ALTERNATE NAMES: Khond; Kondh; Kandha; Ku (self-reference)
LOCATION: India (Orissa region)
POPULATION: 1.8 million (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Kui; Kuvi
RELIGION: Animism; small number of Christians
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India
The Konds are a tribal group found in the hills and jungles of Orissa in eastern India. The name Kond (also Khond, Kondh, or Kandha) translates as "mountaineer" and probably comes from the Dravidian word konda meaning "hill." The Konds refer to themselves in their own tongue as Ku.
Several theories have been put forward to explain the origins of the Konds. The Konds themselves believe they originated in Orissa and have always lived in their present location. Based on this, some scholars have argued that the Konds are remnants of the pre- Dravidian aboriginal population of the subcontinent who have survived subsequent Dravidian and Aryan invasions because of their physical isolation. Another theory sees the Konds as Dravidians who were pushed back into the hills by Aryan invaders as they occupied the fertile coastal plains of eastern India. Still another view proposes that the Konds were a Dravidian tribe from South India who were expelled by superior agricultural peoples and settled in their current locale around 500 BC.
Today, Konds fall into two broad divisions. The Hill or Maliah Konds, who are numerically the dominant group, inhabit the interior uplands and have retained much of their original tribal culture. The Plains Konds have had extended contact with the Oriya-speaking peoples of the lowlands and have adopted many aspects of Hindu religion and culture. The Kond tribe has a number of sub-tribes, for instance, the Dongria, Kovi, Kuttia, Languli, Penga, and Jharnia. Raj Konds are virtually a caste or sub-caste of Konds who are landowners.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The 2001 Census of India records just over 1.4 million Konds in Orissa. Currently this figure is closer to 1.5 million of the nearly 1.8 million Konds in the country. The Kond population is concentrated in the southern hills of the state and the Mahanadi River basin, and some are also found in the Srikakulam, Vizianagaram, and Visakhapatnam districts of the neighboring Andhra Pradesh State. The Eastern Ghats in southern Orissa form a hilly tract up to 200 km (125 mi) wide. The land varies between 450 m and 900 m (1,500–3,000 ft) in altitude, with a maximum elevation of 1,515 m (4,970 ft) near the headwaters of the Nagavali River. The rugged hills, expanses of trackless jungle, forests, and deep water courses of the region provided a safe refuge in which the Konds were able to preserve their traditional way of life relatively untouched by outsiders (until recently). The climate is typical of India, with a winter cold season, summer hot season, and monsoonal rains from mid-June to September. Higher altitudes experience lower temperatures than do the neighboring coastal plains. Annual rainfall varies between 120 cm and 160 cm (47–63 in).
Konds speak a language called Kui and its southern dialect, Kuvi.These belong to the Dravidian language family and have strong similarities to Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. The language has no script of its own, with the Oriya script used for writing Kui, and the Telugu script used for Kuvi. Some Konds speak only Oriya, having lost all knowledge of their mother tongue. Other Konds are bilingual, speaking Oriya or other regional languages in addition to the Kond language. In more remote areas, people may speak only Kui or Kuvi.
A mythical account of Kond origins relates that, once upon a time, the ground was all wet, and there were only two females on earth. They were named Karaboodi and Tharthaboodi, and each was blessed with a single male child. The two children were named Kasarodi and Singarodi. All of these individuals had sprung up from the interior of the earth. They depended for their existence on two plants, called nangakoocha and badokoocha, which had also sprung up from the earth's interior. Subsequently, the wet soil dried up, and from it all kinds of animals and trees came into existence. Kasarodi and Singarodi were given in marriage to the two daughters of Buru Pennu, the supreme being and Creator God of the Konds. The Konds believe that they are the children resulting from this union.
Kond religion is animistic in nature. The Sun is worshiped as Bura Pennu, the chief of the Kond deities and the source of all good in the world. Tari Pennu, the Earth-Goddess, is his consort, though she later became the source of all evil. All the Kond deities (Pennu) are said to be descended from Bura Pennu and Tari Pennu, who are also responsible for creating the universe and all that is in it. The gods and goddesses are believed to be very sensitive to neglect, disobedience, and violation of taboos. They react by ruining a crop, sending a tiger to attack cattle, or making the offender sick. They have to be propitiated by blood-offerings, and so sacrifice is an integral part of Kond religion. Priests officiate at sacrificial rituals, which in former times included human victims as well as animal ones. The Meriah or human sacrifice was stamped out by the British in the late 19th century.
