The Bonda Highlanders

Mudulipada, Bonda Ghati, Odisha

Mudulipada, Bonda Ghati, Odisha

Customs & traditions are an integral part of any culture in this world. Some cultures are so old & their practices so unique, that the members of ‘modern society’ may be stunned by these rituals. This is the story of one such fascinating custom of the Bonda people that I had the rare opportunity of witnessing in their land. The Bonda tribe of Odisha is one of the oldest in mainland India with their culture little changed in over a thousand years. They are believed to be a part of the first wave of migration out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, being the first forest settlers in India. According to anthropologists, they are members of a group of Austroasiatic tribes. Till a few years ago, spotting a member of this elusive tribe was extremely rare but due to socio-economic changes, some of them have started migrating to nearby towns to earn a livelihood. The community now finds it difficult to meet its needs from the forest alone. Depleting forest cover has affected their self sufficient way of life. They now practice shifting agriculture in the hills to feed themselves as well as sell their produce in the local markets. Many Bondas still use ‘binnimoy protha’, a give-and-take method of transaction or barter without the need for money.

Bonda people also called themselves Remo, which in Bonda language means ‘the people’. They reside in an area known as the Bonda Ghati. They live in villages located on the hilltops at heights of about 3000 to 4000 feet above sea level in the remote and steep hill ranges of the Eastern Ghats of India. These villages fall under the Khairput Block of Malkangiri District, Odisha. The people here claim to be the original inhabitants of the region and are still somewhat reluctant to mix with outsiders. They believe that the whole of human civilisation has originated from them. A typical characteristic of Bondas is self sufficiency in food security and in the past, they have generally been hostile to allowing outsiders into their territory for fear of being exploited. They do not appreciate people from outside their community intruding into the region, trespassing on their properties or interfering in their personal matters and often retaliate aggressively against those who do so. Bonda people are known for their short temper and get angry easily. They use a variety of weapons & are exceptionally skilled in the use of a bow and arrow. So, it is unadvisable to enter into their land without permission. 

Although their society appears to be male-dominated, in practice women are more powerful than their male counterparts in several vital aspects of life. In Bonda society women are highly respected and valued. They are usually the final decision makers within the family, even though the community is neither matriarchal nor matrilocal. This is due to their greater participation in and contribution to daily economic activities and also related to a number of deeply rooted Bonda cultural practices and customs. The Bondas evolved their system of marrying older women to younger boys to be helpful to each other during periods when they were vulnerable to the ravages of predators in childhood for husbands and old age for the wives. Adult women are well acquainted with hard labour. Adult men normally go straight to their sago palm trees soon after they leave their beds early in the morning. During the busiest hours of a woman's day, the early morning, the men congregate there for a drink. They are addicted to its juice that has intoxicating effects. The Bonda consider sago palm juice as milk and feed it to their infants, mainly to their male babies. Most pregnant women consume it as a nutritious drink. A boy begins to taste the sweet flavour of palm wine while he is still an infant, and as he grows up, it is a proud moment as he is at last allowed to accompany his elders to the family palms where he is first sent up the tall tapering trunk to bring down the pot of sap. As a result of this, the Bonda become addicted to it from their birth.

Legend has it that one day, while Sita (Lord Ram’s wife) was bathing completely naked in a perennial stream at the bottom of Mudulipara Hill, a group of Bonda women, clothed in garments made from leaves, happened to pass by. Seeing Sita naked, they sniggered. Enraged, Sita cursed them to live nude with their heads shaved forever. She decreed that any attempt by them to deviate from this attire would bring disaster to their family, crop failure, destruction of the village, loss of their animal herds, and death of family members, who would be eaten by predators. The Bonda women begged for forgiveness but the curse could not be taken back, so Sita then tore off the border of her saree and gave it to the women. Since then, Bonda women have been wearing a tiny piece of cloth around their waist called 'ringa', which they themselves weave at the family loom. The upper body is covered with numerous beaded ornaments along with thick silver neckbands. However, as more people of the Bonda community are migrating to a modern way of life, today only a handful of women from the older generation still wear it. The younger women have taken to wearing saris & the men wear pants. The ‘ringa’ is not woven in Bonda homes anymore.

The Bondas have a unique custom which they gather to celebrate every year in their village, know as ‘Jhati Parab’. This tradition begins with vengeance & aggression combined with feet thumping to drum beats & ends with forgiveness, brotherhood and a whole lot of intoxicated celebration. This is the day that the Bonda men vow to avenge any wrong that has been done to them by their fellow Bonda brothers by channelling that aggression into a dance of whips. Shaving off the leaves from stalks of palm, they create a whip which is used against the person / persons they intend on settling scores with. It all begins with a small prayer which evolves into a collective rhythmic movement of feet to the sound of drums being played in a circle. The entire village gathers to watch this event, & some kids climb up trees to get the best view. Slowly, the men start picking who they would like to get even with & start whipping each other with the palm stalk. The moment it starts getting heated up, the women (usually wives or mothers) run in to stop the fight & prevent any serious injuries from taking place. The women wait in watch just outside of the circle, with fresh turmeric in their hands which is used to soothe the fresh wounds. Immediately after this, the two men shake hands & hug. They’ve made their peace. All is forgiven & they continue dancing in a circle. After everyone has expressed their aggression, the men & women dance together in celebration, drink Sago Palm wine & make merry. To view rare footage of this festival, please visit our stories on instagram.

It has been a truly surreal experience to gain such a different perspective on how a group of people deal with pent-up aggression through an organised ritual. And this is a ritual that has been carried on among the Bondas since ancient times. Cultures such as this one really help reflect back into the time of our ancestors & their way of thinking. They provide valuable insight into human history. Life is lived in so many interesting ways across the world & it is a privilege to be able to learn & understand more about all the different people that make humankind rich with diversity.

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