Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), c.1970, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma.
Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), Santal, c.1970, Eastern India, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma. Photograph by: Renu Dhiman.

Santals are a group of people who occupy certain areas of Bihar mostly Jharkhand, also spilling over to the neighboring states of Odisha and West Bengal. They are primarily a farming community growing mostly rice. Music and dance are an integral part of their life and culture, connecting to fertility and harvest. Of all their musical instruments, the dhodro banam is one of the most spectacular creations, in terms of design which heavily aided by the art and skill of sculpting. Like all the origin theories and myths of the Santals, this instrument too has a peculiar myth of origin. The story goes in this way that long ago in a village, seven brothers had a sister, who was cooking a meal one day for her brothers. While engrossed in her cooking she accidentally cuts her finger, from where a drop of blood falls on to the food. The food was perceived as very delicious and it made them wonder if a drop of blood makes it so tasty, her flesh might be even more delicious. At the spur of moment, a unanimous decision was taken to eat her up. The youngest of the brothers could not eat his portion, as she was his beloved sister, and decided to bury his share into a white ant-hill. From this spot a beautiful Champa tree grows and its branches whistled melodious music as the wind blew. A yogi passing by could not resist listening to it and broke a branch which he later converted into a dhodro banam, a musical instrument in anthropomorphic form.

The surviving examples are carved out of a hard wood, although the myth mentions the Champa tree which is a rather softer medium. Dr. Verrier Elwin, a noted anthropologist, in his book, The Tribal Art of Middle India, records that a heavy wood, specifically Grewia tiliaefolia was used for these instruments and the surface was darkened with oil. Carved on all sides, the sound box was covered with lizard (Land monitor) skin. The string mostly singular was made from the intestines of a goat.[i] The instrument was played held vertically with the help of a stringed bow.

With the nature of the form, the Santals believe the instrument is a human being (or the long lost sister with a tragic fate), and that, it possessed the power to connect the world with other supernatural realms. Even the sound that the instrument resonates was believed to be a voice of a human being. These instruments were mostly in anthropomorphic form with pronounced head, neck and a torso. There are certain examples with limbs as well. The top of the head of the instrument is decorated with delightful themes such as dancing village belles, drummers, couple with a child, or animal forms, all ingeniously carved. One of the most iconic one, is in the National Museum, New Delhi, from the collection of Dr. Verrier Elwin, depicting an automobile being crossed by a gentleman in horseback.

This instrument according to Dr Verrier Elwin was often used by travelling ascetics and yogis. He also added that the instrument would be cremated along with them, but with presence of many old examples, in various collections of the world, there might have been exceptions.[ii] With changing times, the popularity of these instruments is vanishing. Although, few still survive who practice the art of making these fantastic instruments, trying to keep the tradition alive. But the glorious days of the dhodro banam are long gone.

With the rituals associated with these objects, abandoned or changing with time, most of them are becoming mute artefacts in showcases of museums or collectors. This change is inevitable and probably it is the journey of every object before reaching its last stage. An abstract idea designed to take a tangible form to fulfill a certain need or aspiration, after a certain point of time becomes an art object or relic. In spite the irony linked to it, it still performs the function of delighting our eyes.

[i] Verrier Elwin, The Tribal Art of Middle India. (London: Oxford University Press: 1951), 134.

[ii] Johannes Beltz, Marie-Eve Celio-Scheurer et al, (eds), Cadence and Counterpoint: Documenting Santal Musical Traditions. (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2015), 46-47.

Other important reference:

The Lutes of the Santal by Bengt Fosshag,

Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

Bejeweled Sisters: Celebration of Gauri during Ganesh Chaturthi

Gauri heads
Jyeshta and Kanishta on the day of Gauri Avahan. Early 20th century. Metal. Collection: Sushmit.

A visit to any antique shop, one will certainly find within hoards of things laced in dust and age old patina, a metallic image (sometimes with reminiscence of paint) having a peculiar serpentine curled hair at the back. This serene image of a lady adorned profusely with jewellery, is of Goddess Gauri, very popular with art collectors.

