The Kondh Tribe

Felix Padel

    I feel that my own experience and background put me in a strong position for understanding the culture of British colonialism in some depth. Coming from an intellectual English family, and studying Classics and Social Anthropology at Oxford, I went on to do a degree in Sociology at Delhi University, There, under the influence of friends and teachers, I started to question many things about the intellectual tradition I grew up in. At the same time, I started to visit tribal areas, and to feel at home in three quite different cultures- for tribal India is as different from mainstream India, as that is from Britain, or more so. I have visited tribal villages not as an anthropologist but as a human being beginning to see the world from the other side.

    'Are there Konds in your country too?' When a Kond asked me this question, he made me realize how differently Konds see themeselves from the way that the ethnographics tradition defines them- precisely as it defines other tribes, by locating them in a particular area and giving an exact figure for their population. Konds see themselves, quite simply, as one of the main races or divisions of mankind. In their myths, Konds are usually the first human beings to emerge out of the earth, and have a special relationship with the Earth Goddess.

    Konds call themselves Kuwinga or Kondho. This name is probably related to the Telugu word for hill, Konda. 14 Perhaps in the eyes of their non-tribal neighbours, Konds are the people of the hills. But the name is also probably related to the 'Koya', 'Koitor' or 'Gond'- various names for India's largest tribe who live West of the Konds- and may have some connotation of 'first people' or 'humans', like so many of the names by which tribal peoples call themselves, in India as well as in other countries.

    The Konds are Orissa's largest tribe, numbering the best part of a million people.15 They live over a wide area of southwest Orissa and speak a language of the Dravidian family like Telugu and Tamil. Two main forms have been officially identified as separate languages, Kui and Kuvi. But though these are not always mutually intelligible (like dialects of Welsh for example), they seem to be close enough to be considered dialects.16 Most Konds also speak some Oriya, the language of Orissa, an Indo-Aryan language like Bengal and Hindi.

    Kond villages have a distinctive form, with rows of houses joined under a continuous roof, one row on each side of a wide street-very different from the villages of most other tribes, where households are more separate and dispersed. In the centre of this street there stand wooden poles and piles of large stones which form a shrine of Darni Penu and other village deities. The remotest villages are still sometimes surrounded with stockades for protection against tigers and elephants, as Kond villages were before British rule, when they needed defence against human attack as well. In the more traditional Kond villages, the order boys and girls sleep apart from their parents in 'youth dormitories', one for each sex (or just a boys' one) which are a focus of singing and romance up until the time of marriage. Kond women have patterns tattooed on their faces and arms. Often they wear a mass of heavy metal ornaments, and dress in bright cloth.

    There are many different groups among the Konds. Clans are important in people's identity. Each clan, as well as each section of a clan and each village, has its own territory, and its own ancestors and myths and particular customs or ways of dressing. Apart from this, there are several broader divisions among the Konds, which may have separate origins.

    The first Konds to meet the British were the Kui, who are therefore more influenced by the outside world. Some only speak Oriya now. They are concentrated in Phulbani District, where F.G. Bairley and Barbara Boal focused their studies around two of the main administrative centres. 18 The Kuvi Konds live to the southwest, in Kalahandi and Koraput, the Distirict which I am most familiar with. In the most mountainous areas in between live the Kuttia and Dongria Konds, each with a distinctive culture, who are among the most isolated and traditional Konds. Dongrias wear handloom cloth of distinctive, colourful design. Entry to their areas is restricted to protest them from exploitation. 19

    Further south, mainly in Andhra Pradesh, live the Konda Doras ('lords of the hills') and Konda Reddis, some of whom also practised human sacrifice, and the Jatapus, a more 'Hinduized' group. The 1961 Census calls Kuttias the most backward Konds, and Jatapus the most advanced-a typical example of the value judgements that permeate the official discourse about tribes.20

    Apart from these regional differences, the Konds, like many other tribes, are divided into Hill Konds and Plains Konds. 21 Hill Konds tend to be much more independent of outsiders and stronger in their culture.

