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ALTERNATE NAMES: Uraons; Kurukh, Dhangar
LOCATION: India (primarily Bihar, Orissa, a and Madhya Pradesh states)
POPULATION: Nearly 3.5 million (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Kurukh; Hindi; other languages of regions in which they live
RELIGION: Mixture of magic, animism, and elements of Hinduism; Christianity


The Oraons (Uraons) are one of the five largest tribes in South Asia. They live in the forested uplands of east-central India, occupying the Chota Nagpur region of Jharkhand and adjoining states. Scholars have speculated that they migrated there in the distant past from the Konkan coast of South India. In the centuries preceding the Christian era, the Oraons were established around Rohtas, to the northwest of their present home. According to their own traditions, the Oraons were forced out of their lands by invading peoples and migrated to Chota Nagpur, where they settled among the Munda tribes of the area. Historians indicate this may have occurred around 100 BC.

The origins of the name "Oraon" are unclear. Some Oraons say that the name is derived from Ur (chest), because they believe they were born of the blood from the chest of a holy man. Many see the name as a disparaging one given by caste-conscious Hindus who considered the tribe to be unclean. The Oraons themselves use the name "Kurukh," possibly after a mythical Oraon king called Karakh.

Oraons are, as a rule, short of stature and dark-complexioned, broad-nosed, and thick-lipped. They are considered to be of Proto-Australoid stock, descended from a race that influenced the peoples and cultures of a wide area of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the islands of Polynesia. In South Asia, the Proto-Australoids form an old, pre-Dravidian element in the population. The physical traits associated with this group are found among tribal peoples and also, to varying degrees, among the lower castes of the Hindu populations of peninsular India.


Population estimates of the Oraon are clearly unreliable. The Joshua Project estimates that Kurukh speakers in India number around 4,390,000 people while Oraons in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan would bring this total to close to 4.5 million. However, by totaling the Oraon populations in the states where they were found for the 2001 Census of India, and allowing for a natural increase in the region of 1.7% per year, this figure is estimated to be closer to 3.5 million people. Part of the confusion may be that in some states the Oraons are called Dhangar, Kisan, or Kuda. So, the total population of Oraons numbers between 3.5 and 4.5 million people. The creation of the new Indian states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in 2000 resulted in the inclusion of over one million Oraon in each state, thus giving them greater political representation. In addition to Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Oraons are also found in neighboring areas of Orissa and in Madhya Pradesh State. In Madhya Pradesh, they are also known as Dhanka and Dhangad. Numbers of Oraons have migrated from their homeland to areas of West Bengal, with many settling in Jalpaiguri District in the north. A few Oraon live in Tripura State and Assam in northeastern India, where their ancestors were taken in the early 20th century to work as laborers on tea plantations.

Chota Nagpur, the homeland of the Oraons, is the name given to the northeastern section of the great peninsular mass of India known as the Deccan (literally the "South"). In Jharkhand, the Deccan pushes north and east towards the Himalayas, constricting the alluvial plains of the Ganges River to their narrowest extent. The Ganges flows from west to east across Bihar, but once the river leaves the state it turns southeast towards its delta in the Bay of Bengal.

The Chota Nagpur region lies south of the Ganges plains, extending eastwards from the River Son, a tributary of the Ganges, to the lowlands of West Bengal. The terrain assumes the aspect of open plateaus and steep-sided, mesa-like hills between 300 m and 760 m (approximately 1,000–2,200 ft), surmounted by peaks reaching as high as 1,505 m (3,445 ft). Though much of the area has been cleared for cultivation, extensive areas of forest remain. These vary from scrub jungles to denser subtropical and tropical deciduous forests. Rainfall averages between 120 cm and 160 cm (47–62 in) and is received mostly during the three months of the summer monsoon. Humidity is high during the summer, with maximum temperatures varying between 35°c and 40°c (95°F–104°F).


The Oraons' language is Kurukh, which is a member of the northern subgroup of the Dravidian language family. However, many Oraons are bilingual or even multilingual. Th ey use Hindi, the widely spoken language of northern India, or Shadri, a local dialect, to communicate with non-Oraon groups. Oraons living in other parts of northern India commonly speak the language of the region in which they live. Thus Bengali, Oriya (the language of Orissa), and Assamese, in addition to lesser dialects, are all reported as second languages spoken by Oraons.

