovery of this world

It was Verrier Elwin, a self-taught anthropologist, ethnologist and tribal activist who first encountered and amplified the tradition of ghotul to the outside world. He came to India in 1927 as a Christian missionary, but soon abandoned proselytising to dedicate his life to the tribal cause.

To Elwin, the ghotul was 'a place for the youth, an independent and autonomous children's republic.'

"The message of the ghotul - that youth must be served, that freedom and happiness are more to be treasured than any material gain, that friendliness and sympathy, hospitality and unity are of the first importance, and above all that human love - and its physical expression - is beautiful, clean and precious, is typically Indian," he said.

He was the first of scores of anthropologists, sociologists and travel writers drawn to the concept of the ghotul. "The ghotul is a place where hearts meet. Those who are humdrum remain alone here," writes Pandit Kedar Nath Bhushan, popularly known as 'Bastar Bhooshan'.

Lost to the world

As with many deeply local traditions, this one is in decline, not least due to the influence of 'external morality' as well as Maoists.

A BBC documentary in the 1970s, followed by a spate of magazine articles in the 80s, did serious damage to the ritual, with reports calling it 'savage' and outdated, to the outrage of anthropologists and local leaders - so much so that Manku Ram Sodhi, MP from Bastar between 1984 and 1996, had to stand up in Parliament to protest this misrepresentation.

The protests forced the government to declare the Abhujmand region as restricted. Outsiders had to take written permission to go in until as recently as 2009, when the restriction was finally lifted.

But a shortsighted morality isn't the only threat to the custom; the Maoists are staunch critics, with rebels wanting tribal youth to get schooled in their ranks rather than in a ghotul.

Protecting the past

The decline of the ghotul is more than just a loss of custom or cultural heritage - anthropologists believe the tradition is a key reason for the egalitarianism of tribal societies.

Among the Gonds, for instance, rape is unheard of, adultery is rare, and crimes of passion and honour killings quite simply don't occur. Physical intimacy is sacred and respect for another's body and soul is paramount.

Ghotul's message is that love, and its physical expression, is clean and precious: Verrier Elwin

Women's equality is a concept they've never heard of and practice every day - women are inherently equal to men and are involved decision-making. Many key leadership tasks in the ghotul, in fact, go to women.

It's ironic that on the one hand we have to take to the streets to get justice for a rape accused while on the other we want to distance ourselves from the customs of a community that is liberal, sexually progressive, and operates on a sacrosanct code of morality. It may be time to redefine the word progressive, this time from the inside out.

First published: 16 July 2015, 22:47 IST
Deepak Sharma @catch_deepak

Is a Delhi-based journalist whose heart still resides in his native mountains of Himachal. After almost a decade-long career in television news, he's made the switch to digital. When not working, he likes to venture into the world of theatre, music and literature. Obscure places are where he meets his element.