A Talk Over Tea: Preserving India’s Indigenous Languages

By Anika Rice, NG Explorer Programs

The daily cup of black tea is a global staple, but have you ever thought about the lives of the people who produce this ubiquitous morning beverage? In the northeastern state of Assam, India, tea laborers of the indigenous Adivasi ethnic groups produce more than enough tea leaves to feed a lifelong caffeine craving. The impact of their work is felt by millions around the world, yet the Adivasis’ struggle to preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage is known to very few outside their home country.

In the 1840s, British colonial planters brought indigenous people living in the tribal belt of the Chota Nagpur Plateau northeast to Assam to work as indentured servants and laborers in the industrial tea gardens. Since the early 19th century, the tea industry has boomed while the social and economic reality of the Adivasis has remained much the same. On these expansive terraced gardens, women spend the day trimming tea leaves in the sun while men use high-heat furnaces to roast the leaves to perfection.

Although Adivasis account for about 20 percent of the population, most local schools do not teach in Adivasi languages. Dropout rates are high, while literacy rates are low. To address these challenges, an organization called PAJHRA (Promotion & Advancement of Justice, Harmony, and Rights of Adivasis) is working with the community to promote and preserve their languages. A 2011 National Geographic Genographic Legacy Fund grant supported the development of educational materials in Adivasi languages, teacher training, and community meetings about the curricula.

The project team developed, printed, and distributed 300 copies of an Adivasi alphabet book and 35 copies of an Adivasi storybook. Collaborative community meetings at Ananda Tea Estate helped the workers there lobby for the creation of Adivasi school houses. PAJHRA also partnered with academic institutions to promote and publicize its Adivasi linguistic and cultural preservation efforts at a 2013 national conference in Delhi. Additionally, the organization developed an advocacy kit consisting of two short videos and a brochure, to help bring Adivasi language preservation to the forefront in academic circles.

After more than a century and a half of contributing to the daily rituals of countless people in far-off lands, the Adavasi of Assam are being invigorated by these projects to celebrate and enrich their own culture. Eight-year-old Kisnu Kisan, son of tea garden laborers in Assam, expressed new enthusiasm about his educational experience. He couldn’t stop smiling as he said, “I love going to Adivasi school. I love to read the books, and our teachers are very caring. They teach us such wonderful things.” That’s something to raise a cup to—a cup full of black tea, of course.

The Genographic Project Legacy Fund, funded by a portion of the proceeds from Geno 2.0 DNA Ancestry Kits, helps to revitalize indigenous languages and cultures around the world. Grant applications are accepted biannually on April 15 and September 15.

Read More From Miguel Vilar

Human Journey

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Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.