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LOCATION: India (Madhya Pradesh region)
POPULATION: c. 200,000 (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Local dialect of Hindi; Kol
RELIGION: Hindu; small numbers of Muslims
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; People of India; Vol. 4: Muslims in South Asia


At one time, the name "Kol" was used to identify a group of primitive aboriginal tribes thought to be descended from Negrito and Australoid peoples who had entered India in prehistoric times. These tribes are concentrated in central India and the northeastern regions of the Deccan plateau. They speak related languages described as "Kolarian," which are known today as the Munda languages. The tribes include the Santal, Munda, and Ho. But in modern usage, the term "Kol" is used in a more restricted sense to identify a specific tribe among these Munda-speaking peoples.

The name "Kol" may come from the Mundari word ko, meaning "they." Alternatively, it may be derived from koro or horo (meaning "men,"), a term the Kol use to identify themselves. In legend, the Kol trace their origins to a Sheori or Savari, calling her the "Mother of all Kols." Some try to relate the name "Savari" to the Savaras mentioned in the Mahabharata epic, but the name most likely comes from the Ramayana. There once was a woman named Sheori, so the story goes. Some people called her "Kolni" (-ni is a feminine suffix, so "Kolni" means "a "Kol woman") and others called her "Bhilni." Sheori was a devotee of Bhagwan ("God"), gathering jungle plums for him. Pleased with her devotion, one day Bhagwan offered Sheori favor: she could have a kingdom or a family. Sheori chose a family and gave birth to five sons. The sons eventually went away to various regions and founded the various subdivisions of the Kol. It is interesting to note that some Kol believe they once inhabited the hills of Rajasthan where, with the Bhils, they helped Rana Pratap Singh in his struggle with the Moguls (Mughals).


Reliable data on the Kol population is unavailable. The 1981 census reported a population of 132,232 persons. The current population would be approximately about 200,000, assuming growth rates that mirror the national average. The Kol are concentrated in the northern districts of Madhya Pradesh around Jabbalpur and Rewa. Small Kol populations are also found in Orissa and Maharashtra. The region of Madhya Pradesh occupied by the Kol lies in the highlands that define the northern edge of the Indian peninsula. It includes the eastern Vindhya Range, the Bhandar Plateau, and the Kaimur Range. The plateaus and escarpments of the region are crossed by the upper reaches of rivers such as the Narmada, the Son, and the lesser streams draining north to the Ganges. Rainfall averages around 120 cm (47 in). Because the area lies in the interior of the subcontinent, temperatures reach extremes of both heat and cold. Maximum temperatures in May, the hottest month, average over 40°c (104°f), and winter minimums drop below 10°c (50°f). Before roads were built, the terrain and the heavy forest cover made travel to the region difficult. Because of this, it has served as a refuge where some of the oldest peoples in India have survived relatively undisturbed until modern times.


The Kol language belongs to the Munda languages. However, few Kol speak the Kol language today. In the 2001 census, only some 12,200 persons were identified as Kol speakers, and this total had probably dropped considerably by 2008. The Kol speak local dialects of Hindi and use the Devanagari script for writing. A few Kol are bilingual, speaking Kol and another language such as Hindi or Oriya.


The Kol have a myth that explains how the cat became a household pet. Once upon a time, so the story goes, Mahadeo (the god Shiva) sent a cat to spy on a certain home. He wanted to know if there was a fire in the house at that time. The cat, which had being staying with Mahadeo for a long time, went to the house. There, she found a fire burning and milk warming beside it and butter on the floor. Eating the butter and drinking the milk, the cat curled up by the fire and went to sleep. She never left the home; she preferred it to the treatment she had received while living with Mahadeo. Since that time, the cat has been a household animal. It is considered a great sin to kill a cat, since it came directly from the god Mahadeo.


The Kol identify themselves as Hindus, although their religion has little in common with the higher forms of Hinduism. The Kol believe in a Supreme Deity, Bhagwan, but he is seen as a passive, distant entity. On the rare occasions when he must be approached, the Kol employ Brahmans to intercede on their behalf. Worship of Hindu deities and even of forces of nature is secondary to the worship of village and household gods (deotas) and goddesses (devis). These deities are believed to influence every aspect of life, and they are central to Kol religious life. They are too numerous to mention by name, but the one most frequently worshipped by the Kol is Khermai. She protects the village, wards off evil spirits, guards against disease, and helps the Kol in their business ventures. Other Kol deities include Shitalamai, the goddess of smallpox, Shardamai and her six sisters, and Gwalbansa Baba, a household god. Each village has its priest (panda), who officiates at religious ceremonies, performs sacrifices, and when possessed by the goddess becomes her mouthpiece. Animals (chickens, pigs, goats, and occasionally sheep) are offered as sacrifices to village and household deities. The Kol believe in magic and witchcraft, spirits and ghosts, and the evil eye.


