A house of the Khond people

The Khond people are the largest tribal group in Odisha, but are also found as far east a West Bengal, and to the west as far as Maharashtra. We saw an example of the huts that they build in the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar. “Rather simple,” The Family said. I wasn’t so sure. It was big, had a tiled roof in two parts, with a gap for circulation. Architecturally, that roof was pretty complex and well thought out. The Khonds traditionally have a hunter-gatherer society, so I wondered what they are doing building huts. Perhaps there is a notion of home ground for a family. After reading about the elaborate decorations they have inside the hut, I regretted not coming to the museum at a time when the hut is open.

I walked closer and realized that this was the most elaborately decorated door I’d seen in the museum. The carpetry was simple: just three planks held together with bracings. But the door and the door-frame were carved quite extensively. When I looked up the history of the Khonds I was quite as taken aback as when I saw this door. It seems that the Khonds fought a war lasting a hundred years against the British East India Company (called the Ghumsar uprising) before coming under their dominion. Currently their lifestyle is under threat and the tribe is designated as a particularly vulnerable tribal group.

Smoke on the water

Beautiful carved and painted wooden cylinders. My first thought was that it was a flute. But where are the tone holes? Perhaps this was an overtone flute. Confused, I looked at the explanation. It was a tobacco holder from the Kutia Kandha people! Such beautiful objects for everyday casual use speaks of a past not only of plenty, but also of technical capability. The drilling of a hole in this long rod, the polishing and decoration are all accomplished technical steps. This object completely belied the adjective “primitive” that is used in most descriptions that I found of the people. The Tribal Art museum of Bhubaneswar is an eye opener.

The four pipes for smoking come from the Dongria Kandha people. Again, I found them remarkable. The thin gauge wire wound tight enough to make a working pipe requires considerable technical mastery. The pipes are not special objects, just things of daily use. To be able to spare time to make them requires a degree of wealth quite at variance with the media portrayals of these people who are engaged in a legal battle to keep their homeland from becoming open cast mines.

The Paraja people also used a similar technology to create pipes. I found it interesting that the stem and bowl seem to have been wound as one piece. The separation of a bowl from the stem simplifies the process and can lead to mass production. That was not the intent here.

This water pipe, a hookah, was made and used by the Lanjia Saora people. It is a beautiful, if slightly worn and battered, object for everyday use. The spout was turned slightly away, unfortunately. I would have liked to have seen the joint between it and the body of the water pipe. The placement of these artifacts for the consumption of tobacco against a purple background seemed specially designed to bring to mind a certain famous song from the early 70s.

Gadwall, bird of the week

A typical brown duck, the Gadwall (Mareca strepera) barely draws your eye when you see it in a crowd of ducks. I noticed this one as I drifted past in a skiff on the shallows of Mangalajodi because it looked so plump. I could recognize it by the orange legs, and the noticeably black beak and rear. The shallow waters at the edge of Chilika lake must be wonderful for these dabbling ducks, the ones which feed on leaves and shoots of water plants. This one was clearly getting ready to fly to its breeding grounds in central Asia. Across the northern hemisphere, wintering Gadwalls have begun to fly north. In India, and many places near the tropics, the major sign of spring is of birds leaving for their breeding grounds. I was surprised to find that breeding populations have only recently established themselves in the UK (most Gadwalls there are winter visitors!) and the USA.

There aren’t many places on WordPress where bird watchers can share posts. If you post any photos of birds this week (starting today and up to next Monday), it would be great if you could leave a link in the comments, or a pingback, for others to follow. There is no compulsion to post a recent photo, but it would help others to know when and where you saw the bird. You might consider using the tag “Bird of the Week” in case people search for old posts using it.

A breakfast buffet

During our post-pandemic travel through India we found that the breakfast buffet at all the hotels have converged to a standard menu. Cut fruits, some salad, sprouts and a cheese platter are close to the beginning, next to fruit juices and tea or coffee. The fruits are predictable: pineapple, melons, papaya, or watermelon. You could have a pile of bananas or orange nearby, but I don’t think I’ve seen chikoo or custard apple at breakfast. Confronted with this again on our weekend visit to Chilika lake, I decided to practice my plating. I placed a few cubes of the industrial cheese, and some fruits and sprouts, before squeezing lime over the fresh ingredients.

The next stage through the buffet brings you to cooked food: idli and dosa, parathas or kulchas, and sometimes puri. This being Odisha there were puris instead of paratha. The family committed sacrilege on the plate by having her puris with yoghurt. I kept to the straight and narrow path: potato sabji. Plating Indian food is never easy, and I had to depend on the colour to make the serving look good in a photo.

