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The Kondha are indigenous tribal groups of India. They live in Odisha, a state in eastern India. Their highest concentration is found in the blocks of Rayagada, Kashipur, Kalyansinghpur, Bissam cuttack and Muniguda.
The Kondhas are believed to be from the Proto-Australoid ethnic group. Their native language is Kui, a Dravidian language written with the Odia script. The Kondha are adept land dwellers exhibiting greater adaptability to the forest environment. However, due to development interventions in education, medical facilities, irrigation, plantation and so on, they are forced into the modern way of life in many ways. Their traditional life style, customary traits of economy political organization, norms, values and world view have been drastically changed over a long period.
One sub-group of Kondhas is the Dongria Kondhas. They inhabit Rayagada, Koraput and Kalahandi districts. Their major concentration is found in the blocks of Kalyansinghpur, Bissam Cuttack and Muniguda. They are called Dongria or dweller of donger ("hill" in Oriya) and settle in higher altitudes due to their economic demands. The Dongria Kondh call themselves Jharnia meaning those who live by the Jharana (streams). Hundreds of perennial streams flow from Niyamgiri hill, and there are hundreds of Dongria villages by the streams. The Dongria are considered the protectors of these streams, hills and jungles by the people of the nearby plains. Some Kondha tribes live in Gajapati district.
They have a subsistence economy based on foraging, hunting & gathering but they now primarily depend on a subsistence agriculture i.e. shifting cultivation or slash and burn cultivation or Podu. The Dongria Kondh are excellent fruit farmers. The most striking feature of the Dongria kondhas is that they have adapted to horticulture and grow pineapple, oranges, turmeric, ginger and papaya in plenty. Forest fruit trees like mango and jackfruit are also found in huge numbers, which fulfill the major dietary chunk of the Dongrias. Besides, the Dongrias practice shifting cultivation, or podu chasa as it is locally called, as part of an economic need retaining the most primitive features of underdevelopment and cultural evolution.
The Dongria family is often nuclear, although extended families are found. Female family members are considered assets because of their contribution inside and outside the household and women are on equal footing with the male members in constructing a house to cultivation. Women do all the work for household ranging from fetching water from the distant streams, cooking, serving food to each member of the household to cultivating, harvesting and marketing of produce in the market. Due to this, the bride price is paid to her parents when she gets married which is a striking feature of the Dongrias. However, the family is patrilineal and patrilocal.
The Dongrias commonly practice polygamy. By custom, marriage must cross clan boundaries (a form of incest taboo). The clan or "Puja" is exogamous, which means marriages are made outside the clan (yet still within the greater Dongoria population). The form of acquiring mate is often by capture or force or elopement. However, marriage by negotiation is also practiced. The Dongrias have a dormitory for adolescent girls and boys which forms a part of their enculturation and education process. The girls sleep at night in the dormitory (Daa Sala) and learn social taboos, myths, legends, stories, riddles, proverbs amidst singing and dancing the whole night, thus learning the way of the sacred feminine.
The Dongrias are great admirer of aesthetic romanticism. Their personal adornment is unique with each male and female member using hair clips, ear rings neck rings, hand rings made up of brass, iron and Hindalium prepared by themselves as well as purchased from local markets. Body tattooing is practiced by both sexes.
The Dongria have syncretic beliefs combining animism. Their pantheon has both the common Hindu gods and their own. The gods and goddesses are always attributed to various natural phenomena, objects, trees, animals, etc. They have a god or deity for everything and anything. The Dongrias give highest importance to the Dharani penu (the Earth god) and Niyam penu (associated with Niyamgiri Hill), who is held to be the creator and sustainer of the Dongria. For instance, in a house, there is a deity for both the back and front street, kitchen, living room, implements and so on and so forth.
In the Dongria society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invites the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values are greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed.
As with any culture, the ethical practices of the Dongria reinforce the economic practices that define the people. Thus, the sacredness of the mountains perpetuates tribal socio-economics, whereas outside cultures that neglect the sacredness of the land find no problem in committing deforestation, strip-mining etc.
For social control in the village and at the muttha level (regional), the Kondha religion requires a tradition of hereditary religious leaders, such as Jani (religious head), Mondal (secular head), Bejuni (sorcerer), Barik (messenger) to co-ordinate and decide, by holding a meeting, where punishment or appeasement are to be awarded. The procedure is usually followed by sacrifices of buffaloes and cocks. The punishment may be in cash or kind and may lead to ostracism from the community, if not obeyed.
Social and environmental concerns
Vedanta Resources, a UK based mining company, threatened the future of this tribe as their home the Niyamgiri Hill is rich in bauxite. The bauxite is also the reason there are so many perennial streams. The tribe's plight is the subject of a Survival International short film narrated by actress Joanna Lumley. In 2010 India's environment ministry ordered Vedanta Resources to halt a sixfold expansion of an aluminium refinery in Odisha. As part of its Demand Dignity campaign, in 2011 Amnesty International published a report concerning the rights of the Dongria Kondh. Vedanta has appealed against the ministerial decision. In April 2013 the Supreme Court upheld the ban on Vedanta’s project in the Niyamgiri Hills, ruling that the views of those communities affected by it must be considered. All 12 tribal villages voted against the project in August 2013, and in January 2014 the Ministry for Environment and Forests stopped the project.
In a case of life seeking to imitate art, the tribe appealed to James Cameron to help them stop Vedanta, reckoning that the author of the film Avatar, which deals with a similar subject, would understand their plight. An advertisement in Variety magazine said: "Appeal to James Cameron. Avatar is fantasy … and real. The Dongria Kondh tribe in India are struggling to defend their land against a mining company hell-bent on destroying their sacred mountain. Please help the Dongria." Other celebrities backing the campaign include Arundhati Roy (the Booker prize-winning author), as well as the British actors Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin. Lingaraj Azad, a leader of the Save Niyamgiri Committee, said the Dongria Kondh's campaign was "not just that of an isolated tribe for its customary rights over its traditional lands and habitats, but that of the entire world over protecting our natural heritage".
Lodu Sikaka, Kondha tribal chief
- "Tribe takes on global mining firm". BBC. July 17, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-17.
- Survival International
- "India blocks Vedanta mine on Dongria-Kondh tribe's sacred hill". Guardian News and Media Ltd. August 24, 2010. Retrieved 2012-04-21.
- "India puts stop to expansion of Vedanta aluminium plant". BBC. October 21, 2010. Retrieved 2011-08-13.
- India: Generalisations, omissions, assumptions: The failings of Vedanta’s Environmental Impact Assessments for its bauxite mine and alumina refinery in India’s state of Odisha (Executive Summary) Amnesty International.
- "Indian tribe's Avatar-like battle against mining firm reaches supreme court". Guardian News and Media Ltd. April 8, 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-21.
- "Vedanta Resources lawsuit (re Dongria Kondh in Orissa)". Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Retrieved 4 December 2016.
- Hopkins, Kathryn (February 8, 2010). "Indian tribe appeals for Avatar director's help to stop Vedanta". The Guardian. London. Retrieved February 14, 2010.