Nataraja: India’s Cycle of Fire

Stephen J. Pyne. 1994. Nataraja: India’s Cycle of Fire. Environmental History Review, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 1-20.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

In the center dances Shiva, a drum in one hand and a torch in the other, while all around flames inscribe an endless cycle of fire.

This-the nataraja, the Lord of the Dance-is more than one of Hinduism’s favored icons. It is a near-perfect symbol of Indian fire history. The drum represents the rhythm of life; the torch, death; the wheel of flame, the mandala of birth, death, and rebirth that fire epitomizes and makes possible. In this confrontation of opposites the dance replaces the dialectic; Shiva holds, not reconciles, both drum and torch. Considered ecologically the nataraja thus expresses in graphic language the great polarity of India, the annual alternation of wet and dry seasons by which the monsoon, with faint transition, imposes its opposing principles on the subcontinent.

India’s biota, like Shiva, dances to their peculiar rhythm while fire turns the timeless wheel of the world. Perhaps nowhere else have the natural and the cultural parameters of fire converged so closely and so clearly. Human society and Indian biota resemble one other with uncanny fidelity. They share common origins, display a similar syncretism, organize themselves along related principles. Such has been their interaction over millennia that the geography of one reveals the geography of the other. The mosaic of peoples is interdependent with the mosaic of landscapes, not only as a reflection of those lands but as an active shaper of them (emphasis added). Indian geography is thus an expression of Indian history, but that history has a distinctive character, of which the nataraja is synecdoche, a timeless cycle that begins and ends with fire.

The cycle originated with the passage of India as a fragment of Gondwana into a violent merger with Eurasia. The journey northward, through the fiery tropics; the violence of the great Deccan basalt flows and of the immense collision with Asia; the installment of seasonality in the form of the monsoon-all this purged the subcontinent of much of its Gondwana biota, and tempered the rest to drought and fire. The populating of India came instead by influx from outside lands, followed by varying degrees of assimilation. Here, in the choreography of the nataraja, east met west, Eurasia confronted Gondwana, wet paired with dry, life danced with death.

What endemics remained were, like India’s tribal peoples, scattered or crowded into hilly enclaves. Only 6.5% of India’s flowering plants are endemic, compared with 85% in Madagascar and 60% in Australia. The residual biota thrived most fully to the south; Peninsular India holds a third of the subcontinent’s endemic flora. Some species, Asian in character, entered from the northeast. A diffuse array emigrated from the eastern Mediterranean, the steppes, and even Siberia, the Himalayas serving less as a barrier than a corridor. More recently weeds, largely European, have established themselves. The composition of its biota thus recapitulates the composition of its human population-the tribal peoples, their origins obscured; the Dravidians who persevered on the Deccan plateau and to the south; the Southeast Asians, migrating through Assam and Bengal; the Aryans, Huns, Turks, Persians, Pathans, Mongols, and others, entering from the northwest; and Arabs and Europeans, mostly Portuguese and British, arriving by sea.

The geographic ensemble that emerged from this vast convergence was both familiar and unique. Of course there were broad divisions, Asians here, Dravidians here. Of course there were mosaics of field, grassland, and forest, in part because of human influence. But even beyond such matters, this syncretic biota assumed the character of something like a caste society. It is probable that this was no accident. The organization of Indian society impressed itself on the land, with ever greater force and intricacy. Tribal people gathered into disease-ridden hills, better shielded genetically from malaria and other ills. They then reworked those hills in ways that conferred on them a biotic identity. It is no accident that the species most commonly found in habited areas are those most abundantly exploited by the human inhabitants, and are often those best adapted to fire. European weeds, like forts and factories, gathered into specially disturbed sites, then spread along corridors of travel or secondary disturbance. The intricate division of Indian society by caste ensured that different peoples did particular things at particular times, and this was reflected in the landscape of India, not only between regions but within areas that different groups exploited at different times in different ways for different purposes.

The intensity of the monsoon assured-demanded-a place for fire. The sharper the gradient, the more vigorous the potential for burning. Some of the wettest places on Earth, like the Shillong Hills, could paradoxically experience fire and even fire-degraded landscapes. The biota, already adapted to rough handling by India’s passage north, responded to fire readily. The flora and fauna that humans introduced, or that migrated into India coincidental with them, also had to be fire-hardened because humans added to and often dominated the spectrum of environmental disturbances and they certainly exploited fire. Explorers and ethnographers reported the practice among southern tribal groups (and in the Andaman Islands) of habitually carrying firesticks, a practice relatively rare outside of Australia and a few other regions. Probably Radcliffe-Brown’s peroration on fire and the Andaman Islanders could stand for most tribal peoples on the subcontinent. Fire, he concluded,

… may be said to be the one object on which the society most of all depends for its well-being. It provides warmth on cold nights; it is the means whereby they prepare their food, for they eat nothing raw save a few fruits; it is a possession that has to be constantly guarded, for they have no means of producing it, and must therefore take care to keep it always alight; it is the first thing they think of carrying with them when they go on a journey by land or sea; it is the centre around which the social life moves, the family hearth being the centre of the family life, while the communal cooking place is the centre round which the men often gather after the day’s hunting is over. To the mind of the Andaman Islander, therefor, the social life of which his own life is a fragment, the social well-being which is the source of his own happiness, depend upon the possession of fire, without which the society could not exist. In this way it comes about that his dependence on the society appears in his consciousness as a sense of dependence upon fire and a belief that it possesses power to protect him from dangers of all kinds.

The belief in the protective power of fire is very strong. A man would never move even a few yards out of camp at night without a firestick. More than any other object fire is believed to keep away the spirits that cause disease and death. …

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