Orissa Tribal - Religion, Culture and Heritage
Religious activities of various tribes in Orissa centre around community well being and group solidarity. These forest dwellers view human beings as only one component in a biotic system of complex inter-relationships between plants, animals and physical forces. Some tribal groups view themselves as keepers of the forest heritage, passed down by their ancestors and are to be perpetuated through generations of posterity. Since forest serves as the very life support system, the social control, taboos and prohibition, manner of utilization of forest products, their myths and legends reminding them of consequences of any harm done to the nursing mother, reinforce the symbiotic relationship for their existence in peaceful harmony with nature. The customs of tribal life including their religious practices, arts and artifacts, social fabrics and folklores have been nurtured and enriched by forests in which they are living in virtual symbiosis from the dawn of human history.
Being an important part of their taboos, totem, riddles, festivals and decorations, the trees are beneficial to humanity. To protect them is the chief religion for these forest dwellers. The trees are considered to be the abode of spirits, called Vanadevata, the forest God. The “MARANG BURU”, the presiding deity in the Sal grove, for example holds a place of veneration and ceremonial worship by the Santhal tribes’ .To cut down a tree mean depriving the spirit of its home. Very often if it becomes imperative to cut down any tree, special prayers for forgiveness of the tree spirit are performed before a tree is cut down or another abode offered to the Vanadevata. Thus the worship of forests, plants, trees and animals and appeasing them are still in vogue and forest is being treated as divine.
Besides this, other religious beliefs and performances of the tribal include life-crisis rites, cyclic community rites, ancestor and totemic rites and observance of taboos. The tribal of Orissa then also resort to various types of occult practices. In order to tide over either a personal or a group crisis the tribal begin with occult practices, and if it does not yield any result the next recourse is supplication of the supernatural force. Since most tribes in Orissa, practice agriculture in some form or the other, sowing, planting, first-fruit eating and harvest rites are common amongst them. Their common cyclic rites revolve around the pragmatic problems of ensuring a stable economic condition, recuperation of the declining fertility of soil, protection of crops from damage, human and live-stock welfare, and safety against predatory animals and venomous reptiles and to insure a good yield of annual and perennial crops.
The annual cycle of rituals commence right from the initiation of agricultural operation, for instance, among the Juang, Bhuyan, Kondh, Saora, Gadaba, Jharia, Didayee, Koya and Bondo, who practise shifting cultivation. The annual cycle begins with the first clearing of hill slopes during the Hindu month of Chaitra (March-April) and among others it starts with the first-fruit eating ceremony of mango in the month of Baisakh (April-May). All the rituals centering agricultural operation, first-fruit eating, human, live-stock and crop welfare are observed by the members of a village on a common date which is fixed by the village head-man in consultation with the village priest.
The pantheon in most cases consists of the Sun God, the Mother Earth and a lower hierarchy of Gods. Besides there are village tutelary, nature spirits, presiding deities and ancestor-spirits, who are also propitiated and offered sacrifices. Gods and spirits are classified into benevolent and malevolent categories. A peculiarity of the tribal mode of worship is the offering of blood of an animal or a bird, because such propitiations and observance of rites are explicitly directed towards happiness and security in this world, abundance of crops, live-stock, plants and progenies. Sickness is not natural to a tribal, it is considered as an out-come of the machination of some evil spirits or indignation of ancestor spirits or gods. Sometimes, sickness is also considered as the consequence of certain lapses on the part of an individual or group. Therefore, riddance must be sought through propitiation and observance of rituals.
Among all the Orissa tribal conformity to customs and norms and social integration continue to be achieved through their traditional political organizations. The tributary institutions of social control, such as family, kinship and public opinion continue to fulfill central social control functions. The relevance of tribal political organization in the context of economic development and social change continues to be there undiminished. Modern elites in tribal societies elicit scant respect and have very little followings. And as the traditional leaders continue to wield influence over their fellow tribesmen, it is worth-while to take them into confidence in the context of economic development and social change.