The Ancient Hill Tribe of Lanjia Saoras – Journey with a Shaman

‘When the world sunk into waters, the trees and hills drowned. But on a ground and floating on the water were a brother and sister who later broke the ground. They made the new world. They planted trees and made men. In those days men lived under trees.

One year there was a great mango crop and when the fruit ripened, a Saora gathered some of it and took it to Kittung Mahaprabhu. He ate the fruit and was pleased. He said: ‘You Saoras will never make a living on ordinary fields. I will clear the hill for you’. He then gave the Saora, seeds of five of the mangos and said: ‘Put four of these seeds in four quarters of the world and the one remaining on the top of them’. The Saora planted the seeds and white ants gathered and built nests which grew into great mountains.

First there were four mountains – Thumpa, Tangliya, Bodang, Kintalia. The Saoras began to cultivate on the hillsides. Gradually other mountains came into being.’

Tribal Myths of Orissa – Verrier Elwin

My mother comes from a small village called Budura near Kashinagar on the banks of Vamsadhara River. In every summer and Dussehra vacations we would spend a couple of weeks there, playing hide-and-seek with other village kids, plucking mangoes from orchards, early morning and late evening bathing in the river, riding in bullock carts and many more. A life that is hard to imagine for urban kids of this generation.

To the north of Budura were majestic mountains of the Eastern Ghats, inaccessible at that time for people living in plains. Scores of thoughts kept cropping in my inquisitive mind, such as who lived there? How was their life? What did they eat? etc. etc. I would listen to my mother and grandmother talk about the people – they are Lanjia Saoras, the original worshippers of Lord Jagannath. They are primitive and speak in their own Mundari language which is difficult for us to understand. Once a week they descend to the plains to barter their forest produce for other household needs. They believe in the spirit world.IMG_0253IMG_0234IMG_0256

The fascinating tales of the Saoras left a lasting impression on my young mind and instilled in me a deep urge to explore their lives.

Decades later, I got exposed to their fascinating murals called Saura Paintings, first through Internet and then in tribal fairs in Bhubaneswar. My curiosity was piqued and I wanted to understand the meaning and context of the wall art. In my mind, I was drawing a comparison with Warli murals that I had witnessed on the West Coast of North Maharashtra and South Gujarat.

The Saoras are considered amongst the oldest tribes in India. They have features resembling the Pre-Dravidian tribes and largely inhabit the hilly tracts of Eastern Ghats in Rayagada and Gajapati districts of Southern Odisha.

Like most of the forest tribes in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Lanjia Soaras have a close affinity with nature. They worship nature’s bounty in all forms. Their daily life revolves around household chores, livelihood and various forms of entertainment including dance and music. Their huts, organically built with bamboo and mud on a raised platform, are rectangular in shape with a small main door. The roof is proportionally low. There is a high frontal verandah which is reached by a flight of steps. Overall, the plan resembles the landscape, high hills with sloping steppes.

Saoras indulged in slash and burn cultivation or shifting agriculture on hill slopes and hunting and fishing. However, with the spread of Christianity and education, hunting is now almost abandoned.

Their daily life and Shamanic rituals are depicted in their paintings. Each of their themes has a story pertaining to events, such as harvest, child birth, evoking ancestral spirits, marriage, death, etc. On all important occasions a painting called Ekon or Edital is worshipped. The Ekon is made on the walls in a particularly dark corner inside the house.

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Traditionally, it is the Kudan or Kudan Boi, the Shamanic priest who is qualified to draw the Ekon. They have the expertise to explain their meaning to the village folks and the Ekon is thus looked upon as a valuable feature of vocal tradition through which the Saoras connect to their deities.

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Most of the time, the mural is a square or a rectangle. In some cases, the mural is divided into two, four, six or eight rows cut by horizontal or vertical sections depending upon the requirement of figures and the design by the artists as directed by the spirit in their dreams. Figures are mostly drawn in white against the terracotta background. The colour is mostly prepared from rice flour and the pigments are mixed with water and glue made from tamarind seeds is used as the binding agent.

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There are countless deities in the Saora world, both benevolent and malevolent. They are worshipped with fear and anxiety and offered sacrifices to ensure safety and well being of the people. Sonnum or Sunomam is the general name to the Saora deities. Their gods and spirits make constant demand on the living. Those who die in the house appear in dreams and demand certain offerings. Sometime devil spirits enter cattle sheds and make cows and oxen ill in order to make their displeasure known. If their demands are not met they can cause harm. Malevolent spirits are therefore more cared for when compared to benevolent ones.

Armed with this knowledge, I set off for Saora Hills to climb the mountains that fascinated me as a child and to satisfy the questions that had plagued me ever since.

I was expecting Saora villages and people of the kind that I had seen in pictures and tribal fairs. However, in sharp contrast to my expectation they appeared too modern, thanks to the missionary activities that has wiped away thousands of years of indigenous culture with a grand stroke. There are churches in every nook and corner. You also see Hindu temples being constructed to compete with the missionaries. It was difficult to decide whether I was happy or sad or both.

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All the traditional homes of Saoras are replaced with concrete houses. There are good metalled roads through the high mountains to almost all Saora villages that were hitherto inaccessible. Saora youth are seen sauntering in branded jeans and tees. There are English medium schools for the Saora children.

After a 30 min drive through the ghats, I reached Pudasinghi, the largest and most centrally located Lanjia Saora village in the mountains.

Here I met Lakshmi Sabara, a woman in her late 50s and a Kudan Boi, one among the very few Lanjia Saora shamans. Her house is a concrete structure, but in one corner of a wall you see an Ekon divided into 8 rows. Beside her present house is a small hut on whose wall you see yet another Ekon that was painted by her son Rabinatha Sabara.

In this film, Lakshmi explains the meaning and context of this particular Ekon.

Even though there are hospitals and facilities of modern treatment, there are people who still believe in traditional healing and visit a shaman. Belief in spirit world is still a common practice among the Saoras and Lakshmi regularly heals patients from the tribe.

In this film, Lakshmi is seen practising Nangte, the Saora way of identifying the spirit that causes illness in a patient. She is communicating with the spirit through hymns and asking for the root cause of the disease. On the basis of the answer she receives from the malevolent spirit, she instructs the patient to do the needful, mostly an animal sacrifice.

I was running short on time and could not go to other Saora villages to meet the surviving shamans and see their murals. This visit though has given me some idea on both sides of the story of the Saoras, is just the beginning of my journey into Odisha’s tribal world to gain an insight into the problems plaguing the rich adivasi heritage. It was sad to see the cultural legacy of the tribals fall prey to the 21st century version of development that is defined by mean market forces, religious one upmanship and myopic government policies.

Finally, in the words of Lakshmi Sabara:

She says, that she can speak with nature and hear voices from under the earth. The wind blows in her ears and the trees whisper to her. The dead sing through her mouth and cries of infants are clear to her. For her we are the birds’ eggs, flowers, butterflies, rabbits, cows, sheep and the elephants. We are the leaves of the trees and the drop of the water. We are air and we are the flame of the stars. We are the gazelle and the doe. We rise from the waves of sunlight. We are the colour of the soil and the springs of Salaf tree.  

AND

Now this dialogue is over. She feels like a stranger and says,”I am not part of this world”. She sets herself apart from new change.

The change that says: ‘We don’t need to worship nature’. 

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Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

 

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