Gauri, also known as Parvati is the mother of Lord Ganesh. In many cultures, the popular belief is that Gauri is the sister of Lord Ganesh, who comes in search of her brother during the time of Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival of Lord Ganesh. In Maharashtra, she comes in the form of two sisters, called Jyeshta and Kanishta during the festival.

Both the sisters, arrive on the third day of Ganesh Chaturthi, known as Gauri Avahan meaning the ‘arrival of the Goddess Gauri”. Married women of the household, would visit the markets to purchase the icons of Gauri. They are made in various materials such as clay, plaster of paris and metal, mainly brass. Many traditional families have their own Gauri heads, made of brass, which are passed on and worshiped from generations. These icons are brought to home ceremoniously with aarti (sanctification by holy fire) performed at the gate or doorsteps. The entire house is shown to the idols, where they are to stay during the visit to their beloved brother, Ganesh. Then, the icons are placed over a metal pot or an armature, decorating them with new saris, jewellery, flowers and garlands. Some households create these images with turmeric or a symbolic metal pot.

The fourth day is the day of Gauri puja, where the ladies of the household and neighbours gather to worship the divine guests, accompanied by songs, sweets/savories and games in the evening. Both the sisters are treated as daughters who are believed to be visiting their family bringing blessings and good fortune for the year to come.

The fifth day is Gauri visarjan, farewell of the goddesses. With rituals and pujas, the idols are dismantled and immersed in the water. The heirloom idols are kept away for the next year. The sari and the jewellery are distributed among the women of the household.

I am thankful to my friends, Mitali Despande and Tanay Pinglay for sharing their valuable knowledge on this wonderful tradition. A very happy Ganesh Chaturthi and Gauri Puja !

Bejeweled Sisters: Celebration of Gauri during Ganesh Chaturthi

Dance of the Devil: Magnificent Masks of Sri Lanka

Naga Raksha mask, Poly-chrome wood, Purchased in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The island nation of Sri Lanka has many surprises, of which the outlandish wooden masks really captivate one’s attention with their big bulging eyes and vibrant colours. On my visit to this beautiful country in the winter month of December, 2014, I was told the tradition of making masks only goes back to 1800s. It is believed that the mask making tradition probably was a result of the influence of similar traditions from the neighbouring Malabar Coast of India. It is possible that the mask dance tradition could have been present in Sri Lanka even before that, but only in the later years became more prominent part of the culture. The Sri Lankan craftsmen did give it a unique form with intricate details and strong colours, incorporating local folk style and characters making it truly Sri Lankan. These masks today have become an important part of the Sri Lankan culture, whether in the form of dance ritual both religious and secular or simply cultural invoking the ancestors and spirits of nature.

Kolam Maduwa performer in Kandy Art centre, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The masks are believed to have power to ward off evil spirits and also heal sickness. In broader terms, there are basically three categories of masks. First category is the Raksha Mask, which play an important part in the dance performances of the Kolam Maduwa, a traditional folk play tradition where the characters wear masks. According to the popular legend, Sri Lanka was ruled by an ancient race called as Rakshasas. One of the famous kings, was Ravana of the epic Ramayana. Rakshasas literally meaning devils gave form to twenty-four (24) devils of which only few have survived in the form of characters physically manifested in the masks. Few of the popular Raksha masks are Naga Raksha in the form of cobras (for protection), Garuda or Gurulu Mask, in the form of the mythical composite bird vahana of Lord Vishnu, Mayura Raksha in the form of a peacock (for peace, love and happiness) and Ginijal Raksha in the form of fire (for energy and harmony).

mask puppet
Puppet depicting a Kolam Maduwa character of Naga Raksha, Papier Mache, Purchased in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Second category is the Sanni Mask, used for curing specific illness. There are at present eighteen (18) sanni masks. The sanni masks are not very elaborate and are smaller in size. They are generally in the form of a face making grotesque expressions. One of the raksha masks, Maha Kola, comprises the entire pantheon of eighteen sanni devils in one mask tied together by intertwined serpents. This mask is also assigned the same task of cleansing the sick.

