ETHNONYMS: Dhangad, Dhangar, Dhanka ("farmworker"), Kisan, Kuda, Kurukh, Kurunkh, Orao, Uraon
The Oraons are one of the largest tribes in South Asia, numbering 1,702,663 persons at the 1971 census. About half of them live in Bihar, mainly on the Chota Nagpur Plateau; the remainder are in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and West Bengal. They speak a Dravidian language known as Kurukh. Oraons are closely related to the neighboring Munda tribe, and the headman of an Oraon village is called munda.
Although there are no subcastes among the Oraons, the Kudas ("navvies") and Kisans ("cultivators"), having their distinct occupations, tend to marry among themselves. Beyond this, Oraons observe village and clan exogamy. The patrilineal extended family is the ideal residential unit, but Nuclear families are nearly as common. On the average a family contains five to seven coresident members.
Boys and girls marry after puberty, boys usually at 16-20 years. This follows a period in which both sexes sleep in a youth dormitory (dhumkuria ). Boys are branded on the arm before being admitted to this institution. The dormitory provides a pool of agricultural labor that can be hired when necessary. Most Oraons are farmers, and in the past they practiced shifting cultivation. Hunting, formerly of major importance, has been reduced during the present century to the status of a ceremonial event; there is even a women's hunting ceremony, held every twelve years.
Although a small minority of the tribe are Christians, the great majority follow a Hindu form of worship. Their main deities are local, non-Sanskritic ones, such as Chandi, Chauthia, Dadgo Burhia, Gaon Deoti, and Jair Budhi, names one does not encounter elsewhere in India.
A remarkable feature of Oraon society is that it is one of the very few on earth (along with the neighboring Mundas and Marias) that practices human sacrifice (called otanga or orka by Oraons). Although extremely rare, evidence suggests the phenomenon is most prevalent in Ranchi District, Bihar. During the nineteenth century, British officials reported a much broader incidence, occurring among the Munda, Oraon, Gond, Kond, and Santal tribes.
Police records show that even as late as the 1980s there were a couple of sacrifices a year among the Munda, Maria, and Oraon tribes, and perhaps slightly more if one assumes that not all cases reached police attention. These sacrifices are of course illegal and are treated as homicide under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. Detection of culprits is made very difficult by the fact that some villagers believe the Sacrifices are essential for the fertility of their fields, and hence they are not forthcoming with any information. The human sacrifices usually occur in remote places around the Beginning of the sowing season and the associated festival of Sarhul. The reasons police can distinguish these sacrifices from other forms of murder are several: (1) the timing, to coincide with the sowing ceremony; (2) the victim is often an orphan or a homeless person, someone who will not be missed; (3) usually no personal animosities can account for the killing; (4) the victim's throat is cut with a knife; (5) signs of puja (worship) are normally found near the corpse; and (6) part of one little finger has been cut off and is missing. This last item is presumably a part of the human offering that the sacrificer (otanga) will bury in his field. Sometimes blood of the sacrificial victim is mixed with seed grain before it is sown. In earlier centuries the entire body was probably cut up and parceled out to the various fields around a village. The danger of detection now makes this too difficult. The sacrifice is normally offered to a vindictive goddess thought to control the fertility of the soil. If a human victim cannot be caught in time for the sowing ceremony, it is said that hair, sputum, or some other human bodily leavings are mixed with hen's blood as a token offering to this goddess.
See also Munda
Hermanns, Matthias (1973). Die Oraon. Die religiös-magische Weltanschanung der Primitivstämme Indiens, no. 3. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.
Roy, Sarat Chandra (1915). The Oraon of Chota Nagpur. Calcutta: Brahmo Mission Press.
Roy, Sarat Chandra (1928). Oraon Religion and Custom. Ranchi: Man in India Office.
Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). Oraon." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, edited by R.V. Russell and Hira Lal. Vol. 4, 299-321. London: Macmillan. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.
Sachchidananda (1963). "Some Recent Evidence of Human Sacrifice." In Anthropology on the March: Recent Studies of Indian Beliefs, Attitudes, and Social Institutions, edited by L. K. Bala Ratnam, 344-351. Madras: The Book Centre.
Sachchidananda (1964). Culture Change in Tribal Bihar: Munda and Oraon. Calcutta: Bookland Private Limited.