As with many tribal groups, the Oraons originally had no written form of language. (The Oraons themselves believe that at one time they did possess a script but that it was lost during one of the many crises in their history). The Oraons now write in Devanagari, which is the script used by Sanskrit, Hindi, and some related Aryan languages.


Oraon folk tradition tells of how the tribe was driven out of the ancient kingdom of Rohtas (called Ruidas in Kurukh). For many years, so the story goes, the Kurus had attempted to dislodge the Oraons from Ruidas but had never been able to defeat them in open combat. So the Kurus sent a milkmaid into the fort to gain intelligence. When she returned, the spy informed the Kurus that if they attacked while the Oraons were celebrating the Xaddi (Sarhul) festival, the men would be drunk on rice-beer. The plan worked and when the Kurus attacked, all the Oraon men were intoxicated and asleep. But the women, led by Princess Singi Dai, dressed up as men and repeatedly fought off the invaders. It was not until the Kurus discovered that they were fighting women that they succeeded in capturing the fort.

Many Oraons were killed, but one man sobered up and managed to escape. He fled, pursued by Kuru warriors, until he reached Chota Nagpur. The region was already inhabited by the Munda tribe. On reaching a village, the fugitive begged for help from some Mundas who were about to sit down and eat a cow they had just slaughtered. The Mundas told the Oraon that if he threw away the "sacred thread" he was wearing and joined them in their meal, they would protect him from the Kurus. The Oraon remained in Chota Nagpur, and it is his descendants who live in the land to this day.

The ending of this tale is of interest in the Indian social context. High-caste Hindus wear the sacred thread and do not eat meat. By discarding the sacred thread and eating the Mundas' food, the Oraon was essentially abandoning his caste status. Also, commensal relations (the willingness to eat with people of a particular caste or group) are a symbol of social status in India. People will not take food with others whom they see as socially inferior. By dining with the Mundas, the Oraon was, in effect, accepting them as his equals. This is how the Oraons explain their low standing in the social hierarchy of the Chota Nagpur region. It is also worth noting that the Oraons and Mundas have coexisted for centuries and share many cultural traits.


Oraons follow a Hindu form of worship, although their deities are non-Sanskritic, that is to say, they are not found in the sacred Sanskrit texts of Hinduism. Many of their gods, e.g., Chandi, Chauthia, Dadgo Burhia, Gaon Deoti, and Jair Budhi, are local in character and are not found anywhere else in India. Oraon religion can best be described as a mixture of magic, traditional animistic beliefs and practices, and elements of Hinduism.

The Oraons recognize the existence of a supreme being, symbolized by the sun and known as Dharmes. Dharmes is the master of all that exists in the universe and controls the fate of all beings, both physical and spiritual. Beneath Dharmes, there is an array of lesser deities, nature spirits, the souls of dead ancestors, evil ghosts, and impersonal forces of good and evil. Elements of totemism (belief in an ancestral relationship with plants, animals, and other objects) and shamanism (belief that the spiritual world can be manipulated through a shaman) complete the belief system of the Oraons.

The world of lesser deities and spirits is divided into several categories. First, there are the ancestor spirits, souls of departed relatives who protect the living during illness and guard them from mischievous spirits. Ancestor spirits are honored every year at the Harbora ("Bone-drowning") ceremony. At this time, the bones of every Oraon who died during the previous year are laid to rest. Second, there are the tutelary deities (deotas) and spirits (bhuts) of the village. These include the benign Chala Pachcho, a popular goddess who protects the village and is sometimes known as Gaon Deoti. Pat or Pat Raja is the master of all the village spirits. In this role, he protects the village from disease and other misfortune. In addition, there are six or seven other categories of spirits ranging from Chandi, a goddess of hunting and war, to various household spirits.