The meat comes late. In fancy places you can get cold cuts and an egg station where they’ll do your eggs to order. Here I they had boiled eggs and cooked sausage. I’m more fond of potato wedges (The Family raised a quizzical eyebrow) than the sausage, but protein is protein. The peas did not assuage the eyebrow.

Finally it was time to sit back and relax. I’d had several cups of tea through the rest of the breakfast, but I can always have another. There was surprising amount of choice in the bakery section to make me vacillate between a croissant and a slice of brown bread. But The Family picked carrot cake, so I had a slice of tea cake to go with my last tea. I’m glad my daily breakfast is so much simpler.

Bee’s knees

Not really the knees, but filled pollen baskets. That’s what stopped me in my tracks inside the Presidential gardens. As I tried to take a better picture, a plainclothes security man appeared at my elbow and said “You can’t stop to take pictures.” Without taking my eyes off the bee, I said “But photography with the phone is allowed in the garden.” He replied “But it doesn’t mean that you have to take a photo of every flower.” I conceded that point, but argued that I hadn’t, I wasn’t even so interested in the flower. It was the bee I was looking at. But he didn’t stay to listen to me; other knots of people attracted his interest.

Bees do not feed on nectar alone. While carbs are good for giving them energy, all individuals, especially the growing larvae, need proteins and fats. That comes from pollen. Bees are not being altruistic in taking pollen from one flower to another in order to further the reproductive success of plants. They harvest pollen, and nectar, in order to feed themselves. The sexual favours to plants are incidental. Hairy species of bees just carry the pollen in mats of hair called scopa. But these red dwarf honey bees (Apis florea) have pollen baskets, corbicula, on the tibia of their hind legs instead. I haven’t noticed them so full before. I wish I had panniers built into my legs; it would be a very useful alternative to plastic shopping bags.

Mondrian in a forest

Museums are at their best when they encourage you to explore more. By that reckoning the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar was very successful. I was attracted to the line of huts in front of the auditorium by the beautiful Mondrianesque hut that you see in the featured photo. The shape is like a child’s drawing of a hut: round with a conical thatched roof, but the Gadaba tribe’s traditional construction is adept. The wood frame, the internal support pole for the roof made from a single trunk of a sal tree (Shorea robusta), and the wooden door and window (behind) are stained black, and the squares of plaster are painted in attractive bright colours. Unfortunately the Gadaba tribe’s culture is under strain, with many people having been displaced by the building of dams in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

The Gond people had centralized states for centuries before they were defeated by the Marathas and reduced to a political periphery in the 18th century CE.The Gondi culture is distinct, but is being slowly lost as they take on the language of the politically dominant people around them. The traditional houses of the Gondi are too varied to be captured in a single example. From the bungalow that we saw in the museum grounds I could recognize themes that I’d seen elsewhere. The bare earthen courtyard was one: this is a place where people can meet, both private and somewhat public; a place where the family will keep things they can’t bring inside, like a cart or bicycle, or agricultural implements or home equipment like a ladder, and it can even be a place to tie up a cow or goat. The bright geometrical paintings on the wall were another. The tiled roof and the elaborate construction spoke of wealth. I’ve seen that huts which poorer Gondi live in are simpler, and they often have a thatched roof.

Between these two was a layout which showcased the houses of the Juang people. Their lifestyle has been under threat since British colonial times, when their forests were declared reserved, and their traditional rights of use were taken away. The long hut at the back is called a majang, and serves as a dormitory where adolescent boys live. It also serves as a community hall. The veranda in front, the paintings on the walls, and the simple white door reminded me of the houses of the Saora people, although the tribes are quite separate culturally. The structure in front is an example of a injza, where a man lives with all the women in the family. Perhaps this construction is not complete, since it is meant to be divided into two spaces, one for sleeping and the other for storage and day use. On a positive note, it let me see the elaborate cross-braced framework on which the thatching of the roof rested. I also liked the carved posts around the injza.


Jewellery is always a statement about the wealth of the person wearing it. A tasteful heavy golden crown studded with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies stolen from across the world makes the same sort of statement as the coin necklaces (puste) worn by tribal women. I was quite as enchanted by the technique and history carried by these tribal necklaces as any other museum-worthy bling. You can tell which tribe made them by the construction of the necklace, but the coins tell a different story. The Mankirdia tribe make necklaces of plaited strands of thread, the Bonda use colourful beads, the Gandia will knot cord together, and the Koya coil rope over cord.

