A 6 hours drive from Bhubaneswar through the coastal highway following the Google Map brought us to a place that was in the middle of nowhere. We were in the northernmost part of Andhra Pradesh overlooking the high hills of Odisha’s the Eastern Ghats. The narrow semi-tar road came to an abrupt end. But the Google Map was still indicating to drive further. We did not know what to do next. Upon asking the villagers they told – how travellers like us are often fooled by the technology-driven world while driving to Puttasingi, the heart of Lanjia Saura kingdom. We turned back and drove for 7 km and then hit the Main Road. Then we drove in a different direction and passed by several small villages and towns, tribal and non-tribal on serene Andhra –Odisha border.
After a two hour drive through plains and ghats we got the first sight of Lanjia Saura habitat in deep interiors and mountains of the Eastern Ghats that once used to be inaccessible. The drive was scenic on the highway.
But as we entered the hill trek it turned out to be a nightmare. For 20 km drive through the mountain trek it took nearly 2 hours, it was a big risk but finally, it paid off.
Lanjia Saura is an autonomous tribal group that shares common values, style of life and exclusive symbols of identity among its members. They are part of the larger proto-Austroloid racial group (Austroloids include aboriginal people of Australia, Southeast Asia and parts of East Asia) having dark skins, wavy hairs, and short heights. Proto-Austroloids are thought to have been among the earliest to migrate from Africa to Indian Subcontinent and Australia about 60,000 years ago.
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Lanjia Saouras speak in Saora language, which is a part of Mundari branch of Austric language groups. According to linguist Sidewell, Mundari language probably arrived on Odisha coast from Indo-China about 4,000-3,500 years ago. Scientists have different views on the meaning of the word ‘Saura’. According to some scholars, the term Saora appears to have come from Sagories, the Scythian word for axe and according to others, Saura has been derived from Saba Raye, the Sanskrit term for carrying the dead body. Both the terms denote their habit of carrying an axe always on shoulders with the traditional occupation of hunting and subsistence farming. However, according to their popular legend, Sora is derived from ‘So’ meaning hidden and ‘Ara’ meaning tree. Hence Sora or Saura are the people who have been living inside the forest. Forest is the collection of trees and Hill Sauras build their settlements surrounded by thick forests. The Hill Sauras are called Lanjia Sauras because of their male dress style in which the ends of the loincloth hang like a tail at the back. The term ‘Lanjia’ means ‘having a tail’.
Puttasing, the largest Saora village is located at a distance of 25 km from the nearest town Gunupur. The entire stretch is picturesque with rolling mountains of the Eastern Ghats, verdant valleys, paddy fields, dense forest and mountain streams. These are no bus services, however public jeep services available hopping between Saora villages and Gunupur. At Puttasing is located the head office of Lanjia Saora Development Agency, which has a small guesthouse which can be booked with prior information. Otherwise Gunupur, the nearest town or Rayagada, the district headquarter, 70 km away and Paralakhemindi, 60 km away are better options. Gunupur is connected by rail and road from Bhubaneswar, while Rayagada has better rail links with most parts of India. The nearest airport is at Visakhapatnam, 215 km away. Bhubaneswar, the other nearest airport is 333 km away.
Our first halt in the mountain trek was Tarabil village on the edge of a hill overlooking a deep valley. We had been recommended by experts to visit this village for an appreciation of traditional architecture. Here I recalled Verrier Elwin’s accounts, who had first mentioned the cultural traits of Hill Saoras or Lanjia Saoras.
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‘The Saoras live along long streets where they built little shrines. They erect menhirs and sacrifices buffalos for their dead. Male and female shamans serve their religious needs. They engage both in terrace and shifting cultivation. Their men wear a long, brightly coloured loin cloth and their women a hand woven, brown bordered skirt and usually nothing else. The women enrage the lobes of their ears and have a characteristic tattoo mark down the middle of the forehead. Most importantly, the Hill Sauras retain their own language’.
Elwin’s version of Hill Sauras has partly faded now thanks to the penetration of missionaries and Hindu right-wing institutions along with consumer-driven market forces. But if you explore after doing certain homework and accompanied by local resource persons you are sure to hit on a culture that appears to be the last link of our human stories from the time of Stone Age.
