Culture & Heritage :: Tribes Of Odisha

In India there is an amalgam of 437 tribes, and in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) the number is sixty two. According to 1991 Census, in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) the total strength of tribal population is approximately seven million which constitutes 22.21% of the total population of the State.

Linguistically the tribes of India are broadly classified into four categories, namely

(1) Indo-Aryan speakers,

(2) Dravidian speakers,

(3) Tibeto-Burmese speakers, and

(4) Austric speakers.

 ln Odisha (Formerly Orissa) the speakers of the Tibeto-Burmese language family are absent, and therefore Odisha (Formerly Orissa)n tribes belong to other three language families. The Indo-Aryan language family in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) includes Dhelki-Oriya, Matia, Haleba, Jharia, Saunti, Laria and Oriya (spoken by Bathudi and the acculturated sections of Bhuyans, Juang, Kondh, Savara, Raj Gond etc.). The Austric language family includes eighteen tribal languages namely, Birija, Parenga, Kisan, Bhumiji, Koda, Mahili Bhumiji, Mirdha-Kharia, Ollar Gadaba, Juang, Bondo, Didayee, Karmali, Kharia, Munda, Ho, Mundari and Savara. And within the Dravidian language family there are nine languages in Odisha (Formerly Orissa), namely, Pengo, Gondi, Kisan, Konda, Koya. Parji, Kui, Kuvi and Kurukh or Oraon.

 The tribes of Odisha (Formerly Orissa) though belong to three linguistic divisions, yet they have lots of socio-cultural similarities between them. These commonalities signify homogeneity of their cultures and together they characterise the notion or concept of tribalism. Tribal societies share certain common characteristics and by these they are distinguished from complex or advanced societies. In India tribal societies had apparently been outside the main historical current of the development of Indian civilization for centuries. Hence tribal societies manifest such cultural features which signify a primitive level in socio-cultural parameter.

Habitat: A major portion of the tribal habitat is hilly and forested. Tribal villages are generally found in areas away from the alluvial plains close to rivers. Most villages are uniethnic in composition, and smaller in size. Villages are often riot planned at all.

Economy: Tribal economy is characterised as subsistence oriented. The subsistence economy is based mainly on collecting, hunting and fishing (e.g., the Birhor, Hill Kharia), or a combination of hunting and collecting with shifting cultivation (e.g., the Juang,, Hill Bhuyan, Lanjia Saora, Kondh etc.) Even the so-called plough using agricultural tribes do often, wherever scope is available, supplement their economy with hunting and collecting. Subsistence economy is characterised by simple technology, simple division of labour, small-scale units of production and no investment of capital. The social unit of production, distribution and consumption is limited to the family and lineage. Subsistence economy is imposed by circumstances which are beyond the control of human beings, poverty of the physical environment, ignorance of efficient technique of exploiting natural resources and lack of capital for investment. It also implies existence of barter and lack of trade.


Considering the general features of their

(i) eco-system,
(ii) traditional economy,
(iii) supernatural beliefs and practices, and
(iv) recent "impacts of modernization",

the tribes of Odisha (Formerly Orissa) can be classified into six types, such as:
(1) Hunting, collecting and gathering type,
(2) Cattle-herder type,
(3) Simple artisan type,
(4) Hill and shifting cultivation type,
(5) Settled agriculture type and
(6) Industrial urban worker type. 

Each type has a distinct style of life which could be best understood in the paradigm of nature, man and spirit complex, that is, on the basis of relationship with nature, fellow men and the supernatural.

(1) Tribes of the first type, namely Kharia, Mankidi, Mankidia and Birhor, live in the forests of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts, exclusively depend on forest resources for their livelihood by practising hunting, gathering and collecting. They live in tiny temporary huts made out of the materials found in the forest. Under constraints of their economic pursuit they live in isolated small bands or groups. With their primitive technology, limited skill and unflinching traditional and ritual practices, their entire style of life revolves round forest. Their world view is fully in consonance with the forest eco-system. The population of such tribes in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) though is small, yet their impact on the ever-depleting forest resources is very significant. Socio-politically they have remained inarticulate and therefore have remained in a relatively more primitive stage, and neglected too. 

(2) The Koya which belongs to the Dravidian linguistic group, is the lone pastoral and cattle-breeder tribal community in Odisha (Formerly Orissa). This tribe which inhabits the Malkangiri District has been facing crisis for lack of pasture.

