Dense forests, a hilly topography and remote tracts of land help Odisha support a thriving tribal population. Of the 645 Scheduled Tribes enlisted in India, Odisha hosts the largest number – 62 indigenous tribal communities reside in the state.

Unchanged for centuries and mostly untouched by civilisation, the ancient tribal settlements are found on hills or close to rivers flowing near forests, far from the plains. Yet, the cultural ethos, identity and vitality of the state is deeply influenced by its rich ethnic tribal diversity. While some share common characteristics, each tribe varies greatly in terms of lifestyle, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, folklore, language and appearance.

Tribal economy is driven essentially by activities around the jungle. Most communities were hunter-gatherers, who also did some fishing as a source of livelihood. Agriculture and farming are also practiced with the slash and burn technique or shifting cultivation. However, larger tribes have adopted newer agricultural practices and cattle breeding. Some local tribes sustain themselves with crafts and artisan skills such as textile and basket-weaving, tool-making and metal craft. The local haat (market) is the best time to see various tribes together. Haats are held on specific days at specific venues and offer tribals a platform to buy provisions or livestock or sell their wares. Despite poverty and a struggle for survival, they still retain their heritage and love for music, dance and revelry.

Jitender Gupta
A Bonda tribeswoman at Badvel village in Malkangiri district
A Bonda tribeswoman at Badvel village in Malkangiri district

The southwestern part of Odisha possesses the largest concentration of tribal people in the subcontinent. When you drive southwest of Bhubaneswar to Baliguda in Phulbani district, you reach the entry point to the tribal highlands. The drive passes through beautiful countryside and forested mountains of sal trees, and a typical tribal tour gives visitors a chance to experience the hidden heritage of Odisha. Stop at Deshia Paroja villages enroute to Jeypore and continue further south to the Thursday haat of the Bonda and Gadaba tribes at Onukudelli and watch Dhurubas at Gupteswar. The Tribal Museum at Koraput is a good introduction to the state’s rich tribal culture. Every Friday, Kundli, 65km from Jeypore, hosts the biggest haat in the entire tribal area with up to 10,000 people visiting the market to trade. Here, one may encounter the Paraja tribe. Continue 145km from Jeypore to Rayagada to visit the Kutia Kondh weekly market on Tuesdays at Kotgad and the Dongria Kondh market at Chatikona on Wednesday.

Tip Specialised tour operators arrange an itinerary of tribal circuits based on market days.

Major tribes in Odisha

Bonda

A remote hilly tract in the Malkangiri district called Bonda hills, distinguished by steep slopes and dense green hills and forest, is home to the fierce and colourful Bondas. Sometimes they are also referred to by their language, Remo. Bondas truly stand out amongst other tribal communities due to their typical attire. Their bodies and heads are bedecked in a riot of colours – yellow, blue, russet, red, green, white and ochre, with long strands of beaded necklaces that hang below their navels all the way down to their upper thighs. Their backs wrapped in a blue cape and hips covered by a thick woven sash, Bonda women carry themselves with enviable grace. They also adorn themselves with several metal ornaments. Men are usually short and arm themselves with bows and poisoned arrows and darts. Quick to react to any provocation with violence and aggression, Bonda men are regarded warily. Mainly agriculturists, this tribe believes that the death of a tribe member is the work of evil spirits.

Their courting tradition is unique – young boys are allowed to visit the girls’ dormitories of different villages at night and revel in music and dance together. They then establish intimate relationships with marriageable girls and select theirpartners. Bonda girls are allowed to marry younger men.

Gadaba women adorned with metal chokers
Gadaba women adorned with metal chokers

Gadaba

The Gadabas are a colourful tribe believed to be amongst the earliest settlers, with their origins allegedly dating back to the Ramayana era. Gadabas speak Gutub, a Mundari dialect, and call themselves Ghutan. It is believed that, in the past, they were employed as load bearers on the hills and carried palanquins. The word ‘gadaba’ means ‘person who bears a load on their shoulders’. Today, they live around the areas of Ganjam Malkangiri, Koraput, Kalahandi, Sundargarh, Boudh and Phulbani. True to their name, Gadaba women wear twin metal chokers or neck chains, each weighing up to 700 grams. These are removed only after they die. They wear several tribal orna-ments and a colourful striped two-piece dress, which is usually woven by them.