    Now as in the 1830s Konds have close connections with people of an 'untouchable' caste called Doms or Panos- Doma'ya in Kuvi, Pano or Panva in Oriya- who live in Kond villages and carry on small-scale trading (which once included the trade in mariahs). Originally Doms sere a caste of weavers-they used to weave the Konds' cloth until in most areas factory-made cloth took over. They often speak Kui or Kuvi, and live as Konds do, although they are more Hindu than the Konds, at least in their lifestyle and dress. Other tribal castes whom Konds depend on include blacksmiths, potters and herders, who almost function as subcastes of the Konds.22 Sundies are a Hindu caste of distillers; they make and sell mahua- the most famous of the alcoholic drinks that play such an important part in tribal culture. Mahua is a delicious, colourless drink, that is distilled from flowers of the mahua tree. Normally Konds make mahua themselves, but the British made home-distilling illegal for a while.

    Sundis cashed in on the British licensing laws and used them to exploit the Konds. Today they are still often heavily involved in moneylending at extortionate rates.

    Konds also have a close relationship with high caste Hindus. In the 1830s most Konds gave a form of allegiance to Hindu rajahs, although this left them largely independent in practice, especially the Hill Konds.

    Kond villages, like those of other tribes, show a lot of variety in how far they conform to the non-tribal or modern lifestyle of those around them. When men cut their hair short, this is often a sure sign of conformity, whether to Hindu or Christian norms. In the remoter villages, where men keep their hair long, a way of life continues that has not changed much since the days before British rule.

    Several other major tribes are neighbours of the Konds. Each tribe, or section of a tribe, has its own special way of dressing for men and women, its own particular deities and culture heroes, distinctive forms of marriage and rituals of seasonal activities and honour for the ancestors, and different, culturally recognized roles of priests and shamans, male or female. Linguists divide these tribes into those who speak languages of the Dravidian family, as the Konds do, and those whose languages are of the Munda family, which is related to Khmer (Cambodia's main language) and tribal languages of Southeast Asia.23 Yet for all their differences among themseleves, all these adivasis share a common tribal culture that connects them, and also links them with tribal peoples further East, from Burma to Indonesia.

    The Lanjia Soras live south of the Konds. They speak a Munda language. Many of their fields are elaborately terraced up the sides of mountains, and they erect big stones in memory of those who die. Like Konds, they have female as well as male shamans, and perhaps an even greater interest in the spirit world, although many Soras have converted to Christianity within the last ten years.24

    The Bondos, or Remo as they call themselves, live southwest of the Konds. They are another Munda-language tribe of only three or four thousand people, who are famous in anthropology (as well as locally) both for their fierceness and readiness to fight, and for the appearance of their women, who shave their heads bald and wear only a tiny loincloth and a great mass of jewelry round their necks. Bondo wives are usually older than their husbands, reversing the norm of most cultures. Near them live the Didayi, or Gataq, another small tribe. 25

    Gadabas live in the same direction. Like Soras, they erect megaliths for their ancestors, as part of a large ritual to honour everyone who has died in the last few years. This ritual involves a sacrifice of buffaloes similar to the Konds' great buffalo sacrifices, killing them by cutting them to pieces with axes. Gadabas are divided into sections with Dravidian and Munda languages-a situation that highlights the uncertainty in the way anthropologists have classified all these tribes. 26 Sora, Bondo and Gadaba women traditionally all wear home-woven cloth made from bark-fibre.

    Among the southern Konds live a tribal people known as the Porojas, who speak a Dravidian language quite closely related to the Kond language. Their name apparently comes from the Sanskrit word for 'subject', Praja, and they are more Hinduized, or acquiescent of outside influence, than some other tribes. But they call themselves by different names, without this connotation of subservience.27

    The Gond speak another Dravidian language, having the same word as the Konds for 'god' or 'spirit' ('Gond pen, Kond Penu). Some of the headmen of Kond areas are Gonds, who came long ago from the West. Bastar District is the home of the most isolated and traditional Gonds, known as the Muria and Maria.28

    To the North, across the Mahanadi river, live the Juang, another Munda-language tribe, who have much in common with the remoter Konds, and whose women traditionally wear skirts of leaves instead of woven cloth-or used to, until colonial officials tried to 'civilize' them by making them wear cloth instead.29

    I shall also refer to several other tribes who live further away from the Konds: the Santals, Mundas, Hos and Paharias to the North; the Baigas and Bhils who live further West; the Todas of the Nilgiri Hills in South India; the Nagas and Abors on India's Northeastern extremity; and the Andaman Islanders.

Sacrificing People: Invasions of a Tribal Landscape
Author: Felix Padel
Publisher: Orient BlackSwan
Year: 2011