(3) In Odisha (Formerly Orissa) Mahali and Kol-Lohara practise crafts like basketry and black-smithy respectively. The Loharas with their traditional skill and primitive tools manufacture iron and wooden tools for other neighbouring tribes and thereby eke out their existence. Similarly the Mahalis earn their living by making baskets for other communities. Both the tribes are now confronted with the problem of scarcity of raw materials. And further they are not able to compete with others, especially in the tribal markets where goods of other communities come for sale, because of their primitive technology.

(4) The tribes that practise hill and shifting cultivation are many. In northern Odisha (Formerly Orissa) the Juang and Bhuyan, and in southern Odisha (Formerly Orissa) the Kondh, Saora, Koya, Parenga, Didayi, Dharua and Bondo practise shifting cultivation. They supplement their economy by foodgathering and hunting as production in shifting cultivation is low. Shifting cultivation is essentially a regulated sequence of procedure designed to open up and bring under cultivation patches of forest lands, usually on hill slopes.

In shifting cultivation the practitioners follow a pattern of cycle of activities which are as follows:

(i) Selection of a patch of hill slope or forest land and distribution or allotment of the same to intended practitioners

(ii) Worshipping of concerned deities and making of sacrifices,

(iii) Cutting of trees, bushes, ferns etc., existing on the land before summer months,

(iv) Pilling up of logs, bushes and ferns on the land,

(v) Burning of the withered logs, ferns and shrubs etc. to ashes on a suitable day,

(vi) Cleaning of the patch of land before the on-set of monsoon and spreading of the ashes evenly on the land after a shower or two,

(vii) Hoeing and showing of seeds with regular commencement of monsoon rains,

(viii) Crude bunding and weeding activities follow after sprouting of seeds,
(ix) Watching and protecting the crops,

(x) Harvesting and collecting crops,

(xi) Threshing and storing of corns, grains etc., and

(xii) Merry-making. In these operations all the members of the family are involved in some way or the other. Work is distributed among the family members according to the ability of individual members. However, the head of the family assumes all the responsibilities in the practice and operation of shifting cultivation. The adult males, between 18 and 60 years of age under-take the strenuous work of cutting tree, ploughing and hoeing, and watching of the crops at night where as cutting the bushes and shrubs, cleaning of seeds for sowing and weeding are done by women.


Shifting cultivation is not only an economic pursuit of some tribal communities, but it accounts for their total way of life. Their social structure, economy, political organization and religion are all accountable to the practice of shifting cultivation.

In the past, land in the tribal areas had not been surveyed and settled. Therefore, the tribals freely practised shifting cultivation in their respective habitats assuming that land, forest, water and other natural resources belonged to them. The pernicious, yet unavoidable practise of shifting cultivation continues unchecked and all attempts made to wean away the tribals from shifting cultivation have so far failed. The colonization scheme of the State Government has failed in spirit.

In certain hilly areas terraces are constructed along the slopes. It is believed to be a step towards settled agriculture. Terrace cultivation is practised by the Saora, Kondh and Gadaba. The terraces are built on the slopes of hill with water streams.

(5) Several large tribes, such as, Santal, Munda, Ho, Bhumij, Oraon, Gond, Mirdha, Savara etc. are settled agriculturists, though they supplement their economy with hunting, gathering and collecting. Tribal agriculture in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) is characterised by unproductive and uneconomic holdings, land alienation indebtedness, lack of irrigation facilities in the undulating terrains, lack of easy or soft credit facilities as well as use of traditional skill and primitive implements. In general, they raise only one crop during the monsoon, and therefore have to supplement their economy by other types of subsidiary economic activities. 

Tribal communities practising settled agriculture also suffer from further problems, viz:

(i) want of record of right for land under occupation,
(ii) land alienation

(iii) problems of indebtedness,

(iv) lack of power for irrigation

(v) absence of adequate roads and transport,
(vi) seasonal migration to other places for wage-earning and
(vii) lack of education and adequate scope for modernization.

(6) Sizable agglomeration of tribal population in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) has moved to mining, industrial and urban areas for earning a secured living through wage-labour. During the past three decades the process of industrial urbanization in the tribal belt of Odisha (Formerly Orissa) has been accelerated through the operation of mines and establishment of industries. Mostly persons from advanced tribal communities, such as Santal, Munda, Ho, Oraon, Kisan, Gond etc. have taken to this economic pursuit in order to relieve pressure from their limited land and other resources.

In some instances industrialization and mining operations have led to uprooting of tribal villages, and the displaced became industrial nomads. They lost their traditional occupation, agricultural land, houses and other immovable assets. They became unemployed and faced unfair competition with others in the labour market, Their aspiration - gradually escalated, although they invariably failed to achieve what they aspired for. Thus the net result was frustration. 

