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ETHNONYMS: Hor, Kol, Kolarian


Identification. Munda refers primarily to a group of Languages, but the tribes that speak those languages have collectively become known to scholarship by the same name. Individually, ethnic designations are (with important alternatives in parentheses): Korku, Santal (including the Mahali Subgroup), Munda, Ho, Bhumij, Birhor, Asur, Turi, Korwa, Kora, Kharia, Juang, Sora (Saora, Savara), Gorum (Parenga), Gadaba, Remo (Bondo, Bonda), and Gataq (Didayi, Dire). Some of these names (especially Kharia, Sora, and Gadaba) are shared with local groups of non-Munda speakers. The term "Munda" appears to be derived from a Sanskritic root meaning "substantial, wealthy," later "head," hence "headman"; it was thus originally a term applied by outsiders, a usage that became especially consolidated under the British regime. The word "Kol" (Kolarian), although pejorative, is probably really a corruption of their own hor, kor, etc., meaning "man," common in the north of their area but replaced by remo in southern Orissa, India.

Location. The Korku are located in southwest Madhya Pradesh and are isolated from other Munda. The last five groups in the list above are found mainly in the Koraput and Ganjam districts of southern Orissa. The remainder are found mainly on and around the Chota Nagpur Plateauthat is, in southern Bihar, northern Orissa, eastern Madhya Pradesh, and western West Bengal, with an outlier of Korwa in Mirzapur District, Uttar Pradesh. There are also some Santal in southeast Nepal (where they are called Satar), Bhutan, and northern Bangladesh.

Demography. There are just over 6 million Munda speakers, two-thirds of whom belong to just one tribe, the Santal, one of the largest tribes on earth. Other large groups of Munda speakers (with census figures in parentheses) are the Korku (275,654 in 1971), Munda (1,181,151 in 1971), Ho (538,124 in 1971), Kharia (274,540 in 1971), and Sora (521,187 in 1971). The rest number a few thousand each at the most, the Birhor 4,300 in 1971. Together they constitute well under 1 percent of the total Indian population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Munda is the westernmost branch of the Austroasiatic Language Family, which is otherwise associated mainly with continental Southeast Asia. The connection is remote and has been a matter of controversy but today is generally accepted: it manifests itself in common lexemes rather than any similarities in grammar, word morphology, or phonology. Literacy is generally low, and most literature is oral rather than written. However, missionaries and tribal educators have reduced many texts to writing, using the Roman script or one of the regional Indian scripts. There are also two dedicated tribal scripts, one for Santali (called ol cemit ), the other for Ho.

History and Cultural Relations

The view that the Munda originally entered India from Southeast Asia is based mainly on their linguistic affiliations; their own oral traditions give them instead a western origin (from Uttar Pradesh). There is some evidence of tribal Kingdoms in pre-British times (e.g., the Ho/Munda kingdom of Chota Nagpur, and the Bhumij states, especially Barabhum). Mainly, however, the Munda have lived, often fairly autonomously, under the rule of outside powers. Most Munda are conventionally regarded as tribes rather than castes, despite the definitional problems this gives scholarship. It is an identity most of them promote themselves, partly because of the legal advantages they gain through being on the list of Scheduled Tribes, but mainly because of opposition to "Hindu" (i.e., upper-caste) officials and landowners, who, from early British times, have displaced many tribals from their land. This strongly tribal and anti-Hindu identity has led to rebellion in the past (the Ho rebellion of the 1830s, the Santal rebellion of 1855-1858, the Birsa Munda movement of 1895-1900), but today it has become translated into political action through the Santal-dominated Jharkhand Party, which agitates, among other things, for a specifically Adivasi (Tribal) province. Despite this, there are a number of Munda groups who have sought to gain caste status by reforming customs (banning alcohol, public dancing, cross-cousin Marriage) and acquiring a specialist occupation such as basket making. These attempts to improve their lot earn them the contempt of the "tribal" Munda and, since they are mainly artisan castes, ironically lower their status below that of the Tribals in the eyes of the upper castes, since the tribals at least are not involved in a polluting occupation. Only the Bhumij, having been rulers, can convincingly claim a moderately high (Kshatriya) status.


