Odisha has the largest number of tribes (Adivasis) in India. Sixty-two Odishan tribal cultures are recognised, forming a quarter of the state’s population. These tribes live mostly in the inland hill ranges that run in a north to south direction.
The Kondh people number about one million and are based in the southwest, around Koraput, and near Sambalpur in the northwest. The Santal, with a population above 500,000, live around Baripada and Khiching in the far north. The 300,000 Saura live near Bolangir in the west. The Bonda, known as the ‘Naked People’ for wearing minimal clothing, have a population of about 5,000 and live in the hills near Koraput.
The Odishan tribal culture lifestyle is basic and reliant on gathering, hunting and fishing for food. While the larger tribes are farmers, they also rely on hunting and gathering. Their farming methods are simple, utilising family labour. Some operate a slash and burn practice where they clear the land by burning. The land is used for a few years until the soil fertility is used up and then they clear a new area.
Despite living a precarious existence on the edge of mainstream society, the Adivasi have managed to retain their strong social structures and a vibrant culture that’s expressed in their clothing, music and dance. Family milestones, seasonal events in farming and other important times in the year are celebrated with song, dancing and feasting.
The tribes have become something of a tourist attraction with visits possible to some villages and weekly haats (village markets). But it’s important to visit only on an organised tour – some areas require permits and others are prohibited to visitors. Also some tribal areas are hard to find and not accessible by public transport.
Many tribal people don’t like to be photographed so always ask.