TRIBES OF ORISSA AND BIHAR
Tribals make about one forth of the population of the southwestern state of Orissa. There are also large numbers of them in the eastern state of Bihar, traditionally one of the poorest states in India and a state where a lot of strange things go on.
Sometimes referred to as India's wild west, Orissa is a Florida-size state in eastern India south of Calcutta with with interesting traditions, deeply religious Hindus and remote tribes. Orissa cover 155,707 square kilometers. It receives monsoon rains from June or July to September or August. Western Orissa is often hit by severe droughts. Eastern Orissa occasionally gets hammered by Bay of Bengal cyclones. Steep stony mountains called the Eastern Ghats take up a large portion of the state.
The Oriya are the regional ethnic group after which the Orissa state is named. They speak Oriya, an Indo-Aryan language related to Bengali. It has its own own distinctive script. Most Oriya are Hindus that live in the coastal districts and along the Mahanadi and Brahmani rivers Oriya. Fifteen percent of the population is categorized as Scheduled Caste; 23 percent is categorized as Scheduled Tribe, many of whom speak Oriya.
The people of Bihar and called Biharis. They speak Bihari, an eastern dialect of Hindi, and are regarded by other Indians as lazy and uneducated. A typical peasant farmer in Bihar grows a course grain called maruah in the monsoon season that provides nourishment to feed his family for about two months. He then does odd jobs such as digging for 70 cents a day for the rest of year. Upper castes, which make up 15 percent of the population, have traditionally dominated political and economic institutions and made sure the lower caste stayed in their places. Muslim make up an another 15 percent of the population.
Bihar is ruled by feudal landlord who, in many cases, pay their slave-like workers with one meal and three pounds of grain—but no money—for a day's work. Up a couple decades ago ago brides from poor families were routinely forced to sleep with local landowner on their wedding night. Justice is meted by "People's Courts" that take accused highway bandits in the forest and cut off their hands with axes or slice off their noses, ears or heads with knives. A police informer was nailed crucifix-style to a tree.
The landowners in Bihar hire militias to protect their property and Maoist guerrillas have taken it upon themselves to defend the poor. Gunsmiths make unlicensed weapons which they sell to mafia dons, gangs and politicians. One cabinet-rank minister was purportedly involved in 36 killings and one landowner claimed he killed more than 200 people to avenge the beheading of his father by Maoists. Reports of sorcery and lynched witches are common. Occasionally there are reports of human sacrifices.
Munda refers a group of tribes that speak Munda languages. Among the tribes that belong to this group are the Korku, Santal, Munda, Ho, Bondo, Sora and Kharia. They live mainly in Orissa, southern Bihar and eastern Madhya Pradesh. There are 6 million Munda speakers, about two thirds of whom are Santal. Linguistic evidence indicates the Munda originated in Southeast Asia. In the British era some groups forced off their land rebelled. The Ho rebellion in the 1830s, the Santal Rebellion of 1855-1858 and the Birsa Munda Movement if 1895-1900 are examples of this. In recent years the group has been active politically through the Santal-dominated Jharkhand Party. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Most members of the Munda tribes are settled farmers. They used to be hunters and gathers and slash-and-burn agriculturalist but rules to limit deforestation have forced them to change their ways. Most live in villages, some of which have the houses organized into long houses. Marriages have traditionally been regarded as a way of uniting families. In some cases families are tied together in multi-generation marriages that involve the exchanges of wives over successive generations.
Most Munda practice Hinduism infused with traditional beliefs and gods. The different Munda tribes are sometimes arranged into a hierarchy and some tribes fill caste-like niches. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century.