Most Munda live in villages, though some live and work in towns such as Ranchi and Jamshedpur, and some Birhor and Korwa, being seminomadic, have temporary forest camps. Traditionally, there was a tendency for villages to be fixed only temporarily because of the requirements of shifting cultivation, but with the government trying to discourage this form of agriculture, villages now tend to be more permanent. Villages may consist of detached dwellings or sometimes (as among some Sora) of dwellings connected into a longhouse. Houses are not generally oriented toward particular compass points, but they are usually symbolically divided internally according to principles of gender and age (the eldest members sleep nearest the hearth, male members on the right of the house, female members on the left, etc.). The hearth is especially important ritually and is the spiritual center of the homestead.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most Munda are agriculturalists; increasingly, permanent irrigated sites are replacing the traditional swiddens. The other main traditional occupation is hunting and gathering, with which the Birhor and some Korwa are particularly associated, though all groups participate in these activities to some extent to supplement their agriculture. Today, however, government policy is to preserve the remaining forests, which are now much depleted, and this policy militates against both of the traditional forms of economic activity. The result is an increase in irrigated land and the development of other sources of income, such as working in the tea plantations of the northeast, in mining, in the steel industry, etc., in the Ranchi-Jamshedpur area, or working as day laborers for local Hindu landowners.

Industrial Arts. Some groups, low castes rather than tribes, have a traditional artisan or other specialist occupation (e.g., the Asur are ironworkers, the Turi are basket makers, the Kora are ditch diggers, etc.). Some Birhor make and sell ropes. Generally, though, Hindu artisans supply most of the tribes' needs.

Trade. Few Munda live by trade, though they may occasionally sell forest products or some rice to wholesalers. The Birhor obtain their rice by selling ropes and forest products, and some Korwa, Turi, and Mahali sell their basketwork in local markets.

Division of Labor. Both men and women work in the fields, but the domestic burdens fall more on the women; many occupations (e.g., plowing, roof repair) are barred to them for ritual reasons. Men hunt; women gather. Specialist occupations are mainly men's work.

Land Tenure. Swiddens are normally owned by the dominant descent group in the village, though coresident nonmembers are usually granted access; the individual normally has use rights only while he cultivates. Irrigated land tends to be individually or family owned, primarily because of the extra labor involved in building terraces and irrigation ditches.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is uniformly patrilineal, and all the Munda have patrilineal descent groups. Totemic, exogamous clans, mainly significant as regulators of marriage, and lineages, normally named after localities or Village offices and mainly of ritual and economic significance, are identifiable in most tribes; subclans are also present in the larger Chota Nagpur tribes. Clans are not especially localized, though they are often identified with particular cemeteries or memorial stones, and each village will be dominated by the members of a particular clan. The Gadaba, Remo, Gorum, and Gataq also group their clans into phratries, and it is these that are totemic in those groups, though they are not necessarily strictly exogamous. No Sora descent groups are Totemic. On the whole, a common totem, shared ritual food, or village coresidence are more important indicators of agnation than genealogy as such. Villages are often identified with a particular agnatic group, despite the frequent copresence of members of other clans. Clan members are not necessarily descended from their totem, but the totem usually plays some key role in the clan origin myth, and clan members must show respect to and avoid harming their own (though not others') totem species (most commonly an animal).

Kinship Terminology. Basically it is symmetric-prescriptive or bifurcate-collateral terminology, but Ego's Genealogical level is normally generational, and the levels adjacent to it usually have affinal terms separate from those for cross kin. The terminologies of the Koraput tribes are less deviant in these respects.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Apart from the Asur, Kora, Mahali, and possibly Turi, all Munda groups have positive marriage rules. Among the Koraput groups the prescribed category in Marriage is the bilateral cross cousin (usually excluding first cousins) , but farther north the prescribed category is more usually translatable as a "sibling's spouse's sibling"; often the Indigenous term also covers referents belonging to the genealogical levels of the grandparents or grandchildren (though they nonetheless may be of roughly the same age as Ego). Preferences for a sibling's spouse's sibling usually go with a delay of one to three generations in renewing alliances between the same alliance groups. In most cases (but excluding the Ho and some Santal), spouse exchange is overall symmetric rather than asymmetric. Alliance groups are normally agnatically defined but may be villages rather than descent groups. Indeed, because of the agnatic identity of most villages, Village exogamy is normally required, and negotiations, celebrations, and prestations frequently involve the whole village, not just the principals and their immediate families. Brideprice, not dowry, is the norm. How much choice of partner the principals are allowed varies from tribe to tribe: some tribes have youth dormitories for both sexes, though these do not necessarily take choice out of the hands of the parents (e.g., not among the Juang). There are numerous types of wedding ceremony, some simpler, others more "Hindu." Residence is normally virilocal, though all tribes allow a poor youth to live uxorilocally with (and eventually inherit from) his sonless father-in-law. Monogamy is the norm, though there is some polygyny, especially sororal (wife's classificatory younger but not elder sister). Junior levirate, or the Inheritance of a man's widow by his classificatory younger (not elder) brother, is a commonly recognized and in some tribes virtually mandatory practice. Divorce and the remarriage of divorced and widowed people are normally allowed, even though, like the levirate, these are distinctly low-status practices in India generally.

