Knowing the Tribes

Elsoma Devi


Although the English term "tribe" (derived from Latin "tribus") designates a homogenous kind of social and political organization existing in the society, in the Indian context it refers to the indigenous ‘Janas'. They are commonly designated as ‘Adivasi’ (original settlers), ‘Girijan’ (hill-dwellers), ‘Vanyajati’ (forest community), ‘Adimjati’ (primitive communities), ‘Janjati’ (folk communities), etc. In Orissa the term Adivasi is commonly used for the tribes. All tribes are not mentioned in the Schedule. In common parlance the tribes enlisted as schedule are mentioned as ST.

Orissa occupies a unique position in the ethnographic map of India for having the largest variety of tribal communities. Although they are found in all the districts of the State, yet more than half of their total strength is found in the districts of Koraput, Rayagada, Naurangpur, Malkangiri, Kalahandi, Nauapara, Kandhamal, Baudh, Kconjhar, Sundargarh and Mayurbhanj. In India there are 437 tribes, and in Orissa the number is sixty-two (62). According to 1991 Census, in Orissa, the total strength of tribal population is approximately seven million, which constitutes 22.21% of the total population of the State.

Linguistically the tribes of India are broadly classified into four categories, namely – (1) Indo-Aryan speakers, (2) Dravidian speakers, (3) Tibeto-Burmese speakers, and (4) Austric speakers. In Orissa, the tribal communities belong to Austric (Mundari) and Dravidian family of language. Many sections have adopted Oriya (the State language of Indo-Aryan family) and have become bilingual.


Although each tribal group has its own distinct social and cultural features, other general pattern is discussed. The tribal people express their cultural identity and distinctiveness in their social organisation, language, rituals and festivals and also in their dress, ornament, art and craft. They have retained their own way of managing internal affairs of the village mainly through two institutions namely, the village council and the youth dormitory. The dormitory is the core of tribal culture and it reinforces the age-old traditions. In Orissa this institution occurs among many tribal communities in some form or other. The Juangs call it ‘Majang’ and ‘Darbar’, the Kondhs call it ‘Dindaghar', the Bhuyans call it ‘Dhangarabasa' and among the Bondos it goes by the name 'lngersin'. Of all the tribes the dormitory system is well organized among the Juang. Conspicuous in the village, the Mandaghar is the largest hut. It has wall on three sides and is open in front. The wooden parts and sidewalls are painted with decorative symbols depicting animals. The boys hang their changu, a flat tambourine like drum, which is used at the time of dancing. In front of the Mandaghar is the small open space where dance takes place almost every night after the day's work is over. The dormitory is so to say a school of dancing and expression of the communal art of the people. The elders of the village assemble at the dormitory house every day for every important event in their daily life. Here they discuss matters concerning the welfare of the village, settle the distribution of swidden and fix date and time for celebration of the village festivals, etc. In these respects the dormitory may be considered as the centre of social, economic and religious life of the village.

The amazing conglomeration of traditions, beliefs, sorrows and philosophies that together constitute and vitalize the rituals and festivals of the tribes, has descended from antiquity and has been preserved unimpaired to the present day. Every facet of their life covering round-the-year activities is intimately connected with religious beliefs and ritual practices. It is these aspects of their culture that give meaning and depth to their lives, and solidarity to their social structure.

The tribes believe that their life and work are controlled by supernatural beings whose abode is around them in hills, forests, rivers and houses. It is very difficult to standardize the Gods and spirits as their composition continually changes when old ones are forgotten with the introduction of new ones. Their gods differ from one another in function, character and nature. Some are benevolent; some are neutral and some are malevolent. The malevolent spirits and gods are cared more than their benevolent counter parts as they can bring misery.

Manipulation of environment being the main concern of the tribals, all the ritual acts are directed towards stimulating natural processes. Illness or misfortune is attributed to displeasure and malicious act of the Gods or ancestors. The sacrifice of different kinds of livestock accompanied by all the rites and ceremonials of fetishism is considered appropriate appeasement. Moreover, their extremely superstitious nature prohibits the undertaking of any enterprise unless the Gods are first appeased and the omens, after being carefully considered, are adjudged to be propitious.