Members of the Kharia tribe make their living by collecting arrowroot, a nutritious starch used in the making of pudding, and climbing trees to snatch myna birds hatchling, which when caught young make great mimics. The best way to train a myna bird is reward it with a piece of food every time it does a good impression. The practice of snatching young birds has not endangered the myna bird population because the parents of stolen chicks breed again and can produce three clutches a year instead of one. Mynas rarely breed on captivity. [Source: Bart McDowell, National Geographic October 1970]
The word Jharkhand , meaning "forest region," applies to a forested mountainous plateau region in eastern India, south of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and west of the Ganga's delta in Bangladesh. The term dates at least to the sixteenth century. In the more extensive claims of the movement, Jharkhand comprises seven districts in Bihar, three in West Bengal, four in Orissa, and two in Madhya Pradesh. Ninety percent of the Scheduled Tribes in Jharkhand live in the Bihar districts. The tribal peoples, who are from two groups, the Chotanagpurs and the Santals, have been the main agitators for the movement. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Jharkhand is mountainous and heavily forested and, therefore, easy to defend. As a result, it was traditionally autonomous from the central government until the seventeenth century when its riches attracted the Mughal rulers. Mughal administration eventually led to more outside interference and a change from the traditional collective system of land ownership to one of private landholders. *
These trends intensified under British colonial rule, leading to more land being transferred to the local tribes' creditors and the development of a system of "bonded labor," which meant permanent and often hereditary debt slavery to one employer. Unable to make effective use of the British court system, tribal peoples resorted to rebellion starting in the late eighteenth century. In response, the British government passed a number of laws in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to restrict alienation of tribal lands and to protect the interests of tribal cultivators. *
The advent of Christian missions in the region in 1845 led to major cultural changes, which were later to be important in the Jharkhand movement. A significant proportion of the tribes converted to Christianity, and schools were founded for both sexes, including higher institutions to train tribal people as teachers. *
Jharkhand's mineral wealth also has been a problem for the tribes. The region is India's primary source of coal and iron. Bauxite, copper, limestone, asbestos, and graphite also are found there. Coal mining began in 1856, and the Tata Iron and Steel Factory was established in Jamshedpur in 1907. *
The modern Jharkhand movement dates to the early part of the twentieth century; activity was initially among Christian tribal students but later also among non-Christians and even some nontribals. Rivalries developed among the various Protestant churches and with the Roman Catholic Church, but most of the groups coalesced in the electoral arena and achieved some successes on the local level in the 1930s. The movement at this period was directed more at Indian dikus (outsiders) than at the British. Jharkhand spokesmen made representations to British constitutional commissions requesting a separate state and redress of grievances, but without much success. *
Jharkhand Movement After Indian Independence in 194
7Independence in 1947 brought emphasis on planned industrialization centering on heavy industries, including a large expansion of mining. A measure of the economic importance of the Jharkhand mines is that the region produces more than 75 percent of the revenue of Bihar, a large state. The socialist pattern of development pursued by the central government led to forced sales of tribal lands to the government, with the usual problem of perceived inadequate compensation. On the other hand, government authorities felt that because the soils of the region are poor, industrialization was particularly necessary for the local people, not just for the national good. However, industrial development brought about further influx of outsiders, and local people considered that they were not being hired in sufficient numbers. The nationalization of the mines in 1971 allegedly was followed by the firing of almost 50,000 miners from Jharkhand and their replacement by outsiders. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Land was also acquired by the government for building dams and their reservoirs. However, some observers thought that very little of the electricity and water produced by the dams was going to the region. In addition, government forestry favored the replacement of species of trees that had multiple uses to the forest dwellers with others useful only for commercial sales. Traditional shifting cultivation and forest grazing were restricted, and the local people felt that the prices paid by the government for forest products they gathered for sale were too low. In the decades since independence, these problems have persisted and intensified. *