Worship of the spirits of dead ancestors is also an important aspect of traditional Kond religion. Contact with Hindu peoples has led the Konds to adopt Hindu deities into their pantheon. For instance, Kali and Durga are worshiped in a variety of guises, but always with the sacrifice of buffaloes, goats, or fowl. Christian missionary activity among the Konds is reflected in the roughly 3% of the population who claim the Christian faith.
Important festivals (jatras) are celebrated to mark events such as the gathering of the new bean crop in November (Semi Jatra) or the beginning of the rice harvest in September (Chawal Dhuba Jatra). All important festivals are accompanied by animal sacrifice. Following the suppression of the Meriah human sacrifice, the Konds accepted buffaloes as substitute victims. Thus the Meriah festival, which is held between March and May, is still celebrated with buffaloes sacrificed as an offering to the Earth Goddess.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Rites of passage are occasions of ceremony and solemnity among the Konds. The birth of a child is cause for celebration (although some Kond groups practiced infanticide until this was suppressed by the British). A few days before the expected delivery date, husband and wife leave the house and move to a separate room specially built for the purpose. In the case of a first confinement, the husband or his father sacrifices a pig and offers rice and strong drinks to the spirits of the ancestors so that nothing goes wrong. After birth, the cord is cut and the placenta buried near the house. Among the Kuttia Konds of the interior hills, the head of an arrow is used to cut the cord of a male child. Birth rituals include smearing the infant with paste made from oil and turmeric until she or he reaches one month old. Many Konds name children after one of their ancestors, although how the name is selected varies from group to group. In the Kuttia Kond ritual, the father or a priest holds a bunch of leaves while reciting the name of the child's ancestors. When the baby touches the leaves, it is felt that the soul of the ancestor whose name is being spoken at the time enters the child's body, and the infant takes on that name.
The Konds feel that death is not the direct responsibility of Bura Pennu, but rather is caused by Jomereri Pennu, evil spirits, or through a person's sorcery and witchcraft. Corpses are burnt, although infants, women who died in childbirth, and those who die of smallpox or cholera are usually buried. Funeral rites include the sacrifice of buffaloes and pigs, dancing, feasting, and drinking.
The Konds believe that the first duty imposed on them by the gods was hospitality. Any neglect of this duty, violation of an oath, or denial of a debt is seen as sinful and likely to bring down divine retribution through poverty, disease, and even death.
Konds build their villages on the slopes of valleys, overlooking their cultivated fields. The houses usually form two rows, built along a curved road and closed at both ends by strong wooden barriers for defense. At the center of the village is a cotton tree, planted by the priest and dedicated to the village. Houses or huts are rectangular in shape, with the walls made of timber and plastered over with mud. The floor is of hardened dirt, and the low roof is built of bamboo thatched with grass. The huts are small, consisting mostly of one room, which is shared with the livestock. Furnishings are sparse, with the occupants sleeping on wooden cots or reed mats. Only the father, mother, and younger children sleep in the house. Around the age of eight or so, Kond girls and boys leave home to live in segregated village dormitories under the supervision of an elderly female. As in many tribal societies, the dormitory system lends itself to a somewhat casual attitude to premarital sex among Kond youth.
Konds are divided into exogamous clans, each of which claim descent from a common ancestor. As a rule, these groups inhabit villages in a limited geographical area. All the families in a village may be members of a subclan, which are commonly named after their totems. These may be plants, animals, or natural objects. Typical names of subclans are Hikoka (horse), Kelka (kingfisher), and Kadam (a tree). The Konds are a warlike people, and in the past clans were continually fighting one another. Conflicts were usually over land or women. Various eyewitness accounts are available of Kond battles in the 19th century.
The Kond family is typically patrilineal and nuclear in structure. Women are highly respected and are entitled to almost the same privileges as are men. Women manage the household, plant and weed the rice paddies, and raise the young, but they are also consulted before decisions are made in domestic affairs. Women attend the village council, where they can voice their opinion on matters relating to community affairs. Wives are acquired in several ways—by mutual consent, by purchase, by elopement, by capture, or through an arranged marriage to which both parties consent. Kond marriage rituals show the assimilation of many Hindu customs into traditional tribal practices. Both divorce and widow remarriage are permitted.
