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ETHNONYMS: Sahara, Saora, Saura, Savar, Savara, Sawar, Sawara


Identification. The Sora are a "tribal" people living historically on the margins between shifting political centers in Central India. They think of themselves as adivasi (tribal), but also as "Hindu," in conscious opposition to the small enclaves of Christian Soras. Culturally, Sora in the plains are similar to surrounding castes but in the hills they retain a distinctive character.

Location. The Sora live in Koraput and Ganjam districts of the state of Orissa and in neighboring parts of Andhra Pradesh, especially Srikakulam District. The Lanjia Sora, who have been studied mainly by Verrier Elwin and Piers Vitebsky, live in the hilly jungles, while several other virtually unstudied groups (e.g., Sarda, Kapu) live in the plains. This article refers to the Lanjia Sora. Within their territory there are settlements of various Oriya and Telugu castes, with some government employees. These settlements are dominated by the Oriya-speaking Pano (Pan, Dom), who trade with the Sora. The Sora lie just on the border between the North Indian and South Indian culture areas. To the northeast are the Indo-Aryan Oriya and to the south the Dravidian-speaking Telugu. To the northwest are the Dravidian-speaking but "tribal" Kond (Khond). The evidence of some place-names along the coast between Puri and Visakhapatnam, areas that now speak Oriya or Telugu, suggests that the Sora formerly were far more widespread and have since been forced into the interior or have survived only there as a separate group. Since early this century, Sora have migrated to the tea gardens of Assam for temporary wage labor and some have remained there. More recently they have migrated to road-building projects in Arunachal Pradesh, though conditions there are less conducive to settling.

Demography. The 1971 census lists about 521,187 Sora, of whom at least half speak the Sora language. The demographic picture is complicated because people around the edge of the Sora area may describe themselves variously. Many populations in the plains who are now nontribal were probably originally Sora.

Linguistic Affiliation. Sora belongs to the South Munda Branch of the Austroasiatic Family and is closely related to Bondo, Gadaba, and Juang. This family includes a number of Southeast Asian languages, especially Mon-Khmer. The Munda languages were perhaps present in India before Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. Sora has several dialects and contains loanwords from Hindi, Oriya, and Telugu. Yet in many areas it retains the power to assimilate these to Sora syntax and morphology. The language developed by Christian Soras as a legacy of Canadian Baptist missionaries already reflects the conceptual gulf between indigenous and Judeo-Christian worldviews.

History and Cultural Relations

Contact with the outside world is probably ancient. In British times the area formed the farthest northern tip of Madras Presidency. The hill area was brought under government Control in 1864-1866 by a British expeditionary force that executed and transported Sora resistance leaders and established a permanent police presence. In Koraput District the British established the system of village headmen (gomang, also meaning "rich man") to collect revenue for the raja of Jeypore; in Ganjam District the Sora were ruled by march lords, or chieftains of the borderlands, of Paik (Kshatriya) caste. For a long time, and even up to the present, Sora have had a reputation for extreme fierceness, though this has not been the experience of anthropologists. However, every decade or so there are still violent uprisings, usually against Pano trading communities.

Many cultural features can be explained by the Soras' ancient association with Southeast Asia. (Their relation to Hinduism was explored inconclusively by Louis Dumont in his Review of Elwin.) Sora are aware of Hindu values and use them in defining their own identity. As a nonliterate culture, they associate literacy with the power of the state; the power of shamans' familiar spirits is also associated with ideas about writing. The Sora have contributed to mainstream Hinduism: Oriyas say that they originally stole their god Jagannath (Juggernaut), an avatar of Krishna, from the Sora.


