A Journey through Kondh Territory, a Tribe that Once Sacrificed Humans

‘Life is because of the Gods; with their sacrifice, they gave us life, which nourishes life’

An Ancient Mesoamerican Belief

In 1521 CE, when the Spanish explorer Hemán Cortťs conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan what amazed him was the high intensity of human sacrifices performed in the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in honour of their gods. Indeed human sacrifices in Aztec Civilization had been part of the long cultural tradition of Mesoamerica. Sacrificing a human was viewed as the highest level of the entire panoply of offering which the Aztecs sought to repay their debts to the gods. Even the stage where the sacrificial rites were performed had to be crammed with land’s finest art, treasure, and victims and then buried underneath for their deities.

Human sacrifices in Mayan and Aztec Civilizations have been widely debated in the scholarly world. Curiosity drags a countless number of tourists into dozens of Mesoamerican sites where human sacrifices used to be common sights once upon a time. But many would not know until recent past in yet another corner of the world, the Kondhmal region of highland Odisha, the Kondhs would openly kill a human with a belief for yields of good crops from their slash and burn hill slope fields.

IMG_4146

Weapons used for human sacrifice

meriah

Sacrificial Posts in a Kondh Settlement

IMG_4092

The Kondhs are a Dravidian tribe who live predominantly in the forested mountains of the Eastern Ghats in central-western highlands of Odisha.

IMG_3792

IMG_3794

The picturesque Eastern Ghats in Kondhmal, the Kondh Territory

Travel Tips

Baliguda Town is at the center of Kondh Territory, which is located at a distance of 300 km from Bhubaneswar (the nearest airport) and major city. Baliguda is connected by excellent roads and it takes 7 hours from Bhubaneswar. The nearest Railway Station is however Lanjigarh (120 km). From Baliguda tourists can visit Darigibadi, also known as Kashmir of Odisha and Belghar (60 km), the abode of Kutia Kondhs. Hotel Bivab in the town is the only stay option which is also most sought after by overseas travellers. Tourists can also visit Mandasur (40 km) near Raikia, which is known as Odisha’s own Silence Valley. Ecotourism bamboo cottages are available at Mandasur for comfortable stay. These community run cottages can be booked online through ecotourism website of Odisha.  

Kondhs mean Hilly People in Kui language. They are hardy, war like race of men, well accustomed to jungle life. Until recently with only slightest contact with the plains, the Kondhs had preserved their independence as distinct nobility, bold and fitfully laborious mountain peasantry of dignified manner, proud of their positions as landowners and tenacious of their rights. However, they remained conservative and backward. According to W.W Hunter, a British historian, who visited them in late 19th century, their vices were the indulgence in revenge, and occasionally of brutal passion.

IMG_4064

IMG_3936

IMG_3941

IMG_3934

IMG_3973

IMG_3908

IMG_3729

Today, a drive through some of the finest roads in otherwise one of the most remote areas of Odisha, you reach the Kondh Territory. What draws your immediate attention is their linear settlements ascending from hill slopes to the core of mountains surrounded by farmlands, slash-and-burn fields (locally called podu chasa), mountain streams and open and dense forest with no signs of urbanisation far and wide. A rustic rural life resembling a Prehistoric Era welcomes you to the world of Kondhs.

Also Read Here:

Dongria Kondhs of Nimayagiri – Mother Nature’s Own Children

IMG_4119

IMG_4111

IMG_4116

IMG_4072

IMG_4089

IMG_4091

A Kondh Village in Belghar Region

IMG_4050

Trees Uprooted for Slash and Burn Cultivation

IMG_4132

IMG_4044

IMG_4103

IMG_4107

IMG_4071

IMG_4110

Houses are seen built on either side of a wide street in two facing rows. Houses share a common verandah and single ridge roof. The walls are decorated by women using geometric and floral motifs painted in red earth and lime. The shrine of the earth goddesses is located in the middle of the village street.

