70,000 years ago! When the ancestors of modern humans left Africa for Indian Subcontinent what would have first attracted them is the lush green environment fed by region’s greatest gift of nature, the monsoon. Over a few thousand years they were spread and adapted to various geographical regions. Over thousands of years sustaining in their own environment, they created unique indigenous knowledge systems, where the understanding of local geography and accordingly developing ways of life constituted major aspects. Today, when the world is intertwined between development and environment, many of us are drawn to think of how the adivasi knowledge system can be implemented as critical models for earth’s sustenance.
Armed with this understanding I set off my journey to Niyamgiri in South Odisha’s Rayagada District, the abode of Dongoria Kondh, an ancient tribe which has a link with early human migration to Indian Subcontinent. Dongoria in Odia means hill and Kondhs are the tribals who inhabit the hills of Niyamgiri. A century ago, their villages were surrounded by lush green forest where sunlight could not infiltrate even during noon time.
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The View of Niyamgiri from Chatikona
A myth narrates on the origin of Dongoria Kondhs in the mystical past.
Once upon a time, the earth was heavily populated. There was not enough land for cultivation and space for people to live in. As there was no alternative for the tribe, once people complained to Dharam Devata, the Sun God, who was their king. Dharam Devata was moved and immediately set up a committee to discuss a plan. They agreed upon an idea – destroying the entire universe and all living creatures in it and then create a new one in its place.
An antelope, which was soon to give birth, heard this conversation.
Around that time lived Duku and Dumbe, both brother and sister. Duku had been out for hunting and was returning home without finding a game. On his way he saw the antelope and when he was about to shoot heard a scream, a human voice coming from the animal itself. It was the kid in the womb who was talking to Duku.
‘Killing my mother is what thing you can do. This creation of which you are a part will be destroyed soon and I have overheard Dharam Devata’s plan to destroy everything and create a new world. The earth will shake and trumble and all the hills, mountains, trees, crops, houses, sheds of people will be destroyed. Nobody will be able to survive the wrath of Dharam Devata.’
On hearing this Duku shook with fear. He asked whether there was any way of surviving the destruction. The animal replied – ‘make a boat using the wood of simuli tree. The boat will stay afloat when the floods come. Take enough food to last for a long time’.
Duku rushed back and disclosed his experience to Dumbe. Without wasting time he made a boat and both started sailing to an unknown world. The disaster hit, but both felt safe, thanks to the antelope’s words. They heard loud blasts from outside, the rushing sound of flooding rivers, screams and death cries, the thunder of falling trees and crashing rocks. They tried to imagine the catastrophe that they were saved from the animal.
At last no one survived except Duku and Dumbe. The gods and goddesses became clear that there was no one left to worship them or offer sacrifice. They took the matter to Dharam Devata. After hearing their complain Dharam Devata tore some hairs of his body to create a crow and gave life to it. The crow was sent in search of human beings. It flew far and wide and finally spotted Duke and Dumbe. Both made their way to the court of Dharam Devata where they explained how they escaped the destruction.
Dharam Devata listened patiently and then discussed with his courtiers and finally decided to request the brother and sister to procreate. But Duku and Dumbe did not agree to the idea as they considered it sin. Then there was another plan. The smallpox goddess Maa Budhi was sent to inflict Duku with smallpox and Dumbe with measles. The goddess followed the instruction and when the diseases were cured both Duku and Dumbe looked different and could not recognize each other as brother and sister. They became sexually attracted to each other. From their procreation were born the first Dongorias.
At the time Dongorias originated there was no Niyamgiri. The earth was devoid of any mountains and hills. There is yet another myth that narrates how Niyamraja became their king and their landscape was formed.
Dongoria villages are spread over Niyamgiri Hills in Rayagada and Kalahandi Districts. If you are an outsider, you need special permission to visit any Dongoria village from the district collectorate of Rayagada in Rayagada town, 40 km away from Chatikona, the village on the foothill and the highway that connects Visakhapatnam with Raipur. But one can visit Chatikona Weekly Market held on every Wednesday morning when hundreds of Dongoria women and men descend in groups or in public jeeps to sell and buy forest produces and other domestic needs. Chatikona is well-connected by road and rail from Bhubaneswar, Visakhapatnam and Raipur (these cities also have airports). There is no staying option at Chatikona and the nearby town of Bisamkatak. However, a few options are available at Muniguda, further north from Chatikona. But Rayagada being a major industrial and business town has best-staying options. Hotels at Rayagada will also arrange packaged food for a day visit. Hiring a cab from Rayagada is a better option.
While at Chatikona heritage seeking travellers can also visit the Dokra craft village at Jhigidi.
