The only way forward if we are to improve the quality of the environment is to involve everyone,” says Richard Rogers, a British architect. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of those who deny the environmental degradation. Those who are committed to protecting threatened ecologies in times of blinding consumption and alarming insensitivity to the environment are true heroes.
Syed Najam-ul-Hassan is one of these ecological saviors. He has documented the life of the native tribes called Mohanas of Indus and their relationship to the ecology of the Indus Delta. He has consistently argued that they must be included in any development planning in the region, as they bring with them a wealth of wisdom as custodians of the earth. The Mohanas are tied to the banks of the rivers of the Indus system. Hassan published a book Mohanas of Indus: A Photographic Odyssey, in 2021 documenting the true stewards of the earth. Ironically, the janitors in particular are confronted with the threat of displacement and increasing environmental poverty. Hassan has spent around a decade photographing the daily life of the Mohanas, their indigenous culture and their lifelines tied to the river. The effort marks an excellent confluence of ethnographic and longitudinal research. The lensman spent 10 years creating the visual documentation, observing Mohanas in all sorts of situations and her dependency on the river.
These Earth Keepers claim their lineage from the Indus Valley Civilization. They are considered the last surviving practitioners of the indigenous culture. They have lived in their boathouses for centuries. Her early documentation had led her to Lake Manchar, the country’s largest freshwater lake and believed to be one of the largest in Asia. Fishing is the only source of income for most of the mohanas in the Dadu district of Sindh. In the 1970s, when the freshwater reservoir became polluted and fish began to die from industrial waste dumped into the lake, many of the Mohanas lost their livelihoods. In the end, the Mohanas had no choice but to leave the Manchar and switch to other water reserves. Most of them set off in their houseboats.
In 1974, the community settled near the Ali Pur, Ghazi Ghaat and Taunsa Barrage areas of Punjab. Hassan says that in the 1960s there were 3,000 Mohana families in the area with a total population of 50,000. After the failed 1974 displacement, some of these families began to live on land. The number of people still living in houseboats and away from the river has dwindled rapidly, leaving just 200 families of 1,500 people.
Some of the Mohanas had been quite wealthy in their lives at Manchar Lake. They had owned powerful multi-deck boats. When they arrived in the Punjab, the larger ships were found unsustainable. The architecture of the boathouses then changed to suit local conditions. While Sindh woodwork was much more detailed, boats made in Punjab have a pronounced preference for brighter colors.
One aspect of the Mohana’s life is their ability and willingness to live with other species. They have lived with birds for centuries. They are sometimes referred to as “blood brothers” to the birds they keep as pets.
One aspect of the Mohana’s life is their ability and willingness to live with other species. They have lived with birds for centuries. They are sometimes called “blood brothers” to the birds they keep as pets. When a child is born, little birds are placed in its cradle so that the birds and babies grow together. The Mohanas claim that they understand the “language” of the birds. Many of them skillfully imitate the voices of birds. A seal of the Indus Civilization shows a boat with two pelicans. It is said that the birds helped Mohanas catch fish. Mohanas’ other “blood brothers” are Great Blue Heron, Claremont, Spoon, Beak, and Coot.
Mohanas do not like to eat bird meat and seriously dislike chasing birds through their neighbors. In the breeding season of fish, they eat coot or cook lotus. According to a recent UNESCO report, “1 million animal and plant species are on the brink of extinction.” So “development” for one is development for no one; for gratification for one species that spells doom for another is neither just nor fair. Chief Seattle of Sioux said, “What’s a man without the beasts? If all animals were gone, man would die of great loneliness of spirit. Because what happens to animals will soon happen to humans too. All things are interconnected.” It is said that scarcity is wisdom, but in our case it seems wrong as we insensitively destroy scarce natural resources.
It is unfortunate that the wisdom of earth keepers like the Mohanas is misunderstood. Unfortunately, 70 percent of the population of the floating villages carry ID cards. A lens man picture shows the flags of dominant political parties being flown on Mohanas’ boats, but large numbers of Mohana children fall victim to polio when vaccination campaigns miss them. There are no schools for the children and they do not have reliable access to health facilities. Even though they live off water, they must fetch drinking water from distant earth-based resources.
Hassan has long tried to contribute to cultural preservation through visual documentation. He was not supported by writers and media people. The situation requires key stakeholders to be alert to the river dwellers who will disappear if not dealt with now. This would be a grave injustice. Chief Seattle says, “We did not inherit the earth from our parents. We borrow it from our children.” Unfortunately, instead of being one with nature, man has been invested in working against nature, polluting the environment, poisoning streams and rivers, and cutting down jungles. Man will fail because he is not well attached to his fellow man.
On the contrary, nature is very well connected in its fabric, although the threads are intricate and dynamic. There is an urgent need to achieve harmony with nature. There is a Tshi proverb: “If everyone helps to hold the sky, then one does not tire from the effort.”
Many of us live in modern settlements and have lost touch with the creative innovation of the indigenous people. The Mohana Scan teaches us to live in harmony with the environment instead of fighting against it. The Mohanas are a closed society, not because the closed is an end in itself, but because it is their way of reaching out. The Mohanas thrive on not having a chip on their shoulder or anything to prove or make a political statement; they do this by live and let live.
The author is a performing arts educator and photographer