Tribal Scene In India

Dr. S. K. Ghoshmaulik

Introduction Why Underdeveloped?
Tribes of Orissa Cultural Identity
Habitat Religious faith
Economy Civilizing the savage/Helping the hapless
Other Features Interest For Tribal Studies In India


The scheduled tribe population of India constitutes 8.1% of total Indian population as per 2001 census. In some areas of India, high concentration of tribal communities is observed. Also a particular tribe is identified with specific areas in India. For example, different groups of Naga, are inhabitant of Nagaland, Mizos are in Mizoram, Santals in Jharkhand and Kondhs in Orissa. Yet many such tribal communities have proliferated to their neighboring areas and also to distant locations and settled for some generations like the Santals are spread over the adjoining areas of Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa and to remote areas like the Dooars and Assam.

So identifying tribes with a particular land area often creates confusion, which are variously misused. Yet the Onge and Jarawa are known to be inhabitants of Andaman Island, Shompen of Nicober, Todas of Niligiri hills of Tamil Nadu, Bhils of Rajasthan etc.

As India is geographically a vast country with population of varying physical features, the tribal communities are no exception to this type of morphological and geographical variations. The tribal communities inhabiting the Northeast region of India and the cis-Himalayan areas, dwell in the mountainous cool region with high rainfall. Feature-wise they are of ‘mongoloid ‘ type i.e. yellowish –fair skin, slanting eyes, narrow low nose with straight hair (but less on face) and stocky structure. They have physical closeness with other mongoloid type of people living in Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, China, and Korea etc. But the other tribal people living in the major part of Indian plains like Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu etc. are darker, wavy haired, thin body built, moderate body and facial hair etc. Yet some tribes in Rajasthan, Gujrat, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal (Garhwal) etc., are of sharper features with plenty wavy hair and brown complexion indistinguishable from non-tribal folk. There are occasional exceptions of physical type distribution in geographical context for e.g. the Todas, Andamanese, Nicoberese etc. Such identifiable physical difference is due to their original ancestral stock. The actual origin of such features is still debated and now the genetic evidences are being used to know which group gave rise to which categories in India. So is about their linguistic diversity. The Austric, Dravidian and Indo Aryan speakers have been interspersed in territorial zones and making it very difficult to tally linguistic affiliation, physical features and geographical locations.

The dialects spoken by the tribals amongst themselves are also varied and Indian constitution duly recognized them. All these dialects are grouped under broad categories viz., (i)Austro-Asiatic (ii) Dravidian (iii)Tibeto- Burmese. At present due to increase in contact with other people, speaking Indo-Aryan languages or other major languages, many tribal people have acquired linguistic plurality.

Tribes of Orissa

Orissa is a costal state facing the Bay of Bengal and serves as a corridor land between northern and southern states of India. It enjoys tropical climate favouring forest growth on the mountainous range of the Eastern Ghats extension The costal and other plains, nourished by rivers, are occupied mostly by Non-tribal people, leaving the hilly terrains to the tribal communities. There are nearly two dozens of tribal communities who are numerically (over one lakh population) major. Some tribal communities like Kondh, Juang, Bhuiyan, Bonda, Didayi, Paraja, Gadaba, Saora etc. are confined to Orissa only. Tribes like Gond, Koya, ,Ollaro Gadaba, Halva, Oraon, Munda, Ho, Santala etc. are spread over adjoining areas of neighboring states. There are some very minor tribes, who are numerically very less and found only in limited areas of Orissa (for e.g. Jatapu, Amanatia, Pentia etc). Tribals constitute 22.16% (according to 2001 census) of total population of Orissa. According to 1991 census the tribals constituted 22.21% of the total population of the State.


Some of these tribal groups live in under-developed condition following their traditional way of life in the hill forest region of Orissa. They are mostly concentrated in the southern and northern parts, though found in the western and central areas of Orissa. Very less tribal habitations are found in the costal areas of Orissa, barring some hilly areas in the southern part. General habitat of most of the tribes is forest and hills. As forest provides basic needs like fuel and food, the tribals usually live in the vicinity of natural forest. Under the aggressive civilization, most of the plains, nourished by river, have lost forest coverage, compelling the tribal people to move to the mountainous areas where still some forest is left. These habitats are also now invaded by developed people for quarrying precious metal ores or constructing dams for irrigation and hydroelectricity to boost national economy.