Also Read Here:

The Ancient Hill Tribe of Lanjia Saoras – Journey with a Shaman

IMG_4121

A Meriah Post in the Center of the Village

IMG_4098

IMG_4013

IMG_4014

IMG_4018

The Kondhs of Odisha constitute several clans within the tribe; however the most prominent are three, the Desia Kondh, the Kutia Kondh and the Dongoria Kondh. Kutias are named after their house plans, which is about 2 feet below the level of the village road. They believe that in remote past they had emerged from a hole or kuti in the earth near Guma village in Belghar region. Their home is a wooden structure with a low roof and an excavated floor to make up for it.

Also Read Here:

Mishings of Majuli – An Anthropological Journey

IMG_4020

IMG_4023

Today, the Kondhs have settled subsistence farmers, but they also depend upon forest resources and occasional hunting. The hills around their villages are covered with dense mixed forest and one of the common species in the forest is Sal, which has many fold use in their day to day life.

 

IMG_3968

IMG_3721

IMG_3718

IMG_3710

Organic Turmeric for which Kondhamal is well-known

Patches of a forest close to their settlements are regularly cleared for slash and burn cultivation. The Sun is the supreme deity in the Kondh beliefs system and responsible for good happenings. They further believe that sunshine washes away all evils and hence each house must share sunlight of the day equally. In a typical Kutia Kondh house, the main room is provided with a ceiling, which serves as the storeroom. Apart from this over the hearth, bamboo poles are horizontally hung for drying grains and meat. The room is also used for cooking, sleeping and dining. Slash and burn cultivation is being carried out by the Kondhs from time immemorial.

IMG_4042

Shifting Cultivation – Patches of Forest Cleared

IMG_4051

IMG_4053

IMG_4068

IMG_4065

IMG_4055

IMG_4034

IMG_4035

IMG_4143

IMG_4144

The Interior of a Kondh House

The land for cultivation is selected by Dani, the priest along with village elites. A particular patch of forest is used continuously for three years for shifting cultivation. Then it is left fallow for more than five years to allow rejuvenation of the forest growth. Cutting of trees in the patch is done in the spring season by their respective family members and are left for some days to dry up. Care is taken while clearing forests; fruit-bearing trees and trees having herbal medicinal property is not touched. A specific variety of seeds is stored for podu chasa, which are first sown and then hoed. During weeding and flowering, certain archaic rituals are carried out to save the crop from natural calamity and infest of insects and locust. The harvest of crops usually takes place after the performance of rituals and sacrifices to appease the spirits linked with agricultural operations as different crops get ready in different types.

In the 19th century, when the Kondhs were first brought to light, their appearance and life were more archaic than what we find them today. Tattooing was largely practised and the Kondhs used tattoo all over their bodies with artistic designs.

kondh

The men wore long hair which was tied with a red piece of cloth and decorated with feathers of a peacock or other colourful birds. Both men and women wore minimal garments. Since their area was infested with wild beasts such as tigers, elephants and bears, they lived together in a very unhygienic environment which often led to epidemics. Theoretically, each of the Kondh tribes sprung from a common father and it is governed by a patriarch who represents the common ancestor. The patriarch was also the head priest who could explain the cause of the natural calamity.

Natural calamities and epidemics that destroyed their crops and broke their confidence – they began to attribute to the deities, dead ancestors and sorcery. To escape from these misfortunes they developed magico-rituals administered by the priest, named as Jani. Human sacrifice was the most sought after rites among the Kondhs. It was a means of propitiating the earth goddess whose favours were needed to maintain the fertility of the soil. The Kondhs believed that the blood of the victims caused the redness of the turmeric, an important crop and his fears brought the rains.

lingaraj (1)

According to their folklore, the earth was originally a crude and unstable mass unfit for the comfortable habitation of humankind. It was not conducive for agriculture too. Then the earth goddess ordered to split human blood before her and the Kondhs compiled with this demand by sacrificing a child. Then the soil became firm and productive herewith and the goddess ordered men to repeat the rite year after year.

