On Thursday morning, our class visited the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, or the National Museum of Mankind in Bhopal. Its sprawling campus includes not only a large indoor museum, but a number of interactive outdoor exhibits. Focusing on the lifestyles and cultures of India’s indigenous people, these exhibits are not meant to glorify the grand achievements of man. They are not about showcasing our “progress,” or showing how far humankind has come in development. Rather, they are about reminding us of where we have come from, of what values we once held.
This is a museum that inspires its visitors to think about their connection to nature, a connection that humans have so long forgotten. Too often, we place ourselves outside of nature and cease to recognize how our actions are affecting not only the environment we live in, but also ourselves. We are a part of this world, but for some reason so many of our actions are bent on destroying it. The values and cultures of indigenous people, though, show us a lifestyle that is much more connected to the earth.
One of the first exhibits we visited was the Tribal Habitat, which is built on a large hill overlooking the main museum. Here, we were able to learn about the different dwellings that each indigenous community had created. Exploring the inside of each house and discovering all of its contents was like stepping into another life, another way of existence. I was continually struck by how varied the structures were from tribe to tribe—each had adapted their dwelling to the environment that they were a part of. And though these were only replicas, they were constructed with the same materials that each tribe traditionally used. We also went through the Technology Park, which showcased different traditional tools that were used. The ingenuity of their tools was impressive, and it gave a clearer picture of how sustainable their practices were.
My favorite part of the Museum of Mankind, though, was their Mythological Trail, an outdoor exhibit that displays the creation stories of different adivasi tribes. Reading each story and seeing it played out in the traditional artwork of each tribe was unbelievably amazing. In those stories, humanity sprang from the earth, from rock, and even from animals. The interconnectedness of everything, of us, of animals, of the earth—all of that was so clear. It is stories like this that we need to value and respect. We cannot dismiss them just because they are different from what we know and understand. They show us something about humanity that we have forgotten.
In today’s world, we lavish chemical fertilizers upon the land. We dig deep into the earth, wounding it with our machinery. We consume more than we need, mindlessly tossing our waste aside. We treat animals as if they are “just animals,” forgetting too that we are animals as well. All that we rely on, from our systems of food production to transportation, requires “resources” from the earth. We take them without giving anything back.
There is no better place for the Museum of Mankind than in Bhopal. We have spent the last week learning about the gas leak that occurred in 1984 at the Union Carbide factory (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical). Union Carbide was welcomed into India at the dawn of the Green Revolution, when chemical agriculture was being embraced. Their factory in Bhopal manufactured pesticides, but over the years it began cutting corners to save costs. Safety measures were dropped. Equipment wasn’t properly maintained. And unbeknownst to the people of Bhopal, Union Carbide was burying toxic waste throughout the city and within the factory grounds. The health affects resulting from the water contamination and the gas leak on December 3, 1984, have been disastrous.
Why does it take an industrial disaster to make us realize our mistakes? Why has little changed since the Bhopal tragedy? Why is Dow Chemical trying to sponsor the London Olympics, other than to green-wash their company and further convince people that their chemicals are indeed “sustainable”? Why can they do that when they refuse to clean up the Union Carbide factory or address the water contamination caused by the company they own?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But walking through the Museum of Mankind, I could not help but think of all these indigenous cultures, all these people who knew so much about how to work with the earth, not against it. How did the world manage to move so far away from that?
To learn more about the Bhopal incident, please visit: www.bhopal.org
To sign a petition to remove Dow Chemical as a partner for the London Olympics, please visit: http://www.change.org/petitions/drop-dow-chemical-as-partners-for-the-london-2012-olympic-games-bhopal