Domestic Unit. Both nuclear and extended or joint Families are found, though a single family often oscillates between the different forms, as new members are born and old ones die, or as quarrels split them up. For the hunting-and-gathering Birhor, the tanda (band) is the unit.

Inheritance. Irrigated land, use rights regarding swiddens, the family home, fruit trees, and most movables are inherited in the direct patrilineal line. The eldest son receives the most, though not normally everything, as the new head of the Family (he may be responsible for the welfare, marriage expenses, etc., of his younger siblings, for example). In some cases, the sons who have remained at home are favored (the youngest sons among the Sora and some Santal, for instance). In default of sons, the closest collateral agnate or an uxorilocally living son-in-law (the ghar-jawae see above) inherits. There is some matrilineal inheritance of female clothes and ornaments, but women cannot inherit land, because they marry out of the clan.

Socialization. Infants are brought up by their parents with the help of elder siblings, but it is the former who are mainly responsible for socialization. Other opportunities are provided by children watching and eventually helping with the daily work, and the elders play their part by telling myths and other folktales on ritual and other occasions.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. We have already seen that many tribes are internally divided because of some ritual fault or disagreement over custom, etc. The Birhor, Korwa, and some Asur distinguish settled groups from nomads. Most tribes distinguish landowning clans from tenant clans with use rights only, though since the clans involved vary with the village, this does not entail a tribewide class system. Santal clans are unusual in being ritually ranked, and there is some hypergamy between them. In all tribes, village officers command a marked degree of respect, though this rarely leads to a class system or to hypergamy between them and the ordinary Villagers (the Sora are an exception in this regard). Kinship remains the basis of social organization, and there are a number of ritualized friendships for both men and women, between villages and even tribes, that are assimilated to it. Although all tribes distinguish affines from agnates (i.e., marriageable from nonmarriageable persons), these are relative designations only: despite the system of affinal alliance, there are no sociocentric categories of the sort associated with dual Organization or four-section systems of some Australian Aboriginal peoples. The Juang and possibly other tribes have a system of generation moieties in which Ego's generation is linked with those of his grandparents and grandchildren in opposition to the set formed by those of his parents and children. This impinges on both stereotyped behavior and marriage choices: joking is only allowed with members of one's own moiety, which is also that from which one's spouse must come (and even then there are numerous exceptions in both regards), while avoidance or respect in behavior and avoidance of Marriage and sexual relations is enjoined toward members of the opposite moiety.

Political Organization. The elected government gram panchayat was introduced in this region soon after Independence in 1947, but it often has to compete with the traditional village assembly or panchayat. This consists of the headman, other officials, and typically household heads at least, if not all males in the village. It is unusual but not unknown (e.g., among the Santal) for women to participate in decision making, though they are often called to give Evidence in disputes. The headmanship and other offices (assistant headman, messenger, etc.) are mostly hereditary in the male line, though there may be an elective element in the choice, and the eldest son can always be replaced if believed to be unsuitable. Village headmen are no more than first among equals, for they have to consult the panchayat on all important matters and are removable for misconduct or incompetence. In Chota Nagpur, though not Koraput, villages are often grouped into federations (often called pirh ), which may have originated as regional clan councils, especially since their main concern is breaches of the rule of clan exogamy. There is scarcely any institutional expression of tribal unity today (though some tribes had kingdoms or at least tribal assemblies in the past), and tribal identity is now only a matter of language or perhaps a common origin myth. Sovereignty and most authority now lie with the Indian government.

