all the states of India, Orissa 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
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
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 Orissa 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 Orissa 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 Orissa 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.