The sacred hearth

Two structures slightly separated from each other: one red the other white. Was this one hut or two? I had to read the information board to figure that out. The white structure is the main living space. The red is the kitchen,c alled a lal bangla. It’s a sacred space, and only the mistress of the house decides who has access. Normally unmarried daughters have access to the kitchen, but once married, the daughter is the mistress of her own, and therefore barred from her mother’s. I learnt later that the notion of the purity of the kitchen is so strong that it has to be burnt down and rebuilt if the wrong person enters it.

The house was a replica of those used by the Chuktia Bhunjia, a small tribe about whom I’d known nothing earlier. After seeing that hut and reading about it, I was not surprised that their chief deity was the goddess called Suna Dei, who is worshipped at Dusshera. The tribe has a homeland in the Sunabeda plateau, around the Sunabeda National Park in the northwest corner of Odisha.

I was curious about their level of technology. They were traditional farmers after all, with seasonally rotating farmlands. A gold armlet and an axe were constructed well enough. It wasn’t at the level of sophistication that some of the richer tribes had attained, but they had metalworking. The axe was quite functional. In fact the doors to their houses also had a similar functionality: cured and polished bamboo sticks held together by bars of planed hardwood. I found the Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar a wonderful learning resource.


We examined the patterns of woven cloth used by various tribes in a display at Bhubaneswar’s Tribal Museum. The Family confirmed my impression. Many of these patterns are in wide use today. How did that happen? I remembered conversations with a grandaunt. She was an artist who’d turned to textile design while she was in art school. Textiles were very political in her time, when opposition to colonial rule involved renouncing textiles made in England. I know that she travelled extensively in Odisha and got to know local artists and learnt their art. Given the politics of her time, she may not have been alone. Such people were possibly the conduit through which tribal designs seeped into the general culture even before they became trendy.

But why did tribes stick to particular designs? I have no idea, but a scholarly paper pointed out that this is not unusual at all. That set me thinking of Scottish clan tartans. And that led me to wonder whether some of these tribal designs are derived from each other. I was so engrossed in the designs that I forgot to take photos which identify each piece. So now I’m left with questions and no way of answering them. All I can ask you is to enjoy the sight of these weaves.

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.

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.


Sleepwalking is how I proceed through a garden. I recognize almost none of the flowers. I can tell a rose from a marigold, and Nargis (daffodils) from rajanigandha (tuberose). But beyond that I have to tread cautiously. These flowers were not dahlias, cosmos, or zinnias. They weren’t morning glories, sweet peas, or pansies. I could rule out snapdragons, lupines, and lilies. What could they be? Dianthus? Nasturtium? Impatiens? I’m afraid I have no idea. Do you?

All I knew was that the gardeners in Bhubaneshwar’s Museum of Tribal Arts liked them a lot. They had taken some trouble to collect multiple shades of these flowers: from decidedly purple to clear pink. Looking at the photos now, I realize that my phone’s camera may not have been able to capture the distinctions of the shades that my eyes did. So which was wrong?

Houses of the Saora people

We have driven through villages sometimes and exclaimed at the beauty of the traditional houses without knowing much about the people. The Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts in Bhubaneswar was a lovely place to start filling in that blind spot. In the grounds of the museum, in front of the auditorium, there were traditional huts of different tribes of Odisha built using the original techniques. The one you see here belongs to the Saora (or Sora) people. They are a tribe of the Munda who traditionally lives in the southwestern part of Odisha and in the adjoining northeastern coastal part of Andhra Pradesh.

The house had thick mud walls, extremely good at controlling the temperature inside. The roof was thatched. I could only see the bamboo structure holding the thatching in place. I hope the museum extends its labelling in future to include more details about the construction of the huts. In particular, I liked the raised verandah in front of the house: perfect for casual visitors. It was interesting that a gap was left for the door, instead of having steps to go up to the verandah for entry. The white Idital paintings on the traditional red exterior walls it are called Tanger Sum and serve a ritual purpose of guarding the house. Each village is also ritually protected by paintings called Gosada Sum made by the woman who serves as the shaman.

As you can see from these photos, the doors are made with planks of wood, which meant that villages had a carpenter. The paint seemed to be modern. I wonder how that bright red colour of the exterior walls and the white of the idital was originally made. Elsewhere in the museum I’d seen the kinds of traditional implements that the Saora people used in their terrace and swidden agriculture. They required a functioning smithy. But iron working is such an ancient art in India that I guess the instruments used by farmers and carpenters may have reached their optimal form long ago. Like a good museum, this one filled my mind with more questions.