NRE 477

Women and Environment



Women of Konkan (India) and their Environmental Experiences.











Sulakshana Mahajan

6 April 2001

Women and Environment

Women of Konkan (India) and their Environmental Experiences.


Environmental experiences of women from different regions of India could be a rich source for scholars. Thinking about the regional variety in India one can safely say that the environment is the most influential factor affecting the lifestyles of people. The relationship of society and nature in India has evolved through the interaction of regional traditions and practices of many cultures[i] that have been assimilated superimposed and adapted in a complex web. The Indian caste system is a common factor easily understood by all Indians as they intimately relate to it even when separated by geographic space[ii]. It may pose difficulties for outsiders. Even today it is the most important factor of identity for most Indians, though it has been abolished in the legal system. Despite the caste differences, a large number of common practices that transcend beyond the narrow categories of castes are shared by all.

As an example of using turmeric powder in food, medicine or for cosmetic purpose is common knowledge throughout India. So much so that marriage ceremonies may differ but use of turmeric is common in the ceremonies. On the strength of its universal use India could win a case in the US patent court in 1998. The main argument was based on the traditional knowledge[iii].

It is also difficult to define the social position of castes in India in terms of economic class. A Brahmin, upper caste widow may experience many social constrains but her work experiences and her economic position may be superior to poor farmer women or those of tribal women, who enjoy much more personal and social and familial freedom. The fishermen caste or farmers of worrier castes (Khatriyas) or even the former untouchable castes can be economically superior to some Brahmins.

For the purpose of this paper the categories of women and their experiences of environment are referred from their social position i.e. the caste system, in the Hindu tradition. This paper will focus on rural Hindu women of the coastal region of Maharashtra known as Konkan and it will not be prudent to consider these experiences as those of Indian women in general.

This paper will also indicate some similarities and differences in the environmental experiences of women of Konkan with those of North American women. It may be useful to indicate the differences in the environmental attitudes regarding conservation and preservation of nature and women’s role in it. However this paper does not attempt to present a comparative study of American and Konkani (of Konkan region) women’s environmental experiences or the role of women in the contemporary environmental movement.

Sources for the study.

Most of the studies related to Konkani women are undertaken from sociological, cultural, economic or feminist perspectives, but some of them have links to the environment. In this essay I have put together Konkani women’s environmental experiences by referring to such written resources and books. I have also referred literary sources, and biographical works of Konkani women. I have also referred my own notes and transcripts generated between March to July 1999, in relation to the study of the status of Konkani women in saline land affected villages with an aim to develop a program to help them. In this paper I have not touched the environmental experiences of urban (Mumbai) women because of the limitation of space.  This also helped me maintain the focus on the traditional pattern of women’s lives, observed as of today in rural areas rather than the urban women who maintain superficial ties with the traditions.

Konkan Region

Konkan region is a coastal area between the Arabian Sea on the west and high Deccan plateau (800 meters) on its east.  It is a narrow strip of land, 740 km (437 miles) long, broken by a number of rivers and creeks. At the north, width of the strip is 60 km (38 miles) while at the southern end it is 25 km (15 miles). The northern half of the region (Thane and Raigad Districts) is flat and close to the sea level. Rainwater and high tidal waters often flood lands in this area while the southern part (Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg Districts) is undulating and has few small flat areas. Mumbai (Bombay) island is in the northern part of the region, which is the economic capital of India and a crowded urban metropolis housing more than ten million people. The northern Thane district is nearly urbanized while the southern part of Konkan on the other hand is largely rural. Konkan shares its southern boundary with that of Goa, famous for its beaches. Before the British colonial rule there were many large and flourishing ports in Konkan along the coast which had established trade links to Red Sea and Egypt. (Bombay Gazeteer, Ratnagiri & Sindhudurg, page 416). Man made, sharp contemporary urban-rural dichotomy in the region is of colonial and postcolonial origin. As the ports declined, Konkan districts except Thane were isolated. For British rulers, this difficult region posed problems for railway and road construction. Road network started improving slowly after 1950. In 1995 the Konkan railway was established and the area is got linked to the rest of the country. Isolation of Konkan protected it from the industrial and urban influences and hence it provides an opportunity to study the traditional life patterns.

Geography and Ecosystem

The seasonal, geographic, climatic and natural variations reflect on the variety of lifestyles of the people of the region. The beautiful white sand beaches with coconut groves, thick teak forests along the river valleys, and dry rocky plateaus at a little higher elevation can all be found within a short distance. The settlements are located where water, vegetation and seafood is in ample supply. Main crop of the region is rice, which is grown mostly in the monsoon season of four months and all efforts are made to bring every kind of land, such as slopes on hills, rocky ground as well coastal saline lands under cultivation. A second crop of oil seeds and beans follows the rice in some places where there is some irrigation available. The forests, though depleted, consist of a rich variety of trees that is source  lively hood for local people.

