Leaving urban life behind, a journey into Odisha is a step back in time.
I have long been fascinated with the idea of coming face to face with descendants of India’s earliest occupants. Some 70,000 years ago, human history in the subcontinent began with bands of hunter-gatherers crossing over from Africa. Contrary to popular belief that only 8-9% of Indian population is attributable to indigenous ancestry, close to 50% to 60% of Indians can trace their genetic ancestry to these first peoples*. The rest was contributed by later migrants from West Asia, East Asia, and Central Asia.
In February 2017, I journeyed to the interior of Odisha to see for myself.
Odisha (formerly Orissa) on India’s eastern coast, is home to 62 tribal communities—more than any other state in the country. The undulating terrain of India's Eastern Ghats mountain range that runs parallel to the Bay of Bengal shelters most of the region's tribes. Each tribal group has its own language, culture, and traditions. Many follow a combination of animist beliefs and Hinduism and rely on the forest for their livelihood. While some tribes are isolated from modern life, others are fast-assimilating in a rapidly industrialising India.
Access to many tribal areas is strictly prohibited. In order to interact with certain tribal peoples, a traveller must schedule visits to markets where certain tribal groups will appear on certain days. For the rest, walking from village to village is a wonderful way to get acquainted with local tribes. You never know what you'll come across—perhaps a wedding or election celebration or a family that invites you in. Simply seeing their homes and how they live is something few Westerns ever get a chance to do.
From an ambient guesthouse in Koraput District, my first visit was to Goudaguda Village. I arrived as the sun hung low on the horizon and colourful houses lining the main thoroughfare were particularly vibrant. A harvest festival had just ended and the villagers were at ease.
The Paraja of this village are known for their terracotta pottery and their large communal kiln. Clay is kneaded and thrown on a wheel, the design of which hasn't changed in thousands of years.
The next morning I walked a gentle 10 km through villages, fields, and burbling brooks. After the cacophony of urban India, the gentle undulation of peaceful rice paddies was a balm.
In the villages, morning was underway with ablutions and chores. Men headed to the paddies; grandmas sorted grains; and younger women tended cooking fires while chasing children and buffalo.
In the afternoon, to the market we went. It was an elaborate affair from bangles and slippers to produce and hardware amidst a multitude of chai-wallahs and tribal peoples. There was even an impromptu drumming session.
I shifted to a different part of Koraput District for easier access to Mali villages. Mainly agro-pastoral, the rice fields here are dotted with mounds of hay piled on canopies. They serve a dual purpose: keeping cattle away from the hay and provide shade for the farmer.
Fields are demarcated by fences of hand interwoven branches and twigs. Roofs in the village are piled with winnowing baskets spread with drying herbs and spices. The air was scented with chillies, cinnamon, and cumin as we walk the narrow paths. We were struck by the overall cleanliness and orderliness of the villages.
In a nearby school the children break for lunch and a quick photo.
That evening I was invited by a local staff member to her niece’s puberty ceremony. Typically when a girl begins menstruating, the parents throw a bash to celebrate the start of her fertility - much like a coming-out debut - in order to invite proposals of marriage. We arrived to a rousing welcome. The star of the evening was adorned in a crown of 500-rupee notes. I was treated like an honoured guest, coaxed into family photographs and plied with liquor and food. We danced the evening away to the thumping beat of tribal drums.
On Thursdays action shifts to Onkudeli where a most interesting weekly market gathers, frequented by Bonda, Gadabas, and Didayi peoples. I delighted in sitting next to a creek to watch tribespeople dressed in their finest descend from the hills carrying all manner of market goods from palm wine to firewood.
Produce for sale is arranged on sidewalks interspersed with handwoven lungis or sarongs. A popular stop that day was a soothsayer doing brisk business selling prophetic copper rings following a divination of the buyer’s particular circumstances. Under an old mango tree enormous bamboo baskets of the fisherfolk Didayi people caught my eye. Imagine handling something of this size while weaving!
Soon the most colourful of tribal people, whose villages are off-limits, began arriving.
The Bonda are one of the most primitive of India's tribes with a largely unchanged lifestyle for the last thousand years.
The matriarchal Bonda women wear a backstrap loom-woven cloth over their waist, layers of beads over their torso, thick silver or aluminum bands around their neck, and beaded head coverings known as lobeda. I bartered a couple of bags of tomatoes for a skirt, now a prized possession. Standing in the midst of these strong independent women, I was struck by the similarity in dress and tradition to African or Australoid tribal groups, many of whom are also matriarchal/matrilineal.
Away from the main drag, Bonda women set up a liquor stand. Nearby a Paraja man set up an impromptu cafe for satisfying hunger pangs that follow a swig or two of the Bonda tribal brew.
In the market, Gadaba women arrived next. The Gadaba practice Shamanistic rituals and are known for their tribal dance, in which people link arms and move rhythmically in circles. We made friends with a Gadaba woman. Her neck rings, which weigh more than a few pounds each, would only be removed after death. Traditionally they were worn to foil tiger attacks since tigers will go first for the jugular. At our urging our Gadaba friend sang us a haunting song in her melodious voice. As her voice lilted, a hush settled around us.
Roughly translated, she sang: "O foreigner, you come by bus, you come by motorcar. From far away lands you come and to far away lands you go. But I will carry your face in my memory for a long time."
As I bid my Gadaba friend goodbye, I am certain I will return very soon to step back in time and be mesmerised by Orissa's unique song. After all it's been playing for over 70,000 years.
* Tony Joseph, Who were the first settlers of India?
Join us for tribal tapestry in southern Orissa, exquisite ikat in northern Orissa, visits to weaver colonies, and magnificent temples.
Come away to another world on our Odisha Tribal Tapestry and Textiles tour in Jan-Feb 2020. Contact us.