Culture & Heritage :: Handicrafts & Handlooms


Though there are very few potters among the tribals, the tribal people extend their patronage to the other potters. The elemental quality of earth as a substance has long been used by them in the execution of both ritual and utilitarian objects. A variety of roof tiles, utensils such as pots, bowls, plates and jars, and cooking stoves meet specific requirements of daily life. Simultaneously the potter creates votive offerings in strong forms of bulls, elephants and horses as well as terracotta temples and toys.

Bamboo and cane have all the fertile, lively and tactile qualities of nature's raw materials which craftspersons have successfully harnessed. The structural qualities of bamboo, its high-tensile strength and pliability have led to its widespread use for architectural purposes. Besides which, bamboo splits are woven together to make baskets of diverse shapes and sizes depending on the nature of goods they are required to carry or store. Similarly the elasticity and sturdiness of cane has been utilized in the manufacture of a variety of domestic goods, while countless local fibres and reeds are used by people with household skills to make ropes, strings, brooms and the like. These products are largely geared for local consumption. However, the potential of these materials is so great that new applications can be explored for the new customers.

Papier Mache: This skill has been creatively practised by craftspersons from all over Odisha (Formerly Orissa). Paper, waste cloth and different kinds of natural fibres are soaked and beaten into a pulp, then mixed with a variety of seeds and gums for strength and as protection from termites. Special clays and bio-wastes are added for body and reinforcement. The entire process results in a malleable that it requires little skill to be moulded into countless forms. However, despite its versatility this craft has remained neglected.Plasters: The application of plasters to her dwellings is often the rural woman's medium of creative expression reflecting both in terms of colours and symbols, the close identification of man with nature. From clay come the colours ochre, geru, charcoal grey and white which are either used naturally or mixed with pigments purchased from the markets. The images created by her are timeless yet ephemeral, with the sun and the rain taking their toll. The predominantly geometric forms - a straight line, a square covered in dots, waves, triangles pointing to the sky and downwards - can have the most disparate of meanings but the symbolism of fertility is implicit in all of them. The tools used for applying the plasters whether on hut walls or floors are basic. They use twigs, fingers, whole hands and rags.

Stone: Artisans practising the craft of stone carving in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) have remained largely tradition-bound while producing objects of ritualistic, decorative and practical use. Turned utensils for both cooking and serving and artefacts of tourist interest are made in Khiching located on the borders of Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar districts, from a semihard, grey stone which takes on a deep, dark polish, while beads and figurines are carved out of soft stones available in many shades of orange in Phulbani district.

Theatre crafts: The Desiya Natya of tribal Odisha (Formerly Orissa) derives its distinctive style in some part from Prahlada Natakams and Jatras of the Hindus. Its colourful costumes - embroidered head-dresses and painted masks which adorn the key actors, and the use of imaginative props are a craft in themselves. Masks carved out of papier mache and sholapith, the weightless bark of a water plant, represent various gods, goddesses, demons and animals.

In Koraput district alone, at least 200 different varieties of rice are produced or grow wild. Some are for consumption during festivals and marriages, others for their taste, colour or smell, and yet others are grown for their pesticidal or soil- fertilization characteristics. The traditional dependence of many indigenous communities on biological resources is also evidenced in the use of several plants which have medicinal values. For instance, the stem of the 'Hadbhanga' plant is applied to fractured bones for quicker mending and the fruit of the 'Utkapali' is used to cure migraine. However, the rapid destruction of forest cover, pollution of water-bodies along with pesticide poisoning and a host of such destructive activities have taken their toll.


The knowledge and use of vegetable and mineral dyes goes back to pre-historic times in India where, according to data collected so far, there are nearly 300 dye-yielding plants available. However, after chemical colours flooded the markets, only a small number of dyers continued with natural dyes such as indigo. Cotton yarn dyed in madder is still used by the weavers of Kotpad in Koraput district. In an age where the tide is turning against the use of synthetic dyes in the rest of the world, one needs to promote the use of eco- and wearer-friendly natural dyes in this country.