The population of Sora villages varies from around 100 to 800. Villages generally contain several quarters (longlong ), each inhabited by one patrilineage (birinda ). Among close relatives, several houses are usually joined together in one terrace with a common veranda. Since the wall dividing these houses is not closed off at the top, the effect is somewhat like a longhouse and conversations can be held between houses over the dividing wall. In autumn, as the crops are ripening on the hillsides, the villages are largely deserted as people move to widely scattered "baby houses" (o'onsing ) in order to guard their crops against wild animals. Some people prefer to remain permanently on these sites. Even at the edge of the Villages new, freestanding houses are appearing. Houses are solidly built of stone plastered with red mud. Roofs are thatched. Inside there is generally a single room, though the layouts are highly variable.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Sora groups in the plains, such as the Kapu Sora, live by rice cultivation and work much like their caste-Hindu neighbors. In the hills, the only possible rice cultivation is rain-fed and small-scale, so that the population depends largely on shifting cultivation, or slash-and-burn agriculture, on hill slopes. Each year in the hot season (May-June) Sora cut down and burn an area of forest; at the start of the rains (July-August) they sow seeds. The main harvest is from November to February. Shifting cultivation gives a varied diet of gourds, millets, sorghum, wild rice, pulses, and edible leaves, which is both more nutritious and less dependent on rainfall than a diet based almost solely on rice. However, above a certain level of exploitation such cultivation causes irreversible degradation to the soil. This brings Sora into conflict with the Forestry Department, in whom ownership of nonirrigated land is vested. Sora eat most kinds of animals, either domestic animals sacrificed for rites or hunted wild animals. The Sora diet is based on a watery gruel or porridge, with a garnish of vegetables or meat when available. They use few spices and no oil, since cooking is done only by boiling. They drink palm wine and never milk. Tea is used by Christians, who have given up alcohol.

Industrial Arts. Sora manufacture most everyday articles themselves out of trees, leaves, stones, and earth. Houses are built entirely by work parties of friends and relatives. People make their own tools, bows and arrows, and other objects. Although Sora use store-bought aluminum dishes in the house, they stitch together large leaves with splinters of bamboo to form bowls for use outdoors.

Trade. Other necessities are bought in neighboring towns or in weekly markets (hat ) held at sites where the plains meet the hills. Here, merchants from the plains sell clothing, iron axe heads and plow tips, salt, chilies, and jewelry. Recently the Sora have given up making their own pottery and mats and so now they buy these too. The local Pano population also travels around Sora villages selling soap, tobacco, and other small articles. Individual traders build up long-term Relations with particular Sora villages and customers. The most important commodities sold in this way are buffalo for Sacrifice, since these can supposedly not be bred in the Sora hills. In return, the Sora sell various millets and forest produce like tamarind, which is in great demand among caste Hindus for curries. The quantities sold are enormous and the prices received are low. The need to keep selling contributes to the ecological degradation of the Sora hills, since cultivation is not simply for subsistence.

Division of Labor. Poorer people work for hire in the fields, but the egalitarian ethos of reciprocal work parties (onsir ) is strong. The most important specialized occupation is that of the shaman. There are also hereditary lineages of Village heads, deputy heads, pyre lighters, and priests of the Village deity (kidtung ). All of these are male except for the occasional village head. The specialist lineages of potters, basket weavers, and blacksmiths have largely abandoned their craft and their customers now buy in the market. But the relations between these lineages and the rest of the population are still strongly expressed during rites. Although they perform conventional tasks, men's and women's roles are not as strictly divided as in many Indian societies and there is no task that cannot be done by either sex without embarrassment (except that women traditionally do not climb trees or play musical instruments). Thus, men can be seen fetching water for the household and women plowing with a team of buffalo. The role of women in ritual is striking: the most important shamans are female, and it is mostly the surrounding women who converse with the souls of the dead when they speak through the shaman in trance.

Land Tenure. Ownership of irrigated rice fields is recognized by law and such fields can be bought and sold. Behind this legalistic concept of land tenure lies another, in which ancestors reside after death in the sites that their descendants cultivate, thereby guaranteeing their heirs' rights. Because irrigated land gives a higher yield for the input of labor, it tends to be owned by relatively wealthy people, who thereby become wealthier. Although non-Sora are legally forbidden to own land in tribal areas, in practice outside traders and moneylenders control much of this land through complex webs of debt, mortgage, and fraud. All households practice shifting cultivation, and poorer households depend on it entirely.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship Groups, Descent, Terminology. The basic unit of social organization is the birinda. This is an exogamous patrilineage in which the core of men stay put while women marry out. Parallel cousins within the lineage (father's brother's children) are called "sister" and "brother." Other parallel cousins and all cross cousins are called maronsel (female) and marongger (male). They can also be referred to as "sister" and "brother," implying the impossibility of marriage down to the third generation, after which they again become free to marry. However, there is much flexibility in the interpretation of this. In the Orissa hills, for example, a man's mother's brother is mamang while his wife's father is kiniar. The terminology is thus of a North Indian type, resembling Oriya and Bengali in its patterning. In the Telugu plains, by contrast, it follows a South Indian pattern, in which mama means both "mother's brother" and "father-in-law" (male speaking). But even in the Orissa hills, people often marry their cross cousins.