The victims of human sacrifices were called Meriah in Odia and in Kui Toki or Keddi. The victim could be a male or a female or a child. An adult man was costliest. They could be from any caste except Brahmins and their own community. The victim must be brought with a price otherwise they were considered not acceptable to Earth Goddess. They were always purchased from Panos, a secluded caste community who were attached to every Kondh village. The victims were procured often by kidnapping them in the plains. The Panos also moved into plains often and purchased a number of small boys and girls from the poorer section of the Hindus and sold them to the Kondhs who nurtured them until they were 7 years old. The price was paid in livestock, brass vessels, corn and even land.

IMG_4150

IMG_4148

IMG_4147

Kondh Jewelry made out of silver and brass

The Meriah sacrifice was classified as public and private. While the public sacrifice was offered by a tribe or a village as an entity, private sacrifices were offered by individuals. The public sacrifice was done twice a year, at the time of sowing and at the time of harvest, where they sprinkled blood in their field. Private sacrifices were done by families whenever sickness or great distress came upon them.

IMG_3954

IMG_3962

IMG_3946

IMG_3947

meriah buffalo

Meriah Sacrificial Post in a Kondh Village

On the day of the sacrifice, a thick paste of turmeric would be first applied to the body of the victim and then tied in a sacrificial post in the middle of the field. Both men and women in high spirit would dance around the post holding each other’s hands to the rhythm of beating drums. Then the Jani would wound the Meriah with his axe after which the crowd would rush to the victim and stripped the flesh from his bones keeping the head and intestine untouched. They would then rush to their respective fields and bury them believing that this would fertilize their fields.

It was in 1836, Meriah sacrifice was first noticed by the British. But they could not immediately make an attempt to stop it for various reasons. It was stamped out only in the late 19th century and was replaced with buffalo sacrifice.

Today, the Kondh world has changed drastically with wide roads, electricity, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure creation. Literacy has picked up and modernization is noticeable. But as go deep into the interior of the mountains you will discover the remnants of the horrifying past of human sacrifices that are present in numerous Mariah posts and shrines of Tari Pennu. Their settlement pattern and mode of living are still retained from the earlier tradition.

IMG_4152

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Dongria Kondhs of Nimayagiri – Mother Nature’s Own Children

70,000 years ago! When the ancestors of modern humans left Africa for Indian Subcontinent what would have first attracted them is the lush green environment fed by region’s greatest gift of nature, the monsoon. Over a few thousand years they were spread and adapted to various geographical regions. Over thousands of years sustaining in their own environment, they created unique indigenous knowledge systems, where the understanding of local geography and accordingly developing ways of life constituted major aspects. Today, when the world is intertwined between development and environment, many of us are drawn to think of how the adivasi knowledge system can be implemented as critical models for earth’s sustenance.

IMG_0032

Armed with this understanding I set off my journey to Niyamgiri in South Odisha’s Rayagada District, the abode of Dongoria Kondh, an ancient tribe which has a link with early human migration to Indian Subcontinent. Dongoria in Odia means hill and Kondhs are the tribals who inhabit the hills of Niyamgiri. A century ago, their villages were surrounded by lush green forest where sunlight could not infiltrate even during noon time.

Also, Read Here:

A Journey through Kondh Territory, a Tribe that Once Sacrificed Humans

IMG_9876

The View of Niyamgiri from Chatikona

A myth narrates on the origin of Dongoria Kondhs in the mystical past.

Once upon a time, the earth was heavily populated. There was not enough land for cultivation and space for people to live in. As there was no alternative for the tribe, once people complained to Dharam Devata, the Sun God, who was their king. Dharam Devata was moved and immediately set up a committee to discuss a plan. They agreed upon an idea – destroying the entire universe and all living creatures in it and then create a new one in its place.

An antelope, which was soon to give birth, heard this conversation.

Around that time lived Duku and Dumbe, both brother and sister. Duku had been out for hunting and was returning home without finding a game. On his way he saw the antelope and when he was about to shoot heard a scream, a human voice coming from the animal itself. It was the kid in the womb who was talking to Duku.