Each tribe has its own religious functionaries who cater to their spiritual needs. For example, the hierarchy of priests among the Saoras may be divided into three categories. The Buyya is a priest who presides at agricultural festivals and offers sacrifices that especially characterize these occasions. The Kudan is a shaman who combines the functions of priest, prophet and medicine man. The sacerdotal head among the Juang is called Nagam or Buita, Pujari or Sisa among the Bondos and Jani among the Kondhs. The post of these officials are mostly ascribed but not achieved.

The ceremonies and festivals of the tribes can be classified into two groups, that is, those that relate to the individual families and those that relate to the village as a whole. The ceremonies and rites relating to birth of a child, marriage, death are observed family-wise whereas those relating to various agricultural cycle, eating of new fruits, hunting, etc. are observed by the village community.

Some of the important festivals observed by the tribal communities of Orissa include ‘Guar’ ceremony of the Saora, ‘Gotar 'of the Gadaba, ‘Push Punei’ of the Juang, ‘Kedu' of the Kondh, 'Karam' festival of the Oraon, ‘Chait Parab’ of the Bondo and ‘Magha Parab’ of the Santal.

With the passage of time, traces of borrowing from Hindu pantheon and religious ceremonies are noticed among the tribes of Orissa. They have started worshipping Siva, Parbati and Lord Jagannath along with their own deities. Hindu festivals like ‘Raja’, ‘Laxmipuja’, ‘Dasahara', and ‘Gamha’ are also becoming popular among them.

The artistic sense of the tribal people is manifested in their dance, music, dress and ornaments, wall paintings and woodcarvings. The beautiful wall paintings and floral designs of the Santals and the icons of the Saoras that depict geometric designs and stylistic figures of plants and animals are the best example of tribal art. The multicolored designs and relief figures of animals and human beings, which decorate the walls of Mandaghar in Juang society, are indeed works of very high order.

Some of the tribal communities like the Bondo and the Gadaba have their own looms by which they weave clothes for their own use. These hand-spun textiles of coloured yarn made of local plants are examples of artistic skill of these people. So also among the Dongaria Kondhs the ladies are very much skilled in making beautiful embroidery work in their scarf. The tribal women, in general the Bondo, the Gadaba and the Dongaria Kondh women, in particular are very fond of using ornaments. The Bondo women, who are considered most primitive, look majestic when they wear headbands made of brass, necklaces of coloured beads and girdles made of brass on their bodies. All these are expressions of their artistic quality and aesthetic sense. The Kondh women decorate their face and body with tattoos. As the tribal people became exposed to modern way of life, they started using utensils; clothes, ornaments etc. supplied by the traders.

The tribes of Orissa, despite their poverty and their pre-occupation with the continual battle for survival, have retained the rich and varied heritage of colourful dance and music forming integral part of their festivals and rituals. Although the pattern of dance and music prevalent among them vary from tribe to tribe yet there are certain features common to all. Though there is no modernity and fineness, their ideas being natural, the compositions are good, inspiring and melodious. The joy of free life finds expression in tribal art and craft. It is through this endeavor their cultural self-image and aesthetic sensibility are visualized. The artistic skill of the tribal people is not only manifested in their dance and music but also in their dress and ornaments, wall paintings, woodcarvings and decorations, etc. The tribal crafts are now on way to disintegration, due to availability of commercially made articles. The loom is almost lost. Only appreciable art is surviving till today is mural paintings.

The tribes of Orissa though have distinct identities, yet they have lots of socio-cultural similarities between them. Tribal societies share certain common characteristics and by these they are distinguished from complex or advanced societies. In India tribal societies had apparently been outside the main current of the development of Indian civilization for centuries. Hence tribal societies manifest such cultural features, which signify a primitive level in socio-cultural parameter. This does not mean that these ancient societies have not changed over times.