Stray spirits that haunt the village have to be driven off by exorcism. This is undertaken not by the village priest (pahan) but by diviners who identify the malevolent spirits, and sha-mans who exorcise them. "Black" magic is known, but its practitioners are feared and detested. They are punished or driven from the village when they are discovered. Oraons also believe in the "evil eye" (najar) and the "evil mouth" (baibhak), both of which can bring misfortune to their victims.

Many deities and spirits, including the ancestor spirits, are honored or propitiated by the sacrifice of animals. A white fowl or goat is the appropriate offering to Dharmes, the supreme deity. Buffalo, sheep, and pigs are also used as sacrificial victims. The actual sacrifice is carried out by the village priest and his assistants. These offices can be hereditary or elective. The priests are usually Oraons, but in some villages they may be from another tribe, such as the Mundas or Baigas.

One unusual feature of traditional Oraon religion is human sacrifice, a custom also found among the neighboring Gond and Munda tribes. S. C. Roy (1928) writes that the sacrifice was performed by the Oraons to appease a powerful village spirit, who would otherwise bring terrible epidemics and destruction to the villagers. Others suggest the offering was made to a vindictive goddess who controlled the fertility of the soil. In some instances, parts of the victim's body were buried in the fields and the blood mixed with seed to ensure a good harvest. Human sacrifice was widely reported among the tribes of the region during the 19th century. Though it is now rare and is considered to be murder by the government, human sacrifice may occasionally take place. Killings are occasionally reported to the police that have all the telltale signs of ritual sacrifice.

Oraon religion has clearly been influenced by Hinduism. The purely Hindu name Bhagwan is sometimes used to refer to Dharmes, perhaps because he shares many attributes of the Hindu supreme deity. Mahadeo (literally, "Great God"), which is a name Hindus use for Shiva, has become an Oraon village deity. The village goddess Devi Mai ("Goddess Mother") is the Hindu mother-goddess who has been absorbed into the Oraon pantheon, complete with her Hindu name. Although the Oraons build no temples for their own gods, they erect a thatch structure over Devi Mai's shrine as they have seen done by their Hindu neighbors. In the Oraon myth of origin, the wife of the supreme deity is sometimes called Parvati (consort of the Hindu god Shiva) or Sita (consort of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu). In addition, many Hindu religious festivals have been introduced into the Oraon festival calendar.

There are a number of Hinduized cults, known as bhagats, found within traditional Oraon society. The earliest of these date back to perhaps the 18th century ad. Their members have abandoned rituals, such as sacrifice to the spirits or village deities, and have taken up vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, and other Hindu customs. Some use the services of Brahmans for social and ceremonial purposes. They usually will not marry with non-Hindu Oraons. The Kabirpanthi sect (followers of the 15th-century Hindu reformer Kabir) and the Tana Bhagat are two of the more important of these Hindu groups among the Oraons. Census returns show that nearly 60% of Oraons are now Hindu.

Christianity, too, has its followers among the Oraons. Christian missionary activity was discouraged by the East India Company, which administered British possessions in India until 1858. Missionary groups were admitted in the early 19th century, but they met with little success in established Hindu or Muslim society. It was among the tribal peoples of the sub-continent that their work flourished. The first converts among the Oraons were made in 1850. Census returns in Jharkhand show Christians make up about a quarter of the Oraon population, while the figure for the total Oraon population amounts to 23.66% Christian and 62.32% Hindu, with 13.93% following the ethnic (i.e. original) religion. Conversions of Oraons to Christianity have continued, even though states such as Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh have laws on the books against proselytizing.


The most important festival of the Oraons is the Sarhul festival, the Feast of the Sal Blossoms (the sal is a tree widely used in India for its timber). It is held in the spring when the sal trees are flowering and is, in reality, a spring agricultural festival celebrating a renewal of vegetation growth. Among the rituals associated with the Sarhul are the invocation of the ancestor spirits and a ceremonial procession to the village's sacred grove, where animals are sacrificed to Gaon Deoti and other gods and spirits. After feasting on the flesh of the sacrificed animals, the entire village gathers to sing and dance through the night. Rice-beer is drunk and loose sexual behavior, which is believed to stimulate the fertility of the earth, is permitted.