The Kol observe Hindu festivals such as Holi, Dasahara, and Divali. The Jawara festival, however, appears to be an ancient Kol agricultural festival that later acquired some Hindu characteristics. The name is derived from the juari plant, a type of millet. Jawara is held twice a year, in the fall just before the sowing of the winter crop, and in the spring after it has been harvested. The festival lasts for nine days and is celebrated with feasting, singing, and dancing. People worship the village gods and sacrifice animals at their shrines. Jawara is a time when, it is believed, possession by spirits is common. The focus of the fall festival is the ritual growing of seedlings in the house, partly to predict the coming harvest and possibly as magic to ensure a good one.


The Kol have adopted Hindu life-cycle rituals, although older traditions are often apparent in their actual customs and practices. For instance, the Kol take precautions to protect mother and child from the influences of evil spirits. The Kol greatly fear the nightjar, a bird they believe drinks milk from the nursing mother's breast, sometimes causing the death of both baby and mother. Doors are kept closed and branches of the nim (margosa) tree are hung over the doorway to protect against the bird. The Chhatthi, or Sixth Day, ceremony marks the end of the period of impurity believed to follow childbirth. Other childhood ceremonies include the naming ceremony, the haircutting ceremony, and the first feeding ceremony. Girls have their ears and nose pierced and they are tattooed when they are between the ages of ten and twelve. No particular initiation rites mark the reaching of puberty, although girls are kept in seclusion during their first menstruation.

When a person is dying, he or she is usually placed on the ground so there is close contact with Mother Earth. The Kol utilize both burial and cremation in their funeral rites, which take place as soon as possible after a death. The body is carried to the burial ground or burning ghat in a procession. Lamentation and weeping are expected to occur, but there should be no singing, chanting, or music of any kind. Once at the place of burial, the body is washed, anointed with oil, and dressed in new white clothes. The grave is dug in a north-south direction, and the body is buried with its head toward the north. The feet point south because that is the direction in which the soul must travel to the land of the dead. If it is cremated, the body is aligned in the same direction on the funeral pyre. The ashes are to be scattered in a sacred river such as the Ganges or the Narmada. If this is not possible, they are placed in a "tank" (reservoir) or a stream, with a small amount kept to be taken to one of the holy rivers in the future. Various purification and mourning rites are carried out. These include the custom of "feeding the dead" for ten days, during which the spirit of the dead person is believed to return to familiar places. A feast on the tenth day (the ninth for a woman) ends the funeral observances.


The Kol greeting takes the form of an embrace. When two men meet, they put their arms around each other and touch the left shoulder to the left shoulder, and then the right to the right. Next they touch each other's knees, first the left and then the right, usually using both hands. As a final gesture, they grasp each other's right hand. Because their houses are small, the Kol do not entertain frequently. A visiting relative is given a place to sleep, eats with the family, and is made as comfortable as possible. Hospitality is usually not extended to or expected by strangers.


The traditional Kol village is set in a clearing in the forest and consists of a few houses built on either side of a winding pathway. Each village has its central shrine, an open platform built around the base of a tree, preferably a nim tree. There may also be shrines to other deities in other places in the village. The graveyard is located on the south side of the settlement. The boundaries of the village are usually not clearly defined.

Situated immediately in the front of each house, facing the path, is a small courtyard plastered with mud and cow dung. The houses themselves are rectangular and small, usually no more than a single room in which as many as five or six people may live. The walls are of grass or mud and the roof is thatched, although the better-off people have tiled roofs. There may be a small veranda, or porch, and a shed for cattle. One enters the house through a single door, and there are no windows. Inside the house, there is an area set aside for cooking, with a hearth, a stone mill, and a few cooking utensils. A large earthen jar holds grain, and baskets and discarded cans and bottles are used for storing other things. Furnishings are sparse. The Kol do not use beds and chairs, and they sleep on the floor on mattresses. One corner of the room is devoted to the household's shrine.


