: “He was our Buniyadi (foundation),” says Kanumoni Lingaiah flashing his near-toothless smile at the mention of his mentor Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf’s name.
Member of the Chenchu tribe inhabiting the Nallamala forests across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh states, Lingaiah has no count of years since he had last seen Haimendorf, the renowned Austrian ethnologist who had breathed his last two decades ago.
“He returned after I became the ‘peddamanishi’ (elder) of the ‘penta’ (Chenchu hamlet). By then, he had lost his wife and become old. He recognised my name and asked if I was the same boy he knew. When I nodded, he was overwhelmed. I took him to the Umamaheshwaram temple, where he took a photograph with me,” recalls Lingaiah, who is reportedly the last surviving Chenchu who knew Haimendorf.
Lingaiah was a 12 year old when young Haimendorf and his wife Betty were visiting the ‘Chenchu Penta’s during their confinement in Hyderabad State. The couple was detained by the colonial authorities for holding Third Reich passports, and utilised their time studying various tribal groups, including Chenchus and Gonds.
They were particularly moved by the plight of the Chenchus who lived in the forest devoid of any contact with the outside world. They made partially-successful attempts to introduce the tribe to agriculture and formal education.
“We wore only loincloths. They gave us shirts and shorts. We used to grow our hair, and knot it at the top of the head. Haimendorf got our hair cropped and gave us blankets,” Lingaiah reminisces.
The Haimendorfs would go from village to village and bring Chenchu children to the school set up by them.
“Three teachers used to teach us Telugu, Urdu and arithmetic. But we would prefer roaming the forests rather than going to school.”
It is owing to Haimendorfs’ efforts that Lingaiah could read the newspapers now, and manage with basic Telugu and Urdu writing. He attributes his exposure to agriculture too to his guru who brought Chenchu families from forests to the plains of Mannanur, and got them into cultivation.
“He got us lands, and employed his ‘kamgaar’ (workers) to teach us cultivation. It is owing to him that I’m able to afford a square meal. Otherwise, our survival in forests was dicey affair,” Lingaiah says.
However, the efforts were not often successful. There was an occasion, when Haimendorf relocated Chenchu families from Appapur, Bowrapur and Rampur ‘penta’s to a single location near ‘Pochamma Baavi,’ after constructing houses for them.
“One fine morning, all of them returned to forest leaving the settlement empty. They were not comfortable outside,” Lingaiah remembers.
Dr. Haimendorf who eventually became a professor in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, penned The Chenchus , the single most authentic treatise on life and customs of the Chenchu tribe.
Owing to his efforts, over a lakh acres of Amrabad forest reserve were declared as ‘Chenchu Reserve’ by the colonial rulers.