Rampachodavaram – adivasis, jungle and chickens.

On my second visit to India, in 1984, I spent two weeks in the hills and jungles of the East Godavari District of the southern State of Andhra Pradesh. These hills are part of the Eastern Ghats, a chain of modest mountains and of hills and plateaus which stretch all along the eastern side of peninsular India. They are the home of various groups of tribal people, or adivasi – the original inhabitants of the hills, and quite possibly of India itself. Unfortunately the adivasi are often at a disadvantage when faced with the pressures of modern India for their land and its resources. For this reason the Indian Government makes special provision to assist them. My visit was to the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) area around the small town of Rampachodavaram, as guest of the Government Officer in charge.

It was a privilege to accompany him on his daily rounds among the tribal settlements, sitting with the people, discussing their problems, observing and coming to understand a little of how they lived and about the difficulties of their daily existence.  Except that I couldn’t understand a word of course.  Fortunately my host was generous in explaining to me what had been said. I recall one incident where he had been speaking gently, but also very firmly, with an obviously impoverished individual. I wondered what offence this poor gentleman could possibly have committed. He was, apparently, a dalit – that is a member of the caste or community formerly known as untouchables. In other words, he was, by birth, at the very bottom of the traditional hierarchy of Indian society. Meanwhile he had managed to rent some land from an adivasi couple for the price of one dhoti (a wrap around cloth worn by men) and one sari. This was a bargain  indeed  –  a bit too much of a bargain.  It was also against the rules. In the Agency area non-tribals were not allowed to hold land. Hence the ticking off.  My host’s comment was to the effect that here even the most exploited becomes the exploiter.

If it was a privilege to be there, it was also a torture. It was May, the height of summer, I wilted in the intense, dry heat, having come straight from a British winter. It was there that I experienced the worst lunch of my life. I was hungry and thirsty. Lunch was late. When it came, it was green, unripe, sour-enough- to-take-the-skin-off-your-teeth mango – with a dash of salt to taste.  I preferred to starve, but forced myself.

However, when it comes to ripe mangos – especially in the heat – there is nothing finer. Many years later, in similar circumstances in Tanzania, my companion and I rested under an enormous wild mango tree and enjoyed the small sweet mangos that the monkeys feeding above kept raining down on us.

One afternoon my ITDA Officer host took me to see a tree. It stood alone at the edge of a village with human life going on busily below and around about it. As we approached, my first thought was that the tree was full of very large and very peculiar fruit. In fact it was full of very large fruit-bats – flying foxes – all hanging with their leathery brown wings wrapped around them. This was their customary day-time roost.  It was the first time I had ever seen fruit look back at me.

During my stay I also spent a day and a night in camp in the forest as guest of an adivasi gentleman and his family. He was the elected member of the State Assembly for the area.  I was free to wander in the jungle. I had been warned that there were leopards.  I was returning to camp at dusk along a broad gravel track. As I rounded a bend I glimpsed an animal of significant size hurry away from me and disappear down the track ahead. I stopped and picked up a large stick. I proceeded nervously, but saw nothing. It was only on calmer reflection back at camp that I realised that what I had seen had been not a leopard but an Indian or striped hyena. The manner in which it moved on its long forelegs and short legs at the rear, together with the peculiar slope of the back, identified it. I was very happy to know that I had seen a hyena and not at all disappointed that I had not met a leopard.

However, the most exciting observation of my entire stay in the jungles of Rampochadavaram was of a chicken scratching in the leaf litter of the forest floor. I was sitting quietly to see what might come by. I heard the scratching first, then through the intervening foliage I glimpsed a quite ordinary chicken doing what chickens do: scratch-scratch-scratch with one foot, peck-peck-peck, then scratch again with the other foot. Wonderful ! Here was the ancestor of all domestic chickens – the Red Jungle Fowl, a hen  – appearing before me. I was thrilled to pieces !

Except that it may not have been a hen Red Jungle Fowl . It could have been a hen Grey Jungle Fowl – which is not the ancestor of all domestic chickens (although it may have contributed). The problem was, I didn’t have a bird book with me, and this part of the Eastern Ghats is exactly where both the Grey (which is Southern) and the Red (which is Northern) might be found.  Still, I like to think it was the Red.

Subsequently, in the hills of the State of Orissa, further North, I have most definitely heard the Red Jungle Fowl. I was in an adivasi village somewhere in the vicinity of the small town of Phulbani and I stood and listened to the wild cocks crowing across the fields in the adjacent jungle.  They were terrible.  Whereas, as everybody knows, the well- bred domestic cockerel says : ‘Cock-a-doodle-doooo . . . .!’, the best these wild cousins could manage was something like : ‘C’k-er doo d’r’.

Chanticleer, and indeed most domestic cockerels above a few months of age, would be mortified.  But I was delighted, for I had heard the call from the very beginnings of civilisation.  Or thereabouts.  In any case, as a long-time keeper of domestic chickens I can tell you that cockerels don’t all crow as they ought. It takes youngsters a while to find their voice, and a longer while still if there’s an older and more dominant cockerel about.  And even then, they don’t all get to crow like a Pavarotti.

Nonetheless, it is evident that, in the selection of Gallus gallus under domestication, human-kind has not only improved the species’ rate of egg production and/or weight-gain, they have also, deliberately or otherwise, mightily improved its voice.


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