Gadabas eke out a living through agriculture, hunting and fishing. They are deeply religious and shamanic rituals are not uncommon. They have a great love for music and are famous for their ‘dhemsa’ dance. The Gadabas erect monoliths or menhirs to honour the deceased.

Gond

Spread across the hills of Balangir, Koraput , Sundargarh, Sambalpur and Kalahandi is a warrior tribe called the Gonds, who wreaked havoc and fear in the past. They form one of the largest tribal groups in South Asia who lived all over the uplands of the Deccan plateau.

It is believed that Gondwana, or the land of the Gonds, was the original Southern super-continent Gondwanaland, comprising Africa, Madagascar, South America, Australia, the Indian subcontinent and Antarctica. Like other tribes, they practice agriculture, grow cereal and herd cattle.

Juang

This unique jungle tribe can be found in Dhenkanal and Keonjhar. Their language can be traced to the Munda community. However, they claim to have no tribal traditions, having severed all ties with the Hos and Santhals in the past. They claim to be true aborigines, and are skilled in basket-making. They trade their basketry products, which are in great demand, for food and money. They adopted the worship of Goddess Lakshmi due to their proximity to Hindu villages.

Women from the Dongria Kondh tribe sporting the distinct trio of nose rings
Women from the Dongria Kondh tribe sporting the distinct trio of nose rings

Kondh

The Niyamgiri hill range, 40km from Rayagada, is home to the Dongria Kondh, a unique farming tribe who worship nature, hills and streams. They worship the mountain god Niyam Raja and his hilly dominion that includes the 4,000m Niyam Dongar (literally, Mountain of Law). While their name is derived from ‘dongar’, meaning ‘mountain’, they regard themselves as Jharnia or ‘protectors of the streams’. This reverence for nature is echoed in their art, which uses triangular motifs to depict various deities.

One of the largest tribal communities in the state, the Kondhs have an intrinsic knowledge of the forest, mountains, trees and plants including rare medicinal herbs. Apart from cattle breeding, they cultivate fruits in orchards and a vast range of crops for livelihood. Wrapped in strips of white cloth, the women of the Dongria Kondh community can be distinguished by their facial tattoos, distinctive jewellery, multiple earrings and a trio of nose rings besides silver neck bands, bangles and beads. Another distinction is their hair, styled with many attractive hairclips. Dongria Kondh men are no less fashionable, sporting hair buns, hair clips and two nose rings, though they are less colourful than the ladies. They carry hunting tools like bows and axes.

The Kondhs speak a language called Kui. The community is spread around Kandhmal (Phulbani), Balangir, Koraput and Ganjam districts. Head to Barakhamba from where you can hike to the remote villages of the Desia Kondh. Desia Kondhs bear beautiful tattoos on their faces.

Oraon

Unlike other tribal communities, the Oraons are a progressive and prosperous group, who have adopted advanced agricultural practices. They use fertilisers and pesticides, improved seed varieties and accept the influence of modern science or technology. They have proper roads and transport leading into their settlements and have adapted to the trappings of mainstream society with greater ease.

Paraja

Inhabitants of the hills and forests, the Parajas worship numerous gods and goddesses and have a passion for music and dance. They are divided into two groups – one follows the Hindu traditions of omitting beef and buffalo meat from their cuisine, while the other does not. Marriage alliances within the clan are banned. They are mainly agriculturists, who sustain themselves through animal husbandry.

Santhal

The Santhals are a fascinating tribal community who possess a keen eye for beauty. They build pretty homes that are hand-painted with exquisite artwork and keep their surroundings very tidy. Santhal women collect silk cocoons from asan trees to process them into the fine, gold-toned tussar silk used in weaving.

Sauora

One of the oldest tribes in the country, the Saora tribals find mention in Hindu myths and classics like the Puranas. Bearing axes on their shoulders, the Saoras are intrepid forest dwellers and expert climbers, with great stamina for marathon walks across all kinds of terrain. Their settlements are virtually inaccessible as they are set deep within forests. Their costume is unique as the men wear a lanjia (loin-cloth) that hangs behind them like a tail. Hence, they are also called Lanjia Saoras.

Saoras are master artists and their homes and shrines are decorated with incredible wall murals that depict daily scenes and social and religious events. Their art is emblematic of Odisha and has inspired wide-ranging handicrafts including scrolls, textiles and metal art. Visit hamlets near Puttasingh to see their paintings.