The traditional dress of Kond men is a long cloth, a few inches wide, that is wrapped around the waist and drawn between the legs. The ends of the garment are brightly colored, and hang down at the back like a tail. Although the head is left bare, the hair is oiled and combed and tied into an elaborate knot. The feathers of the peacock, blue jay, or white crane, colored combs, and ornamental hairpins are used to adorn the hair. Women wear a short skirt reaching from the waist to the knee, leaving the breasts bare. Married women have their ears pierced in 8 to 10 places and wear the corresponding number of earrings. A variety of necklaces, bangles, and anklets complete the ensemble. Men also wear jewelry. Girls of marriageable age have designs tattooed on the face, arms, and legs.
Rice is the staple food of the Konds. It is eaten with lentils and with wild leafy vegetables gathered in the jungle. The diet is rather bland compared to the spicy curries eaten by other peoples in India. Konds are nonvegetarian, eating eggs, chicken, buffalo, goat, pork, and even beef. The Konds do not use milk. Wild game is hunted in the forest to supplement the diet. Konds enjoy alcohol, drinking rice-beer, sago palm toddy, or liquor made from mahua flowers (Bassia latifolia).
Access to educational facilities has always been a problem for Konds living in the remote interior of the Eastern Ghats. Although some 30% of Kond children attend government schools today, many drop out because of economic hardship and the need to help support their families. The drop-out rate by Grade 5 is close to 80%. Literacy among Konds is low, with the rates (2001) among the Dongria Konds, who live in the Niyamgiri ranges of Orissa, being 29% for men and 14% for women, respectively. Yet, as noted elsewhere, many Kond are bilingual, speaking the local dialect as well as Kui.
Music, song, and dance play an important role in traditional Kond culture. Instruments include trumpets, drums, and the shepherd's pipe. The deka, a two-stringed violin made with a bamboo stick and gourd, provides the musical accompaniment as the poet sings, or rather chants, the verses. There are songs for every occasion—love songs, songs to be sung on the eve of the Meriah sacrifice, at marriages, at the time of plowing, and at the time of death. Of greater importance is the Kond dance. Every village has a place set aside for dancing. In a dance of the Kuttia Konds, boys and girls stand in a row facing each other. They link arms and shuffle back and forth in time to the music, getting more agitated and excited as the tempo of the dance quickens. Konds arm themselves with weapons for the war dance, in which they mimic a battle scene. In a hunting dance, a man wearing the horns and skin of a wild animal is chased and captured by a party of "hunters." Dancing accompanies festivals, marriages, and other important events and may continue day and night until the dancers are exhausted.
Although originally hunters and gatherers, most Konds are now engaged in agriculture. They practice shifting cultivation, as well as settled cultivation and animal husbandry. Rice, maize (corn), and pulses are important food crops, while turmeric, mustard seed, and legumes are grown as cash crops. Many Konds work as agricultural laborers, while some still hunt or gather forest products such as teak. Of particular interest are the relationships of the Konds with the Panas and Doms. These are peoples who live in the Kond hill country, sometimes even in Kond villages, who act as traders, money-lenders, and intermediaries between the Konds and the Hindus. They also carry out certain ritual functions, which the Konds are forbidden to perform themselves.
In the past, Konds sacrificed humans for the good of the crops, though today buffalo are substituted for humans in this blood sacrifice. The practice of human sacrifice, which occurred until the middle of the nineteenth century, was stamped out by the British.
The Konds are fond of hunting, using bows and arrows and battle-axes as their weapons. They are skilled at tracking and pursuing deer and other large game.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Konds find their entertainment in their festivals and the singing, dancing, and revelry that accompanies their celebration of social occasions.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Kond folk arts include tattooing, the carving of hairpins and similar objects out of animal bone, and jewelry-making. Konds are known for their skill in creating figures of animals and people out of brass and bronze. Other examples of Kond art are masks carved out of wood or gourds, elaborately carved wooden pillars formerly used in the Meriah sacrifice, and carvings on the doors of Kond houses.
As a tribal people inhabiting some of the more isolated hills and jungles of eastern India, the Konds are typical of the country's many underdeveloped communities. They are classified by the governments of Orissa and other states as a Scheduled Tribe and as such are deemed in need of special help in overcoming their economic and social problems. While social evils of the past, e.g., infanticide and human sacrifice, have long been abandoned, other tribal customs have survived. Today, many Konds are landless and locked in a cycle of poverty and illiteracy from which escape is difficult. The community remains socially marginalized and essentially isolated from the social and economic gains that Indian society in general has achieved since the time of independence.