The third category is the Kolam Mask used in the kolam play performances. These masks generally depict the characters of the play, which are generally from the folk tales showing secular characters such as kings and queens with elaborate head gears. There are other characters as well, of which one of the beloved depiction is of the serene faced Naga Kanya, a serpent demi god.

The masks are made of soft wood so that it is not only easy to carve but also lighter for the wearer. Kaduru a local soft wood is generally used along with other softer woods such as balsa. Pigments in high quality masks are natural, extracted from tree oils and barks but with increasing demands to be sold as souvenir products to incoming tourists, synthetic paints are also used. The main mask making clusters are along the southwest coastline of Sri Lanka, where one can directly buy from the craftsman.

Masks for sale @ Government store Laksala, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The text is completely from the knowledge gathered from various sources during the trip, any inaccurate information may be pardoned.

Dance of the Devil: Magnificent Masks of Sri Lanka

Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs

A contemporary 'Elephant-cloth', cotton, embroidered (Machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj. Photograph by Renu Dhiman
A contemporary ‘Elephant-cloth’, cotton, embroidered (machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, Gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj, Photograph by Renu Dhiman.

With a myriad of fascinating shawls and wrappers that belong to different Naga groups, one of the most alluring mantles is adorned by the Chakhesangs.  Popularly referred to as the ‘Elephant cloth’ (a name obtained because of the prominent elephants in the central field), was the privilege of only the wealthy members of the group. The vividly embroidered animals and birds that dominate this grayish-black textile immediately stand out from the rest of the textiles from this region, posing hundreds of questions about its origin and inspiration.

Weaving textiles is only done by women throughout the extensive Naga community, mostly using a back-strap or loin loom. It is considered a taboo to even touch the weaving implements by men. The only exception to this is the tüsngkotepsü, the warrior shawl of the Aos, where the central white band is painted by men. Both cotton and wild nettle are spun into yarns for various textiles and dyed with natural vegetable dyes. Although, bazaar dyes became popular from the 1920’s[i] because they offered several colour choices and in brighter shades. Embroidery is very rare in this region and earlier reference to embroidery by scholars on the subject, was basically describing the motifs achieved by supplementary wefts and not actual needle-work. Today, in various government run emporiums, there are examples of tüsngkotepsü, the Ao mantle, with the central band having embroidery either by hand or machine which is a recent innovation. Therefore, the embroidery in the ‘elephant cloth’ is a surprising exception and considered by many as not an indigenous technique of the region. Scholar, Marion Wettstein, writes that she was reported during her research that the earliest examples of this mantle were received as gifts from the Meitei rulers of Manipur.[ii] This explains the presence of embroidered elephants and horses, the royal animals of the Meitei rulers. The mantle was later adopted by the Chakhesangs and on its entirety together with the technique is now claimed indigenous to the group.[iii]

The Chakhesangs, formerly known as Eastern Angami, is an amalgamation of three groups, Chokri, Kheza and Sangtam, represented respectively in the three syllables ‘cha-khe-sang’. The group occupies a large geographical area not only in present day Nagaland but also neighbouring Manipur, which makes many other tribes and villages fall under the umbrella of Chakhesang. Therefore, due to the complex and multi-cultural nature of the group, there are several names for the same mantle. Hapidasa, chi-pi-kwhu/chipikwü, shaphi lanphi or khape kade sa are various names for the same mantle. The Maos, another Naga group also wears a variation of the mantle.