The laterite stone, a sort of red soft stone found in the southern part of the region is cut into blocks and used for walls of the houses. The sloping roof is made from timber with clay tiles as well as dry coconut leaves woven as roof panels. A kind of reed (locally known as Karvi) is used to construct panels for the walls of houses in the north, which is then covered with mud paste and plastered with cow dung. Houses are raised on platforms, floors are flattened and consolidated and covered with cow dung layer. All materials used for rural house construction are generated from local sources and houses are constantly maintained and last for generations. A typical architectural style of housing is unique to Konkan. The houses are constructed by masons and carpenters who are well trained in the family tradition of construction based on the Vastu Shastra (Indian  architectural science).

Season and Climate

The climate of this region is temperate and humidity is high during the monsoon and very hot and sultry in the summer. Three main seasons form part of the yearly cycle. Monsoon is the main farming season June to September and the region receives more than 100 inches rain in the period, followed by winter, October to January and the summer from February to May. Despite the ample rains, the region faces severe shortage of water in summer and the well water is rendered useless for life due to salinity and depleted water table. Presence of Sea is the center of life and many activities are related to it.

People of Konkan

Konkani men and women have to wander through variety of landscapes for livelihood and social interactions. Role of women is important for the paddy cultivation and hence their position in society is much different than in other parts of Mahrashtra. This region was part of the traditional matriarchal social system in which worship of earth Goddess was important. Even today Goddess cult is dominant in this part. During the colonial rule the Konkani women continued with the life in the villages while men increasingly migrated to Mumbai in search of work, first for construction of docks and then as labor for industries (Bagve A. page 170).

Upper caste Konkani Brahmin women.

Social and economic position: The Brahmin caste is considered at the top of the Indian hierarchical social and Hindu religious system. The men do work related to knowledge. They teach Sanskrit, religion, language and literature, philosophy, farming, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, politics, medicine, accountancy, legal system (Gazateer of Bombay presidency, Ratnagiri and Sawantwadi districts, page 113). The women of this caste had right to the same knowledge some earlier times (Sane G. Page 7) but subsequently the women were cut off from it and they performed the support function for the men. Women thus acquired knowledge but had little rights to participate in social and religious interactions like men. Today most Brahmin women are educated and some have entered the formal jobs in the villages like teaching, medicine etc. Most Brahmin women in Konkan continue with the work of looking after the horticulture gardens (My notes).

Environmental experiences: Konkani Brahmins own best of the farmlands and horticulture plantations. Farming is done by paid labor force and managed by men. Brahmin women are in charge of horticulture and coconut plantations. They perform all the necessary farm management functions with help of labor in absence of men, though they never till the land or do hard labor. Cows and buffalos are part of their household responsibilities and the mornings and evenings are devoted to the care of animals. Milking, feeding, cleaning, and washing the animals is the responsibility of women. They manage all dairy production. Taking care of the garden is another major job the Brahmin women do. In Chiplun taluka (taluka is equal to a county) Chitapawan (pure of hearts) Brahmins have long narrow plots of lands facing the sea (Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg gazeteer page 111). Chiplun is a major taluka for this Brahmin community where women have perfected the art of coconut plantation. The large family houses sit in the middle of thick plantation of coconut palms and beetle nut palms. Description of Kerala plantations by Vandana Shiva fits well for Konkan  plantations as well. “Coconut is cultivated in a multi layered, high intensity cropping system, along with betel and pepper vines, bananas, tapioca, drumsticks, papaya, jackfruit, mango and vegetables”. (Mies M. & Shiva V. page 165-166). The front garden consists of variety of fruit tress, seasonal scented flowering trees, shrubs and medicinal plants commonly used by the households. Collecting flowers from the garden and distributing them among to poorer families is a common practice (Deshpande S. page 37). Women prepare saplings, plant trees and nurture them. A unique way of growing mushrooms on walls in rainy season by mixing seeds in cow dung plaster is a unique practice in Malvan Taluka (Deshpande S page 39). Drawing water from wells and watering the garden is a major task. Used domestic water is carefully diverted to the garden through channels.

Women also have the responsibility of managing the farm products and arranging storage and preservation and processing for the year round consumption. Knowledge about various food preservation and storage techniques is well developed by the Brahmin women. They use dried Neem[iv] leaves for the dried grains to protect from fungus in rainy season. Most of the summer months are busy days for the women. They have to arrange for sun drying of all kinds of foods in the front yards including drying of raw mangos, tamarind, kokam (a red fruit used in daily cooking), jack fruits, bananas and prepare pickles, jams and spices in large quantities for the year round use. Front yards of their houses look attractive and colorful in the summer months with red chillies, yellow tamarind, variety of green, white and brown beans and mustard seeds and many more products (my notes). Pickles, fruit juices and jams are kept in the Sun as a preservation technique.

