Fifty years ago Bihar could boast of about 28 percent of India’s total tribal population. Travel to Bihar and meet these magnificetn tribes of India. However, tribal Bihar continues to be rich in terms of heritage, history and culture.

Major Destinations In Bihar
India - Bihar - Bihar Tribal Heritage

Bihar Tribal Heritage

¤ The Tribal Population of Bihar

 The Constitution Order of 1950 has classified thirty different tribes in Bihar, spread over the Chotanagpur Plateau covering several districts spanning 35,000 miles, shaping the southern half of Bihar. Jharkhand is the twelfth century name given to the tribal lands in eastern India. In 1939, the Bengal Presidency was split into Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The Chotanagpur plateau included eastern and southern Bihar, parts of West Bengal bordering Bihar, and northern Orissa. 

Big ole Jesus
¤ Diverse Tribes

The tribal population of Bihar not only differs considerably from its non-tribal counterpart, but even from one another. The Cheros (found in the Palamau and Chaibasa regions) possibly migrated from the sub-Himalayan tract, and differ in features from most of the other tribes that are dark-skinned, short-statured, curly-haired and broad nosed. The Tribe Art

Handaxes and blades hailing from the pre-historic era have been discovered in the region of Pathalgarwa. Some archaeologists have found cave paintings in the Isko village. Chotanagpur has drawn the attention of researchers as being an ancient site of continuous human habitation.

¤ Tribal Houses

Most of the tribes live in mud thatched houses with baked tiles for roofs. often they have kitchen gardens that supply them vegetables, and a space for cattle. Unlike the haphazard dwellings of the Oraons, or the leaf houses of the Birhors, the housesof the Santhal (most predominant and prosperous among the tribes of Bihar, accounting for 37% of the tribal population) are the best planned, with separate apartments for the elderly. 

¤ Santhals- Organised Social Structure

The Santhals are noted for their highly organised social structure. This is evident from Bitlaha – a unique form of punishment meted out to sexual offenders. The Santhals inform each other of a sexual offense by means of a dharwak (signal) conveyed from village to village, consisting of a twig with its leaves stripped to indicate the countdown to the Bitlaha. The result is an enormous crowd that expresses collective resentment against the culprit’s misdeeds. The Bitlaha commences with the village headman calling for a joint meeting of the five manjhis (village headmen) who review the crime. Once ratified, amidst the beating of drums and the singing of obscene folk songs, the adivasis, or tribal people gather around the offender’s house to urinate along the walls and defecate in his courtyard. Asurs - Lohras Blacksmith By Profession

The Asurs and Lohras are traditionally blacksmiths and iron smelters. The Asurs are believed to be the subcontinent’s first iron smelters who were driven from the Gangetic Plains to the plateau of Chotanagpur. Goraits are traditional drummers who support themselves through agriculture and the sale of forest produce. A number of Dravidian tribes like the Gonds, Khonds, Korwas and Koras seem to have migrated from the neighbouring states.

¤ The Tribal Dwellings

The villages of most of the tribes are usually situated near the forest, except for the Paharias who prefer the hills. The Birjias opt for the spurs of the highest hills, while the nomadic Birhors’ semi-permanent dwellings are made of twigs and leaves. The Mundas and Oraons prefer the highest level ground, and the layout is not confined to any pattern, while the Santhals construct their houses on both sides of well-planned streets. The Ho villages are often situated on riverbanks. Mundas -Mundari Tribe are The Oldest

The Mundas (in Mundari, the word refers to a man of prestige and wealth) are the oldest of the tribes of Bihar, and love to live in harmony with other tribes. The best known icon of this tribe is Birsa Munda, the man behind the Ulgulan Movement of 1900 that expressed tribal anguish and resentment against the British rule, and fuelled the agrarian crisis. Contemporaries of the Buddha, the Mundas are believed to have rejected the Buddha’s doctrine. However, the Cheros accepted the Buddhist dharma, and much later became the rulers of Palamau. They are quite industrious and proud of their descent, and still indulge in extravagant shows. The rich among them marry the local Rajputs. The Cheros, along with Bhumijs (children of the soil), were active participants in the 1832 and 1857 rebellions.

¤ Bhumijs -- The Earliest Settlers

The Bhumijs are believed to be the earliest settlers of the Manbhum region in southern Bihar. They are ethnically related to the Mundas, whom they closely resemble. This tribe worships Hindu gods, besides their tribal deities. While some of the tribes practise the Hindu custom of cremating their dead, others have retained their tribal practice of burying the bodies in burial grounds called Sasan or Harshali. However, the Paharias (the hillmen dwelling in the Rajmahal area, who take pride in their tradition of shifting agriculture, known as Kurwa) are free of totemic influence, while almost all tribes have their individual village priests, Naikaor Pahans. The Pahans take care of the Sarna, or the sacred grove where the village deities reside amidst some old trees. 

¤ Sarhul- The Tribal Festival

The most important festival for the tribals of Chotanagpur is Sarhul, which translates as the Sal tree blossom, held at the beginning of spring. Sal trees are worshipped in the sacred grove. Different tribes have different ways of celebrating this festival, but each one worships the spirit of the Sal tree to seek its blessings for a good harvest.