The back-strap loom allows only a limited width, due to which three or two lengths have to be joint together to achieve the desired size.  Over the surface, embroidery is done employing a flat stitch or Romanian stitch using red, green, yellow and white cotton or wool/acrylic threads. The embroidered motifs depicts horses for speed, elephants for strength, bison or buffalo for bravery, peacocks for beauty and constellations for the height of the sky.[iv] The production of this mantle has a deep connection with the tradition of ‘Feast of Merit’. In order establish oneself in the society, a member had to arrange three feasts at different stages for the benefit of the entire village. On the successful completion of each feast, the benefactor was accorded with ranks and honour, including the right to wear certain designated textile and adornment. The ‘elephant cloth’ is one such textile. Among the Chakhesangs, the privilege of wearing a shawl with chipikwü designs was awarded to only those who had given these three Feasts of Merit.[v] The mantle had to be embroidered during the course of the feast, wherein few women would join in to complete the task before dusk. Motifs accumulated with successive feasts and the offerings made in them.

'Elephant cloth' or Hapidasa, 20th century, Cotton; embroidered, Nagaland, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photograph editing: Deepak Singh Negi.
‘Elephant cloth’ or Hapidasa, 20th century, Nagaland, Cotton; embroidered, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photo edit by Deepak Singh Negi.


[i] Julian Jacobs, The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India, Society, Culture and the Colonial Encounter. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990), 44.

[ii] Marion Wettstein, Naga Textiles: Design, Technique, Meaning and Effect of a Local Craft Tradition in Northeast India. (Vienna: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2014), 106.

[iii] Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham, The Hidden World of the Naga: Living Traditions in the Northeast India and Burma. (New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2003), 159.

[iv] Akha Kaihrii Mao, “Meaning and Significance of the Traditional Moa-Naga Shawls,” in Objects: Identities: Meaning, Insider Perspectives from North East India, eds, Dharitri Narzary Chakravartty and Surajit Sarkar, (New Delhi: Ambedkar University, 2015), 68-72.

[v] Lotika Varadarajan, “Fabric and Tradition: Textiles of the Northeast”, Marg, A Magazine of the Arts, Volume 62, Number I, September 2010.


Other references:

Peter van Ham and Jamie Saul, Expedition Naga: Diaries from the Hills in Northeast India, 1921-1937, 2002-2006, New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2008.

Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs

Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

Votive Elephant. Terracotta. Dhamna village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

Elephants such as the one above, adorned in elaborate trappings detailed with numerous bells were traditionally offered to goddesses in their respective forest realms for a prosperous harvest. According to Jane Perryman, these elephants were a speciality of Masora village (now in Bastar, Chhattisgarh) created by a single family. Several tribal groups who inhabit in and around the area would commission these images solely for ritual purpose. Over the years, with initiative of an NGO, the skills required for making such detailed terracotta was imparted to a few more. The production that resulted out of this was then marketed in big cities and craft fairs to an urban clientele who bought them for decorative use. Now, the same images fetched more money in these new found markets which seemed impossible for the humble tribal customers.  Therefore, there was a reduction in demand for large pieces (could go up to a height of four feet) which were earlier quite often commissioned by the locals.[1] This also explains the production of such elephants today in Dhamna village, far away from its initial place of origin.  The artisan made it because it was beautiful and easy to attract customers without any knowledge of its purpose. Nevertheless, the craft survived but without its original context or patrons, which was also partly due to separation of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh.

The Hatere or Harere kumbhars in a small village called Dhamna in Chhatarpur District of Madhya Pradesh create a huge repertoire of terracotta products ranging from pots and utensils of daily nature to votive objects of high artistic value for local religious festivals. The potters here use a small terracotta plate instead of a wheel. Sometimes for bigger sizes, a spoked wheel is used. Today, most of it is done by an electrically powered wheel.