Marriage. In the hills there are two main ways of marrying. Among the wealthier families, who own paddy land, marriage (sidrung ) may be arranged and a bride-price paid in buffalo or labor. But most marriages are by free choice (dari ) with no payment. A woman and a man simply set up house together, though this often provokes difficulties with their families. Girls have considerable freedom to initiate relationships. Marriages are unstable in the early years and divorce is Common. Marriage becomes more stable as children are born and grow up. Some wealthier men have more than one wife and the second wife is often the younger sister of the first (aliboj). If a woman's husband dies, she may marry his younger brother (erisij). There is no polyandry.

Domestic Unit. The basic household contains a married couple and their children. Many houses also contain unmarried siblings, aged parents, and sometimes other people's Children who have decided to live there temporarily. Where a man has several wives they live together unless they quarrel, in which case he builds them separate houses and divides his time between them. Neighbors are usually very closely related and make quite free with each other's houses. During the season when they live in "baby houses" in the jungle, families are more isolated and live more intimately.

Inheritance. As each son marries he builds his own house. The youngest son stays behind with the parents and inherits the house. A man's irrigated fields, or the right to return to a shifting cultivation plot, are shared equally among his sons. As an ancestor spirit, he will eventually reside in one of these sites. Where there are no sons, they may be inherited by cousins in the closest branch of the lineage. Alternatively, they may be claimed by the lineage of his wife's brother if it is decided that the dead person has gone to reside in one of their plots. Personal possessions are likewise shared out equally. A woman may also have her own fields, provided by her own brothers. This woman's wealth (keruru ) never passes under her husband's control and is usually inherited by her daughters. Inheritance is symbolized by planting a memorial stone, sacrificing a buffalo, and taking on the dead person's debts.

Socialization. A woman's child is closely associated with her body and only gradually socialized into her husband's lineage. One of the baby's first illnesses is diagnosed as caused by a dead patrilineal ancestor who wishes to give the child his or her name. If the child survives to the age of weaning, about age 3, it receives this ancestor's name in an Elaborate rite. Children are carried, played with, and danced. They are rarely if ever struck. Very young children already have responsibility for infants. There are no rites associated with puberty or menstruation, though at that time a girl will start to grow her hair long.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. A village tends to contain several lineages, so that marriage may be inside or outside the village. A lineage is fixed in space by the sites of its cremation ground and memorial stones. The lineage affiliation of women remains ambiguous far into their married lives. Even after death, they are given a similar funeral by both their husband's and their father's lineage, and questions of inheritance may hinge on which group of ancestors the dead woman now resides with in the Underworld.

Political Organization. The British introduced a system of hereditary village heads (gomang) and other office holders. Each of these offices was assigned to a different lineage, and between them they formed the village council (bisara). Since Independence, this has been replaced by an elected panchayat. This is often dominated by representatives of the local trading castes. The hill Sora have become fully aware of Indian national party politics only during the 1980s. Lacking literacy and political power, they have been largely locked into old patterns of exploitation and intimidation. Younger Sora are learning to read and write their own language. They are also learning to speak Oriya or Telugu and so to dispense with Pano interpreters in their dealings with the government.

Social Control. Public opinion and gossip are important. Persons who are too solitary, greedy, or eccentric may be suspected of sorcery. Social embarrassment sometimes leads to suicide. Police and lawyers are used as weapons by factions who start cases against each other. Police proceedings are referred to by the same words as a sorcery attack. The principles of law and morality are upheld by the dead as they discuss the affairs of the living.