On the political front, in 1949 the Jharkhand Party, under the leadership of Jaipal Singh, swept the tribal districts in the first general elections. When the States Reorganisation Commission was formed, a memorandum was submitted to it asking for an extensive region to be established as Jharkhand, which would have exceeded West Bengal in area and Orissa in population. The commission rejected the idea of a Jharkhand state, however, on the grounds that it lacked a common language. In the 1950s, the Jharkhand Party continued as the largest opposition party in the Bihar legislative assembly, but it gradually declined in strength. The worst blow came in 1963 when Jaipal Singh merged the party into the Congress without consulting the membership. In the wake of this move, several splinter Jharkhand parties were formed, with varying degrees of electoral success. These parties were largely divided along tribal lines, which the movement previously had not seen. *
There also has been dissension between Christian and non-Christian tribal people because of differences in level of education and economic development. Non-Christian tribals formed separate organizations to promote their interests in the 1940s and again in the 1960s. In 1968 a parliamentary study team visited Ranchi investigating the removal of groups from the official list of Scheduled Tribes (thereby depriving these groups of various compensatory privileges). Mass meetings were held and petitions submitted to the study team maintaining that Christians had ceased to be tribals by conversion from tribal religions, and that they benefitted unfairly both from mission schooling and from government protection as members of Scheduled Tribes. In the following years, there were accusations that the missionaries were foreign outside agitators. *
In August 1995, the state government of Bihar established the 180-member Provisional Jharkhand Area Autonomous Council. The council has 162 elected members (two each from eighty-one assembly constituencies in the Jharkhand area) and eighteen appointed members. *
The Bhuiya are one of the most widely dispersed tribes in India. Based mostly in Orissa but also found in Bihar and Western Bengal and several other states, they have traditionally lived in the forest in widely scattered villages in houses with one area for people, another for animals and a third area for ancestor spirits. There are about two million of them. They are also known as the Bhui, Bhuhar, Bhuiuat, Bhumua, Bhumiya and Bui. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Bhuiya have traditionally been slash-and-burn farmers who supplemented their the diet with fishing, hunted animals, and food gathered from the forest. For money they have done day labor and collected resins, honey and saleable materials from the forest. Cows and bullocks are kept as draft animals. Buffalos, goats sheep and poultry are kept mostly for sacrifices.
At the center of a Bhuiya village is a bachelor’s house with representations of the village’s tutelary goddess carved on one pillar and musical instruments used by unmarried men to attract women. Boys and girls are socialized through their dormitory organization, starting at age 6 or 7. The dormitories provide education and preparation for initiation. Marriages by capture or elopement are common. Men can divorce their wives for neglecting their household chores or being too quarrelsome. Children born out of wedlock are taken care of by their father’s family.
The Bondo are a tribe that lives in the Bondo Hills of Orissa. They were regarded by early anthropologists as "entirely savage, the classic savage type...the passionate and homicidal temperament of the men." Their feasts used to end in murder. There are about 10,000 Bondo and 160,000 Gadabas who are related to the Bondos. Bondo villages are generally made up of mud-walled, thatch roof huts centered around a stone platform known as a sindbor. The villages have separate dormitories for boys and girls. Here the Bondo are trained and educated: the boys in hunting and conducting ceremonies; the girls in cooking, making cups and plates from leaves and making alcoholic beverages. Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992; Bart McDowell, National Geographic October 1970]
The Bondo speak an Austroasiatic language related to Munda but are descendants of people that originated from China. They had reputation for raiding villages of rival tribes and robbing travelers and certain castes, particularly the Doms. Their religion fuses Hinduism with traditional beliefs. They believe in a hierarchy of gods and nature spirts, the most important of which are honored with stone shrines. The most important deity, the mother of the earth, is honored with a stone shrine in the middle of Bondo villages. Many important ceremonies and rituals take place there.
The Bondo raise pigs, cattle, goats and chickens and catch wild birds, crabs, fish and rats. They collect roots, tubers, bamboo, fruit, grubs and dung beetles, for consumption and grow rice, pulses, ragi and a variety of vegetables. They sell jackfruit and plantains to make money and one of their favorite delicacies is fattened rat. Their favorite drink, called salap, is tapped from the top of 30-meter-high palms tree in the morning and drunk in the afternoon, after it has spent the day fermented. The Bondo enjoy drinking it after returning from working in the fields. Most Bondo murders are attributed to fights over salap.
Traditionally, Bondo women shaved their heads and the men wore loincloths, yellow beads, brass earrings and aluminum bracelets. Women traditionally married when they were 15 to 18 to men who are only 10 to 12. It has been theorized that the women preferred young marriage partners because they were likely to be obedient and hard workers. Extramarital affairs between a man and his younger brother’s wife were fairly common. Courting was usually done at girl’s dormitories which have generally been off limits to local boys, who had to go to other villages to find girls.