A unique tribal festival celebrated by Oraon women once every twelve years is the Mukka Sendra (also known as Janni Shikar). Supposedly celebrated in memory of the role of women in the defense of Rohtasgarh against the Afghans, women of the tribe dress up as males, wear turbans, and equip themselves with arrows, sticks, spears, axes, or any convenient tool that may prove handy during a daylong hunt when they are entitled to kill any animal, anywhere, and carry it back home. No one is concerned about the ownership, nor can one complain about his pet being killed or carried away. Armed women hunters move from village to village in search of prey.

The former importance of hunting in Oraon life is seen in the Oraon hunting festivals. These are religious ceremonies, dedicated to Chandi, the goddess of the hunt, that are accompanied by hunting expeditions and are held several times a year. They are performed to secure an abundant harvest through the magical influence of a successful hunt.

Other festivals observed by the Oraons have been adopted from the Hindus, although Oraon elements have been added to them. The celebration that marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, called Phagu by the Oraons, is really a Hindu festival. But it has been combined with the important ceremonial spring hunt. The Sohorai festival is a cattle festival that has been adopted from the Ahirs, a local Hindu pastoral caste. Similarly, the Karam and Jitia festivals are agricultural festivals borrowed by the Oraons from their Hindu neighbors.


Oraon society believes that gods and spirits influence every aspect of an individual's life. It is necessary, therefore, to maintain good relationships with them, especially at the time of major life events, such as birth, marriage, and death. This may be ensured by performing the appropriate rites and ceremonies.

A pregnant woman must restrict her activities to avoid the attention of evil spirits or the evil eye. During a first pregnancy, a sacrifice is performed to sever a woman's ties with the ancestor spirits and village deities of her father. The birth itself is followed by the sacrifice of a chicken. The days following the birth are a period of impurity when special care has to be taken to guard the mother and child from evil spirits. After four or five days, the mother and her newborn child, and the entire house, are ritually purified. The name-giving ceremony is held anywhere from a few weeks to a year after birth. Until this takes place, the baby is called after the day of the week on which it was born, or after a festival if born on a festival day. On the day of the name-giving ceremony, the child's head is shaved except for a small tuft of hair. The name is chosen by divination. A man recites the names of the child's ancestors while another man drops three grains of rice into a leaf-cup of water. When the rice grains touch in a certain manner, the child receives the name of the ancestor being spoken at the time.

When young people reach puberty and before they are married, they leave their family homes to sleep in the village dormitory (dhumkuria). The period of residence in this institution involves instruction by elders in folklore, traditions, tribal beliefs and practices, sexual matters, and communal activities. The initiation ceremony when a youth enters the boys' dormitory includes scarring on the arm. The dormitory itself may contain certain emblems and objects of ritual significance. One of the wooden posts supporting the roof of the dormitory may have a cleft, representing the female sexual organ, carved in it. Another ritual emblem found in the Oraon dormitories is the bull-roarer. This is a slat of wood or bamboo up to 23 cm by 7.5 cm (9 in by 3 in) in size, with a hole at one end so a string can be tied to it. When swung around the head, the bull-roarer produces a humming or roaring sound. Although the Oraon no longer remember the ritual or magical uses of the bull-roarer, it is possible it was used to scare away spirits. Girls have their own dormitories and follow their own initiation rites.

The Oraons cremate their dead, except for young children and pregnant women who are buried. If a death has occurred before the onset of the monsoon rains, cremation takes place immediately. However, if the death takes place during the monsoon months, the corpse is buried in a temporary grave. The body is then dug up after the harvest and cremated in the usual manner. After the cremation, the remnants of bone left in the ashes of the funeral pyre are gathered by women relatives and placed in an earthenware jar. The jars are kept until the Harbora ceremony is held. At this time, they are taken in procession by female relatives of the deceased to a specially designated spot near water. The bones are then "drowned" by being thrown into the river, stream, or pond. After the men and women take ritual purifying baths, they return to the village where the young men and women assemble for a dance-meeting. A few days later, the village priest goes about the village pacifying the ancestor spirits and purifying the village itself. This ritual is accompanied by the sacrifice of a pig or white chicken. Important or elderly Oraons may have memorial stones erected in their honor.


