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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Mani Rimdu Festival

Mani Rimdu Gathering at Thyangboche
Nov, 1979:  Thyangboche Monastery, in the upper Khumbu Valley of the Himalayas in Nepal, sitting under Ama Dablam. We’d arrived several days earlier for the Mani Rimdu fall dance festival. We were starting our 5th week of trekking. Nowadays many people fly into Namche Bazaar and hike to Thyangboche in a day or two. We had taken about 10 days to hike to Namche from the roadhead at Lamosamu, gaining and losing almost 50,000′ of elevation. Then we spent several weeks climbing a 21,000 foot trekking peak, and exploring isolated valleys. We had timed our trip so that we’d have time to spend several days at the monastery during the fall harvest festival of Mani Rimdu

Mani Rimdu begins at the full moon

Late that night, with the full moon shining, we were aroused from sleep by the long horns. Our sirdar, Ang Kami came to our tent and led us into the monastery to observe the ceremonies. The rites were much like the Solemn High Mass of Catholicism, many celebrants, and ritualized singing and incense offerings. All the monks hold either a thunderbolt dorje or bells

The next day was Tshe-wang [Life Conservation] a public opening ceremony where local farmers brought offerings as thanks for their harvest, and the monks gave blessing for the next year. We could also attend the rehearsals for the upcoming dances. The monks dressed in the most elaborate capes and hats we’d
seen, intricately embroidered with gold. A silver lined skull cup is brought out to distribute tshe-chang [life spirit], and then passed around for everyone to take a drink. Meanwhile, the locals are filling baskets with torma for offerings [and used to feed the audience at the performance]. Each basket is brought forward, with chanting, blessed, then carried out. Finally, preceded by two horns so large they need noviate monks to carry the front of them, the lama returns to the monastery

Just after sunrise, much like the long horn solos of Siegfried, the long Alpen horns rang out again across the mountain valleys calling us to the courtyard. Then 2 monks with the smaller, clarinet type horns climbed to the uppermost cupola and played the final series of calls
Dances at Mani Rimdu

Shortly afterward, the performance began with the Tsam-li-bulu [Dance of Showing]. The musical accompaniment consisted of a variety of horns and cymbals, and often included cymbals and small drums played by the dancers. We sat in the balcony, among an everchanging crowd, mostly of local Nepalese who
had come to the monastery for the festival. As the day proceeded, bamboo trays of fried snacks, cookies [contributed by westerners] and peanuts would be passed around, and the monks brought bowls of yogurt with rice. The crowd overlapped the dance area of the courtyard, and that contributed to the performance. Many of the early dances included high whirling kicks, often over the heads of the spectators. Interspersed among the dances were comic acts, and a fakir who balanced on the tip of a sword.

Lute Jerstad’s book about Mani Rimdu

I had brought a book by one of the First American climbers of Everest, Lute Jerstad, who came back to Nepal as part of his doctorate research. The Nepalis around me noticed the pictures and soon the book was being passed around, everyone naming each of the dancers pictured, The scripted performance ended about sundown and the crowd dispersed for dinner. Then later in the evening many people gathered again in the courtyard for the people’s performance. The locals taught us the simple circle dance. The repetitive steps, monotonous chanting and hot cups of fresh chang created a mystical effect and the perfect ending to a magnificent day.

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