Animals such as horses and elephants have always stood for prosperity and played an important role as votive images. Striking sculptures of tigers were offered to goddesses Dhate Sara Mata and Mauli Mata to prevent illness and female monkeys, bendri, were created for family bliss.  Earthen oxen offered to Bhora Dev promised a good harvest.[2] During the Boliki festival which falls on the date of Makara Shankranti (14th January) each year, clay horses are created by the Hatere kumbhars and sold in the local fairs in Khajuraho. These horses are associated with Lord Shiva and are bought by villagers for rituals to gain blessing for their male child. Vows are taken and the earthen horse is packed with other food offerings on a box, to be opened finally on Vasant Panchami. The food from the box is then distributed among the boys and the idol of the horse is immersed in the village pond.[3] For a girl child, a small terracotta bowl called maliya is used for the same. Elephants associated with Goddess Lakshmi symbolising abundance and prosperity, are made for Diwali festivities as well. They are sold not only in markets but also traded door to door of rich landed households in exchange for grains and money. These elephants are depicted in rich detailed trappings and embellished with diyas (lamps) and pots.

Sharada mata
Sharda Mata. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur village, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy and collection: Janaki Turaga.

Other captivating artefacts of religious nature created by these potters comprise a stylised image of Sharda Mata or Goddess Sharda. Sharda Mata is the principal mother goddess of the town of Maihar. In fact the name, ‘Maihar’ comes from ‘Ma ki har’ meaning mother’s necklace. It is believed that Shiva while carrying the body of Sati around the world, her necklace dropped at this place and a temple germinated at the spot. Another popular piece is the composite mythical being, Kamdhenu or Surabhi. This divine wish-fulfilling bovine goddess is partly made by hand and party using a mould. Traditionally, images of Kamdhenu would be offered at the local Shiva temples during the Shivratri celebrations.

Kamdhenu or Surabhi. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

With the advent of new cheaper mass produced plastic and aluminium vessels and also changing lifestyles, the demand of terracotta products in the traditional markets declined over the years although not completely gone. This demand however diminishing, sustained the livelihood of traditional potters but never been enough to flourish. Hence, few of them who still continue their profession, evolved their product range with new subjects and themes. They would sell these in big cities in craft fairs to be used as decorative pieces, fetching them a fair amount of money, which otherwise is impossible in traditional markets.  Now, various animals which inhabit the vast forested lands of the region such as tigers and porcupines occupy the table of their stalls.  Alongside, village belles engaged in various daily activities such as grinding grains, tending to their child, playing chaupar (board-dice game) or fetching water are also frozen in terracotta.  According to artisan, Devideen Prajapati, these themes are inspired from things around and reflect the traditions of Bundelkhand, Bundelkhand parampara, which he emphasised with pride.


[1] Jane Perryman. Traditional Pottery of India. (Great Britain: A & C Black Publishers Ltd.), 130.

[2] Ibid, 134-135.

[3] Stephen P. Huyler. Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1996), 91-92.


Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

Pahari Embroidery: The bold cholis of Himachal Pradesh

Choli, Early 20th century, Probably Mandi (Himachal Pradesh). Courtesy: Sushmit.
Choli, Early 20th century, Probably Mandi (Himachal Pradesh). Courtesy: Sushmit.

For a long time the embroidered Pahari cholis did not get the same amount of recognition as their counterparts, the painterly rumals or coverlets. But these cholis with their distinctive characteristics could not be pushed into obscurity. Their vigour and spontaneity as well as their mysterious role in a mismatched land are slowly being appreciated and taken as one of the major styles of embroidery in India.

These bodices or blouses called choli maintain a set pattern of construction. The front is shaped generally with a deep V neckline. The sleeves are kept short with gussets for ease and a rectangular apron like segment, called petia, is joined at the waist. All the cholis are backless and are tied with the help of cords, doris.  They are generally made of a dyed, indigo or madder red, coarse cotton (khaddar like) fabric, although few of fine mill made cotton also exist in bright scarlet. The shade of the dye could vary from deep terracotta to subtle buff or deep navy to softer cobalt. The surface is embroidered with bold motifs in floss silk threads depicting various flora and fauna, like elaborate ‘pan-buta’, cypress trees, elephants, peacocks and doves. Various stitches are employed such as surface darning, herringbone, chain stitches as well as button-hole stitch for insetting small mirrors. There are also examples showing embroidery executed in the phulkari and bagh repertoire, with multi-coloured geometric motifs over a bright red background. Small mirrors are also used at places as embellishments.