On meeting relatives and friends, Oraon men raise the right hand slowly to the forehead, saying Gor-lagi Aba (father), Gorlagi Dai (sister), or whatever the appropriate relationship is. Like many groups in India, the Oraons have an elaborate terminology for kin relations. "Gor-lagi" can be roughly translated to "Greetings." Women perform Gor-lagi by cupping both hands and raising them towards the forehead, accompanied by the appropriate greeting.


Oraon tribal society is divided into a number of territories (parha) containing anywhere from 7 to 20 villages. The territory more or less coincides with clan groupings, although members of several clans may reside in a territory. Each village, however, has its dominant clan. One of the village headmen is chosen to act as chief (parha raja) of the confederacy. He and all the other village headmen form a council to deal with inter-village matters. Each village has its own leader and village council to handle its own affairs. The village may also contain members of other castes (e.g., herders, potters, and metalworkers) who provide the Oraons with services essential to the agricultural economy.

A typical Oraon house has mud walls and a tiled roof. Its orientation is east–west, and a veranda runs around the house on the east, south, and west. There are no windows and only one door. Generally, there are two rooms, one used for storage and the other for sleeping. The family sleeps on mats, which are laid out at night and picked up in the morning. One corner of the house is used as a kitchen. Poultry may roost in the house at night, although separate structures are erected close by for pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. There is no running water, and villagers draw water from streams and ditches for drinking and for bathing.


The Oraons practice village and clan exogamy. The family is a patrilineal extended family, but nuclear families are found as well. A typical family contains five to seven members. In the past, young Oraons would select their own marriage partners, but it is more common for marriages to be arranged. Th is is, in part, a result of exposure to Hindu practices. The best age for marriage is considered to be between 16 and 20 years for males and 13 and 16 years for girls, which violates national laws against child marriage.

Once a suitable match is found, elaborate marriage negotiations are undertaken between the two families. Omens are watched, and the marriage is often called off if they are seen to be bad. A token bride-price, often a small amount of cash and some clothes, is paid. Among the many ceremonies associated with marriage, the central ritual is the anointing with vermilion (a red pigment). The bride and groom stand on a yoke (the crosspiece used to harness cattle to ploughs) and a curry-stone (a stone used to grind condiments). The groom applies vermilion to the bride's forehead and to the parting of her hair. The bride, in turn, applies vermilion to the groom's forehead. Marriage is considered a lifelong undertaking by Oraons, and divorce is rare.

As a tribal group, the Oraons do not possess the caste structure so typical of Hindu society. There is, however, a division into two occupational groups: the Kisans (cultivators) and Kudas (unskilled laborers). These groups tend to marry among themselves.


Traditional dress for Oraon men is a loincloth—a long piece of cotton fabric with red borders at each end, which is wrapped around the waist. A hair band of brass or silver is worn around the head. Rings are placed in the ears, necklaces (often made of silver coins) are strung around the neck, and a silver bangle is worn on the forearm of the right hand. A shawl is sometimes wrapped around the shoulders.

For the all-important dance festivals, men wear turbans. A feather or a strip of brass or silver is inserted into the turban. A peacock feather or a yak's tail is tucked into the waistband, and bells are tied around the waist or ankles.

Traditional Oraon dress is being replaced by local Hindu items, such as the dhoti, and Western-style shirts and pants.

Women's dress consists of a white cotton sari, with five red lines decorating one end. They wear earrings, necklaces, bangles on the arms and ankles, and toe rings. These ornaments are commonly made of brass, copper, silver, or gold. Tattoo marks are worn on the forehead and temples. Oraon women have no special dress for festivals.


The Oraons are nonvegetarian and eat the flesh of pigs, goats, chickens, and buffalo. Much of this meat is consumed at feasts following the sacrifice of animals at religious ceremonies. The staple cereal is rice, supplemented by wheat and maize. Vegetables, pulses, and spices are cultivated. Mustard oil is used for cooking. Both men and women consume alcohol. Rice-beer is brewed at home and drunk at many festivals. Men chew tobacco, while women smoke the hukka or bubble-pipe.