Knowledge of environment. The Brahmin women mostly work in their homes and gardens and visit the sea-shore for recreation. Temple visits on holy days, festival days are occasions when women have to venture out and walk long distances. Many religious places are located on the hills, in the caves and everyone has to trek. Women generally go in group and these times are happy times for them. Knowledge of plants, flowers and fruit trees is common. Animals, birds, and even snakes are their common home visitors (Deshpande S. page 35)[v]. Each house has a stone water dish for birds. A handful of rice is offered to birds every day. Most Brahmin women make a plate of cooked food ready for cows in the morning before any family member can eat lunch. Any left over cooked food is offered to cows. Using banana leaves as plates for food is a common practice and the used leaves are offered to cows (recycling technique!). Even today at times of marriages, and festivals, banana leaves are preferred as plates. Large green teak tree leaves are plucked and joined to make circular plates. Bowls are made from a single leaf by twisting and stitching it with a thorn. Young girls and boys are trained in this art and they do this job while roaming forests in the summer months. The plates are then dried in the sun and stored for year round daily use. Brahmin diet is strictly controlled for the profession. Brahmins cannot eat meat. Some Konkani Brahmins in south known as Saraswat Brahmins eat fish. For some milk and milk products are used in daily diet. Most of the food eaten in any particular season is naturally available in the region and is considered suitable and healthy for the season and supposed to have close links to the seasonal body requirements. Women and men often commit to go without food for few days in a week (supposedly for religious reasons) and may have been a technique of conserving food. According to Ayurveda, different kinds of foods available in each season are most suitable for human body. Brahmin diet changes according to each season and women generally follow these traditions.

Brahmin women have keen knowledge about certain foods and plants, seeds and their medicinal properties. Brahmin women follow recommended diet before and after childbirth. They are also very about child upbringing. A novel called “Shamchi Aai”  (Sham’s mother in Marathi) is an epic story written by Sane Guruji, a freedom fighter from Konkan and a film based on it became very popular. The Brahmin women work very hard and enjoy considerable power and respect in the family and villages due to their knowledge. A local proverb says give waste land to a Chitpavan and he will turn it into gold. (Gazateer of Bombay presidency, Ratnagiri and Sawantwadi districts, page 113). But in reality it is done by women most of the time. My visit to village Asood, (Taluka Dapoli) which is mostly inhabited by the Chitapawan Brahmins was very revealing. The terraced horticulture gardens have a very intricate irrigation channel system and water from a perennial source from the top of a nearby hill is brought to the plantation. The garden system is at least 400 year old. In hot summer afternoon the garden remains cool and breezy and a pleasant place for siesta.

Middle class/ caste farmer women

Social and economic position: This is the largest group of Konkan population. Locally known as Marathas and Kunabis they comprise of nine groups in Ratnagiri and Sawantwadi area ( Gazateer of Bombay presidency, Ratnagiri and Sawatwadi districts, page 121). The main crop grown by the community is paddy. Other crops like millet, maize etc. are cultivated on hill slopes and rocky lands in rainy season.

Environmental experiences

Unlike Brahmin women, most of the farmer women have to spend their time in fields. The farms are small and distributed at different locations hence the women have to walk to reach them. There are different types of soils in Konkan and one has to have perfect knowledge of farming practices of each type. Rice varieties, propagation methods and cultivating practices differ for each type. Women generally don’t plough the earth and men don’t do transplanting. The ground for rice plantation is cleared, ploughed to loosen soil and allowed to get exposed to sun in April and May. The paddy fields are surrounded by raised bunds (12 inch tall dykes made from stone and earth). In summer all men and women leave home early morning along with children and animals before it is too hot and work in the fields till noon. Cooked food is carried to the fields by one of the family members for all. Trees provide welcome shade in the noon and work is resumed till the evening. In the rainy season transplantation of rice is undertaken when there is enough water table in the fields and women work in the rains by bending down while men plough the fields with help of bullocks and wooden plough. The cooperation of all farmers is essential and as every person is needed in the fields in those days. People ware bamboo shields irale, covered with palm leaves to protect themselves in rain. Cow dung manure, and green leaves from certain trees are applied to the fields before transplanting. Drainage of fields has to be continuously manipulated so as to maintain proper level of water in each field. Knowledge about natural pest control is also common. Using Neem leaves or diluted paste of Chilli and garlic as pest control measure is common for vegetables, fruit gardens. Seeds are also treated with many natural substances before plantation so as to protect them from insects. In the production and preparation of plant foods, women need skills and knowledge. “To prepare seeds they need to know about seed preparation, germination requirements and soil choice. Seed preparation needs visual discrimination, fine motor coordination, and sensitivity to humidity levels and weather conditions. To sow and strike seeds demands knowledge of seasons, climate, plant requirements, micro-climate, soil enrichment”. (Mies M. and Shiva V. page 167).