With the temperature of the hills inclined towards the shorter stretches of mercury, one would immediately wonder their functionality. According to Subhashini Aryan, cholis always formed a part of the attire in Himachal Pradesh, but the backless versions are not indigenous to the hills. They were adopted from the Rajput migrants from Rajasthan and Gujarat to the foothills of the Shivaliks. After years of observation, she also establishes the point that embroidery is more popular in the foothills than the upper reaches of the hills in Himachal Pradesh, where woolens are worn throughout the year.[1] In the miniature paintings, the cholis worn underneath the gossamer peshwaz seen on the royal ladies and their attendants are of a different kind. Even the costumes of the divine protagonist, Radha, are similar, probably due to the common inspiration point, which is, the royal court and harem of the period. As opposed to the rich silk and satin blouses of the royal court, these humble coarse cotton cholis, were hardly seen in the paintings. From the very few, one miniature painting from the Alice Boner collection currently housed in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, showing Raja Shamsher Sen of Mandi with male companions in woman’s attire ( RVI 1295)[2], one of the companions is seen wearing a similar choli embroidered with floral design and birds. Raja Shamsher Sen, who was often discredited for having company of people from the marginalized sections of the society, is evident from this painting with two mysterious cross-dressing men.[3]  In another painting from Mandi, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck collection housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, showing Krishna with a cluster of gopis ( M.77.19.23)[4], similarly constructed choli with a petia is seen on each gopi. Although, here the cholis appear to be made of woven material rather than embellished with embroidery. At this point, it will not be incorrect to conclude that, these cholis probably belonged to a more folk demographic.

Apart from the cholis, there are also a host of other products made with the similar embroidery style, such as chaupar (dice-board game), caps, gaumukhis (rosary covers) and qamarbands (waistbands).


[1] Subhashini Aryan. Folk Embroidery of Western Himalaya. (New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 2010), 34-35.

[2] Rosemary Crill and Kapil Jariwala. The Indian Portrait, 1560-1860. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.,2010), 138-139.

[3] Ibid

[4] B. N. Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer. Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. (New Delhi: Nyogi Books, 2009), 204-205.



Aryan, Subhashini. Himachal Embroidery. New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 1976.

                              . Folk Embroidery of Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 2010.

                              . Unknown Masterpieces of Indian Folk and Tribal Art: From the Personal Collection of K.C. Aryan. Gurgaon: K.C. Aryan’s Home of Folk Art, 2005.

Bhattacharyya, A.K. Chamba Rumal. Calcutta: Indian Museum, 1968.

Goswamy, B.N. Indian Costumes in the Collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles. Ahmedabad: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1993.

Grewal, Neelam and Amarjit Grewal. The Needle Lore: Traditional Embroideries of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1988.

Handa. O.C. Textiles, Costumes and Ornaments of the Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company, 1998.

Pahari Embroidery: The bold cholis of Himachal Pradesh

An Enchanted Forest: The Art of the Kondhs

Bronze deity
Votive figure, Late 19th to early 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Clay base and metal alloy, Ht. 10.5 cm. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Kondhs or Kandhs, are one of the largest tribal groups in Odisha, inhabiting the entire area around Ganjam and Phulbani districts till the forested lands of Telangana. They are also found in the Koraput, Kalahandi and Belangir districts. Divided into many sub-groups, the prominent amongst them are the Kuttia Kondhs, Maliah Kondhs and Dongaria Kondhs. The Kondhs were notorious in the pages of history books, for their spine-chilling practice of human sacrifice as well as for their fierce resistance against the invading British into their forested lands. In the recent years, the Dongaria Kondhs of the Niyamgiri hills unitedly fought against the mining giant, Vedanta, trying to illegally exploit the bauxite reserves lying beneath their hills. It resulted in a heroic victory for the Dongaria Kondhs. This resilient fight to protect their forests and hills inspires the rest of the world, teaching everyone the importance of living in harmony with nature.

