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The Tribes of Orissa

In the last decades the veil has been ripped off the tribal heartland of Orissa. Anthropologists, sociologists, missionaries, newsmen, government agencies, ethnic curio seekers, politicians – they have all, from time to time, tried to penetrate the mystery surrounding the Adivasis (Original Settlers) of Orissa.

What these seekers after truth have brought to light is far more fascinating than fiction. No doubt the tribal population of Orissa is primarily concerned with the struggle for survival. It is dogged by drought, near famine conditions, poverty. Yet it has much to teach us. Each tribe is a completely organized society, bound by a common language, reglion, cultureal background and tradition, all in all a way of life. The better we understand ourselves fro these tribes represent an earlier stage in the development of man.

Of all the states of India, Orissa has the largest number of tribes, as many as 62. Altogether they constitute an impressive 23 per cent of the total population of Orissa. These tribes mainly inhabit the Eastern Ghat hill range which runs in the north south direction. More than half their population is concentrated in three districts – Koraput, Sundergarh and Mayurbhanj.

Tribal economy is subsistence oriented. It is based on food gathering, hunting and fishing and thus revolves around forests. Even the larger tribes like the Santal, Munda, Oraon and Gond, who are settled agriculturists, often supplement their economy with hunting and gathering. When farming they make use of a very simple technology and a simple division of labour, often limited to the immediate family. They lose out because their holdings are small and unproductive, lacking in irrigation facilities since the terrain is hilly and undulating. They also lack funds to buy other inputs and necessarily fall back upon traditional skills and outdated implements.

Many tribes, for instance, the Juang, Bhuiyan, Saora Dharua and Bondo, practise what is called shifting cultivation, also known as slash and burn. They select a plot of land, generally on a mountain slope, slash down all the trees and bushes and burn them to ashes. Spreading the ashes evenly over the land, they wait for the rains before planting their crops. Two or three seasons on one plot of land and the soil gets depleted, so the tribals move on. It is a way of life for them, but a pernicious practice just the same, bringing poor returns and degrading the environment in the bargain.

There are cattle breeders among the tribes, notably the Koya. There are simple artisans too like the Mohali and Loharas, who practise crafts of basket weaving and tool making. A sizable part of the tribal population of Orissa has moved to the mining and industrial belts of the State, notably the Santals, Munda, Oraon and Ho. This has helped ease the pressure on small holdings but in the process tribal villages have been abandoned. Traditional skills, land and other immovable assets have been lost without always bringing in adequate prosperity via jobs in mines and factories.

But if tribal economy is shaky, tribals culture in its pristine state is rich and distinctive and the Adivasis work hard to preserve it. A tribal village manages its internal affairs very smoothly through two institutions – the village council of elders and the youth dormitory.

The core of tribal culture, the youth dormitory, is the largest hut in the village. It has only three walls, profusely decorated with symbols representing animals. The fourth side is open. By night the dormitory is home to the youth of the village. But before and after a hard day’s work, people gather here to chat and relax. The council of elders meets here too, to discuss matters relating to the welfare of the village. The open space in front of the dormitory is where youths and maidens dance with abandon every evening, for tribal culture allows free mixing of the two sexes. Despite their poverty and the ongoing battle for survival, the tribals of Orissa have retained their rich and colourful heritage of dance and music. Every tribal can sing and dance to the sound of pipe and drum and give tune to impromptu compositions that come to him/her as naturally as breathing.

The tribals of Orissa observe a string of festivals. Some are closed affairs, relating to a birth or death within the family or a daughter attaining puberty. Others relate to sowing or harvest time and thus involve the entire community. Mostly a festival is an occasion for a good swig of mahua liquor, a game animal roasted on the spit and a night of song and dance and revelry. But wait, there’s an animal sacrifice too, for the deities and spirits must be appeased first, particularly the malevolent ones, so they don’t unleash drought or sickness on the land. Tribals are superstitious people and the ‘ojha’ (which doctor) occupies a position of honour since he not only prescribes medicines for the sick but is also believed to exercise evil spirits.

