Tribals of Orissa

The supernatural also figures prominently in tribal folklore which is a body of largely verbal literary tradition. These simple folktales are linked to occasion in everyday life – sowing, harvesting, birth, marriage and death.

Folktales also values dear to the tribal’s heart, but many of them offer an explanation for natural phenomenon day and night,
thunderstorms, animal behavior. With the tribals living so close to nature, it could not be otherwise.

Major Tribes & their area

Name Area
Kondh – Keonjhar, Kondhamal, Sambalpur, Bolangir,
Koraput, Ganjam and Sundergarh

Saura – Koraput, Ganjam and Bolangir

Gond – Sambalpur, Bolangir, Koraput, Kalahandi and Sundergarh

Santal – Mayurbhanj, Balasore, and Keonjhar

Paraja – Koraput, Kalahandi and Sundergarh

Gadaba – Koraput,Nowrangpur, and Malkangiri

Koya – Koraput and Malkangiri

Oraon – Sambalpur, Sundergarh, Gunupur, and Bonai

Bhuiji – Mayurbhanj,Sundergarh, Keonjhar, Balasore and Pallahara

Bonda – Koraput and Malkangiri

Juang – Keonjha & Dhenkanal

Of all the states of India, Odisha has the largest number of tribes, as many as 62. in terms of percentage they constitute an impressive 24 percent of the total population of the state. These tribes mainly inhabit the Eastern Ghats hill range, which runs in the north-south direction. More than half of their population is concerned in three districts of Koraput (undivided), Sundergarh and Mayurbhanj.

Tribal economy is subsistence oriented. It is based on food gathering, hunting and fishing and thus revolves around forests. Even the large tribes like the Santal, Munda, Oram and Gond, who are settled agriculrurists, often supplement their economy with hunting and gathering. While farming they make use of a very simple technology and a simple division of labour,often limited to the immediate family. They lose out because their holdings are small and unproductive, lacking irrigation facility since the terrain is hilly and undulating.

Mnay tribes, for instances, the Juanga, Bhuiyan, Saora, Dharua and Bonda, practice what is called shifting cultivation or Podu Chasa, also known as slash and burn. They select a plot of land and generally on a mountain slope, slash down all the trees and bushes and burn them to ashes.

Spreading the ashes evenly over the land, they wait for the rains before planting their crops. Due to cultivation for two or three seasons on one plot of land the soil gets depleted, so the tribal move on. It is a way of life for them. There are cattle-breeders among the tribes, notably the Koya. There are simple artisans too like the Mohali and Loharas, who practice crafts of basket weaving and tool making. A sizeable part of the tribal population of Odisha has moved to the mining and industrial belts of the state, notably the Santals, Munda, Oran and Ho. This has helped ease the pressure on small holdings but in the process tribal villages have been abandoned. Traditional skills, land and other immovable assets have been lost without always bringing in adequate prosperity via jobs in mines and factories.

But if tribal economy is shakly, tribal culture in its pristine state is rich and distinctive and the Adivasis work hard to preserve it. A tribal village manages its internal affairs very smoothly through two institutions – the village council of elders and the youth dormitory.

The core of tribal culture, the youth dormitory, is the largest hut in the village. It has only three walls, profusely decorated with symbols representing animals. The fourth side is open. By night dormitory is home to the youth of the village. But before and after a hard day’s work, people gather here to chat and relax. The council of elders meets here too to discuss matters relating to the welfare of the village. The open space in font of the dormitory is where youths and maidens dance with abandon every evening, for tribal culture allows free mixing of the two sexes. Despite their poverty the tribals of Odisha have retained their rich and colourful heritage of dance and music. Every tribal can sing and dance to the sound of pipe and drum and give tune to impromptu compositions that come to him/her as naturally as breathing.

The tribals of Odisha observe a string of festivals. Some are closed affairs, relating to a birth or death within the family or a daughter attaining puberty. Others relate to sowing or harvest time and these involve the entire community. Mostly a festival is an occasion for a good of Mahua liquor, a game roasted on the sprit and a night of song and dance is revelry.

But that is not the end, there is an animal sacrifice too, for the deities and sprits must be appeased first, particularly the malevolent ones, so they don’t unleash drought or sickness on the land. Tribals are superstitious people and the ‘Ojha’ occupies a position of honour since he not only prescribes medicines for the sick but is also believed to exorcise evil sprits.