At present most of the tribes of Orissa are concentrated in the hilly or forest areas remote from the urban centers. It is believed that once they lived in the plains, but subsequently absorbed in the late settlers in historical period and those who did not compromise with their liberty took refuge in the inaccessible areas.


Tribal economy is characterized as subsistence oriented. The subsistence economy is based mainly on collecting, hunting and fishing (e.g., the Birhor, Hill Kharia), or a combination of hunting and collecting with shifting cultivation (e.g., the Juang, Hill Bhuyan, Lanjia Saora, Kondh etc.). Even the so-called plough using agricultural tribes do often, wherever scope is available, supplement their economy with hunting and gleaning. Simple technology, simple division of labour, small-scale units of production and no investment of capital characterize subsistence economy. The social unit of production, distribution and consumption is limited to the family and lineage. Subsistence economy is imposed by circumstances, which are beyond the control of human beings, poverty of the physical environment, ignorance of efficient technique of exploiting natural resources and lack of capital for investment. It also implies existence of barter and lack of trade.

Considering the general features of their (i) eco-system, (ii) traditional economy, (iii) supernatural beliefs and practices, and (iv) recent "impacts of modernization", the tribes of' Orissa can he classified into six types, such as: (1) Hunting and gathering type, (2) Cattle-herder type, (3) Simple artisan type, (4) Shifting cultivation type, (5) Settled agriculture type and (6) Industrial or urban worker type. Each type has a distinct style of life which could be best understood in the paradigm of nature, man and spirit complex, that is, on the basis of relationship with nature, fellow men and the supernatural.


Marriage is the most important institution of all human societies, and the tribal communities are no exception. All the marriage practices mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts are present in the tribal societies. Negotiated or arranged marriage is though mostly executed, they also go for other nuptial forms namely, elopement, capture, intrusion and services. A tribal bride is to receive some amount of wealth from the groom, which now is being reverted in Hindu style, among the tribal people in industrial areas. The Souras, Koyas, Kondhs, Gadabas and Bondas of Koraput district marry at adulthood. The groom is generally older than the bride in the tribal area. There is enough opportunity for the satisfaction of sex impulses outside marriage. Pre-marital sexual chastity is not very rigidly insisted upon in a large number of tribes. However, sex activity is not the only objective of marriage. Economic co-operation as found in the division of labour between husband and wife seems to be another important consideration for marital union among tribals. Tribal women perform pivotal role in economy. Separation is possible with permission of village council and so also remarriage.

Now the tribal people have scattered all over the State and outside areas. The traditional culture is observed only in the village habitat. The changes in the cultural practices of the migrated people are yet to be seen.


Orissa has high variety of tribal communities. Tribal settings are changing which have an impact on the life rhythm of the people. The dignity of the tribes men has to be understood and as a community, the tribals need to be emotionally integrated to the society. Among all the tribes conformity to customs and norms and social integration continue to be achieved through their traditional social organizations. The tribes of Orissa have their distinct ethnic identity, which is overtly marked when one examines the entire range of folklore of a tribe, finds that the culture of tribal people is no less rich, which paved a way to joy of free life. Much attention is being paid to material culture, especially in post-Independence India, on ‘tribal' development: their transformation from primitive to modern, from forest to city, from bow-and-arrow to machine-gun, without giving them a chance to cross the culture-producing threshold in their own way. 'Loka Parampara' a field-based project has an empirical foundation; it shows that the simple small societies called 'tribe' are the oldest and most highly developed people with complex ideas, despite low technology.

Tribal population comprises the majority population of Orissa and the Government of India has recognized 12 primitive tribes in Orissa. Orissa is fully identified with its tribal culture and one of the fascinating ethnographic states of the country and homeland of 62 different tribal communities, embodied by the amalgamation of myriad communities and distinctive cultural and ethnic traits in its diversified social milieu.

The tribes of Orissa despite their poverty and pre-occupation with the continual battle for survival have retained their rich and varied heritage and through this endeavor their cultural self-image and aesthetic sensibility are visualized.

Photographs : Changu by S. K. Ghoshmaulik, Crop Cultivation by Hrudaya Satpathy, Rest by Soumya Dev

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