India – Visiting Orissa Hill Tribes

Orissa is the home of over 62 ‘tribes’. Defined in the Indian Constitution as ‘scheduled castes’,  they have historically been outside the political arena, although some of the tribes are mentioned in ancient texts like the Mahabharata. A quick tour on the narrow mountain roads shows why. Their religion and culture were outside the traditional Hindu society, but they melded the Hindu Pantheon into their lives to produce a special masala similar to the absorption of Christianity by Mexican and South American tribal societies. [Masala is a versatile Indian word, specifically referring to a mixture of spices in cooking, but easily adapted as a metaphor.] We spent our first week in the Orissa hills using Jeypore – Koraput as our base for daily exploration.

This is mountainous country, with hidden valleys that offer prosperous conditions for farming. Weekly markets form a major communications function, as merchants bring manufactured goods from the lowlands to trade with tribal peoples who bring local produce, livestock and crafts from their hillside villages. The Bonda are known one of the best examples of this exchange, but even here only a few tourists, mostly Europeans, were present at the market. We went for days without seeing other tourists in the other areas.

They continue to inhabit their traditional dwelling places in remote areas of the deep forests and hilly interiors. Steeped in the mystery that surrounds their ancient ways, the Orissan tribal peoples continue to be a source of deep interest not only for anthropologists and sociologists but also for numerous tourists. The tribal economy is based on activities around the jungles. Hunting and fishing continue to be the main source of livelihood though some of the larger tribes such as Santals, Mundas, and Gonds have become agriculturists. The Juang, Bhuyan, Bondo, Saura, and Dhruba tribes follow the shifting cultivation practice. The Koya tribals are cattle breeders while the Mahali and Lohara are simple artisans involved in basket weaving and tool making. The Santal, Munda and other tribes have now also become involved in the mining and industrial
belt of Orissa. Though their economy is shaky, the Orissan tribal peoples enjoy a rich and varied cultural heritage, the most powerfully in their music and dance, which are as colorful as they are rhythmical. The cycle of life offers numerous reasons to celebrate and is done so with vigor and grace – either in the privacy of family home or as a community activity.

The Paraja tribe is primarily located in the Kalahandi and Koraput regions of Orissa. The language is ‘Parji’. They worship numerous gods and goddesses who live in the hills and forests.

The “Soura” tribe is one of the most ancient and they are known for being marathon walkers, expert hunters and climbers.

The “Bondos” are fiercely independents and aggressive, and continue to practice the barter system of exchanging produce from their fields for their daily needs.

The Kutias are the primitive section of the Kondh tribal community.  Dongria Kondhs, also a primitive section of the Kondh community are expert horticulturists and maintain a quite distinct cultural heritage.
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