The Scene of Chatikona Hat (the weekly market) on a Wednesday Morning
Dharam Devata once called a meeting to which all the gods, goddess and Dongoria representatives were invited. He wanted a king to be elected to rule on earth, one who would take care of the well-being of Dongorias and bring happiness and prosperity.
To select the right king Dharam Devata had called for a cucumber and pumpkin in preparation for the test. He placed them before the gathering and called each aspiring candidate to guess the exact number of seeds the vegetables contained and were likely to germinate. It was not easy to answer and all of them failed.
Around that time, Biribija ruled in the neighbouring kingdom. He had seven sons, but the youngest one was despised by all his six elder brothers and the king himself. Though Biribija disliked his youngest son, he admired his judiciousness and intelligence.
When they heard Dharam Devata’s invitation, all his six sons went to his court to try their luck. The youngest son, however, went secretly. In the court when the six elder brothers failed the test now it was the turn of the youngest brother, who had sat among the common people.
When he stood to answer, his brothers began to mock him. Unaffected by their harassment the youngest brother answered – ‘there are 180 immature seeds in each vegetable’.
To verify his claim, the gods sitting in the court directed him to cut open the vegetables so that the seeds could be counted. He was proved right. Dharam Devata was delighted and made him the king and named him Niyamraja. Dongrias were also satisfied as they finally got someone to look after their welfare.
Dharam Devata instructed Niyamraja on how to manage political affairs and encouraged him to associate with his people in a friendly manner and to give their welfare highest priority.
Niyamraja took Sita Penu, the goddess of wealth along with him to the Dongoria kingdom. Dharam Devata had offered five different kinds of seed for cultivation on earth. Since Niyamraja wanted to present his people with an ever greater variety, Dharm Devata requested all other hill gods to supply him with the best seed available from their area. Niyamraja’s wish was fulfilled. When he reached earth, he did not find any hills. His wish was fulfilled causing hills and mountains of various shapes and sizes to emerge. He maintained himself in the form of a great hill. Dongorias had already begun to regard him as king of the hills. Then after he designed laws and principles on how to respond to nature’s cycle and respond her in all circumstances. From then on Dongorias have been following all the instructions and living their life as Mother Nature’s own children. Centuries have passed and unlike their other counterparts, such as Lanjia Soras, who have turned to Christians due to intense missionary activities, their faith in nature and Niyamraja have not been altered.
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My first encounter with Dongorias was at Chatikona Hata, (hata is the tribal weekly market) besides the railway station at the foothills of Niyamgiri.
On my way to the hill slope in the early morning, I had the first glance of Dongoria women descending with their farm produces to sale in the market, jack fruits, banana, turmeric, tamarind, roots and tubers being the key items. Soon the market activity became intense with hundreds of Dongoria men and women either walking or in public vehicles descending from the hills, traders from the plain and a couple of foreign tourists. There were separate sections for different items, such as dry fish, poultry, forest produces, brooms, cloths and fabric, grocery, sheep/goat and many more. If you are a student of archaeology your mind would start twinkling as if you are back in time to thousands of years to the era of the emergence of early civilization.
The market lasted for a mere three hours as it was approaching the summer season. By 10 AM, the Dongorias gathered in groups to ascent back the hills, some also got into public vehicles that hop between the Dongoria villages in the hills and Chatikona village in the plain.
Being an Odia, I was fortunate to go up the hills and witness myself the Dongoria way of life. If you are an outsider you need special permission for the entry.
Once in the hill what draws your attention is dense orchards and perennial water streams. Their villages are located in rugged foothill fringes surrounded by deep and dense vegetation and forests. In the past, the Dongorias were not settlers at one place. They were nomadic moving from one place to another with the exhaust of resources. Because of their constant mobility, they have acquired deep knowledge about their environment and methods of exploiting them for their own sustenance.
For Dongorias each hill is a living entity possessed by a particular spirit who is respected as the authority of the hill. From the spirit, god Dongorias seek permission before settling there permanently or temporarily. It is only after appeasement of the Hill God that the Dongorias begin to convert patches of lands into small settlements.
The top of a hill is covered with timber species or grass and is the abode of Lada Penu, the Mountain God. Although there are trees in the Penu Basa, they are not fell excepting when the wood is needed for festivals or house construction.
On the hill slope, Dongorias cultivate a variety of fruit-bearing trees, such as jack fruit, mango, pineapple, and seasonal crops such as cereals, pulses, vegetables and oil-seeds, all organic.
Over the past decades, the Dongorias have lived in harmony with the forest. But today it is however not the case. You see all means of modernization penetrating into Dongoria world. The rise of materialism and increasing demands of the market have already started affecting the younger generation Dongorias, which was clearly visible during my visit. Now the big question is – how long they would remain as Mother Nature’s old children?
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org