Literacy levels among the Oraon are higher than those of other Scheduled Tribes. This is particularly true among Oraons who are Christians, whose better education give them access to better jobs. The Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic missionary movements in the region have placed great emphasis on the social welfare of their converts. In addition to spreading Christianity, they have opened hospitals and dispensaries and run high-quality schools throughout the tribal area. Ranchi, the largest city of Chota Nagpur, is an important regional educational center. Formal education is also spreading rapidly among non-Christian groups. Literacy rates amongst the Oraon in Orissa exceed 54.2% (2001), although they are less than half this among females. Th is figure hides considerable regional differences between the north and the south of the state and between genders. Literacy figures from Oraon villages in Bangladesh show a female literacy rate at just over 20%.

One problem faced by the Oraon is that literacy is often in a language other than the Kurukh mother tongue. Many Oraon professionals who have good positions are concerned that the Oraons are losing their mother tongue and have asked parents to teach their children Kurukh, even though it does little to prepare them for competitive employment in the "real world."


Like most tribal groups in South Asia, the Oraons have no written literature. Singing and dancing play an important role in their ritual life and accompany almost every social and religious occasion. Musical instruments, such as the pipe or drum, are thought to possess special powers. When they are first acquired, they are "married" by anointing them with vermilion.

Of special interest is the jatra, or dance-meeting, of the Oraon. Every Oraon village has its dancing ground (akhra) where the dance-meetings are held. Th ey often occur as part of the rituals associated with village festivals, such as Harbora, and thus have socioreligious significance. Sometimes, several villages will participate in a jatra. Each village has its jatra flags, which are taken to the jatra gathering place. Carved images of animals such as the tiger, horse, or tortoise are carried to the dance ground on the shoulders of young men. Both flags and animals are totems before which sacrifices are made and libations of beer and milk are offered.

Oraons believe in witchcraft and sorcery and the power of the evil eye. Even though Jharkhand laws forbids the accusing of people as witches, women who are accused of being witches are often subjected to violence, torture, and even death by the local populace.


In the past the Oraons were hunters and gatherers, living off game and edible plants found in the forests. However, hunting and fishing have become mostly ceremonial, and the forests play a minor role in the economic life of the people. Most Oraons (around 67%) are farmers and cultivate their own land, or they work as sharecroppers or agricultural laborers. A few have found their way into government service, or work in the manufacturing and service industries.


There are no organized or spectator sports in traditional Oraon society.


Entertainment and recreation among the Oraons is traditionally associated with the socioreligious festivals of Oraon tribal life. For urban Oraons who are Christians, the typical varieties of church-related social and educational activities are available.


The Oraons are not particularly well known for any folk arts. Some groups had a tradition of spinning thread from cotton, while modern craft activities include mat-weaving, rope-making, and carpentry.


The Oraons have been designated as a Scheduled Tribe, and the problems they face reflect, to a greater or lesser extent, those of tribal peoples throughout India. They occupy less productive lands, are often heavily in debt, and suffer from high levels of poverty. Many lose their land altogether and have to turn to manual labor. Tribal families that move to urban areas to seek work face disruptions and the loss of their traditional village support systems. Discrimination and exploitation are common.

One segment of the Oraon population that has improved its social conditions, however, is the Christian community. Christian Oraons tend to have higher levels of education, possess a greater degree of literacy, have access to better medical facilities, and be more open to modern ideas of health and public hygiene.

Considerable friction exists between the Christian and non-Christian Oraons, largely reflecting the better education and socioeconomic position of the Christians. As recently as 2004, the press reported that Hindus in a village in Ranchi District in Jharkhand State beat and drove out some Christian families, while reportedly police did nothing regarding complaints filed on their behalf. In Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, some politicians do not want Christians to receive the benefits of being classed as a "Scheduled Tribe." Similarly members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believe that Christian converts should not be included in the tribal category and are not entitled to the benefits that belong to that group.

Development in Oraon lands is another cause for social dissent. States like Jharkhand are rich in mineral resources, but development of these resources usually involves disruption of Oraons from their lands and, in addition, projects are designed to generate profits for large companies or to serve the needs of state governments. However, organizations, such as the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh Tribal Development Programme, focus on tribal people in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, targeting marginal households, women, landless people, hill cultivators and tribal people. Their goal is to empower tribal people to participate in their own development through local self-government. Specific activities promote increased production and productivity of land and water resources, alternative sources of income and sustainable management of natural resources.

