Tatooes, tribal sacrifices and market day

Trip Start Feb 27, 2006
Trip End Mar 29, 2006

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Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In India there are 436 different ethnic groups - about 50 million are from tribal groups across indo-aryan, dravidians, austroloid, tibetobarmins (?) origin. In Orissa the total tribal population is 8 million (about 23% of this state's population). There are 14 different primitive tribal groups. Most are indo-aryan but the Gondabas and Bondas are austroloid (like aboriginal). Each has it's own decorative dress and economic activities - either hunter gatherer collecting bamboo shoots, herbs, leaves, material for brooms, mahua flowers to make alcohol, tamarind etc. all from the forests to sell in weekly market, or slash and burn agriculture (i.e. burning the forests to create areas to grow hill paddies, cereals and oil seeds). Some grow using terraced hillside cultivation (like I saw in Andean culture). They all use hand tools and have no machinery, no electricity and like much of India they use a communal hand pump and water containers for collecting water, although some still prefer water from the river.

They are animists - they worship supernatural powers. The earth goddess is the most important and they also worship the sun, moon and stars. Tribes like the Kondhs and Bondas used to do human sacrifice but now do buffalo sacrifice. The British army stopped this and introduced monkey's as alternative through force and incentives. The tribes do still practice their socio-magic beliefs in different ways. In every village there is a chief who is now elected rather than 'inheriting' this responsibility to liaise with the 'outside' world and maintain peacefulness in the village. The priest/shaman plays the main role between the spiritual side and the people - many shamens are women in these tribes. There are witch doctors in the villages and they give amulets and herbal medicines but they don't really like seeing conventional doctors and only the roadside villages tend to see healthcare professionals - if it's free they are more likely to respond better. Some of the government and NGO projects have been trying to get the tribes to change the type of housing of the tribes moving from mud, dung, straw thatch dwellings to brick and tin roof which are not necessarily good for the tribes. These development projects are slowly introducing healthcare, education, sanitation, roads etc which is good. Literacy in tribal areas is around 5-10% against a national average of 60% and education is not encouraged within the community as the tribal people believe it takes the children away from the fields and the family support network.

Women have greater status in the tribes than men. Not only do they look after the home and families, they also work in the fields. At the markets the women do all the buying and selling and carry the heavy loads on their heads to and from market. The men just plough the fields and get pissed on home-made alcohol from flowers, millet, rice, molasses and sago palm. There are arranged marriages, but love marriages are very common and 'capture' marriage amongst the Dongria Kondhs from the weekly market or festival grounds is also acceptable but not seen as bad. In Hindu society the bride's family has to give a dowry but in tribal culture it is the other way around as women are the 'assets' - a few cows or goats tend to make up a dowry unlike the growing materialistic dowry of the Hindus - TVs, cars etc. To be captured is a great honour and means the woman is very sought after and she can still refuse and be returned to her family. The Dongria Kondhs also have a dormitory system where a girl on reaching puberty goes to share with other girls and they are taught about sex, how to look after children etc. They are then encouraged to effectively sleep around and enjoy themselves!

All the tribes have a beautification process - mostly the women. Some are adopting mainstream Indian dress and wear saris and some weave garments. Each group wears ornaments which they mostly buy these days and shows their richness. Deep tatooing is also common with different patterns.

For each tribe dance and music, especially every full moon, is important to them. There are lots of festivals and we were there around the time of harvest festival. They drink mainly alcohol, even the children, by early morning they are pissed. They are 'permanently happy'! Consequently liver damage sets in and life span is low - 50 years old.

Some of the younger generations in the tribes are rejecting tribal dress and rituals, but Sarat thinks it would take 50 years before they totally die out. On the whole what I witnessed was tribal people working, playing and socialising between villages and in many tribes they were 'rich' from living off the land and proud of their culture. Some tribes were a lot poorer and had little to grow, eat or sell - it was obvious that the children in these tribes were malnourished and many had colds, infected eyes and bronchitus too.

On Tuesday we spent the day with the Desia Khata Kutia Kondh tribe. With a 5.30am start, we went for a four hour walk through the forest and jungle before it got too hot. We didn't see any elephants, bears or leopards but they were there somewhere. Sarat established from some local women that there was a festival taking place in a bigger village for the harvest at new moon - a water buffalo was to be sacrificed. We went from village to village, some consisting of about 6 dwellings and each with its totem and sacrificial stone dedicated to Mother Earth. The men were already pissed from drinking their brewed mahua flower alcohol which the children were helping prepare. As it was a festival day the women were also indulging.

