Field Note

Our Impermanence Is Permanent

Sandeep Virmani

The Bihor tribes of eastern India traditionally break down a room in their house when someone in the family dies and add a room with every newborn. Over time, the house responds and evolves with the rhythms of life and death in the family.

In Bihar, on the foothills of the Himalayas, another community plants trees as columns for their homes. All the trees branch exactly when they reach a height of seven feet, allowing a wooden beam to be inserted in the “Y” where the tree branches. Then, the home is roofed and walled with a canopy of green to shade it from the scorching summer sun.

A popular saying among the pastoral community of the Jats in Kutch, Gujarat reminds their people not to give up living in temporary homes so as to give the grasslands an opportunity to recuperate when they leave.

Another community of pastoralists in Gujarat, the Rabaris, say, “A roti (bread) if you don’t turn, will burn; a horse tied to a place will lose its pace; a leaf stuck to the soil will rot; knowledge that will not travel will shrivel; so we stay moving with our herds.”1

Constantly on the move, Raika pastoralists from Rajasthan belong to a sophisticated social organization that moves like a large amoeba, spread across a few hundred square kilometers, called a Dang. Broken into smaller units, it consists of 3,500–6,000 animals; 30–100 men, women, and children; and belongings loaded on camels and donkeys for use during the journey. The Dang comes into formation gradually during the early course of the migration under the leadership of an influential individual called the Numberdar. The Numberdar takes responsibility for the negotiations and safety of the Dang on the migration. The women move fast on their camels and set up camp as the slower sheep and goats with the men follow. The camp is set up in concentric circles of safety, with the children and young animals in the center. With the completion of a migration that can last anywhere between nine months to two years, the Dang dissolves to be set up again after the monsoon rains.2

These are living traditions that believe that everything cannot be known, and impermanence is permanent. Change is the essence of life, so it is important not to get attached to anything: a place, a person, an idea. It is prudent to be flexible, like the bamboo tree that can survive the floodwaters of the mighty Ganga River by bending over in reverence.

These are cultures and people like tribals, pastoralists, artisans, Sufis, mystics, and their ilk who know that logic and the mind are limited in their ability to attain happiness. They hone their intuition and prepare for change; they have developed sustainable relationships with nature by understanding its secrets. They keep life simple; they know borders of any kind create disputes, and a culture of the commons makes a person other-centric. They look at life holistically while creating solutions that are specific to a context. Finally, if you are true to the process, the product will be sweet!

Modernity and our civilization, which values productivity above all else, have eroded some of these values in the world. Can we give these values a chance to manifest within us?

Sandeep Virmani has been an architect, activist, and environmentalist who, for more than three decades, has been living and working with indigenous communities in the desert of Kutch, India.

Our Impermanence Is Permanent