¤ The Holy Deities

The deities vary in number and strength. While the Hos have to appease only two village deities, Desauli and Jahira Buru, the Oraons have as many as ten deities and spirits. However, most of the tribes worship the Singh Bonga, or the Supreme Being. Besides the Sarna, most of the tribes have an ading, or sacred space reserved in the house for the family spirits. After a death in the family, the living call back ‘the shade of the dead man’ to reside in the ading together with the spirits of its other ancestors. The fear of displeasing dead ancestors haunts the tribal people. Most tribal societies believe that hostile spirits, the ghosts of the dead, or the breach of some taboo causes disease and malady. Appeasing ancestral spirits is vital to the tribal people who do not let up a chance to offer sacrifices to propitiate their ancestors.

¤ Dhumkuria

An important institution associated with the Oraons is the Dhumkuria that has put them on the ethnographic map of the world. The dhumkuria is a dormitory that segregates boys and girls, while simultaneously training them to share the responsibilities of the community. It is here that traditions are handed down by more experienced youths to the younger ones. Oraon parents find it undesirable to have their children see them sleep together. Therefore children above the age of ten are housed separately. The Jonkh-erpa takes care of the boys while girls sleep under the care of an elderly widow in the Pello-erpa. 

¤ Mukka Sendra -The Tribal Festival

A unique tribal festival celebrated by the Oraon women once every twelve years is the Mukka Sendra. The women of this tribe dress up as males, wear turbans, and equip themselves with arrows, sticks, spears, axes or any convenient tool that may prove handy during a day long hunt when they are entitled to kill any animal, anywhere and carry it back home. No one is concerned about the ownership nor can one complain about his pet being killed or carried away. Armed women hunters move from village to village in search of prey. The origin of, or the purpose behind the festival is a mystery. Anthropologists suggest different views. According to some, the woman enact the tribal defense of the Rohtasgarh Fort that was attacked by the Afghans around the time of Sarhul, when the male members of the tribe were dead drunk. The women of the tribe took charge of the situation, donned male uniforms and rushed out to fight. Others believe that the festival is celebrated to drive away disease.

Most of the tribes have a huge expanse in the village set aside for festive dances, and the same ground is used for village meetings, or the Kulidrup (an assembly of tribal adults). The council of headmen is known as Manjhis, while Parcha is the collective chief of the various villages of the entire region. The Manjhis together with their subordinates, or Paramanikas,and the village priests keep an eye on the public morals of the village.

¤ The Tribal Food

The most important crop of tribal Bihar is paddy. The daily tribal fare consists of boiled cereals, millets, a curry of boiled vegetables or meat or edible roots, and tubers seasoned with salt and chillies. Surprisingly milk and milk products are completely absent from the tribal menu. As soon as a child is born, it is first given a sip of goat’s milk and then the mother’s milk. Once this is done, goat’s milk is a taboo for the child, as it is believed to make it quarrelsome.

¤ The Occupation

Usually members of a tribal family work together in their plots, at times, accompanied by other villagers. Hunting is now rare as forests are fast disappearing.However Birhors can still be seen chasing monkeys with their nets. They consume its flesh while its skin, used as drumheads, is bartered. Other products sold or bartered by the tribals include rope, baskets, honey, cocoons, etc. Another interesting and no less popular product sold by the tribal people is the Hanaria, or the home-brewed rice beer also associated with tribal worship. During festive occasions, Hanaria flows like water. While it lends energy to the dancers, spectators consume it for its relaxing effects. Nowadays, tribal women come to the weekly haats (markets) with the Hanaria in big pots. Others sell Mahua, or can be seen stitching cups and plates of sal/pala leaves with tiny bits of sticks, to sell in the market. They can easily be identified by their dark complexion, elaborate tattoos, brass and silver ornaments. A good number of tribal men in Chotanagpur work in coal mines and other industries, while others are involved in agriculture.

¤ Travel Tips 

1. The best point from which you could take off for a tribal tour is Ranchi, and the preferred time is around Sarhul – the tribal festival celebrated around Feb-March by the Santhals, and almost a month later by the Oraons. 
2. Before touring the tribal pockets in the interiors, it would be advisable to consult with the Bihar Tribal Research Institute that also houses a museum, at Morabadi in Ranchi. 
3. Another mine of information on the tribal people is the private library-cum-museum of S.C. Roy, famous as the Man in India office, at Church Road. 

¤ Birsa Munda

Birsa Munda, born on 15 November, 1875 at Ranchi, was a freedom fighter who led the Mundas against the British government. He renounced the Christian faith and reverted to the worship of spirits. Soon he became a healer and preacher who drew large crowds. He championed the cause of the tribal people during the famine of 1894, when he petitioned the administration for the remission of forest dues. Gradually his influence spread in the region, and his resistance to the British authority gathered momentum. 
He challenged the colonial rule with his slogan: 
“Abua Raj ete Jana, Maharani Raj tundu Jana”(Let the kingdom of the queen be ended, and our kingdom established.)
He became a legend during his lifetime, was referred to as Dharti Aba (Father of the Earth) and worshipped as Birsa Bhagwan, or Birsa, the God.

In 1897, Birsa along with his armed men attacked the police station, and in 1898 they challenged the British forces. In 1900 a number of tribal people who had gathered to listen to him were rounded up and killed. Birsa too was arrested and imprisoned. He died in captivity later.
Birsa’s movement paved the way for the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 that marked the end of a century of agrarian crisis. The Act further recognised the rights of the tribal people to reclaim land. 

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