The Konds are a Dravidian people that live in the hill country of eastern Ghats in central Orissa. There are about 1 million of them. The name “Kond” means “mountaineer” in the Telugu language. Typical Kond houses have one area for people, another for chickens and goats, another for cattle and another for pigs. Doorposts are used to keep animals out of the sleeping quarters. Their three primary gods are Bura (the supreme being), his consort Tari (the earth goddess. A sect that worshiped Tair used to practice human sacrifice but now use animal sacrifices instead. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Konda hold big drumming festivals to celebrate the first ripe papayas. Wet rice, dry rice, maize and lentils are their staple crops. Cattle are kept as draft animals and for milk. Dogs are a source of meat and used in sacrifices. Oil is used more for hair- and skin-care than for cooking. The most popular alcoholic drink is made from mahua blooms. Women can not work in the fields when they are menstruating. It is taboo for them to touch a man’s plow in part because it is the male symbol that penetrate mother earth.
The Kond have traditionally married when they were very young. Girls were often married when they were seven, at which time their ears were pieced many times and filled with rings given by their husbands. At the age of 10 the upper part of a girl’s face was tattooed. Girls that didn’t have thise done were regarded as unattractive and unable to change into a tiger. This custom is dying out. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century.
The Oraons are a large tribe with more than 4.5 million members that is found mainly on the Chota Nagpur Plateau in Bihar but is also found in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. They speak a Dravidian language and have traditionally married when they were teenagers. Both boys and girls are brought up in dormitories. Boys are branded on the arm before they are admitted. The dormitories provide a source of labor for agriculture. Hunting used to be important, there was a woman’s hunting ceremony, but no longer is. Some tribe members are Christian but the majority are Hindu.
The Oraon also call themselves Kurukh, taken from the name of their hero-king Karakh. The Oraon used to live south-west of the river Ganga but are now mainly concentrated in Chhotanagpur in Bihar. In stature they are short or below medium in height. They are mainly settled cultivators and also work as wage labourers and industrial workers. Their staple cereal is rice, supplemented with maize, wheat, Madua and Gondli. Both men and women consume alcohol. They prepare rice beer at home. Generally men chew tobacco and women smoke a water pipe. The Oraon traditional community council at the village level is headed by a Mahto. They have a regional council known as the Parha composed of a number of villages. Their main deity is Dharmes, and they also believe in a host of spirits. A priest is invited to perform their life cycle rituals. An Ojiha or mati is specially called to cure diseases by appeasing evil spirits. [Source: Joshua Project]
Among the Oraons of Palamau, pregnant women that died before or during childbirth had nails, thorns and needles driven into the soles of the corpse’s feet to prevent evil spirits from bringing harm to surviving relatives.
Oraon Human Sacrifice
The Oraon and neighboring Munda and Maria tribe are believed to still occasionally conduct human sacrifice. Although extremely rare cases have been reported to police as late as the 1980s and cases not reported to police are believed to have occurred. The sacrifices are regarded by some villagers as essential for ensuring the fertility of their fields and they are reluctant to come forward with information about the rituals. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The human sacrifices are usually held in remote places at the beginning of the planting season and are associated with the festival of Sarhul. The victims are often orphans or homeless people somebody no one will miss, who are killed with the cut to the throat from a knife. Police believe the killings are sacrifices rather than some of the form of homicide because generally no one has a motive to kill the victim, signs of worship are found around the corpse and part of the little finger has been cut off or is missing.
The missing finger and blood and grain are believed to be buried in the fields to ensure fertility as an offering to a vengeful goddess thought to contro fertility. In the old days, it is believed, the entire body was cut up and body parts were buried in fields all over but this is no longer done because of concerns about being found out. If a suitable human victim can not be found, hair, spit, fingernail clipping or some such thing are mixed with chicken blood and given as a token offering to the goddess.