Orissa has abundant mineral resources, and a major social issue for the Dongria Konds in the Niyamgiri ranges is the intrusion of mining companies into traditional Kond territory. Even though construction of refineries creates jobs and advances the local economy, Konds object to the accompanying pollution and destruction of their pristine, and sometimes, sacred lands (the Konds worship the Nyamgiri Mountains as a living deity). Thus, in 2004, in anticipation of official permission being granted by the Indian government, a bauxite company constructed a refinery in the Niyamgiri hills, which contains an estimated 73 million tons of bauxite. The 10,000 tribal Konds who live in the area view the plan to mine bauxite in their territory as a threat to their way of life. Conservationists predict the bauxite mine will pollute the eco-sensitive Niyamgiri hills, causing mass displacement and the end of a traditional livelihood based on farming millet and beans, hunting and gathering fruits. In the past decade, more than 1.4 million Indians have been removed from 10 million acres of land in four states to pave the way for industry and infrastructure projects, according to a recent report by ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency. Kond tribals made the trip to Orissa's state capital, Bhubaneshwar, in eastern Orissa to lobby state officials. The establishment of the refinery was taken all the way to the usually business-friendly Supreme Court of India, which rejected the mining company's proposal and fined it for "blatant violation" of the law, but also invited it submit another proposal, which included environmental safeguards and channeling some of the operation's profits into tribal welfare. NGOs are skeptical of this, saying similar safeguards have been enacted before, but are rarely implemented. Vedanta, the company involved, says that it is giving tribals more generous compensation than the law requires, has built rehabilitation camps for the displaced villagers, and that much of the area's water sources and rare plants and animals will be protected.
Vedanta Alumina's plans hit another snag at the end of 2007 when environmentalists filed an intervener petition with the Supreme Court, highlighting the plight of the local Dongria Konds. However, even though a ban on mining has been sought in view of social, cultural, religious, and ethnic rights of Dongria Kondhs and also their livelihood, which protected under Article 21 and other provisions of the Constitution, related laws and international conventions to preserve tribal communities, the project has commenced "trial production," although it is yet to be granted a mining lease in Kalahandi, pending decision in the Supreme Court. The state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation intends to mine 3 million tons of bauxite annually to sell the same to Vedanta, its joint venture partner, for its alumina refinery at Lanjigarh and smelter plant at Jharsuguda. In September 2004 the ministry of environment and forests had granted environmental clearance for the refinery, but the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), appointed by the Supreme Court, noted that the clearance was obtained by concealing material particulars, principally that no forest land was involved in the project whereas about 660 hectares of forest land was involved.
Similar situations arise elsewhere in Orissa and also in neighboring mineral-rich Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar, with protests by tribals often turning violent and involving fatalities.
Local agencies such as the Dongria Kond Development Agency (DKDA) and the Kutia Kond Development Agency are involved in representing the Konds on local tribal and environmental issues.
As with many tribal groups, women among the Kond are respected and are virtually on an equal footing with men, even though Kond society is patriarchal. Divorce is allowed, as is widow remarriage. Even with arranged marriages, both parties must give their consent. Kond girls are tattooed on their face at 10 years of age—if they do not submit to this, they are viewed as unsuitable for marriage. Although child marriage was common among some Kond groups, real gender issues are to be found among plains groups that have come into close contact with their Hindu neighbors and adopted many of their customs, such as demanding dowries at the time of marriage.
Another problem for Kond women arises from displacement and loss of traditional land due to mining activities. Not only have there been deaths among the menfolk, but in the post-displacement landscape, women and girls often end up working for daily wages or as domestic helps or prostitutes. The women also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.
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Boal, Barbara M. The Konds: Human Sacrifice and Religious Change. Warminster: Aris & Philips, 1982.
———. "Kond Ritual Practices and Prayers: Conservation and Change," Journal of Indian Folklorestics, vol. 2, 1979: 89-110.
Padel, Felix. The Sacrifice of Human Being: British Rule and the Konds of Orissa. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Patnaik, Nihar Ranjan. History and Culture of Khond Tribes. New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers, 1992.
Sharma, Krishnan. The Khonds of Orissa. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1979.
—by D. O. Lodrick