News and Reviews
A reporter for the Hindustan Times recently decided to visit the village of Turtuk, a Balti community in the Shyok Valley of Ladakh near the border with Pakistan. While his report is basically a travel piece, it presents some interesting information about this seldom visited region. Furquan Ameen Siddiqui, the reporter, had been a tourist in Turtuk during a bike trip down the Shyok River in August 2014, but he had only stayed a day in the village. He wanted to go back for a longer visit so he chose this recent winter for his second trip.
Turtuk has become well known, according to the writer, for its walnuts, tomatoes, and especially its apricots. It has developed a cooperative venture where bottled apricot juice is prepared for sale in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Other agricultural ventures in the fertile valley are raising buckwheat and barley.
Siddiqui writes that the Shyok Valley, in that area near the border, is lush and green in summer. Local farmers are seen carrying large bundles of barley on their backs or putting apricots out to dry on their roofs. But conditions were very different during his recent winter visit. Nothing was growing—everyone was depending on their stored food supplies.
Baltistan, a small part of which is in Ladakh, is clearly different from the rest of the Leh District. The Buddhist monasteries are left behind as the traveler drives northwest down the Shyok River valley and crosses into territory populated primarily by Muslims. Turtuk and the other communities near the border with Pakistan are inhabited by Noorbakshias, followers of Sufi Islam, plus some Sunnis and Shias. One of the mosques, in the hamlet of Youl, part of Turtuk, dates back at least to 1690.
That sliver of Ladakh was seized by the Indian Army during a war with Pakistan in 1971. The 500 families in the village of Turtuk, who live only six miles from the new border with Pakistan, had to adapt to life under the control of the Indian Army rather than, until then, the army of Pakistan.
The history is that the Indian army launched an offensive on December 13, 1971, which moved the border 25 km northwest in the Turtuk sector. Many nearby villagers fled down river to Khaplu and Skardu, towns farther into the Pakistan section of Baltistan. The people of Turtuk decided to stay.
The reporter asked them why. Abdul Karim, an elder in the village who cares for the mosque, replied that that was where they had lived for ages. Their country had changed, but they had remained the same. Before, they had obeyed the army of Pakistan, but now, the army of India.
Village elders for decades after 1971 prevented young men from joining the police or army for fear of what might happen to them should Pakistan seize the area again. The reporter said that he spoke with villagers about the effects of the 1971 partition. People told him of parents being separated from their children, siblings from each other, even wives from husbands. To this day, crossing the border six miles away to visit close relatives is not permitted unless the villager travels hundreds of miles to an approved border crossing.
Turtuk was closed to outside tourists until late in 2010, and the nearby hamlets are still closed. This year has been the first time that tourists, such as the author, have been able to visit during the winter.
Some writers, such as Harvey (1983), have ascribed the famed peacefulness of the Ladakhi to their Buddhist beliefs, but Pirie (2007) has argued persuasively that nonviolence in the local mountain communities is based more on social and cultural conditions, such as commitments to avoiding anger and settling conflicts quickly, than on religious beliefs. Unfortunately, the article last week on the Balti living in a sliver of Ladakh did not explore those issues in that particular community.
Semai names for places near their communities suggest their uses of the forests, their historical recollections, their spiritual values, and their commitments to maintaining a nonviolent society. Karen Heikkilä untangles these issues with a fascinating study of Semai toponymy, their understandings of place names, in a recent journal article.
Heikkilä’s work provides a way of viewing the Semai approaches to natural phenomena and their sense of their place in the world, at least insofar as these elements are encoded in their language. In essence, their place names, or toponyms, offer insights into their worldview and the importance of the forest within it.
The author studied three Semai communities in Malaysia’s Perak state: Kampung Batu Empat Belas, Kampung Pos Woh, and Kampung Ampang Woh, all located immediately to the west of the Central Main Range of the peninsula. Her major interest is in the relationships of the people in each of the villages with the natural, forested environs of the Bukit Tapah Forest Reserve, also called the Tapah Hills, east of the nearby town of Tapah. It is a broken, hilly area with sloping foothills, ridges, and streams flowing out of the higher mountains immediately to the east.
She provides some useful background. The surrounding forests are essential for the sustenance of the Semai in these three villages, as witnessed by the construction of their houses, the nature of their tools and implements, and the ways their foot trails wind in and out to nearby streams, orchards and swidden gardening patches. Despite the fact that they live surrounded by, and to some extent integrated into, Malay culture—their children go to schools and many of them work for wages in Tapah—they still utilize the landscape for their sustenance and identify themselves as Semai in most senses.
In the interviews the author conducted for her research project, she learned that forest stewardship is essential to the Semai. They revere the land not only because of the forest itself, but also because their ancestors lived there and thrived on its bounties. They also hope that Semai in the future will continue to subsist there.
They preserve their memory as a society due to their interactions with the forest. They view the primary forest as being far more important than just the source of their daily needs. It is a place that has never been cut, where trees were planted by their ancestors, and as such it must not be used for farming or logging.
Despite those values, the Semai in the three communities have no legal titles to the lands they have customarily used and lived upon—they have no guarantee of their land tenure. Their rights to fish, farm, trap, and collect in the forests are protected by Malaysian law, but land takeovers by public agencies or private corporations are still possible.