To ensure good crops and immunity from all disease and accidents, the Kondhs offered human (Meriah) sacrifice, to the Earth Goddess, Tari Pennu or Bera Pennu. It was also believed by them, that the shedding of blood from the sacrifice onto the soil brought out the deep red colour in the turmeric that was to be cultivated. For the sacrifice, the victim referred to as  Meriah, had to be purchased only then it was acceptable to the Goddess or had been born a victim, that is, the son of a victim father, or had been devoted as a child by his father or guardian. Grown men were most esteemed because they came with a high price. Children were purchased too, and reared by the family with care until their gruesome fate.[i] Ten to twelve days prior to the sacrifice, the victim was prepared by shaving his head. Series of rituals are performed by the Zanee (priest) through the medium of Toomba, a Kondh girl under the age of seven. On the final day, the victim was paraded (intoxicated with opium) in full view of the village to a thick forested area which was never axed. Smeared with oil, clarified butter, turmeric and wild flowers, the victim was then slaughter or strangulated on a forked pillar. Wherein, the members of the village cut off flesh from the body (sometimes while still alive) leaving aside the head and bowels, to be buried under the soil of their fields.[ii] This practice of human ‘Meriah’ sacrifice was banned by the British in around mid-19th century.

Gourd Mask 1
Meriah Mask, 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Gourd, crab-eye beads, metal, Lt.27 cm, Acc. no. 64.841. Courtesy: Dr. Verrier Elwin collection, National Museum, New Delhi.


The ban triggered the preservation of the relics related to the sacrifice such as knives, chains, bowls used during the rites and even bits of human flesh stored in bamboo containers. Some of the villages were fortunate to possess skulls of the victims sacrificed earlier. These skulls and the other paraphernalia were used during the buffalo sacrifice which was all that the government permitted. Buffaloes were considered inadequate by the tribe members and initially a lot of reluctance was shown on the use of this new substitute. But over the years, these skulls and other relics were destroyed or stolen, resulting in the failure of the priest in slaughtering the animal. It was believed, the cause was the improper method. Fortunately, the solution came as a dream at night to the Kuttia Kondh priest, with the Earth Goddess saying, “The head is destroyed; make a new head in its place. Sacrifice, dance and then kill the buffalo. Then, and only then, will I be pleased and accept your offering”. Thereafter, masks made of gourd shell according to the pattern chalked out in the dream were created and used during the buffalo sacrifice (now called Meriah) to be offered to the Earth Goddess.[iii]

Sacrificial Pillar 1
Sacrificial Pillar, 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Ganjam District (Odisha), Wood (carved), Lt. 221 cm, Acc. no. 91.145. Courtesy: National Museum, New Delhi.


The forked wooden sacrificial pillar formed an important linkage to this banned ritual. Later, replicas were made to be installed in their homes. These pillars were dedicated to Illu Pennu (House-God) and used during buffalo sacrifice. These were never destroyed and were kept with pride within the household. Carved out of wood, their designs were revealed in a dream.[iv] According to the report of J. Campbell (deputed by the British Government to stop the practice), there were sightings of wooden effigies of elephants where the victim was slayed tied to the proboscis of the animal. The last recorded human sacrifice, was in Ganjam in 1852, although, few suspicious attempts continued till 1880s in various places.[v]

Bronze water buffalo
Water Buffalo, Late 19th or early 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Clay base and metal alloy, Ht. 10.3 cm. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Kondhs maintain very strong animist beliefs with different animals and birds having their own symbolism and role. Bronze figurines of peacocks, chameleons, serpents, crabs, horses, deer, tigers, elephants, human figures and musicians were cast using the cire perdue (lost-wax technique) process to be used as playthings as well as alter pieces. The core of the figure was shaped in clay and then thin wax treads were laid diagonally forming a rough lattice work. The wax threads were made by means of a bamboo tube having a moveable brass plate with perforation, through which the wax is pressed. Then, a final clay mould is casted with a vent. The molten metal is poured through the vent, which takes the place of the wax. After this, the clay mould is broken to reveal the figure within. The main production cluster for these figures was Belugunta, near Russellkonda in Ganjam. These bronze figures were also used as playthings to amuse the groom and formed an important part of the bridal procession.[vi]