The Kol are divided into numerous subgroups called kurhis, which form the basic divisions of the tribe; people must marry within their own kurhi. There is little agreement on exactly how many kurhis there are, and the marriage rules are not always strictly observed. The Rautiya consider themselves to be the highest ranking kurhi. Some groups, such as the Rautiya, who are married by Brahman priests, are more Hinduized than others. Marriages are arranged (although elopement is possible), and brides usually come from outside the village. A bride-price is paid, although the dowry is now becoming common. Many of the rituals related to marriage appear to be borrowed from the Hindus. A man who can afford it may keep more than one wife. The nuclear family appears to the norm among the Kol, with households averaging four persons. The main duties of the wife are caring for the house, cooking food, and raising the children. In addition, she is expected to contribute to the family income by working for wages, gathering wood and so forth. Kol society permits divorce and the remarriage of widows.


Although in the past they may have worn little in the way of clothing, today Kol resemble their Hindu neighbors in dress. Men wear the dhoti, sometimes going bare-chested, sometimes with a kurta, or shirt. They sometimes wear a turban. The sari, worn with or without a bodice, or blouse, is the standard dress for women. Among the more Hinduized Kol, the end of the sari is used to cover the head. Women wear whatever necklaces, earrings and other jewelry as they can afford. They also often have tattoos on their bodies as another form of ornamentation. This is said to have some religious significance.


Like most villagers in India, the Kol have two meals a day, one around noon and the other late at night. Early in the morning, they may eat leftover chapatis or rice. There is little variation in the menu. A meal consist of rice or of chapatis made from wheat or millet, whichever is cheaper, with a small amount of vegetable curry and some dal. The vegetables include sag (leafy greens such as spinach), eggplant, pumpkin, potatoes, and certain roots and leaves gathered in the jungle. The Kol are not vegetarians, but the high cost of meat means that it is rarely eaten. Almost any animal flesh is consumed, although the Kola avoid beef in deference to Hindus and avoid carrion, because it is a food of the untouchable castes. Although the more Hinduized Kol avoid pork, a pig is sometimes sacrificed to the goddess at Kol festivals and then eaten ceremonially. The parrot, crow, sparrow, and kite (a hawklike bird) are never killed or eaten. The Kol use liquor at feasts and festivals; they buy it rather than distill it themselves.


In recent years, the Kol have begun to send their male children to school. However, dropout rates after the middle-school level are very high, and around half the Kol population (47.9%) do not have any formal schooling at all. Only 6.6% of Kols complete high school. The 2001 census showed a literacy rate for the Kol in Madhya Pradesh of only 35.9%. Literacy among males is considerably higher than for females (the census reports literacy among females to be 22.2%).


The Kol have a legacy of legend and tribal lore. But the highlight of Kol culture is a passion for music, song, and dance. The Kol use mainly percussion instruments such as drums and cymbals. Their songs include songs of worship (bhagats and bhajans), obscene songs performed at the Holi festivals, love songs, and songs to be sung at the time of childbirth, marriage, or other festive occasions. Dancing is also important at social events and festivals. Among the Kol, only the women dance, while the men play instruments and sing along with them. The dadra, accompanied by the appropriate songs, is the most popular of the Kol dances.


The Kol are mostly a landless people, and nearly three-quarters of them (70.4%) work as agricultural laborers for local landowning castes. Some work in factories, mines, quarries, and construction. A 2004 report by the International Labor Office in Geneva indicates that some Kols have lost their land, are in debt and serve as bonded labor. A few make a living by gathering forest products and wood for fuel. Rather than purchasing wood from forest department depots, merchants from Jabalpur recruited Kol tribals as suppliers of cheap illegal timber. Kol tribals, who are adapt at cutting timber, responded to this new economic activity with enthusiasm. Some members of Kol Lohar, a small Kol community in Orissa, follow their traditional occupation as blacksmiths.


No sports or games are known to be identified with the Kol community.


The main source of entertainment for the Kol is their festivals and the music, song, and dance that accompany religious and social celebrations.


Arts and crafts are poorly developed among the Kol. Their houses are occasionally decorated with crude paintings of peacocks and other figures, but these are also found on the houses of non-Kol peoples. There are no taboos associated with the peacock, and the designs appear to be purely decorative. The Kol seem to be lacking handicrafts of any sort: they make no baskets, cloth, ornaments, or musical instruments.


