The Oldest Tribe Of India Finds Its Home In Odisha - Homegrown

The Oldest Tribe Of India Finds Its Home In Odisha

In Koraput district of Odisha, the lush green hills and the serene water bodies serve as home to the Bonda (also known as Remo) Tribe. One of the oldest tribe of the country, they continue to live in isolation from the materialistic world and in harmony with nature. The Bonda tribe resides in the Koraput and Malkangiri districts of Odisha.


Bonda women are a sight to behold. They appear to be both bold and fragile at the same time.
They have their heads shaved and adorned with two types of headbands, called turuba and
lobeda. The turuba is made of grass and the lobeda is made of colourful beads. Worn together
the turuba secures the lobeda by preventing the beaded headband from slipping off the
woman’s head.

The turupa and lobeda headbands (image-Taruka Srivastav)
The turupa and lobeda headbands (image-Taruka Srivastav)

Bonda women wear metal bands adorning their necks, which are called khagla and are made
from aluminum. The bands around their neck are made of beads called mali and are believed to serve as protection from injuries and attacks by wild animals. Due
to the culture surrounding their ringa cloth which covers the waist down, the khagla and Mali
act as a sort of clothing for the upper body of the women. However, many Bonda women
have been influenced by modern culture and instead of just the jewelries, have started
wearing sarees sans the blouse and night gowns. Bonda attire also finds a mention in the
Ramayana.

According to the folklore, the Bonda women came across Sita who was bathing at a pond in
the Bonda hills and, seeing her naked, they sniggered. Enraged, Sita cursed them to a life
where they would be condemned to remain naked and have their heads shaven. When
the Bonda women pleaded forgiveness, Sita gave them a piece of cloth she tore off her sari
for them to cover their waist.

The khagla and mali are metals bands around their necks (image-Taruka Srivastav)
The khagla and mali are metals bands around their necks (image-Taruka Srivastav)

Both men and women of the tribe wear earrings called limbi made of brass, and rings on their
fingers called orti made of aluminum. For bachelors or newly married men, it is customary to
wear their own set of ornaments. Beginning at the ages of eight or nine, males will adorn
their bodies with headbands called ornaghboh, bangles named sungrai, necklaces named
thangimali, earrings named unsurul, and rings called sanbah. Once married, men typically do
not continue to adorn their bodies with more ornaments.

Men of Bonda Tribe are usually equipped with lethal bows and arrow and are believed to be
quite aggressive unlike the calm and graceful Bonda women. In Bonda tradition, women
prefer to marry older men so that they can earn and take care of them in their old age.

Both men and women work hard during the day in the fields and at night indulge in some
singing, dancing along with some local brews. They make this brew from cashewnut,
mango, rice, flowers, and coconut among others. Odisha Government has set up a Bonda
Development Agency ( BDA) to look after the socio-economic need of the tribe. Bonda
women are further being empowered by the Odisha government under their Mission Shakti
program. “Mission Shakti” is the self-help mission for empowering women through
promotion of Women Self Help Groups [WSHGs] to take up various socio-economic
activities.

The Hill Broom Grass has emerged as one of the most widely cultivated cash crops in the
district of Malkangiri. It is an eco-friendly product of great utility. The Gulang Gursunga of
WSHG’s of Malkangiri, formed in 2001, comprising of Bonda women has taken up this activity as a commercial enterprise and now has an annual turnover of Rs. 6 lakh.

Hill broom grass (image-Mission Shakti)
Hill broom grass (image-Mission Shakti)

Odisha Tourism is further pushing and promoting ‘Ethnic Tourism’ and inviting people to
stay in these districts and experience a bit of Bonda life. The Department of Tourism is
supporting eco-resorts like Desia Eco-Resort, where people can stay amidst the tribals and enjoy their warm hospitality along with some organic food. Once infested with Maoists activities, the area is pretty safe to travel now but one must be careful, like in any other new place.


Vishal K. Dev, Secretary of Odisha Tourism shared some plans with regards to the development of these districts. He said: “Odisha has 62 indigenous or tribal communities which constitutes an impressive 24% of the total population of the state. Ethnic Tourism is a priority for us and we are promoting the same both nationally and globally via social media campaigns, roadshows, participating in various tourism events like WTM London and ITB Berlin. We are further inviting big brands in the hospitality industry to set up eco-resorts and infrastructure in these districts to boost inflow of tourists. Tribals are the main essence of Odissi culture and we want people to learn from their sustainable ways as well.”

The Onukadelli market in Koraput district is already quite popular among both national and
foreign tourists. The market sells local produce like vegetables, clothes, drinks among other
things. You can politely request a Bonda women if she is willing to sell a piece from the
beads she adorns, as a souvenir. Also, you are only allowed to click their images after paying
them some money. The amount can vary from Rs. 20 to Rs. 50 but it’s important that you buy
from them and contribute to their economy. It may be a bit of an uphill task to engage with
them in a conversation, mainly due to the language barrier (their language belongs to the
Munda branch of the Austroasiatic language family and is most closely related to the Gutob
language). However, if you can strike a conversation via a local guide and soon you
will realise the wisdom they have to share with the world.
Apart from the Bonda Tribe, one can soak the stunning beauty of the Western Ghats, exotic
wildlife and some mesmerizing waterfalls to unwind themselves.

Taruka is a sports and travel writer. She is a former Asian Games Player and a British Council GREAT Scholar.

You can read her travelogues here and find her on Twitter.

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