Bronze peacock
Peacock, Late 19th to early 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Clay base and metal alloy, Ht. 12.3 cm. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Appearance of particular animals in dream could mean specific implications, such as, a deity demanding sacrifice or a calamity and disease on its way. Peacocks are generally considered inauspicious and believed to bring misfortune. Bronze effigies of peacocks were buried under the sacrificial posts.[vii] Bears guaranteed good harvests and buffaloes signified wealth.

Apart from animal figures, Thurston records Mr. J.A.R. Stevenson findings, that the Kondhs of Gumsur, to represented their deities Jara pennu, Linga Devata or Petri Devata as well. These deities were kept in their houses, along with the animal figures. On the outbreak of skin diseases, these figures were sprinkled with the mixture of rice, milk and turmeric, and animal sacrifices offered according to the suggestion of the Zanee (priest), which is eaten later.[viii]

Kapragonda 1
Kapragonda, 20th century, Dongaria Kondh, Cotton (woven, embroidered), Lt. 160; Wd. 70 cm, 97.107. Courtesy: National Museum, New Delhi.


An exquisite embroidered wrapper draped over their plain white saris, is adorned by the women of the Dongaria Kondhs. This wrapper called kapra gonda is given as a proposal gift to the girl by her suitor, embroidered by his sisters or female members of his family.[ix] Among the tribes of Odisha, except for the Saoras, weaving and spinning of cotton was considered a taboo. Hence, the fabric for the wrapper, a plain weave coarse cotton is procured from the weavers of the Domb and Pano community living alongside the Kondhs.[x] This fabric is then embroidered in a way that it looks like it is woven, using running and pattern darning stitches depicting various geometric patterns in orange, vermilion, yellow, mauve and green threads.

The women of the Kondh tribe immensely love their hair-pins. The hair styles of these women can be considered no less than a work of art. Earlier hair-pins made of bones of sambhar and porcupine quills[xi] were used, until the same made of modern materials were introduced.

I would like to thank the National Museum, New Delhi, for the photographs of the Kondh artefacts. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Anju Sachdeva, Deputy Curator of the Anthropology Department, National Museum, for always encouraging me with my research on the ethnographic artefacts.


[i] Edgar Thurston and K. Rangachari. Castes and Tribes of Southern India. Vol. III. (Madras: Government Press, 1909), 371-373.

[ii] Edgar Thurston. Madras Government Museum Bulletin, Vol. IV, No. 1, Anthropology. (New Delhi: Asian Educational Service, 2004), 51-52.

[iii] Verrier Elwin. The Tribal Art of Middle India: A Personal Record. (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1951), 138-139.

[iv] Ibid, 170-182.

[v] Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 375-380.

[vi] Ibid, 391-392.

[vii] Edgar Thurston. Ethnographic Notes in Southern India, Part II. (New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975), 511-513.

[viii] Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 392.

[ix] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 230.

[x] Verrier Elwin, 25-28.

[xi] Ibid, 11.



Nayak, Radhakant et al. The Kondhs: A Handbook for Development. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1990.

Jena, Mihir K. et al. Forest Tribes of Orissa: Lifestyle and Social Conditions of Selected Orissan Tribes, Vol.1. The Dongaria Kondh. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., 2002.

Jena, Mihir K. et al. Forest Tribes of Orissa: Lifestyle and Social Conditions of Selected Orissan Tribes, Vol.2. The Kuttia Kondh. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., 2006.


An Enchanted Forest: The Art of the Kondhs