Some years back value of frogs for controlling pest in the rice fields became apparent in the region. Frog population depleted in fields when farmers were attracted by the demand Mumbai the export market. Soon the fields were found infested by a pest called Khodkida. When the relationship of frogs and this insect became clear, government banned the frog exports. (My notes)

Most farmer families have cows and bullocks. Women’s knowledge has been the mainstay of the indigenous dairy industry. “Dairying, as managed by women in rural India, embodies practices and logic rather different from those taught in dairy science at institutions of formal education in India, since the latter is import from Europe and North America. Women have been experts in feeding and breeding, not only cows and buffaloes but also pigs, chicken, ducks and goat” (Mies M. & Shiva V. page 167). Konkani farmer women grow variety of vegetables and vines in their backyards in the rainy seasons. A number of seasonal plants, fruits, leaves, sprouts, mushrooms that grow naturally on hills, along the paths are collected by women as vegetables and sold in the market or consumed in daily diet. They also collect valuable products from forests in summer for the market including many medicinal varieties used in Ayurveda.

Diet of farmer community is different than the Brahmins. Except in the four months of rainy season they eat meat, chicken, eggs, and variety of fish and use lot of spices and coconut in preparation. Rice and Nachani (also known as ragi) are part of their diet.

Knowledge of environment.

Women take part in most religious functions and visit temples like Brahmin women. Local fairs and festivals and weekly market trips to nearby towns are must for the women. These women also collect firewood from forests for their own consumption. Green grass and leaves are collected for animals. Knowledge of tidal cycles, seasons, and sky is essential part of their daily life. Geographical knowledge of these women is much more extensive as they walk a lot in the region compared to Brahmin women. They cross rivers, creeks in boats quite often and also climb hills when they graze their animals in the dry season. Variety of berries, fruits and nuts are collected. Cashew and mango plantations are on higher grounds and women collect cashews and fruits from the plantations. The saline land affected farmers have to plant special variety of rice after leaching out salt from first showers even though yield is much lower. Most of the women preserve good quality seeds for the next season. Hence they have to know all the techniques of preserving.

Most of the training for women starts an early age. Young girls take care of siblings in homes and on farms, collect water from common wells or go to river to wash clothes and cook food when elder women are busy with farm work. In last few years the formal education among girls has improved substantially in the region however it is not uncommon for girls to walk few miles to school and high schools.

Many land holdings are small and not sufficient to provide food for the families. Many families migrate to other regions and towns to find work for six months. They generally have good established network of such work places and hence their experiences are varied and rich about other regional environments and farming practices.

Women of fishing caste

Social and economic position: Social position of fishermen caste is same as that of the farmers. But the community is generally economically better off than farmers. Fishermen own wooden boats and sail in deep sea in groups, often for 2 or 3 days. When they return after the catch, women take over all the other operations of marketing, preserving and storage. Certain fish is sold in auction on the seashore and merchants send it to Mumbai port for further processing.

Environmental experiences. Fishermen community lives very close to the coast but they generally select higher and rocky grounds, that provides grand view of the Sea and creeks. They use the beach for parking their boats, repair and net repairing. Long bamboo poles and wooden soars are used for navigation. Women rarely accompany the boats. But they have keen eye for all the details of the seacoasts. Women collect crabs and shells from the rocky areas. They know about the high low tide timings and have keen sense of the habitats of the creatures. Crabs collected on certain days of the month are big and fleshy. Harnai and Malwan Ports are famous for large variety of fish and lobsters. Certain varieties of fish are reserved for drying. Fish called Bombay duck is hung on bamboo frames erected on the beaches while small fish is dried on the rocks. The fish has to dry in hot sun in one day to avoid wastage. Rocks, wind and sun all help the process of drying fish. Much of fish residue is sold as manure or chicken feed (My notes).

Knowledge of environment:

Environmental experiences of the fisher women largely are related to the sea. They have keen knowledge about mangroves, weeds and trees, sea animals and fish. They also have keen knowledge of celestial movements. Four months of rainy season are lean season for the community. No fishing is undertaken as the sea is rough and the strong winds are dangerous. On the full moon day in the fourth month of the season a special day celebrations usher in the fishing season and men and women dance on the beaches singing songs in praise of the Sea. These folk songs are generally based on the rhythm of the waves and well known dance form of the region. Fisher women dress themselves for the occasion in bright colorful sarees and ware lot of flower garlands on head and bodies. Offering coconut and flowers to the sea is an essential part. They also go on pilgrimage to the Goddess temples on hills along with children. Their diet is quite similar to that of farming community. Walking to markets carrying fish for sale is everyday task for the women.

Land less middle caste and lower caste women.

Social and economic position

Traditionally lower caste people settled on the outskirts of villages at a little distance from main settlements. They had to perform certain services for the villages and had a right to the agricultural produce from the village. Now this system is legally abolished and most of the people have come to stay in cities like Mumbai where they have better economic and social environment. Very few lower caste families are found in Konkan compared to other regions. But land-less families are substantial in number.