Perhaps one of the major problems faced by the Oraons and other tribal peoples in Chota Nagpur is political rather than social—a lack of political unity. Oraons have participated in the various tribal movements that have emerged in the region since the beginning of the 20th century. They have supported political parties such as the Jharkhand Party and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, which claim to represent the local tribes. There remains, however, a lack of political leadership among the Oraons (ascribed by some to the egalitarian nature of Oraon society). The local political parties, which have their roots in attempts to end tribal exploitation, have become radicalized. Even the creation of states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand has not helped matters much. Some have argued it is too late to rescue the tribal communities of Jharkhand and their culture, ethnography, lifestyles, and livelihood from slow extinction The area of Jharkhand, specifically, and eastern India as a whole is of increasing significance for the Maoists (Naxalite) rebels due to its rich forest and mineral resources, and is an area that is seeing increasing Naxalite violence.


As is common among the tribal peoples of South Asia, Oraon women generally are treated with a degree of equality that is rare in Hindu society. Except where they have been Hinduized, they usually have a say in their marriage, lack the preference for male offspring so typical of Hindu society, and do not have a dowry system, a small bride price being paid by the groom's family. Widow re-marriage is allowed and so is divorce, though the latter is rare. (Cases of adultery are uncommon, and the offenders are usually beaten and fined according to their means.) Traditionally, women in Chhattisgarh enjoy a higher status than seen in other states. This is largely due to their tribal culture and greater financial independence through participation in the labor market. Men and women share housework, including cooking, house cleaning, and childcare. However, women disadvantaged by heavy workloads and lack of time, have literacy rates far below those of men and are often excluded from community organizations.

Arranged marriages are the norm among the Oraon, though generally marriage requires the consent of the involved people. However, it is customary among the Oraons for only the family of the male to initiate negotiations, and often women's parents force their daughter into a marriage fearful there will no other opportunity to marry her off. Age is significant because most Oraons look for a young bride. If a woman is not married by a certain age, the parents are blamed for failing in their duty of arranging a suitable match for their daughter. One consequence of this is the number of unmarried Oran women found in the Chota Nagpur area.

Women are seen as economic assets. In addition to running the household, they help the men in agricultural tasks, though among the Oraon there is a tradition that if a women ploughs a field, dire consequences will follow. Oraon women sometimes work as agricultural laborers and are commonly found in the tea plantations of Assam, West Bengal and Tripura.

Oraon society is patriarchal in nature, and it is customary that women are not allowed to inherit land or property. However, this situation is changing. The UN ratified the Vienna Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 and the Government of India ratified and acceded to CEDAW in 1993. The convention reiterates that discrimination against women violates the right to equality and acts as an obstacle to the participation of women on equal terms with men in political, social, economic, and cultural life. Discrimination has been defined as any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex that impairs or nullifies the exercise by women (irrespective of their marital status) of the same rights as men. India's Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, defines human rights as "the right to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution [of India] or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India." The principles embodied in CEDAW and the concomitant right to development thus become enforceable as part of Indian law. The Government of India is obligated to take appropriate measures including legislation and modification of the law to abolish gender-based discrimination in existing laws, customs and practices, but the actual enforcing of such protections is a different matter. For instance, state laws throughout the country prohibit the sale of land in tribal areas to non-tribals, but land alienation (i.e. sale to non-tribals) remains a problem.

Illiteracy and poverty, with their resulting limitations on access to education, good employment, and health care facilities are major problems facing Oraon women in their drive for upward mobility.


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Oraon, Karma. The Spectrum of Tribal Religion in Bihar: A Study of Continuity and Change among the Oraon of Chotanagpur. Varanasi, Kishor Vidya Niketan, 1988.

Roy, S. C. The Oraons of Chota Nagpur: Their History, Economic Life, and Social Organisation. Ranchi: S.C. Roy, 1915.

———.Oraon Religion and Customs. Ranchi, Industry Press, 1928.

—by D. O. Lodrick

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