Odisha (Formerly Orissa) is a thickly tribal inhabited state, consisting of sixty two tribes living in different parts of the state - in the highlands, forests, valleys and in the foot hills. They make their own traditional ethnic cottage and live in it. In order to proclaim the self identity intra group wise, socially and culturally different tribes live in different places. Each tribal community has separate mode of living and they differ significantly in their dress, ornaments, skill in building houses, and moreover in their way of life. This difference in their life is clearly discernible from their material culture, art objects from the paintings and drawings and also from the size and shapes of different objects that they use. To the tribals, dress is a cultural need and it is also a part of their tradition.

Among the tribals the use of dress is very significant and worthwhile. The tribals do not use dress just merely to hide their nakedness rather it reflects the racial feeling and their cultural identity. The tribals use separate costumes at the time of festivals and ceremonies. In a specific tribe the dresses from birth to old age has immense variety. The costumes of the male members of the tribe and the females are also different. It is a fact that the female community pay more attention in covering their body. In some tribal communities the women folk want their male partners to be dressed elegantly and impressively. A tribal woman also wears a variety of dresses from her birth to death corresponding to different stages of her life. For instance, a Dhangedi (a maiden) adorns with fine clothes to attract the attention of others while the Gurumai, the priestess wears formal clothes to worship the goddess for the betterment of her community. Dress also helps them in many adversities and also helps to propitiate gods and goddesses who safeguard them against the malevolent atrocities of the ghosts, spirits, etc.

The tribals also use dress according to the position of individual in the society like the clan's head, the priest, and the revenue collector etc. The dress that they use at the time of marriage, birth, death, worship etc. are also different. They use dresses keeping in view the occasion, age, sex and other factors. For example, the priest does not use the normal dress at the time of worship. And again at the time of dancing they dress in a very attractive manner. And the dancing costume has also special significance. They also wear dresses in different styles. While dressing they also keep in their mind the surroundings. They also think of their convenience and inconvenience while dressing themselves for an occasion. Especially they do not like to dress very pompously at the time of any work. But when they go for shopping to the near by market place or to visit any fair or festival they dress themselves quite exuberantly and exquisitely.

Different tribal communities use different kind of dresses, differing in their colour and size. Their dresses are designed keeping in view their necessity and their surrounding. The socio-cultural and the religious views of the tribals slightly contribute for the variety in their dresses. There are several tribes like the Bondo and Gadaba who weave their own clothes. While the other tribes purchase their dress from another community or the neighbouring Damas or Panas. The tribal dress and ornaments mostly belong to the non-tribal group and there are very few tribal artisans. The non-tribal artisans like the weavers they live adjacent to the tribal villages. These people manufacture the costumes of a specific tribe and sell them in the weekly village market. Sometimes these weavers are being paid in cash or in kind in the form of agricultural products. The tribal costumes are very simple and it provides immense comfort to the wearer. Generally, in the Kandha community the Dongria Kandha, the Kutia Kandha and the Desia Kandha, Lanjia Saora and the Santhals depend on other communities (non-tribal artisans) for their clothes. Lanjia Saora and some other tribal community make threads by themselves and give it to the Damas to weave for them. And again they purchase that cloth from the Damas by cash or kind. While the Bondo and the Didayi, the Gadabas weave their own clothes though the Dangrias purchase the cloth from the neighbouring Damas. They knit fine needle work on it and use it.

There is a little similarity among the tribals in their dress those who live in a specific area. The Koyas, the Halabs and the Gandias are inhabitants of the same districts. Though it seems that they have some kind of similarity in their costume but in reality they differ from each other. The Kandhas live in a specific area, like the Kutia Kandha and the Dongria Kandha both the communities live in two different sides of the same hill. But as far as dress is concerned they differ significantly. Similarly, the Mundas and the Santhals though they live as neighbours they differ in their dress and culture. The Juangs and the Bhuyan high lander live in close proximity but they differ in their dress. The Kisans and the Gonds though live in the same belt they have also difference in their dress. At times there are similarity of the dress in colour, design and pattern but they differ in their cultural and social life as well as in their ritual and rites.


The artistic nature of the tribals is very innate in their heart and mind. To them the artistic and aesthetic essence is to make life more enjoyable and to fulfill the cultural, social and religious needs. Even there are some tribes they envisage a better future with the help of art and craft, for the tribals art objects and the skill of the artist is a fit medium to propitiate their deities, gods and goddesses. The tribal art is not the contemporary one. It has the heraldry of a hoary past. It was the art which once widely acclaimed in the midst of the forest, the mountains, and in the springs. Art is the base and basis of the tribal life. It is the economic, social and cultural reflection of the tribal life. Hence art is the yardstick by which they measure their success.