Environmental experiences

It is necessary for the land less class of people to go job hunting in the region for their survival. Men and women often travel long distances to larger towns in summers to work on road construction or public works and return to villages in rainy season to work on the farms. Their permanent houses located in the villages allow them access to the traditional rights to share cropping. Old people and children generally stay in villages. These people experience variety of environments in different regions, often staying in tents on the travel or on the project sites in remote forests and towns. Besides farming some of the families have skills like bamboo work, carpentry, masonry, building construction, leather work, metal working, weaving, pottery, salt making etc. Women help the men in some of these jobs and most of the time they work outdoors. The women have to fetch water from village wells or common taps or rivers, firewood from forests and prepare food, using stones, often at new places. Tents are made from bamboo mats. Their animals like goats, sheep, horses, donkeys also travel with the people. These people often go on pilgrimage with groups in the regions they visit and travel long distances most of the time on foot. They commonly travel to the Deccan plateau where sugar plantations need seasonal farm workers and they can make more money working there.

Knowledge of environment.

The journey often consists of climbing the traditional trekking routes, which are both picturesque and cut the travelling time. The region has many mountain forts constructed by Maratha rulers in earlier centuries, which were destroyed by the British colonial rulers. But these forts are cherished historical places for urban people as well as rural people. Men and women have great knowledge of the beautiful trekking routes in the Sahyadri ranges[vi]. In village Raigad, the most favorite tournament of the year is climbing the fort Raigad (Capitol Fort of the King Shivaji) and most of the times the race is won by women. This traditional skill is legendary. One of the steep difficult rock formation on Raigad fort is named after a heroic woman named Heera. As the legend goes, when King Shivaji ruled this fort, gates used to get closed at sunset for security reasons. Once Heera, who came to sell buttermilk on the market from her village at the bottom of the fort was late and had to reach her family and baby by climbing down the steep rock with help of her long saree, in the dead of the night. When king came to know of her feat, he ordered the rock to be named as Heerkani! This story is a great sourse of inspiration for every person in the region. Such legends of women’s environmental interactions are commonly heard in all parts of Konkan and one is really surprised by them. Free spirit of Konkani women is quite unique compared to the stereo type images of women of India.

Konkani Women in Indian context

The contributions of Konkani women, in urban center like Mumbai in contemporary society are of great importance. The middle class, upper caste women in Mumbai were in forefront of freedom movement. The Konkani textile women worker’s role in the labor movement is unmatched. The fact that most of the pioneer women in a number of fields like science, medicine, politics, social work, environmental movement in Maharashtra came from this region of Konkan is not a simple coincidence[vii]. One can trace the roots and links of these women to their Konkan environment. Women writers from Konkan have a niche in the literary circles and environmental experiences of each are part of the great literature.

Konkani Women’s attitude towards environment: Attitude of society is the product of knowledge and experience as well as cultural and religious views. When the knowledge is part of the daily experience, part of informal ritual and behavior norm in society, the rational thought behind it is difficult to evaluate. Knowledge system of such a society, evolved over many centuries, is often viewed as cultural heritage and its knowledge value and its environmental content is not understood.  Understanding of such knowledge poses difficulty for others when there is no common evaluation and translation system. Thinking about environmental experiences of Konkani women, the differences between the American approach towards environment became apparent. The main difference is that the American women had to fight men on environmental issues[viii] from their own class for conservation and preservation of environment. They had to seek state help and legal forms for protection. The unconscious but highly effective social norms of Konkani women achieve conservation and preservation of environment in a much different manner. It is a fact that the conflict with the state and the commercial interests which have been instrumental in partially destroying the balance of the environment is of last one century and a half. The difference in the approaches is well documented by the Indian environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva. “The economy of many Third world communities depend on biological resources for their sustenance and well being. In these societies, biodiversity is simultaneously a means of production and an object of consumption. The survival and sustainability of livelihood is ultimately connected to the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources in all their diversity. Tribal and peasant societies’ biodiversity-based technologies, however, are seen as backward and primitive”. (Mies M. & Shiva V. page 165)


