Gotuls have become tourism showpieces today. Not that they are any easily accessed but some can be seen in parts of Chhattisgarh’s remote north and in isolated corridors of Bastar down south. It is not as widespread as it was probably just a century ago. And it is facing challenges – from the ‘civic’ society and from sections of tribal communities; some have had to shut down in the wake of insurgent violence too. Many tour operators and hospitality providers throw in a ‘visit to a gotul’ as the deal clincher.
‘Gotul’ is both an ancient tribal system of education as well as the ‘campus’ with its own system of hierarchies. As the ‘campus’ it is usually just a simple building made of mud walls and generally bereft of windows built in a small plot of land fringing the rest of the village. In places where there is fear of wild animal attacks, they were also built on stilts. The size of the gotul the building was directly proportional to the size of the village. Girls and boys – ‘motiyaris’ and ‘cheliks’ respectively – were enrolled at the gotul when they turned six. The cheliks were taught traditional life skills like hunting, fishing and farming while for the motiyaris it would be basket-weaving and lessons in running a household. All cheliks and motiyaris were allowed to remain in the gotul only till they got married – could be to somebody they met while at the gotul or from outside.
When the members reached puberty, they were also allowed to interact sexually as well. The serenading and courtships made for a lot of merriment within the gotul. There is a lot of singing and dancing and exchange of jokes and meaningful glances. And combs. The chelik, in order to show his romantic interest in a motiyari, gifts her with a comb he has chiselled out himself from wood or bamboo. These combs are not just proclamations of love but also testimonies to their abilities and suaveness – they are embellished with feathers or mirrors or ornate engravings. Naturally, the most desirable among the ladies will have their own collection of combs but to be returned to the suitors and paramours at the time of their marriage. If the desire is mutual, they are paired. A final call on the pairing rests in the hands of the ‘bilosa’ (the leader of the girls) or the ‘sirdar’ (the head boy). In some places the gotul activities are also overseen by a village elder, usually women.
The system, originally practised by members of the Gond tribe, performed some very important social functions as well. Boys and girls were not just educated here also learnt to respect each other and live in harmony. The respect commanded by the tribal women (stuff like domestic violence and crimes against women are far, far less than in the more ‘civilised’ societies) from their men counterparts has been attributed largely to the values ingrained by the gotul system. But proliferation of education as we know it today, by supplanting the value-based system of education at the gotul has contributed to its disintegration. A few years ago it was even reported that some ghotuls were forcibly closed down by insurgent elements from within the tribal communities who opposed to the democratic exchange of ideas that took place here. They were also against the sense of equality and freedom that the gotul bolstered. Because of all these, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a gotul these days, well-nigh impossible to find one which is functioning. The impenetrable forests of Narayanpur are believed to have active gotuls. But these are not areas where tourism has made any inroads; unlikely it will in the near future either. A good thing, actually, as the invaluable tradition will be preserved for some more time to come.
Meanwhile, the promised ‘visit’ by the travel operator or the property owner remains at best a re-creation of the fun and frolic, the music and dance outside defunct gotuls. Those who do promise the ‘real’ experience do not offer it to first time visitors or passing travellers. Nevertheless, if somebody offers you a visit to a ghotul, take it up. The best mahua is reserved for visitors. But make sure the jokes are translated.
Sukhdas Nag, a master craftsman who teaches Dhokra art in Kondagaon, used to go to a ghotul till around 20 years ago. The woman he gave the ritualistic comb to eventually fell in love with somebody else. Today they are both happily married to other people and have children. But as fate would have it, they both ended up living in the same area. Neither of their respective spouses knew about their relationship still it was uncomfortable facing each other for a long time. “Now we have both become dhokra and dhokri (old man and woman) and we make polite conversation.” He doesn’t remember whether she gave him the comb back.