IMG_9913

‘Killing my mother is what thing you can do. This creation of which you are a part will be destroyed soon and I have overheard Dharam Devata’s plan to destroy everything and create a new world. The earth will shake and trumble and all the hills, mountains, trees, crops, houses, sheds of people will be destroyed. Nobody will be able to survive the wrath of Dharam Devata.’

On hearing this Duku shook with fear. He asked whether there was any way of surviving the destruction. The animal replied – ‘make a boat using the wood of simuli tree. The boat will stay afloat when the floods come. Take enough food to last for a long time’.

Duku rushed back and disclosed his experience to Dumbe.  Without wasting time he made a boat and both started sailing to an unknown world. The disaster hit, but both felt safe, thanks to the antelope’s words. They heard loud blasts from outside, the rushing sound of flooding rivers, screams and death cries, the thunder of falling trees and crashing rocks. They tried to imagine the catastrophe that they were saved from the animal.

At last no one survived except Duku and Dumbe. The gods and goddesses became clear that there was no one left to worship them or offer sacrifice. They took the matter to Dharam Devata. After hearing their complain Dharam Devata tore some hairs of his body to create a crow and gave life to it. The crow was sent in search of human beings. It flew far and wide and finally spotted Duke and Dumbe. Both made their way to the court of Dharam Devata where they explained how they escaped the destruction.

Dharam Devata listened patiently and then discussed with his courtiers and finally decided to request the brother and sister to procreate. But Duku and Dumbe did not agree to the idea as they considered it sin. Then there was another plan. The smallpox goddess Maa Budhi was sent to inflict Duku with smallpox and Dumbe with measles. The goddess followed the instruction and when the diseases were cured both Duku and Dumbe looked different and could not recognize each other as brother and sister. They became sexually attracted to each other. From their procreation were born the first Dongorias.

At the time Dongorias originated there was no Niyamgiri. The earth was devoid of any mountains and hills. There is yet another myth that narrates how Niyamraja became their king and their landscape was formed.

Travel Tips

Dongoria villages are spread over Niyamgiri Hills in Rayagada and Kalahandi Districts. If you are an outsider, you need special permission to visit any Dongoria village from the district collectorate of Rayagada in Rayagada town, 40 km away from Chatikona, the village on the foothill and the highway that connects Visakhapatnam with Raipur. But one can visit Chatikona Weekly Market held on every Wednesday morning when hundreds of Dongoria women and men descend in groups or in public jeeps to sell and buy forest produces and other domestic needs. Chatikona is well-connected by road and rail from Bhubaneswar, Visakhapatnam and Raipur (these cities also have airports). There is no staying option at Chatikona and the nearby town of Bisamkatak. However, a few options are available at Muniguda, further north from Chatikona. But Rayagada being a major industrial and business town has best-staying options. Hotels at Rayagada will also arrange packaged food for a day visit. Hiring a cab from Rayagada is a better option. 

While at Chatikona heritage seeking travellers can also visit the Dokra craft village at Jhigidi. 

IMG_9854

IMG_9964

IMG_9966

IMG_9969

IMG_9981

IMG_9985

IMG_9976

IMG_9974

IMG_9972

The Scene of Chatikona Hat (the weekly market) on a Wednesday Morning  

Dharam Devata once called a meeting to which all the gods, goddess and Dongoria representatives were invited. He wanted a king to be elected to rule on earth, one who would take care of the well-being of Dongorias and bring happiness and prosperity.

To select the right king Dharam Devata had called for a cucumber and pumpkin in preparation for the test. He placed them before the gathering and called each aspiring candidate to guess the exact number of seeds the vegetables contained and were likely to germinate. It was not easy to answer and all of them failed.

Around that time, Biribija ruled in the neighbouring kingdom. He had seven sons, but the youngest one was despised by all his six elder brothers and the king himself. Though Biribija disliked his youngest son, he admired his judiciousness and intelligence.