Certain common cultural factors such as knowledge about the region, Konkani language with all its dialects and styles of speaking, foods, clothing house construction and attitudes towards nature, animals and plants, common mythological roots, festivals and functions, customs and rituals have a common regional flavor. Konkani women can easily be identified by their dress codes and language by the outsiders. The more knowledgeable person and keen observer can identify the caste, social and economic positions of the women and their occupation. The common dress of Konkani women is nine yard saree and a blouse. However style of wearing the saree is closely linked to the work the women do. Flexibility of the nine yard saree allows it to be used as a complete cover for the body with a shawl for wrapping around for the upper caste women. It can also be worn in such a fashion, which allows women to do all necessary work. The saree, when pulled high above knees and tightly secured to body with knot at the waste[ix] such as done by farmer women facilitates all kinds of movements. It is convenient for climbing hills, working in fields, climbing trees to cut the branches for fire wood, or enter in the sea for a swim or collecting shells and fish in it, or do domestic work in and around the house[x]. It also provides head cover as protection from sun. As compared to the traditional flowing dresses of western middle class women[xi] of earlier periods the dress of Konkani women appears to be extremely functional and suitable for the environment. The young women ware a long skirt until they are married and when it is divided and secured to waist it provides same flexibility as shorts. Few women have luxury of having more than 2 sarees in a year and old sarees are quilted together by women and used as sleeping covers. Multiple layers provide the luxurious warmth in winter, while smaller quilts made from sarees are cherished by children. Even in rich families it is not uncommon to use the old, used cotton sarees for such purpose. The white loin-cloth worn by men and sarees thus give same functional freedom to men and women.

Major traits and the patterns of behavior of Konkani people, which is in fact related to the Konkan environment is the art of conservation refined by the Konkani women. Konkani women are often touted by other people for their extreme thriftiness. However looking from the environmental perspective the value of their behavior is immense for their survival in challenged environment. Use of all the available natural resources including trees, plants, animals, birds, forests, rivers, creeks, mountains and recycling techniques of Konkani women will be a great topic of research. An example of use of cow-dung will not be out of place here. The dung is a valued commodity. Small girls and boys are trained to keep watch for this valued product wherever they are. They collect the cowdung from streets, forest paths, markets, grazing grounds and collect it in baskets and carry it home. This precious resource is then put to multiple use.  Dung cakes are made by mixing coal powder, rice husk or dried rice stalks and dried in sun for storage for use as fuel. When the fuel is burned the fine ash is used for cleaning brass and metal utensils while the coarse parts are transferred to the farms as valuable input. The cow-dung is used for plastering the floors, walls of houses. It is also used for plastering the woven bamboo baskets, silos for storage of rice, known as kanagi and other farm products. Mixed with water, the dung is sprayed by women in the front and the back yards of the houses. On this surface decorative floral patterns and symbols are drawn in white stone powder rangoli[xii], and red kumkum[xiii] and yellow turmeric powder[xiv]. Rangoli is introduced near the entrance as a welcome gesture. This practice effectively reduces the dust entering the house. The surplus dung is converted in compost for the farm in the back yards along with other bio waste. The dung is also used to plaster the wood burning stove every day. In recent years the cow dung is valued for its use in gobar[xv] gas plants, which have been installed with government subsidy in many households which produce gas for household burners and gives rich manure from the residual slurry. The art of tribal women[xvi] from north Konkan district of Thane, which depicts all the common environmental activities of women on the external dung covered walls of their reed huts has become very popular and extensively used by the textile industry and interior designers as ethnic art form. The Warli art of women depicts the daily work of women related to environment, animals, plants, and tools used by them.

Conservation of natural products is a second nature for Konkani women. The coconut palm is famous for its multiple uses and for its zero waste. In fact the tree is called Kalpataru[xvii]. Knowledge of women about the plants, trees, flowers, seeds, along with the properties of each, techniques of collecting, preserving and converting such natural resources into useful products is commonly practiced art developed by women over many centuries. Medicinal potions are prepared by women in homes from commonly available herbs, which provide cheap remedies for minor ailments. The new born babies are massaged, bathed with special herbs, coconut oil and given a daily dose of a paste prepared from multiple herbs and roots, freshly ground on sahan[xviii] which provides micro quantities of preventive medicines. Similarly special herbal compounds are prepared for the mother to facilitate lactation[xix]. Paste prepared from sambarshing, a piece of horn of dear is commonly used for muscle relief and sprain. The knowledgeable women, who maintain small stock of medicinal roots, dried herbs, seeds, and fruits. The women are respected in the community and there is no fee charged for consultation or medication. Midwives who assist in childbirth are traditionally trained through the women’s network. Most of the village women even today deliver at home assisted by the midwives however nurses trained in modern schools are appointed by the government and their help is appreciated by the village women more for family planning. They combine traditional practices with modern medicines which is found to be popular and inexpensive strategy. Such knowledge is passed from generation to generation[xx] through the women’s informal networks.[xxi] The need is to record all these practices systematically and researched for their value.

The Konkani style sea food and vegetarian food has become a recent rage in cities like Mumbai. Five star hotels regularly held Malavani food festivals in their restaurants[xxii]. While Malavani restaurants are doing great business in other urban areas and tourist centers in Konkan. The culinary art and variety of foods from Konkan refined and developed by women over past centuries is now a big business.

