Female Shamans, Cannibal Witches and Earth Goddesses: Religion among the Odisha tribes

Tripoto

Hundi/Bursung, Earth Goddess of the Bonda tribe

Photo of Female Shamans, Cannibal Witches and Earth Goddesses: Religion among the Odisha tribes by Rupa Abdi
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Hundi/Bursung, Earth Goddess of the Bonda tribe

Their's is a faith of the primeval human- still in tune with Nature and Nature Spirits.

They live in sync with the forces of Nature and their reverence for the Earth goddess teaches them how to harness her fertile energies. They call her by various names- Birhu, Hundi, Bursung, and Maa Budhi Thakrani

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Hundi, Earth goddess of the Didayi tribe

They worship the Sun, the source of all and the Wind god who brings the rain filled clouds.

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Jananglo Sum , Wind god of Lanjia Saora tribe

They worship the Stone god and the sacred groves.

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Kotyuewali, Stone god of Dongria Kandha tribe

These tribes, these people of the earth, are nourished by the forest plants and the field crops. Every planting season begins with an animal or bird sacrifice to appease the Nature spirits whose blessings will bestow a bountiful harvest.

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They worship the Snake god who symbolizes earth energies and protects them from bad omens.

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Snake deity of the Dhurua tribe

With life comes death and there is special place of worship- an empty space, earmarked for the worship of the invisible god of Death.

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The God of Death of Saora tribe

The meat of the sacrificial animal or bird is offered along with wine of the mahua flower to please the gods followed by dancing and merry making.

Theirs is a religion of veneration and celebration of Nature. They worship as a clan and community, never as an individual, seeking blessings for their entire village. A stark contrast to the organised religions of the world.

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Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts, Bubhanesvar

The visit to the Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts at Bubhanesvar was an eye opener to us, the so called 'more civilized' city dwellers, who take Nature and Mother Earth and all her bounties for granted and who have reduced religion to a belief system of prejudices which separate rather than unite us.

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Out of a total of 437 tribal groups in India , Odisha's share is an astounding 62, which is the second largest, the highest being in the state of Madhya Pradesh !!

In terms of tribal population, featuring below Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, Odisha ranks third with over 22% of the state population falling under this category.

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Tribal map hung at the Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts, Bubhanesvar

These tribes are spread all over the state. However in terms of population strength, the Konds, Gonds and Santals are the most numerous.

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Dangaria tribe women at work, Odisha State Museum

The belief in witch craft is said to be quite common among these tribes and there are legends and rituals related to witches and gods of the Underworld.

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Dangaria tribe, poster at the Odisha State Museum

Among the Gadaba tribes, the Guruma or the girl who is going to become the village shaman, has to undergo a marriage ceremony on the path leading to her village, with the god of the Underworld.

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The buffalo is considered sacred and often sacrificed to the Earth goddess for well being of the village

According to one legend among the Gadaba, goddess Birkamdai who would eat the liver and blood of humans used to lend money to gods and ghosts. After her death, as per her wishes, her body was cut into pieces, roasted and floated down a river in an earthen pot. A Gadaba woman fishing downstream, came across this pot and ate the roasted flesh and became the first witch.

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Tribal myths are filled with stories of wicked witches with evil curses and shamans as healers and protectors of the tribe from witchcraft.

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Some tribes have been initiated into Hinduism and worship Hindu goddesses along with their tribal gods.

The Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts at Bhubanesvar is one of the best ornithological museums I have ever visited.

If you are not able to visit Odisha's tribal areas, this museum is the best substitute with its state of the art interactive elements, numerous galleries displaying traditional dress, bead ornaments, heavy silver collars, coin necklaces, elaborate headdresses, ornate wine pipes and musical instruments. There is an entire gallery dedicated to weaponry, fishing, hunting and agricultural equipment.

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Thakrani Gudi, Pentia tribe

Behind the museum there are replicas of traditional houses of the Gadaba, Kandha, Santal, Saora and other tribes.

You can buy colorful cloth paintings by the Saora people as well as other artifacts and herbal preparations from a quaint shop inside the museum premise.

Photo credits: Rupa Abdi

References:

Varrier E. Tribal Myths of Orissa. 1954. Oxford University Press. Kolkota

Travel Tips:

Unfortunately photography is prohibited inside the galleries.

There is also a canteen for visitors, though we did not try it out.

Visitor timings : 10 am-5 pm; Tue-Sun

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