The material culture is also part of their artistic life. Even their costume and dress materials have the touch of artistic workmanship. It is also reflection of the art which had been passed onto them from generation to generation. That art has the accumulated knowledge of ages, which has assimilated in their social tradition. It is a medium to express their inner quest. Dress has multifarious significance in their social life. At the surface level one can observe that they use dress only to avoid the nakedness, or to protect from cold, rain and sunshine. But in fact, the tribal costume exhibit the uniqueness of the specific community, their self-identity. The possession of the right kind of dress is a matter of pride and a great source of enthusiasm. The "Ringa" of the Bondos and the embroidered shawl of the Dangarias have a special social and cultural significance. The Dangria shawl has a direct link with the marital relationship and the success of their conjugal life depend upon it. The dance costume of the Lanjia Saoras as well as their general dress is a fine testimony of their rich cultural heritage. At the time of dancing from the dress of the clan's head "Gamango" they get the trace of the regal pride and heroism.

The origin, history and development of tribal textile commensurate with the general history of man's progress from primitive barbarism to civilization. The state of nakedness was disgusting, to avoid that the tribals used leaves as their dress. This was used in a crude form. Then they used bark of the tree as their dress. This gave them much discomfort, so they used some son bark to avoid this inconvenience. It was not also so soothing, hence they started extracting fibres from the barks and subsequently converted it into thread. Gradually they came to know more about fibre, thread etc. and then began the weaving of clothes. Later on, they also dyed the fibres to make it beautiful. They also use turmeric to colour the threads. These are also several trees in the forest that excrete colour in their bark and the tribals use the bark of these trees to dye the thread. Firstly, they boiled the bark and soak fibres in it. By that way they got various coloured threads and wove according to their requirement. Sometimes instead of making the coloured threads themselves, they purchase them from the market and then weave. Some tribes like to wear clothes of a single colour, while some others like to use multi-colour clothes and at times they knit fine embroidery work on it and make it fit for their use. Through the dress they reflected their traditional culture, artistic skilfulness and thoughts, for which their cultural life flourish on the base of dress. It gave a special lustre to their community life and differentiated one tribe from the other.

To weave clothes they use their own indigenous technology. They use bamboo and other trees to get the fibre usually, they install the wooden loom in front of their house or in the backyard and some of them also install it in the narrow path of the village. They weave during their leisure time. Both men and women weave. In some communities only women weave. The women weave various clothes for them as well as for the male members of their family.

In the olden times the tribals wove their clothes from their loom. But now a days, after they came in contact with the civilized world, they purchase their clothes from the market, resulting in the decay of their culture. Now a days they do not have the slightest inclination to wear old fashioned clothes and have even expressed their hesitation to use their traditional cloth. After the advent of the industrial textile culture, they have already forgotten about their looms. In the changing scenario they no more boast for their tradition and culture. In some of the tribal communities the dress culture is in a complete state of extinction. And in some other communities it is in a dormant state or on the way of decay. In the Kutia Kandha tribe it has almost decayed. In the Didayi community to find a cloth woven in their own fashion has become a difficult affair. Among the Bondo community the alien cultural assimilation is so strong that, forgetting their own traditional dress they have started wearing the dresses of the non-tribals especially the print sarees manufactured by textile industries. Among the Santhals the condition is the same as in the other communities. Though the elderly members of the community wish to preserve their tradition, the younger generation abhor the idea. The young ones of the community are not at all worried about the depletion of their culture and the disintegration of their social and community life, to which the elder members express their dissatisfaction. The intrusion of the alien cultures shuns them. Neither are they capable of restricting it, nor can they fully assimilate it. They are caught in a dilemma which is unprecedented in their racial history. The industry based textiles and the process of deforestation is also to some extent responsible for the partial annihilation of their cultural life. It is not a simple matter that ponders only the tribal communities rather it is a matter of contemplation and retrospection for the researchers, philosophers and thinkers those who really value their pristine culture.

It is a seed time to preserve and revive their culture which is gradually decaying, whole-hearted efforts be made by adopting various measures and techniques to preserve and revive it, or else a great cultural tradition will be buried in the sandy-shores of time.