Conflict. The format of debate is pervasive in the old Village council and the new panchayat. Both sides may end up shouting their cases, sometimes in a simultaneous monologue. This format is carried over into dialogues with the dead, where both sides argue their opposed cases about family relations, inheritance, and other contentious issues. Physical violence, or its threat, is never far below the surface, especially in conflicts involving the interests of wealthy Soras or the trading castes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Sora religion has aroused keen interest because of its wide variety of spirits and their importance in daily life. Creator spirits called kintung account for the origin of the world and of human society but have little direct effect on the living. The dead discuss their moods and motives with the living through the mouths of shamans in trance.

Religious Practitioners. The most important shamans are women, who achieve their powers through marriage in the Underworld with a high-caste (Kshatriya) Hindu spirit. This husband is the spirit child of the previous shaman. Since this predecessor is usually a patrilineal relative, the spirit husband is therefore a cross cousin and the marriage incestuous. A shaman marries in the Underworld very young. When she subsequently marries a living husband, he often persuades her to give up shamanism and she will not take it up again until middle age.

Ceremonies. Shortly after a death, the deceased is commemorated by planting an upright memorial stone and sacrificing buffalo. Further variants of this are repeated as part of a harvest festival for three years. Some years later, a ceremony celebrates the transmission of the name of the dead person to a new baby. Every time the deceased causes illness among his or her descendants, the living stage a rite to cure the patient. At every stage of existence, the dead person's state of mind is revealed through dialogue with the living.

Arts. The greatest Sora arts are verbal play and improvised song. In addition, the drama of the shaman's trance itself, if one does not believe that the spirits themselves are talking, must be seen as a subtle form of theater. Most ceremonies are accompanied by dancing. Wall paintings are made for spirits. Gold and silver jewelry is obtained from specialist castes in the plains.

Medicine. All illnesses and deaths are believed to be caused by the dead, who thereby repeat the form of their own suffering in another person. In doing this, they attack and eat the soul of their victim. Cure consists in offering the attacker the soul of a sacrificial animal as a substitute. If the spirit accepts this, the patient recovers. But spirits often cheat the living, and patients die. Sora use many amulets and rather fewer herbal remedies. Hospital medicine is used as a backup where available.

Death and Afterlife. Sora do not see "medicine" and the regulation of bodily states as separate from their relations with dead persons. As "spirits" (sonum), the dead endure emotional and material deprivation, but at the same time they are powerful causal agents among the living. Elwin portrays the dead as largely jealous and oppressive, but Vitebsky draws attention to their complementary role in granting fertility and social continuity. He distinguishes two aspects of the dead: their role as transmitters of suffering and their role as protective ancestors. He suggests that the drama of dialogues with the dead acts out the complex interplay between these aspects and that the dead may be understood as an objectification of living people's ambivalent memories of those whom they have known. The form in which a dead person affects a living person reflects how that living person remembers him. The sequence of funeral rites modifies the nature of this memory over time.

See also Bondo; Kol; Munda


Dumont, Louis (1959). "Possession and Priesthood." Contributions to Indian Sociology 3:55-74. (Includes a review of Elwin 1955 on pp. 60-74).

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

Singh, Bhupinder (1984). The Saora Highlander: Leadership and Development. Bombay: Somaiya Publications.

Thurston, Edgar, and Kadamki Rangachari (1909). "Savara." In Castes and Tribes of Southern India. Vol. 6, 304-347. Madras: Government Press.

Turner, Victor W. (1967). "Aspects of Saora Ritual and shamanism." In The Craft of Social Anthropology, edited by A. L. Epstein. London: Tavistock.

Vitebsky, Piers (1980). "Birth, Entity, and Responsibility: The Spirit of the Sun in Sora Cosmology." L'Homme 20:47-70.

Vitebsky, Piers (1990). "Interview." In The Ruffian on the Stair: Reflections on Death, edited by Rosemary Dinnage, 38-52. London: Viking.

Vitebsky, Piers (1992). Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality, Loss, and Continuity among the Sora of Central India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zide, Norman H., ed. (1966). Studies in Comparative Austroasiatic Linguistics. The Hague, London, and Paris: Mouton.