The supernatural also figures prominently in tribal folklore which is a body of largely verbal literary tradition. These simple folk tales are linked to occasions in everyday life – sowing, harvesting, birth, marriage and death. Folk tales also teach values dear to the tribal heart. But many of them offer an explanation for natural phenomenon-day and night, thunderstorms, animal behaviour. With the tribals living so close to nature, it couldn’t be otherwise.

Christian missionaries have done a lot to remove superstition from tribal society, educating tribals and setting them on the road to economic stability. In the process they have also converted many to Christianity. The OTDC (Orissa Tribal Development Programme) is on, seeking to bring the benefits of development to the area. Much still remains to be done but development must not override the tribal way of life. It would be a great pity to lose something rich and meaningful that has come down to us from antiquity.


The Sarora are one of the most ancient tribes of Crissa mentioned in Hindu myths and classics, notably the Puranas. Saora men are marathon walkers. They are also expert climbers and hunters, with a habit of carrying an axe on one shoulder. Saora village are generally inaccessible, hidden in the folds of mountains and reached only by negotiating stony, zigzag paths.

Makers of picturesque houses, the Santals have an eye for beauty. They are also deeply concerned with personal hygiene and the cleanliness of their surroundings. A Santal folk tale says that God placed rice inside a husk so it would remain clean: Santals adore flowers. They also collect silk cocoons from ‘asan’ trees in the forest and process them to help make golden hued fabric called tussar.

The Bondo who have lived in near isolation among the higher hills are a fiercely independent, stubborn and aggressive tribe. They still practise the barter systems, exchanging the produce of their fields for articles of daily use. An interesting feature of the Bondo marriage is that Bondo girls prefer to marry younger boys, so they may have someone to earn for them in their old age.

The Bhumias of Koraput district have an intriguing custom. Since they wish to avoid paying the bride price, arranged marriages are not welcome. Instead, a boy and girl in love are encouraged to elope and the marriage is solemnized later.

The Gonds, a warrior caste and conquerors of yesteryears, are spread out all over the hill tracts of central and south India. Before the Gonds sow a field, some grain, fowls and pigs are sacrificed to the presiding deity. Blood from the sacrificed animals is sprinkled on the seeds which are distributed among the villagers, who in turn sow them in their fields for luck.

The Oraon are one of the most progressive tribes. They make use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, improves varieties of seed and modern techniques of agriculture. Economically better off than most of the others, they are not shackled by debts and can afford a better quality of life – good approach roads to villages, cycles and even motor bikes for transport, transistor sets and wrist watches. Their social life is remarkable in that they accept widow remarriage and permit divorce by either partner on grounds of adultery, bad temper and, of all things, laziness!


Somewhere in the hoary past, Sing Bonga (the Supreme Deity) made the world and put man on it. Then he made the sun and bade it to ride the sky without ever setting. The sun obeyed Sing Bonga and shone all the time. It was alone too, without moon and stars for company.

One day Sing Bonga came down to earth and saw a man sitting by a dug up field. “When did you dig this field?” asked Sing Bonga. “I dug it today,” said the man.

“And those other fields?”


“And when did you build the hut that you live in?”

“Today, of course, Work or rest, I do everything today because there is no other time except today.”

Sing Bonga saw that man’s life on earth was one perpetual day. This would never do. Man needed a definite time for work and a definite time for rest or else he’d wear himself out working all the time.

Sing Bonga promptly sent for the sun and told him, “Hereafter you will shine for some time and hide for some time. When you shine, man will know it’s time to work. When you hide, he’ll know it’s time to rest.” The sun bowed and began to follow the new pattern.

Some time later Sing Bonga visited the earth again. “Are you happy now?” he asked the man. “Very happy,” replied the man, making obeisance to Sing Bonga. “But I have one problem. When I go out at night to chase away wild animals from my fields, it’s too dark to see. I often fall and hurt myself.”

Sing Bonga looked at the lush forest of ‘sal’ trees surrounding the man’s fields. The trees would make the night blacker still. Man sure needed a little light to guide him after dark. And that is why Sing Bonga made the moon and stars and set them to shine after the sun was gone from the sky.