The Dongria Kondhs

Nestled between an area of densely forested hills, deep gorges and cascading streams, reside the Dongria Kondh tribe. They derive their name from Dongar, meaning 'hill’ and the name for themselves is Jharnia: protector of streams. To be a Dongria Kondh in the Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha-India, is to farm the hills’ fertile slopes, harvest their produce, and worship the mountain god 'Niyam Raja'. The deep reverence that the Dongria have for their gods, hills and streams pervades every aspect of their lives. Even their art reflects the mountains, in the triangular designs found on village shrines, farm and forests. They have expert knowledge of their forests and the plants and wildlife they hold. They gather wild foods such as wild mango, pineapple, jackfruit, and honey. Rare medicinal herbs are also found in abundance, which the Dongria use to treat various ailments including arthritis, bone fractures, malaria and snake bites. They also cultivate crops such as oranges, bananas, ginger, sweet papaya in the forest, all of which are sold at local markets. A recent study showed that the Dongria harvest over a 100 crops from their fields and about gather around 200 different foods from their forest. This diverse bounty of nature sustains them through the year, with little need for food or goods from beyond their hills. The tribe also keeps livestock (chicken, pigs, goats and buffalo). The men gather juice from the forest’s giant sago palm trees, a natural drink that provides energy for their long hikes throughout the Niyamgiri Hills.

As seen with most indigenous cultures, the Dongria too have distinctive jewellery, tattoos and hairstyles. Women wear multiple rings through their ears and three through their noses, while boys wear two nose rings. Dongria girls wear a number of clips in their hair and rings and beads around their necks. Embroidered with colourful motifs & designs on both sides, 'Kapdagonda' or main cloth is a prestigious shawl of the Dongria Kondh which truly are stunning works of art. Hand embroidered with colourful motifs on off-white ‘chaddars’, the Kapadagonda is presented to the Dhangara (partner) by the Dhagiri (young Kondh girl) as a symbol of love and representation of Niyamgiri. Woven only by girls for their lovers or brothers, these shawls are suggestive of warmth and comfort and play a major role in attracting mates and courting sweethearts. During the ceremonial dances, if a boy flings his wrap at a girl, it signifies that he wants to marry her. The girl either accepts the shawl or throws it back. If she accepts, the couple meets and marries with the consent of their respective families. At times, the boy makes the marriage proposal by snatching away the shawl from a girl. The motifs and patterns rendered on it are symmetrical on either ends of the cloth. This piece of textile is not only an art, it also represents the cultural context of the Dongria Kondh community. The girls make this shawl only during their leisure hours and it reflects years of skill that has been passed down from generations. Even while it is being embroidered, the shawl undergoes scrutiny, approval and recognition by fellow members or elders of the community. 

It's fascinating to understand the cultural & ethnic value of these indigenous textiles. Dongria believe that red, green & yellow are the most auspicious colours and these are the colours used in the Kapadagonda as well. Red signifies blood, sacrifices & revenge while green symbolises their fertile mountain ecology. Yellow symbolises the origin of the Kondh. It also represents prosperity & profuse turmeric cultivation. The threads are dyed according to the colour requirement. The Dongria used turmeric, bean leaves & wild seeds to colour yellow, green & red respectively. To prevent the colour from fading, they would boil the banana flower in water & dip the coloured threads in. The cloth for the shawl was usually obtained in exchange for paddy or vegetables or even a cock from another tribe called Dombs, who live nearby. Unfortunately, these practises have slowly faded away as a result of changing societal structures as well as mass production of textiles and yarn. The different patterns on the Kapadagonda are symbolic of the Dongria culture. “Watta”: The three straight lines running at the bottom of the cloth represents the imaginary boundary wall of their habitation. It symbolises social security and protection from the evil forces.
“Karlikanna”: the axe shape design symbolises the blade of an axe which indicates aggressiveness, revenge, energy, power, territorial fights and proves that they are the real protectors of their “Dongar” (mountain).
“Keriwatta”: The design is derived from a tamarind leaf. Being forest dwellers, everything learned by them from the forest is culturally expressed in this design.
“Kuddilinga”: The triangular design symbolises Niyamgiri hill, the abode of Niyam Raja, their household deity.

Dongria girl embroidering their traditional textile, 'Kapadagonda'.

Dongria girl embroidering their traditional textile, 'Kapadagonda'.

The Dongria Kondhs are a particularly vulnerable tribal group of Odisha, India that has preserved it's rich heritage of cultural & ethnic identity. Today, we must make an effort to understand the sentiment behind theses shawls that were carefully and lovingly woven for personal use. They are a great source of generating direct income for the Dongria women today. We are realising this garment as an exclusive art piece and are working to make this effort of love available, so that it doesn't risk the tragedy of fading away with time. 

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