The children were wearing one rupee coins round their neck dating back to Queen Victoria's reign which the British soldiers used to bribe the families from making human sacrifices, although rape was also used to terrorise them into stopping. Obviously they had no idea who the Queen or King on their coins were. The women wore many earrings made of melted down coins and nose jewellry. Their faces were tattoed deeply which was a sign that they were married. Many married as early as 14 years which is common across all the tribes, except many of the Bondas where they can be as old as 35 and take husbands half their age. Sarat was great taking me from family to family and teasing all the girls and their mothers. We arrived at the main village and sat in the shady overhang of the thatched roof outside beautifully cleaned houses - one bare room with very little inside. The Indians could learn from these people about cleanliness - cow dung was used to disinfect the walls and floor. Up to 10 in a family sleep on empty sacking on the floor. The women and children gathered round and the older women had great fun poking me, playing with my hair and checking out how fat I was - they are all very muscular and lean. As the day passed by, more people from other villages started to arrive and the rope for securing the buffalo was made from tree bark. The men beat their drums and the women and girls started doing a tribal dance, which I tried to join in. Unfortunately as we still had 5 hours to drive, we couldn't stay for the rest of the ceremony where the buffalo is tethered up to the totem and more dancing. I was pleased that I wasn't there for the following day when they all repeatedly spear the buffalo as it runs around so it scatters blood over the field which gives the earth fertility and richness!

That evening I met a French couple visiting tribal areas, I realised how lucky I was to have Sarat as my guide as they were only visiting roadside villages and their guide did not know any of the families or speak the languages.

On Wednesday, we made an even earlier start to get to the little town where the Dongria Kondh and the commercial Domb people hold market day. The Dongria Kondh live in the mountains and they burn the forests to create terracing. Sarat dragged me up a hill so we could sit and watch the Dongria file past us to the market (about 14km walk) barefoot, some carrying children in slings. Most of the men had piled into trucks which had gone up to collect them, but the women expertly balanced heavy loads on their heads - for example a cluster of 80 bananas, or jack fruit. Sometimes they stopped to chat with Sarat, who showed me their carefully coiffed hair with buns, numerous hair clips, a small carved knife tucked in there, multiple earings. The young women were beautiful and the most ornate as they were out to impress potential suitors. The younger men had long hair and looked quite effeminate with hair clips. They wore a loin cloth and carried an axe.

I really enjoyed the morning watching the buying and selling of live and dead chickens, salt, dried fish, fruit and of course hair clips! This tribe seemed really happy and sociable.

In the afternoon, we visited a village of the Kuvi Kondh who were very shy and ran away from us (most of the tribal people run towards us!) and it took a few biscuits and photos to entice them out of their dwellings. This was a very poor village where the people live mostly of things gathered from the hills. When we arrived they were separating tamarind pods.

By contrast we then visited a Mali tribal village - well we almost didn't get there as the road was so bad that we had to abandon it and walk. The Malis are vegetable growers and had a healthy, happy look about them.

Thursday was another market day, this time where the Bonda tribe come to sell their wares - they live in the mountains and are hunter gatherers. Of proto-austroloid origin, they are athletic and short. The women shave their heads and wear a headress of beads and about 100 necklaces of beads and metal collar rings to cover their breasts and a small piece of woven fabric to cover their lower region! In the past they used to wear nothing but have bowed to Indian pressure to cover up a bit. They were also very beautiful and friendly. Many years ago though it was difficult to observe these tribes as they were very aggressive and even today very little is known of their traditions and origins - although they are thought to pre-date the Indo-arayan and Dravidan settlers. The women have learnt that they can earn money from selling their craftware, but the men are still quite touchy about contact with non-Bondas. They carry bows and arrows all the time and it's hard to get a photo of the men and the odd arrow has found its way to people taking photos of them! I managed to snatch one photo.

We also visited the Gadaba tribe (the tribe where Sarat's sweetheart was from!) and the mamas were very welcoming even singing me a song. They live int he valleys and are also proto-austroloid wearing very heavy aluminium collars fixed when they get married and removed when they die and massive hoop earings. The younger women have now rejected this dress and Sarat thinks that in 10 years this attire will totally disappear. Their houses were simple but decorative painted in different colours.

In the afternoon we popped in to see the Jharia Parajas, another poor tribe living off selling firewood and charcoal. They have very little land to cultivate just odd strip for rice and cereal to eat. The girls (with a little monetary incentive) danced for us - and I joined in - twisting and coiling in circles.

We'd done so much driving, walking and interacting with the tribal people over the last few days that I was totally exhausted. But it was a totally enlightening experience to see the simplicity yet richness of these people's lives - they are very free and accept what they have, which is very little and have little aspirations. They respect the land which is the source of their livelihood and celebrate and appease the goddesses of nature with the elders sitting around the sacred stones to tell their problems to Mother Earth. In some ways they are the lucky ones and we are poorer for the entrapments of our materialistic, time-driven, socially demanding lives.
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