The knowledge about the celestial bodies like stars and constellations, the sun and the moon, tidal movements, seasonal cycles and patterns, are well understood by the women in a very informal fashion. The Indian Almanac is interpreted by the priests and seasonal cycles, rituals, farming activities, fishing schedules, are set in motion by the same. The food and eating habits are intricately connected to the caste, women’s work, their age, and state i.e. pre and post childbirth conditions as well as seasons. In the four months of monsoon, meat and fish is strictly avoided by all the castes. From environmental perspective this is a valuable practice[xxiii].


The life styles of Konkani people have evolved through the common Indian philosophical tradition of relating to the nature. Humans are entitled to the natural resources for their biological sustenance but they have no right to cause damage to the environment. Human activities leading to destruction of natural environments are strictly prohibited. Thus when women collect firewood, only dried branches are pruned and carried home. Trees often uprooted in natural way are put to use. Such practices not only provid useful material for human consumption but also help in limiting the excessive consumption. Natural balance between growth and decay was automatically maintained. Timber, bamboo, and other materials are used for the shelters but forest cutting and exploitation is a recent practice acquired from colonial rulers. The thick forest cover extensively exploited by colonial powers, first for ship building and later for railway construction and mono-culture plantations has rendered Konkan ecosystem and its people vulnerable. Such actions have also caused erosion of top soil silting most the rivers and creeks and robbing earth of its fertile cover. Life styles Konkani people are thus related to the philosophy of preservation of balance of nature. Material poverty of Konkani people is not a tradition but a recent phenomenon and result of modern times. The Indian society as a whole had maintained a delicate balance of nature and society through the thick web of social customs, taboos, practices, mythological stories, belief systems, through evolution, albeit at a lower level of populations and consumption.

Preserving the nature was not separate from the daily work nor was is practiced in separate spaces like parks and gardens preserved by state authorities[xxiv]. Legitimate use of nature for needs was considered natural right of human being but it was balanced with the duty of preservation. Nature was loved as well as feared because the destruction was also part of the nature. Thus the idea of conquest of nature is align to the Indian mind. 

Another important aspect of preservation of nature is attitude towards all the living creatures. Plants, animals, birds, snakes, fish and even the forest animals like tigers and elephants are not dreaded animals but are considered as relations of human beings. Killing of animals for enjoyment of the activity is never practiced. A useful custom observed is the pairing of animals with gods. Each god has a favorite animal and hence to be respected. God Ganesha has elephant face mounted on human body while God Shiva has bullock as his companion. Lard Vishnu sits on the seat prepared by snakes themselves. Hence except the most poisonous species it is taboo to kill snakes. Each animal useful to man is also respected and gratitude is expressed through rituals. The bullocks, the most useful animals for farming is thus a guest on a particular day in the households and treated like human being and offered special food. Cow is equated to mother and hence never killed but looked after till her death like a family member[xxv].

The earth is the life giver and women are equated to mother earth. Farming was invented by women (Sane G. page 24) and the secrets of farming were then share by men. In the Konkan region earth Godess continues to have supreme place in the village life as she is considered as savior of life. “During the colonial period Mother India was the symbol and inspiration for the struggle for independence against British colonialism. It was a decolonizing category”. (Shiva V. page 108)


In a fast globalizing world the issues of development, poverty and environment are creating challenges for which there seem to be no answers. Many Indian thinkers and scholars are rediscovering the heritage and meanings of the traditional values, which have remained intact in pockets. The question is how the people and their values will be preserved in face of the commercial forces and how their environmental experiences and knowledge can be put in the center stage of policy. Challenges of preserving human life, community and the environment are rather important than ever before for the world today.

I have described the environmental experiences of the people, who are called ecosystem people (Gadgil, Guha page 3 ). The category of people described by the authors in their book Ecology and Equity 

“India has been and remains a biomass based civilization. By this we mean that majotiy of Indians depend on biomass gathered by their own labor, or produced through low input agriculture to meet most of the subsistence needs. They also exchange such biomass, at best processed through simple manual labor, to acquire other materials and services they consume on the market”.

As per 1991 census 74.3 percent of the Indian population is rural based, and most of these people depend on cultivating their own lands or working as laborers on other people’s lands for significant fraction of their earnings (Gadgil Guha page 133).

However it should be noted that most of the rural villages are located in regions which are threatened by the so-called modern development to various degrees. In many challenged areas initiative of local population is growing through new awareness to protect their environment. In few places, control of resources has been demanded and won by local people such as Uttar Kannda (Gadgil, Guha page 184). At few other places people are successfully regenerating and restoring the traditional systems of local village control and management of natural resources based on conventional wisdom which was discontinued in the colonial era.

Knowledge of such traditional systems and rationale behind the same need to be understood so as to help devise alternative policies to protect environment. Advocates of alternative development policies have time and again expressed the importance of women in preservation of environments and livelihood in India. Women have managed to preserve their own role and environment in the Konkan region through the practice of traditions. In the new age of information and knowledge, hidden treasures of women’s environmental experiences need to be recorded and shared with all those concerned for the future. This was the thought behind writing this paper.