The tribes of Orissa, by and large, earn their livelihood through (i) Farming, (ii) Collecting forest produce and (iii) wage labour. Of Course, many tribal persons, in recent times, have regular jobs. Farming is mostly on non-irrigated undulating terrains using very antique methods of hoeing and ploughing using cattle. This gives very low yield. So hill dwellers resort to slash – and – burn (Swidden) cultivation in their available hill slopes, damaging forest. Hunting is not a supportive subsistence now for animal protein, due to strict forest vigilance. Collection of edible substances from forest still supports their need for food. For these reasons, many of them are now migrating to distant areas to work as laborers, which can at least assure daily cash money. Their traditional skills are now outdated in the light of modern labour market. Tribals who are affected by industrial installation, have found engagement in those areas, and have been observed to imbibe the habits of complex society. In spite of the onslaught of technological civilisation, a large number. of tribal population, have maintained their age-old values and belief, and struggle for existence in their ancestral land.

Other Features

The tribal people who live in their respective habitat are characterized by poor literacy and education, high infant, child and maternal mortality and poor health due to under-nutrition. Each of the above mentioned factors is thoroughly researched by scholars of various disciplines. Appropriate corrective measures are prescribed and implemented by the government and non-government organizations. This aspect has now attracted worldwide attention and tribal development issue has become most important aspect of human development programs.

Why Underdeveloped?

Up to the first-half of the 20th century, general population of India was growing under the natural process of birth and death, supported by insufficient medical intervention, ignorance and colonial government’s indifference. The tribal people were living unsighted in their own areas, under their own system of management. There was no strong need to go outside their territory and compete with other people who were knowledgeable about their rights and facilities to be extracted from the government. So formal education was not alluring. A tribal child was educated by their own seniors to be a good hunter or forest collector and a fit person to provide food and security to own people. Heath, sanitation and disease treatments were maintained through traditional knowledge using local herbs. All these knowledge and ways of life became redundant when they came under the ambit of national policy and their habitat with all bio diversity became national asset. Their ignorance of national legal system, prohibitions and rights etc. made them victim of exploitation by ‘advanced people’. At one point of time, those people were equal to each other in status and technology, but gradually became ‘poor’ and marginal in comparison to other non-tribal people. Self-contained economy could not sustain their families and money-economy eluded them.

Cultural Identity

In general the tribal communities (particularly of Orissa) maintained their socio cultural identities with the surrounding non-tribals but also with other tribal neighbors. Internal social organizations based on ‘clan’ and ‘lineage’ ties are ubiquitous throughout the tribal world with some variations in myth and socio religious rituals. Such tribal community is socially headed by man (as their patriarchal), his office being normally hereditary. He is the supreme appellate in all social disputes, but religious matters are performed under the guidance of the priest.

Religious faith

Animistic religion recognizes all natural forces to be powerful, so also the ancestral spirits. The ancestral spirits are believed to reside around their villages and are directly or indirectly involved in mundane life of the villagers. These spirits need to be kept appeased and so also different supernatural forces. Different tribal groups have different gods and goddesses presiding over different aspects of human well being. Diseases and illness are largely attributed to the wrath or displeasure of various spirits or gods, and some might be due to their faulty method of life. Their treatment methods are designed appropriately. Village medicine man treats certain illness by using herbal drugs and the shaman (a magico-religious functionary) treats those, which are due to supernatural wrath. Diagnostic system and treatment process vary from tribe to tribe. Each tribal community remains under the guidance of own priest and shaman regarding physical or community well-being. Those who have embraced Christianity or Buddhism have dropped these practices, yet

when in crises they resort to magico-religious practices. Many tribal people, who live in close proximity with the Hindus, have accepted many Hindu festivals in addition to their own method of nature propitiation.