For her research, the author recorded about 400 toponyms used by Semai in the three villages. She noted the names of the places, their etymologies, and the folklore and land uses connected with those toponyms. She interviewed village elders and a variety of other Semai individuals. She primarily focuses in her report on the meanings of the place names and what those names may suggest about the relationships of the people with the land.
Heikkilä describes numerous names that fall within several categories. For instance, an extremely important category are toponyms that refer to vegetation, especially trees, which are often prominent landmarks. Several place names refer to durians, a prized tree species that produces a treasured fruit. Those trees often serve as boundary markers that demarcate individual or family orchards. Durians can be long-lived trees, the longevity of which suggests that the ancestors seeded them. They signify permanence to the Semai.
Toponyms also record the presence of birds, insects, and mammals such as tigers and they serve to remind the Semai of the history of the 19th century violent slave raids. The toponyms graphically capture the violence of those times, when Malay slavers entered Semai villages to steal people, and they suggest the importance of never forgetting this history. While mainstream histories of Malaysia may lack information about the slaving, the individual communities studied by the author remember—helped by their toponyms.
The Semai give names to places associated with people, though sometimes they signify unpleasant associations. A ridge is known by the name of a girl who died violently, an individual that might not have died but for the negligence of her father, who did not return from a trip when he said he would. Semai feelings of helplessness in the face of an unpredictable world may foster this practice of naming places, which helps them remember violence in their past. In addition to instances of negligence, the toponyms based on violence record attacks by tigers and the history of slave raiding.
The author believes that the process of remembering violence, through the naming, may help deter aggressive behaviors. Memories suggest to the Semai the importance of personal restraint, responsibility to others, and sharing, all attributes that “are crucial to uniting a group in the face of the vagaries of the forest environment and the world at large (p.373).”
Heikkilä writes that while working for wages takes many adults out of the villages, away from the forest environment, they still seem to remember the names of the places in the vicinity of their homes. Younger Semai may know the names but they may not be as adept at recalling them in detail. Fewer young people are as directly engaged in subsistence work in the forests as their elders are, so they are not learning and remembering the toponyms as well.
One Semai research participant told the author, “Semai place-names must be conserved so that Semai history will never be forgotten. The names should also be preserved because they have been passed down through the ages by word of mouth and have always been used, always been present in the Semai language (p.375).”
Heikkilä hopes her study of Semai place-names, and the narratives they represent, will help them gain recognition for their rights and ownership over the lands they have traditionally used. She also hopes that the Semai themselves will intensify their mapping of their landscape, including ancestral toponyms that indicate its ecological, economic, spiritual, and historical importance to the people. Such maps could serve to help protect the forest by including Semai perspectives on land use planning and management practices.
Heikkilä, Karen. 2014. “‘The Forest Is Our Inheritance’: An Introduction to Semai Orang Asli Place‐Naming and Belonging in the Bukit Tapah Forest Reserve.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 35(3), November: 362-381
News and reviews of publications relating to peaceful societies—and sometimes to related topics—are normally posted here on Thursday mornings (U.S. time) and are kept on this page for one week. Older news and reviews for 2015 are listed below, and ones from previous years are listed on the News and Reviews 2004-2005 page, the 2006 page, the 2007 page, the 2008 page, the 2009 page, the 2010 page, the 2011 page, the 2012 page the 2013 page, and the 2014 page. All stories are also included in the News and Reviews Subject Listing. They are listed at the bottom of each society entry in the Encyclopedia of Selected Peaceful Societies, after the heading: Updates: News and Reviews. News and reviews about peacefulness in general are referred to from the bottom of the Facts page, while news stories about this website are linked from the About This Website page. News and Reviews can also be found with the Google search bar.
March 19, 2015. Paliyans Obtain Better Housing
March 19, 2015. Some Hutterites Use iPhones
March 12, 2015. Archaeological Discoveries and the Media
March 12, 2015. Promises to Nubians in Wadi Qurqur
March 5, 2015. Unicorns, and the Mbuti, Are Troubled by Violence
March 5, 2015. Unicorns, Peaceful Societies, and Peace Systems
February 26, 2015. Paliyans Learn to be Guides
February 26, 2015. Inuit Experiences of Historical Traumas [journal article review]
February 19, 2015. Coltan Mining Fosters Violence
February 19, 2015. Yanadi Economic Tragedies and Successes
February 12, 2015. Human Trafficking in Rural Thailand
February 12, 2015. Donald Kraybill to Retire
February 5, 2015. Publicity for Lepcha Cardamom Crops
February 5, 2015. A French Polynesian Novel Portrays Tahitian Culture [journal article review]
January 29, 2015. A Love Jihad in Ladakh
January 29, 2015. A New Blog about the G/wi
January 22, 2015. The Kadar Preserve their Forests
January 22, 2015. Some Peaceful People Are Birdwatchers [a tenth anniversary reflection]
January 15, 2015. New Opportunity for Paliyan Youth
January 15, 2015. Update on a Birhor Tragedy
January 8, 2015. Review of the Tristan Year
January 8, 2015. Yanadi Woman Advocates Human Rights
January 1, 2015. Piaroa Women Protest Violence
January 1, 2015. Ice Stupas in Ladakh