But the coins that they fix on these necklaces vary from one family to another, and also from person to person. The gold coins that I saw on a Mankirdia necklace (the featured photo) had inscriptions in a script which I do not know. Was this pre-British, or from one of the kingdoms that coexisted with the British Raj? The silver coins in the Gandia necklace raised similar questions.

The aluminium coins in the Bonda necklace were from the mid 1960s. The 10 paisa coin may now be worth anywhere between 25 and 250 rupees, depending on the state of the coin and the mint where it was struck. The rounded squares of the 5 paisa coins cost slightly less. They are not a fortune, but their current price in the coin collector’s market means that have gained a little bit above the purchasing power that they once had. I remember buying one lemon sweet with one of these coins. Today I might get twenty or more of these schoolchild’s treat with the money I get from one.

The two necklaces from the Koya were perhaps the most interesting. Both had coins from the early 20th century, bearing the face of Edward VII. The half rupee and one anna (one sixteenth of a rupee) coins will each fetch about a thousand rupees in the coin collector’s market, and therefore would have roughly retained their original purchasing power. Interestingly, one of the necklaces also contained a silver medal from the early years of the independent republic. That indicates that at some time coins from different puste were shuffled together. So these coins served as inheritance, and when inherited by an younger owner, coins from several sources were mixed. The idiosyncratic histories preserved in these puste can be endlessly fascinating.

Pacific golden plover: bird of the week

Pluvialis fulva, the Pacific golden plover, is quite a remarkable bird. I’d never given it much attention, thinking of it as just another of the brown climate refugees that you find in Indian wetlands during winters. But just a little thought would have told me that it must be a remarkable flyer, crossing from its summer breeding grounds on the shorelines of the northern Pacific to its wintering grounds in the eastern Indian Ocean. In fact, it is among the more remarkable flyers in the world, with some individuals logging well over 12,000 kms in each season.

In February when I saw a group of them in Mangalajodi I realized that they begin to develop the magnificent breeding colours before setting off. You can see in the photo above that the individual at the back has begun to develop the spectacular gold and black plumage that gives the species its name. They are not drab and brown any longer. When I went back last weekend, in the middle of March, they were gone. Good luck with sightings, those of you who are waiting for its return half a world away.

There aren’t many places on WordPress where bird watchers can share posts. If you post any photos of birds this week (starting today and up to next Monday), it would be great if you could leave a link in the comments, or a pingback, for others to follow. There is no compulsion to post a recent photo, but it would help others to know when and where you saw the bird. You might consider using the tag “Bird of the Week” in case people search for old posts using it.

Comfort zone

Even before the convenience of having a good lightweight camera always in your pocket, I was interested in taking street photos. The famous images by Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Saul Leiter, Eugene Atget and many others showed me how to look at people in public with a photographer’s eye. I don’t breathe the rarefied air that these greats live in, but they have inspired me to keep a camera at hand. And among the many things that you can see in the streets of India, two things fascinate me most of all. One is the pheonomenon of pavement barbershops.

To set up shop one needs a barber’s instruments, and a chair. Of such simple things is a livelihood created. There is a trust in baring your neck to a stranger wielding a straight razor, so I like to observe the faces of the men getting a shave. And conversely, I like to observe the stress and strain in the body of the barber who takes scissors to another person’s hair.

This man caught my eye with his elaborate set up. Notice the chair and the headrest which can be set at different heights? Then there is the umbrella for protection (it was August, in the middle of the monsoon), and the drapes nicely hung over the spikes in the fence. I recall having trouble with the exposure: the light was not too good, and the umbrella created a shadow. I was happy with the final photo though, having got the tension in the barber’s body, his raised shoulders and the balance as he raised himself above the seated man’s head.

This scene caught my attention because of the deep red of the drape, the only touch of colour in the street. This was the first time I’d taken my camera out after the pandemic lockdown of 2020, and I was shocked by the lack of masks and distance between the two. It was another three months before I ventured into a hairdresser’s. So that’s one of my comfort zones, a route I take often while taking street photos. The other is another story.

Home delights

We like to taste the local food of every new place that we go to. But in every culture there is a subset of hidden foods, the food that you eat at home. Home cooked sweets often fall in this category. So we were happy to see in a fancy restaurant in Bhubaneswar a selection of Odisha’s pitha.

The three that you see in the photo are the manda pitha, with its steamed rice flour coating, the deep fried kakada pitha, and the enduri pitha, which is made by enclosing the pitha in turmeric leaves before steaming. All had fillings of grated coconut sweetened with palm jaggery. You can also see a serving of rice kheer, that staple of home sweets across the rice growing parts of the country. This one was sweetened with the same gud that was used for the pitha. I finished one serving before The Family reminded me to take a photo.