1.      Bagawe Anjali. Of Women Caste, 1995 The experience of Gender in Rural India.Zed Books Ltd. New Jersey

2.      Gadgil M. and Guha R. Ecology and Equity, The use and abuse of nature in contemporary India1995, Routledge, London, New York.

3.      Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism, 1993, Publishers, Kali for women, New Delhi and London.

4.      Gazetteer of Bombay presidency, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg Districts, Volume 10, Part I and II, published by Govt. of Maharashtra. (Originally published in 1880)

5.      Gazeteer of Bombay presidency, Thana District Volume XIII, part II. 1976, (Farsimile reproduction) Published by Gazeteer Department, Govt. of Maharashtra.  (Originally published in 1882).

6.      Deshpande Suneeta, Ahe Manohar Tari ( Memoires in Marathi), 1990, Mauj Prakashan Griha, Mumbai

7.      Shiva Vandana, Biopiracy, The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, 1997, South End Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

8.      Robinson C.A. Tradition and Liberation, The Hindu Tradition in the Indian Women’s Movement. 1999, Curzon Press, Surrey.

9.      Sane Geeta. Bharatiya Stree Jeevan (Marathi) 1986, Mauj Prakashan Griha, Mumbai.

10.  My own notes and survey record collected during March 1999- July 1999.

11.  Map of Konkan reproduced from the Saline Land development plan report, 2000. Government of Maharashtra.

12. Chiplun And Guhagar site

13. Map of Maharashtra




[i] Cultural influences refer to local people’s traditions, those of other races like Aryans, Jews, Arabians, European as well as influences of other regional and religious traditions. Konkan was a trading region for internal and external trade with many distant lands.

[ii] Position of Chamar, the leather processing caste has same social position and common all over Indian continent.

[iii] The United States Patent and Trade Mark Office (US PTO) has cancelled the patent it granted for the use of turmeric as a wound healing agent at the intervention of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). R A Mashelkar Director General CSIR said that the cancellation of the patent on turmeric powder is a significant development of far reaching consequences for the protection of the traditional Indian knowledge base in the public domain. This is perhaps the first case where the use of traditional knowledge base of a developing country. News item in Indian express, 24 August 1997.



[iv] Neem is a commonly found tree used for multiple purposes and has great medicinal and environmental value. Its use as pesticide is promoted as a green farming technique. Animals don’t eat the leaves.

[v] The author narrates an episode when a snake made a daily visit to her grand mother who was staying alone in the house, and it was considered as a protective guard by her.  But ultimately it was killed by the relatives.

[vi] Sahyadri mountain ranges run parallel to Konkan coast and provided formidable challenge for British rulers. 

[vii] In the book named Daughters of Maharashtra, majority of women are from families from Konkan region.

[viii] NRE 477 class notes and readings.

[ix] In this knot of saree women tuck wads of currency notes as the most secured place! Konkani women used to carry important documents in such a manner in times of freedom movement, unsuspected by the police.

[x] My mother, a tennis player in her college years in 1940’s had to ware 9 yard saree while playing as wearing shorts was a taboo in those years for any women. The Modern version of 5 yard saree is most inconvenient for work of women.

[xi] Reference from class notes

[xii] The art is also known as Rangoli, is considered as a necessary art for every woman.

[xiii] Red powder is made from turmeric powder and lamon juice, which is also apllied in a dot form by most Indian women. The widows have to avoid it.

[xiv] Turmeric powder.

[xv] Gobar is local word for cow dung.

[xvi] Known as Warali art

[xvii] An ideal tree. The tender coconut water, coconut flesh, shell, the fibrous cover, the trunks, leaves are used for production of valuable commodities like edible oil, ropes, roofing mats, supporting columns, decorative products.

[xviii] A round thick piece of a particular stone is usually found in all households.

[xix] The Ayurvda, the traditional medicine is now systematically researched by scholars and medical practitioners like Dr. Sharadini Dahanukar from Mumbai.

[xx] It is known as grandmother’s medicinal kit and maintained by most of the households in Maharashtra. My own grandmother used to give these kinds of medicines to whoever needed them and her surgeon husband used to value them!

[xxi] These informal networks are now valued by the state medical system and is incorporated in the formal system with varying degrees. My personal interview with two women village health workers in a remote village in Konkan revealed a rich information about this system.

[xxii] The famous Taj group of hotels provide Malavani food regularly in their restaurants in Mumbai region.

[xxiii] The monsoon season is important for fish breeding and animal propagation which can guarantee better food supply

[xxiv] National park movement appears to be the product of urbanization rather than rural, traditional way of relating to nature.

[xxv] The festival called Bail Powala and is celebrated on the full moon night of third month in Monsoon when animals have no practical work.