The overall kinship system of the tribes may be label led as tempered classificatory. In terminology the emphasis lies on the unilinear principle, generation and age. Descent and inheritance are patrilineal and authority is patripotestal among all the tribal communities of Odisha (Formerly Orissa).

Among the tribes there is very little specialization of social roles, with the exception of role differentiation in terms of kinship and sex and some specialization in crafts, the only other role specializations are Head-man, Priest, Shaman and the Haruspex. 

There is very little rigid stratification in society. The tendency towards stratification is gaining momentum among several settled agricultural tribes under the impact of modernisation. The tribes of Odisha (Formerly Orissa) are at different levels of socio-economic development.

The position of priest, village headman and the inter-village head-man are hereditary. The village headman is invariably from original settlers' clan of the village, which is obviously dominant. Punishments or corrective measures are proportional to the gravity of the breach of set norms or crime, and the punishments range from simple oral admonition to other measures, such as corporal punishments, imposition of fines, payment of compensation, observance of prophylactic rites and excommunication from the community. Truth of an incident is determined by oath, ordeals and occult mechanism.

As regards the acquisition of brides for marriage, the most widely prevalent practice among the tribes of Odisha (Formerly Orissa) is through "capture", although other practices, such as, elopement, purchase, service and negotiation are also there. With the passage of time negotiated type of marriage, which is considered prestigious, is being preferred more and more. Payment of bride-price is an inseparable part of tribal marriage, but this has changed to the system of dowry among the educated sections.

The religion of the Odisha (Formerly Orissa)n tribes is an admixture of animism, animalism, nature-worship, fetishism, shamanism, anthropomorphism and ancestor worship. Religious beliefs and practices aim at ensuring personal security and happiness as well as community well-being and group solidarity. Their religious performances include life-crisis rites, cyclic community rites, ancestor and totemic rites and observance of taboos. Besides these, the tribals also resort to various types of occult practices. In order to tide over either a personal or a group crisis the tribals begin with occult practices, and if it does not yield any result the next recourse is supplication of the supernatural force.

Crisis Rites: As most of the tribes of Odisha (Formerly Orissa), practise agriculture in some form or the other, and as rest others have a vital stake in agriculture, sowing, planting, first-fruit eating and harvest rites are common amongst them. Their common cyclic rites revolve round the pragmatic problems of ensuring a stable economic condition, recuperation of the declining fertility of soil, protection of crops from damage, human and live-stock welfare, safety against predatory animals and venomous reptiles and to insure a good yield of annual and perennial crops.

The annual cycle of rituals commence right from the initiation of agricultural operation, for instance, among the Juang, Bhuyan, Kondh, Saora, Gadaba, Jharia, Didayee, Koya and Bondo, who practise shifting cultivation. The annual cycle begins with the first clearing of hill slopes during the Hindu month of Chaitra (March-April) and among others it starts with the first-fruit eating ceremony of mango in the month of Baisakh (April-May). All the rituals centering agricultural operation, first-fruit eating, human, live-stock and crop welfare are observed by the members of a village on a common date which is fixed by the village head-man in consultation with the village priest. 


Thus the ideological system of all the tribes surrounds supernaturalism. The pantheon in most cases consists of the Sun God, the Mother Earth and a lower hierarchy of Gods. Besides there are village tutelaries, nature spirits, presiding deities and ancestor-spirits, who are also propitiated and offered sacrifices. Gods and spirits are classified into benevolent and malevolent categories. A peculiarity of the tribal mode of worship is the offering of blood of an animal or a bird, because such propitiations and observance of rites are explicitly directed towards happiness and security in this world, abundance of crops, live-stock, plants and progenies. Sickness is not natural to a tribal, it is considered as an out-come of the machination of some evil spirits or indignation of ancestor spirits or gods. Sometimes, sickness is also considered as the consequence of certain lapses on the part of an individual or group. Therefore, riddance must be sought through propitiation and observance of rituals. 

Among all the tribes conformity to customs and norms and social integration continue to be achieved through their traditional political organizations. The tributary institutions of social control, such as family, kinship and public opinion continue to fulfill central social control functions. The relevance of tribal political organization in the context of economic development and social change continues to be there undiminished. Modern elites in tribal societies elicit scant respect and have very little followings. And as the traditional leaders continue to wield influence over their fellow tribesmen, it is worth-while to take them into confidence in the context of economic development and social change.