When they heard Dharam Devata’s invitation, all his six sons went to his court to try their luck. The youngest son, however, went secretly. In the court when the six elder brothers failed the test now it was the turn of the youngest brother, who had sat among the common people.

When he stood to answer, his brothers began to mock him. Unaffected by their harassment the youngest brother answered – ‘there are 180 immature seeds in each vegetable’.

To verify his claim, the gods sitting in the court directed him to cut open the vegetables so that the seeds could be counted. He was proved right. Dharam Devata was delighted and made him the king and named him Niyamraja. Dongrias were also satisfied as they finally got someone to look after their welfare.

Dharam Devata instructed Niyamraja on how to manage political affairs and encouraged him to associate with his people in a friendly manner and to give their welfare highest priority.

IMG_0091

IMG_0085

IMG_0084

IMG_0065

IMG_0119

IMG_0132

IMG_0137

IMG_0147

IMG_0148

IMG_9825

Niyamraja took Sita Penu, the goddess of wealth along with him to the Dongoria kingdom. Dharam Devata had offered five different kinds of seed for cultivation on earth. Since Niyamraja wanted to present his people with an ever greater variety, Dharm Devata requested all other hill gods to supply him with the best seed available from their area. Niyamraja’s wish was fulfilled. When he reached earth, he did not find any hills. His wish was fulfilled causing hills and mountains of various shapes and sizes to emerge. He maintained himself in the form of a great hill. Dongorias had already begun to regard him as king of the hills. Then after he designed laws and principles on how to respond to nature’s cycle and respond her in all circumstances. From then on Dongorias have been following all the instructions and living their life as Mother Nature’s own children. Centuries have passed and unlike their other counterparts, such as Lanjia Soras, who have turned to Christians due to intense missionary activities, their faith in nature and Niyamraja have not been altered.

Also, Read Here:

The Ancient Hill Tribe of Lanjia Saoras – Journey with a Shaman

Lanjia Saura Hill Tribe of Odisha – A Travel Shot (Part 1)

Lanjia Saura Hill Tribe of Odisha – A Travel Shot (Part 2)

IMG_0101

IMG_0111

My first encounter with Dongorias was at Chatikona Hata, (hata is the tribal weekly market) besides the railway station at the foothills of Niyamgiri.

On my way to the hill slope in the early morning, I had the first glance of Dongoria women descending with their farm produces to sale in the market, jack fruits, banana, turmeric, tamarind, roots and tubers being the key items. Soon the market activity became intense with hundreds of Dongoria men and women either walking or in public vehicles descending from the hills, traders from the plain and a couple of foreign tourists. There were separate sections for different items, such as dry fish, poultry, forest produces, brooms, cloths and fabric, grocery, sheep/goat and many more. If you are a student of archaeology your mind would start twinkling as if you are back in time to thousands of years to the era of the emergence of early civilization.

 

IMG_9890

IMG_9885

IMG_9949

IMG_9878

IMG_9909

IMG_9844

IMG_9834

IMG_9940

IMG_9880

IMG_9900

IMG_9929

IMG_9926

IMG_9944

IMG_9870

IMG_9934

IMG_9942

IMG_9938

IMG_9924

IMG_9922

IMG_9957

IMG_9954

IMG_9904

IMG_9952

IMG_9962

IMG_9960

The market lasted for a mere three hours as it was approaching the summer season. By 10 AM, the Dongorias gathered in groups to ascent back the hills, some also got into public vehicles that hop between the Dongoria villages in the hills and Chatikona village in the plain.

IMG_0002

IMG_0020

IMG_0021

Being an Odia, I was fortunate to go up the hills and witness myself the Dongoria way of life. If you are an outsider you need special permission for the entry.

Once in the hill what draws your attention is dense orchards and perennial water streams. Their villages are located in rugged foothill fringes surrounded by deep and dense vegetation and forests. In the past, the Dongorias were not settlers at one place. They were nomadic moving from one place to another with the exhaust of resources. Because of their constant mobility, they have acquired deep knowledge about their environment and methods of exploiting them for their own sustenance.

