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, Acc.no. 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.

 

References:     

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.

 

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An Enchanted Forest: The Art of the Kondhs

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