Social Control and Conflict. The old sanction of expulsion from the community (bitlaha ) has fallen into disuse, and fines, along with provision of a feast for the panchayat or even the whole village, are now the common penalties. Most conflicts concern land rights or marriage. Resort to violent direct action by an aggrieved party is by no means uncommon, though long-term feuding is less marked than among the neighboring Dravidian-speaking Kond, for example.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Hinduism is an influence, though the Munda are not among the main guardians of Hindu traditions as followed by the Brahmans. The great deity, as protector and judgesometimes identified with the sun (e.g., Kharia Dharam, Remo Singi-Arke, the Singbonga of the Munda, Santal, etc.), sometimes depicted as a "diluted version" of Hindu gods (e.g., Mahadeo, Bhagwan)should normally be distinguished from the creator (Munda Haram, Santal Marang Buru), especially since the former typically destroyed men through fire or flood in order to recreate them whole and pure; sometimes, however, the two deities are linked rather like the different incarnations of Hindu gods. There are in all tribes numerous spirits (called bonga in Chota Nagpur), both benevolent and malevolent. They include agricultural gods and goddesses, spirits of trees, hills, forests, the village, village boundaries, ancestral spirits (especially malevolent if uncared for or allowed to wander rather than being "brought back" to the hearth after their funeral), other household and lineage deities (some secret), clan deities, deities associated with snakes, tigers, monkeys, and other wild animals, the ghosts of women dead in childbirth or Pregnancy, the ghosts of suicides or people killed by tigers, and shamans' tutelaries. Christians are in a minority in most tribes, though their proportion approaches 50 percent among the Kharia. There are hardly any Muslims.

Religious Practitioners. Most tribes have both priests, concerned with village rituals and life-crisis rites, and shamans, concerned with illness, malevolent spirits, divining the fate of the dead, divining reincarnation, etc. Usually there is one of each to every village, though only the priest, not the shaman, sits on the village panchayat. Unlike the priests, whose offices are basically hereditary in the male line, shamans "emerge" by demonstrating their powers, becoming possessed, etc. Sometimes priests and shamans come from different tribes. Some shamans are female, but no priests. In most tribes domestic ritual is performed by male household heads.

Ceremonies. The most important life-cycle rites are those concerned with birth, marriage, and death. Initiation and puberty are usually much less marked, if at all, and it is marriage, if not parenthood, which really makes one a full adult Member of the tribe, with the right to sit on the panchayat, etc. There are also numerous agricultural rites (fertility, sowing, transplanting, harvesting), as well as rites to promote success in the hunt (usually in March), to safeguard the village against disease and other misfortune, to honor the supreme deity and clan deities, etc. Tribals often imitate, or take part in, local Hindu festivals.

Arts. On the whole, the Munda are not renowned for artistic expression, though there are some exceptions, such as the wood carvings of the Kharia and Sora and the wall paintings of the Gadaba and Sora, mostly done for a ritual purpose.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to the actions of malevolent spirits, who may be ancestors who have not been sufficiently appeased, or to the temporary withdrawal of soul substance from the body, etc. Shamans are frequently called in to divine the cause, often with the aid of their tutelary spirits, and to effect a cure through the sacrifice of a fowl, goat, or other animal.

Death and Afterlife. There is no particular delay in disposing of the dead. Whether cremation or burial is followed depends on the tribe; the inauspicious dead (accidents, suicides, very young infants, etc.) are usually disposed of in a different manner from "normal" deaths; they are buried where cremation is the norm or buried with the opposite orientation from a normal burial. The person generally has at least two souls, sometimes more (e.g., a Juang has five). One is linked to the personality of the deceased and has to be "brought back" from the funeral ground to join the ancestors behind the domestic hearth. The othercommonly called jiv, really another term for "soul substance"is usually reincarnated in a same-sex agnatic descendant, preferably a grandchild related in the direct line, though sometimes it is a collateral ascendant who is reincarnated, especially if there are several siblings. A person is usually given the name of the ancestor deemed to have been reincarnated in him or her.

See also Bhuiya; Bondo; Kol; Korku; Santal; Sora


Elwin, Verrier (1955). The Religion of an Indian Tribe. Bombay: Oxford University Press.

McDougal, Charles (1963). The Social Structure of the Hill Juang. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Orans, Martin (1965). The Santal: A Tribe in Search of a Great Tradition. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Yamada, Ryuji (1970). Cultural Formation of the Mundas. Tokyo: Tokai University Press.


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