Each tribal community nurtures a story regarding their origin and the common feature is that they were the first human beings created by their supreme god (differently named). Stories on prohibitions, breakages of rules, punishment doled out by the supernatural beings are very interesting cultural assets of these preliterate people. Anthropologists have gone into details of such anecdotes and tried to interpret their customs commemorating birth and death of each individual. Rituals regarding their mortuary, reveal their belief in rebirth and continuity of their community. Many primitive tribes of Orissa, still follow these belief and maintain connection with the 'other world' (Saora, Gadaba, Kondh etc). Non-tribal people are in fact, migrants into the tribal land from northern or central India :they had migrated in remote past (pre-Christian millennia). In ancient Hindu mythological literatures, tribal people were variously named as "yaksha", "Raksha", "Kirata", "Byadha", "Nishada" or "Kiskindhya" mainly due to ignorance about their way of life.

As both the communities were at loggerheads regarding claim over natural resources, an air of suspicion prevailed. These forest- dependant people were befriended by many non-tribal chieftains. In some cases they were decimated too. These stories with tinges of love, animosity and fear, percolated down to the present days and the tribal people are viewed as separated groups with peculiar social system. Non-tribal oral tradition, myth, dances, music or art have profusely been enriched from tribal sources. Common non-tribal people acknowledge sincerity, truthfulness and simplicity of the tribals. Most often they consider them as 'adivasi' a blanket term without much differentiation of distinct ethnic identities. They are dependable labour force and placed at margin of their own society.

Civilizing the savage/Helping the hapless

The colonial administration showed no intention to uplift the stressful life condition of the aboriginal community. They were left to their own way of life. These people were viewed as 'savage', fit only for working as unskilled laborer in mines, tea estates etc. The Christian missionaries wanted to convert them and 'thereby civilize' them in European way. Schools, hospitals and churches were established in many areas, which indeed changed the tribal culture to an extent. Many superstitious or brutal practices like headhunting or human sacrifice were stopped by the administration but they did not care to spread education, health services, communication and economic opportunities. Post independence period of Indian democratic administration took various development programs, spread education and reserved job and other economic facilities for the tribals and other backward communities. These upliftment programs became constitutional promise. During half a century of such attempts, plan and implementation have been revised several times. The non-government and voluntary agencies are now encouraged to work for the tribal development with funding from various sources. Still there is long way to go in this direction and rescue the hapless ignorant peasants from age-old backwardness. The tribal areas are now approachable. Many industries have come up in the heartland and the serenity of tribal life has been affected.

Interest For Tribal Studies In India

As the isolated tribal communities have their own ways of life guided by self devised social organizations, customs, rituals and belief systems, European officers, travelers and other Indian people, who chanced to be intimate with them, developed curiosity. The administration required to know details of their culture so that these people could be tackled effectively. Following emergence of Anthropology as a scientific discipline in the nineteenth century, many amateur scholars took interest in ethnographic accounts of the tribals in Africa, Americas and Asia. Indian subcontinent also became ethnographers’ paradise throughout twentieth century. Thus we see marvelous studies on the Andaman islanders, Veddas of Sri Lanka, Toda of Tamil Nadu and also on various North- East Indian tribes like Nagas, Khasis, Garos and many central and East Indian tribes.

As twentieth century progressed, the universities started teaching Anthropology. Government of India opened a department for research, which later became Anthropological Survey of India. A surge in tribal studies was observed which was not limited in ethnographic accounts only. One also finds studies on various aspects of their society, religion, language, art, music, economy, ecology and self governance system. The biological, demographic, health and nutritional situations of tribal communities also have received attention.

With a long background of independent existence and self-management, each tribal community on being probed in recent years, has revealed itself as a treasure house of indigenous knowledge especially in science of treatment. The impression that the tribals belonged to a backward society is fast fading. Growing awareness is observed among the modern scholars to retrieve the traditional knowledge system of the tribals and utilize it for the benefit of the mankind.


The Indian Map is adapted from the map given in the book Planning for Tribal Development by Dr. B. D. Sharma
Photographs by Dr. Jagannath Dash