Like every tribe, Lanjia Sauras have a myth of their origin. Kureitung Katabir is the source of their oral literature. According to it, the first Saora man took origin from Kureitung (bottle gourd) and after that they disappeared in the forests and hills and made their settlements.
From Tarabil we started descending to Puttasing, the largest Lanjia Saoura village and the centre of their administrative network. Around 4.30 in the late afternoon, we reached the office of Lanjia Saora Development Authority to meet Sri Krupasindhu Behra, a dynamic administrative officer appointed to oversee and initiate developmental work in Lanjia Saora villages. With him and Bira, an employee and a Lanjia Saora himself we headed to Maningul Village. On our way, we were amazed to see their terrace farming from the hilltop.
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Called Sarabs, the terraced farms of Lanjia Saoras have inbuilt water management system. These are found on lower hill slopes and in some cases extend up to hilltops. The platform for each terrace is flat throughout and the fall of each terrace is packed with stone. The construction technique is highly sophisticated and skill full. No soil is carried down with water that flows from the higher terrace to lower terrace.
Maningul today can be reached in less than 15 min from Purchasing if you have your personal vehicle. But only a couple of years ago it was inaccessible and had an archaic look. One had to take the zigzag path on the mountain terrain and dense forest to reach here. In the absence of medical facility, the people here depended upon the healing of Kundan Boi, the woman shaman of Lanjia Saoura community. Today the ageing Kundan Boi here is unwanted. The once shining Edital murals have decayed to extinction. Most households here are converted to Christianity. In place of the healing chants that have a strong connection with their thousands of years of heritage, you hear lousy Catholic Odia songs from the village Church.
Even though there are signs of modernization and 21st-century version of development, you can still trace counters of Maningul’s past – its settlement pattern, belief system and architecture.
The Lanjia Saoras usually prefer to build their village on hilltops and hill slopes that are free from life-threatening floods and water logging in every monsoon. These sites are close to forest and water resources. Because of the zigzag nature of mountains, they first create a terrace to build their settlement on it.
The funeral sites (Genuar) and cremation grounds (Kiatlo) are located outside of the village. The shrine of Manduasum used to be once located inside the village, which is almost extinct now. The deity of Manduasum according to Lanjia belief protects the village from the attack of wild animals or epidemics. The offering is made near the shrine to several deities and spirits. It is a taboo strictly observed by the people to eat the crops before celebrating the new eating festivals (abder) such as Raganabdar (red gram new eating) and udanabdur (mango new eating festivals). Offerings are made to Manduasum and Sandisum, who according to Saura belief take care of their protection and safety. Judisum is another co-deity of male and female, situated in the border between two villages to protect the life and prosperity of villages from the attack of malevolent spirits and forest deities who cause diseases and epidemics in nature and damage property of the villages. Offerings to these deities are made during all the harvesting festivals.
‘Sing’ is the word for house in Soura language. A traditional Sing is a single roomed house, which is rectangular in shape and fairly high. The plinth of the house is made high but the roof is kept proportionally low. The house is a thatched hut, small in size with earthen walls and pillars, posts, beams and rafters. Walls are made of stone plastered with locally available red earth.
The interior of a Saura House is dark and smoky as there are no windows for ventilation and penetration of sunlight. It is because of their fear for the ghosts and spirits. All the members of the family sleep at one place but after marriage, the newly married couple have to build a separate house for their independent living.
For pigs and fowls, separate provisions are made. In one corner (immediately after the entrance) of the house, there are shelters built for pigs and fowls to protect them from the attack of wild animals. The shelter is called Gangusing.
Gangusing is also built with the plinth, which looks like a cave to shelter their pigs and fowls. Inside the house, aloft (maadaa) is made upon the wall covering more than half of the space to keep the household belongings and valuable clothes, ornaments, money, agricultural products, seeds, food material and all other household items. Small agricultural implements and household weapons are kept near the entrance of the house.
Against all this information loaded I tried to trace the authentic character of a Lanjia Saura settlement at Maningul, which you can see through these images. Beyond the western hills, Sun was all set to go down to the other hemisphere for the day. Pitch dark shrouded all over. It was time to retire for the day.
To be Continued
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org