Towns of the perilous trucking kind aside, my impression of Orissa is one of trees and the conspicuous presence of tribal peoples, many of which are peoples of the deep forests; being food gathers, hunters and fishers. Others seem strongly influenced by Hindu beliefs and culture and have assimilated to an agricultural village life.
In Australia early European invaders, colonists if you prefer, confronted tribal peoples that were technologically and politically ill-equipped to check the imperial power that progressively penetrated their homeland. Their populations were inadequate in number and too scattered to resist the onslaught. In addition, and crucially as it turned out, Indigenous Australians possessed no certified documentation that could be presented in a British court of law as proof of land ownership. And unfortunately, when trying to stand up to a society deeply entrenched in a tradition of bureaucracy and legal precedent bits of paper are all important; none of this deferring to notions of a spiritual ‘Dreamtime’, ancestral roots in the ground, and a bunch of ochre hand stencils purportedly done by your forebears, to validate your claim.
In Orissa, as elsewhere in India, tribal peoples also confronted successive waves of invaders and powerful centralised nation states. The territorial expansion of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd Century BCE was just one episode in a long story of conflict and survival. Although many tribal peoples had merged into the wider peasant community by this period, numerous Mauryan-period settlements were still separated by expansive areas of forest, and these were inhabited mainly by food-gathering tribal populations. The Mauryan state sought to assimilate ‘forest dwellers’, this following their defeat and subsequent marginalization of their tribal ways of life, but had difficulties containing diverse and ethnically powerful populations. The state actively sought to interfere in the political and social structure of wild tribes so as to convert them into members of a class society based upon ownership of individual property. In this it had varying levels of success.
Dominant cultures of the Ganges Plain in general displayed pejorative attitudes towards tribal peoples. In the scheme of things ‘tribals’ were placed at the bottom. RgVedic Aryans made a distinction of ‘Pure Lands’, lands that were considered sacred and that in practice were fertile and well cultivated, from those that were sandy, mountainous and forested and commonly were inhabited by tribal peoples. Jain and Buddhist literature distinguishes tribal lands as those difficult for monks to travel ‘bare-footed’ and that the tribal peoples were those ‘among whom ignorance abounded’. Jain monks and nuns going on pilgrimage were advised to avoid areas inhabited by ‘unlearned and barbaric’ people, these being partly defined as those who were ‘half-civilized’ and who ‘ate and rose at improper times’. This ‘grab bag’ of belittlement is a big net, if I can put it in such a way, one big enough to catch an awfully large proportion of the people that I call my neighbours. In fact I could happily put half the population of Hometown in that category; inclined to be barbaric at sporting matches, can’t spell most of the obscenities they liberally proclaim, scoff cheap cask wine and junk food at all hours of the night, and probably have never read a good non-fiction book in their lives. They waste too much of their time watching mindless American sit-coms and as a result miss all the good BBC and SBS programs with lots of semi-naked women. Thankfully we are not on the pilgrimage route.
The main tribal peoples of Orissa include Santhal, Mundas and Gondi that have become agriculturalists. The Koya are cattle breeders and the Mothali and Lohara are simple artisans who include basket weaving and tool making amongst their complement of skills. The Bondos are fiercely independent and are reputedly aggressive, and practice a barter system of exchanging produce from their fields for their daily needs. Bondo women prefer to marry younger men so they will have someone to earn for them in their old age. The Gondi are a warrior group who have travelled the vast tracts of Central and Southern India. Some, like the Oraon, are more interactive with the modern world.
About 61 tribal groups inhabit Orissa and though officially known as ‘tribals’ they are more accurately called ‘Adivasis’. All are accredited with special status under The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950. Adivasis constitute 25 percent of the state’s population. Their populations are commonly quite substantial, attaining population levels that would be the envy of Australia’s diverse indigenous peoples, and a level of population that in Australia would be politically empowering, a voice to be reckoned with. The Kondha number about 1 million and are based mainly in the southwest. The Santhals are about 500,000 in number and live mainly around Baripada and Khiching in the far north, the Saura number more than 300,000 and live near Bolangir in the west. The Bonda or Bondo, the ‘naked people’, are far fewer, about 5,000, and live in isolated hill areas near Koraput. Their native tongue Remo is being replaced by Oriya, and as it has no script this exacerbates the threat of extinction of their native language.
The Santhal are the largest tribal community in India, and mainly live in the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam in the far northeast. Some also live in Bangladesh and Nepal. The Santhal belong to the Proto-Australoid group and may have arrived in India soon after the Negritos, a people thought to be survivors of an early migration out of Africa and now represented by remnant populations in the Andaman Islands, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. The Santhal are short in stature, and their language is distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer. They did not have a written language until the 20th Century and now use Roman, Devnagri, Oriya, and Bangla writing systems. However, a new and distinctive script called ‘Ol Chiki’ was invented by Pandit Raghunath Murmu in 1925, the script combining features of the Indic and Roman scripts. The Santhal religion worships Thakurji as a supreme deity, but the different aspects of the world is the domain of a court of spirits who must be placated with prayers and offerings. These spirit beings operate at all levels and can inhabit all manner of physical and notional entities be these water, stones, animals, and even village boundaries. A characteristic of their villages is the presence of a sacred grove on the edge of settlements. Here the spirits live. A year round cycle of rituals is associated with birth, marriage, burial, agriculture, and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds.