The Santals (also known as the Santhals) are the largest of the tribal populations in South Asia. There are around 8.3 million of them and they live mostly in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa. They used to be hunters and gatherers but now are mostly farmers and are employed as farm laborers throughout India. They are believed to be to be related to the same people who founded the Champa Kingdom in Vietnam and Cambodia. Santal rebellions against the British left thousands dead in the 1850s. Writing was introduced to them in 19th century by Norwegian missionaries. Santals are the backbone behind the Jharkhand “tribalist “ movement and political party (See Above). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Santals grow wet rice on terraces and sixteen different varieties of millet for consumption and raise cotton, tobacco and mustard for cash crops. They used to practice slash-and burn agriculture but now are mostly settled. Evidence of their hunter-gather past is found in the their vast knowledge of forest plants and their medicinal properties and use of 80 different animal traps. The Santals are also regarded as expert wood carvers.
Santal houses are sometimes decorated with floral designs. The main post at the center of the house is of great ritual importance and the site of sacrifices. Marriages are regarded as means of providing clan members for ancestors spirits. Bride prices are an important element of the marriage process. Grooms who families can’t come up with the money perform a bride service for the bride’s family for some period of time. Extended family households have traditionally been the norm. Grandparents take a lot of the responsibility of socializing children. There have even been reports of grandmothers sexually initiated their grandsons. Girls have traditionally been tattooed at 14 after a first menstruation ceremony. Boys have been initiated at 8 or 10 when fire tribal marks were branded on their forearms.
Santal Religion and Witchcraft
The Santals have animist beliefs which involve idols and evil spirits. The Santal believe in a pantheon of spirits known as bongas, many of which are linked to certain clans. Disease and ill fortune are often blamed on sorcery. Accusations of witchcraft are fairly common. In the old days people accused of witchcraft were often killed. These days they are often forced into a settlement decided by a village council. Healers often use their own blood in healing ceremonies. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Santal religion is one of the most studied tribal religions. According to the 1991 census, however, only 23,645 people listed Santal as their religious belief out of a population estimated at 4.2 million..According to the Santal religion, the supreme deity, who ultimately controls the entire universe, is Thakurji. The weight of belief, however, falls on a court of spirits (bonga ), who handle different aspects of the world and who must be placated with prayers and offerings in order to ward off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and subclan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease, and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, water, tigers, and the forest. A characteristic feature of the Santal village is a sacred grove on the edge of the settlement where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place. [Source: Library of Congress]
The most important spirit is Maran Buru (Great Mountain), who is invoked whenever offerings are made and who instructed the first Santals in sex and brewing of rice beer. Maran Buru's consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove). A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involves petitions to the spirits and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds. Religious leaders are male specialists in medical cures who practice divination and witchcraft. Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of northeast and central India such as the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon.
The deceased are cremated. Some of the bones are collected a and kept for a while under the rafters of the house. The bones are washed and regularly ritually fed milk, rice beer and sacred water and given flowers. A year after death the bones are immersed in water and a goat is sacrificed. All this is done to ensure the spirit proceeds through three generations after death and becomes a benevolent bonga.
The Sora are a tribal people with close associations with Hinduism that live in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. There are around 700,000 Sora but defining who is and who isn’t a Sora is difficult because so many have been assimilated into Hindu society. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Sora live in houses that joined together by terraces so they are similar to longhouses. As the harvest season nears many families move into “baby houses” in their fields to guard crops from wild animals and birds. Those that live in lowlands generally practice wet rice farming. Those that live in the hills have traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture but many have been forced to give it up. Except for certain ceremonial duties performed exclusively by men, both sexes essentially perform the same chores.
Some marriage are sealed through the payment of a bride price in buffalo or labor. Other marriages are done freely without payments. Girls often initiate the courting process. Marriages are often unstable in early years and many end in divorce at the stage. Once children are born they become more stable. A woman’s wealth is generally passed on to her daughters’ family. A man’s wealth is passed onto his sons.
The Sora believe in a large number of spirits that affect their daily life. Important shaman are women. They are said to have the ability to communicate with the dead. Disease and ill fortune is often blamed on sorcery and spirits. People who are considered too anti-social, greedy or weird are sometimes accused of sorcery. Memorial stones are raised and buffalos are sacrificed during funerals and harvest festivals.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015