IMG_0056

IMG_0059

IMG_0061

IMG_0054

IMG_0037

IMG_0035

IMG_0033

IMG_0030

IMG_0028

IMG_0027

IMG_0079

IMG_0089

For Dongorias each hill is a living entity possessed by a particular spirit who is respected as the authority of the hill. From the spirit, god Dongorias seek permission before settling there permanently or temporarily. It is only after appeasement of the Hill God that the Dongorias begin to convert patches of lands into small settlements.

The top of a hill is covered with timber species or grass and is the abode of Lada Penu, the Mountain God. Although there are trees in the Penu Basa, they are not fell excepting when the wood is needed for festivals or house construction.

On the hill slope, Dongorias cultivate a variety of fruit-bearing trees, such as jack fruit, mango, pineapple, and seasonal crops such as cereals, pulses, vegetables and oil-seeds, all organic.

IMG_0032

Over the past decades, the Dongorias have lived in harmony with the forest. But today it is however not the case. You see all means of modernization penetrating into Dongoria world. The rise of materialism and increasing demands of the market have already started affecting the younger generation Dongorias, which was clearly visible during my visit. Now the big question is – how long they would remain as Mother Nature’s old children?

    Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

 

Bhils of Aravali – A Socio-Anthropological Journey

The civilisation of India has been of complex order throughout its history. Most of its geographical regions are known to have played as corridors for exchanging ideas and adopting to new faiths. While some of these corridors changed forever for urbanisation and centres of power, the rest remained slightly aloof, mainly because of their difficult terrains.

img_0785img_0825

One of these regions is the south Aravali hills on Gujarat – Rajasthan border, a corridor that was critically important for a majority of political powers, starting from Pratiharas to Solanki Rajputs and Sisodias to Mughals. But most of them took advantage of its people, the Bhil adivasis for their political interest, but never established any major urban centres.

img_0827img_0828img_0848img_4739

The terrain was also not conducive. In this historical process, the Bhils who had been inhabiting this terrain for millennia have evolved with a hybrid culture of Hinduism and tribal beliefs. In recent years some of them have adopted Christian faith, thanks to a handful of missionary activities. A major share has also been converted to Swaminarayan and other neo-Hindu sects, again due to preaching by religious saints of these orders.

img_0625img_4709img_0511

Aravali as we know is one of earth’s oldest geological formations and consists of hard granite rocks. There are small interspersed valleys in-between mountains and were once covered with dense forest. Today most of these valleys have been converted into small agriculture fields. The area receives a moderate rainfall and the agriculture is mostly subsistence based.

img_0873img_0845-copyimg_0966img_4736

Unlike a typical Indian village where houses are erected side by side in rows on both sides of a road, the Bhil villages are dispersed settlements. Their houses are mostly isolated and built close to their individual farmlands, where they grow country vegetables, corn, maize, wheat and rice. These days we also see cultivation of commercial plants, such as cotton. They rear chickens, goats and cattle. Earlier they used to decorate their houses made out of mud with religious graffiti, but now we see only decoration of incised patterns on walls.

img_0849img_0852img_0857img_0871

Some members of the tribe which have not gone through religious transformation of neo-Hinduism also live on fishing in a way that has made little changes from the prehistoric time. A percentage of Bhils who are economically weaker also depend upon forest produces, such as gathering of mahua plants in seasons and firewood on daily basis.

img_0703img_0879img_0881img_1115

Bhils who have been least affected by Hinduisation are still nature worshippers. For them the hills, mountains and streams are considered sacred. They offer terracotta horses as votive offerings to their nature gods and ancestral heroes who had sacrificed their lives for protection and well-being of the community. We see the largest concentration of terracotta horses around Poshina village in Gujarat.

To sum up, the Bhils of Aravali are a simple people with lots of honesty. However, modernisation and presence of market driven economy have started building stress on their simplicity. It is important that they change and reform their age-old superstitious beliefs, such as witchcraft and get access to values and employable skills but at the same time it is also felt that they must retain some of their values such as respect for nature and sense of community living.