There are a number of clan groups and marriage is generally permitted with other clan group members. The Santhal clan system is not rigid and thus their society is free from ‘untouchability’, non-association, and other ill effects of harsh clan laws. Santhals are an agricultural tribe possessing domesticated animals such as cows and pigs, and have a long history of clearing forests and the undertaking thereon of subsistence farming. But they are also skilled hunters. Group singing and dancing are the most important means to express joy and happiness. Despite successive waves of invaders the Santhal have preserved their language. In 1855 the Santhals rebelled against the British colonists, and Indian landlords and petty officials, known as zamindars, taking their land. In many Santhal villages zamindars and money lenders were put to death, however, the rebellion was brutally crushed and many villages were destroyed. The ‘Santhal Rebellion’ was largely overshadowed by the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
The Kisan of Orissa are traditionally farmers and food gathers, and speak the Kurukh language but use the Oriya script for writing. They are the main tribal group inhabiting the districts of Sundergarh, Sambalpur and Keonjhar, and are now mainly a settled tribal people. ‘Kisan’ is Hindi for farmer, but they are also known as the Kuda, Kor and Mirdha, and are thought to be an off-shoot of the Oraon, an aboriginal tribe. Divorce due to adultery, maladjustment, impotency and cruelty is socially acceptable, as is marriage of widows, widowers and divorcees. Parental property is divided equally among sons but daughters are excluded. Kisans are Hindus and worship the major deities of the Hindu pantheon. However, their religion is infused with the remnants of their earlier tribal belief system, and many ancient deities such as the family god Ista Devta, the tribal sun god Samalai Mahaprova, and the tiger deity Baghia are incorporated. An important Kisan harvest festival is Maghe Parab, a festival to pay tribute to the village deity. In Orissa the Kisan have been subject to contemporary forced land displacement, the compensation paid for their lost land failing to restore their cultural equity.
The Kondha or Khonds are an aboriginal tribe inhabiting Orissa and the state of Andra Pradesh. They speak the Kui language and divide into Hill- and Plain-dwelling subgroups. The Kondha are hunter-gathers and are dependent on forest resources for survival. Their religion is animistic, the pantheon including over 80 deities. Cultural values centre on respecting nature. They became notorious during the British occupation of India for the practise of human sacrifices (‘Meriah’), the sacrificial victims intended for the further fertilization of the earth. It was incumbent on the Kondha to purchase their victims, but they seldom sacrificed their own kind, though in hard times they were obliged to sell their children and these could be purchased as sacrificial Meriahs. Persons of any race, gender or age were acceptable.
But the tribe that interested me in particular were the Gond, or Gondi. For them my interest is at best probably trivial yet to me it is significant. This tribal group is spread over the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andra Pradesh and western Orissa, and at a population of about 4 million the Gondi are the largest tribe in Central India. Their language is related to Telugu and other Dravidian languages but many also speak Indo-Aryan languages as well as Hindi. Historically the Gondi practised ‘slash and burn’ agriculture, but this practise has generally been discontinued. The region of central northern India, takes its named from the Sanskrit ‘gondavana’, ‘forest of the Gonds’, thus ‘Gondwana’. The region is part of the northern Deccan Plateau, a number of old kingdoms being established there, the first of these being mentioned in 1398 CE; and these nominally subject to the Mughal emperors. The current economic disadvantage of the Gondi tribal people is often attributed to the Maratha conquest of the region in the 18th Century, followed by British inroads and control in the 19th Century.
The reason the tribe especially interested me is that the land of the Gondi, ‘Gondwana’, lends its name, in the sciences of palaeogeography and biogeography, to the southern-most of the two ancient super-continents, the other northern landmass being called Laurasia. The super-continent Gondwana was named by the Austrian scientist Eduard Suess and once comprised Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, India, Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. At various times in the geological history of the planet, different bits of Gondwana split off and rafted across the Earth’s softer mantle to where we currently find them. From the name of the super-continent is derived the adjective ‘Gondwanan’ which is in common use in biogeography when referring to patterns of distribution of living organisms, typically those restricted to regions that were once part of the Gondwana super-continent. The plant family Proteaceae, which contains the emblematic Australian bottle brushes, grevilleas, banksias, waratahs and macadamia nuts, is an example of a group of organisms whose members are considered to be ‘Gondwanan’ in origin and distribution.