The Kol are designated a Scheduled Tribe, that is, a disadvantaged community recognized as needing special representation and assistance in the context of modern India. The greatest challenge facing the Kol is poverty and its related problems. The Kol possess little land, and the land they do own is relatively unproductive. Many live in conditions of near-starvation. The forests, once a major resource for the Kol, are increasingly subject to government restrictions on their use. Debt is widespread, and once they are in the hands of moneylenders, it is hard for the Kol to get out of debt. The attitude of caste Hindus toward the Kol has traditionally been a desire to dominate and exploit them. Many Kol have no health care facilities, or even basic amenities such as safe drinking water. Illiteracy and a lack of education make it extremely difficult for the Kol to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty in which they live.

Many Kols are landless. The government of India allows landless tribals who have been "squatting" on land for a period of time to be regularized under the new Recognition of Forest Rights Act of 2006. However, on 19 April 2008, in the remote Ghateha village in the Rewa district of the Madhya Pradesh, a large contingent of police and forest department personnel descended on some 1,500 landless tribal families who had settled on a stretch of land near the village and evicted them using firing and tear gas. The local group Birsa Munda Bhumi Adhikar Manch and activists of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers claimed that the settlers had been on this land since 2003, but local forest officials have denied this point, stating that the settlers had moved on the land only a month earlier. Landlessness and poverty, as well as lack of social assistance (such as welfare) and political representation, remain issues for the Kols.


As is the case with most tribal women in South Asia, Kol women are, except where they have been Hinduized, considerably freer than women in the Hindu societies amongst which they live. Although they are responsible for the household, experience arranged marriages, and suffer sometimes from child marriage, Kol society allows divorce and widow remarriage. Payment of a bride price, which is usually quite low, is more common than the dowry system found among Hindus.

However, partly as a result of the areas where they live and partly because women are expected to contribute to the household income, women have a low literacy rate and are generally limited access to education and health facilities.

Tribal women are specifically targeted by the Madhya Pradesh Government's District Poverty Initiatives Project (DPIP). The DPIP takes affirmative action in favor of tribal people within project structures and processes at the village, district, and state levels, focuses on activities of immediate relevance and importance to the income security and livelihood portfolios of tribal people in villages and makes strategic linkages with development organizations working with tribals and development programs or opportunities specifically addressing the needs of tribal men and women. Kols are one of the major tribes represented in Rewa, Panna, and Sidhi Districts, which fall under the DPIP scheme.

The critical role women play in collecting and processing forest products and the contribution of their activities to the household economy means that local governments are becoming increasingly aware of the need for their participation in the success of forest management projects. The government of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, has made provisions for women's representation on certain executive committees. However, many of the activities under joint forest management (JFM) in Jabalpur District, in Madhya Pradesh State, actually operate against women. (Joint forest management [JFM] is a system adopted by the government of India in 1990, in which forestry departments and local communities share both responsibilities related to forest management and benefits in terms of the proceeds.) Most non-timber forest products (NTFP) collection is conducted by women, but their efforts are disproportionately taxed under the JFM scheme.

Part of the proceeds of JFM are placed in a collective fund that is used as a source of credit to villagers, lending money to them at up to 5% lower interest than the local money lenders. The fund is a source of pride for many villagers and is used to construct temples and make purchases, such as musical instruments, for the community as a whole. But as yet the collective fund has not provided any specific benefits to Kol women, and the purchase of cooking utensils for providing meals for community gatherings has in fact increased their costs. Although gender inequity may not endanger the JFM process in the short term, if the concerns of women—and in particular Kol women—are not addressed, this could lead to disproportionate costs being shouldered by this segment of the community and consequently the creation of a dynamic that facilitates the rejection of both conservation and equity goals.


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Hasan, Amir. The Kols of Patha. Allahabad, India: Kitab Mahal, 1972.

Pandey, G. D. and Tiwary, R. S. "Impact of Migration on KAP and MCH of Family Welfare Service: A Study on the Kol Tribe of Madhya Pradesh." In Tribal Situation and Development in Central India. ed. S. K. Tiwari. Delhi: MD Publications, 1995.

Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal. "Kol." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India. Vol. 3., pp. 500-519. London: Macmillan, 1916.

Singh, Pramod. "Tribal Women: A Case Study of Kol Tribe of Patha Area of Manikpur and Mau Blocks of Banda District." In Rural Reconstruction Ecosystem and Forestry. ed. Pramod Singh. Delhi: MD Publications, 1993.

Singh, K. S. ed. Peoples of India: Maharashtra. Part Two. Vol. XXX. Bombay: Anthropological Survey of India and Popular Prakashan, 2004.

—by D. O. Lodrick