How Indigenous Hair Traditions Define The Identities Of Tribal Communities Across India

How Indigenous Hair Traditions Define The Identities Of Tribal Communities Across India
Image Courtesy: Jason Taylor

As the world is progressing towards wellness regimes inspired by Eastern traditions, multiple brands have claimed to create hair care products that are ‘tribe-inspired’. At a closer look, one will realise that none of the people involved in creating the formula belong to tribal communities. It is common for Indians to appropriate concepts deeply rooted in the heritage of tribal women without any real consideration of their marginalisation in society.

Back in 2019, Salo Devi and Lalo Devi, two sisters belonging to a tribal community in Ranchi were assaulted by a mob, who chopped off their hair; hair that is often viewed with a gaze of exoticism for our own personal gain. But there are social and historical connotations to tribal women’s hair that are different from rituals glamorised by upper-caste women in India.

L: Stuart Freedman ; R: Wikimedia Commons

The Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha state, Eastern India, is home to the Dongria Kondh tribe. According to Survival International, the close-knit community resides in a densely forested area; farming the hills’ fertile slopes, harvesting their produce, and worshipping the mountain god Niyam Raja. They proclaim to be the ‘protectors of streams’, as at present the community is fighting against the firm Vedanta Resources, which hoped to extract the estimated $2billion-worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the hills; further disrupting the already endangered natural resources of the area.

The people of the Dongria community have deep reverence for nature and the hills and streams that pervade every aspect of their life. Their distinctive hairstyle reveals a similar relationship with the environment. Dongria girls wear clips made of deer horn in their hair in addition to ‘offerings’ from nature such as flowers and more. One can notice how the resistance movement to safeguard their environmental setting is also reflected in the adornment of the hair. While we view it with a singular gaze of beauty, hair has always been a form of armour for tribal women.

Historically tribes in India have had to fight for their rights over land, the resistance is deeply rooted in the culture and rituals. Due to this fact, the relationship with their surroundings has only grown stronger as a way to claim it as their own. Using nature as a resource, a tribe from Kerala adorns their hair with saponaceous plants, revitalising it in different forms such as gels, oils and more.

In 2022, more avenues have opened up to explore the beauty rituals of ancient India. With traditions quickly becoming trends for the Instagram generation, images of tribal women have also become a part of these mood boards. Upper caste women are replicating these hairstyles and regimes within the comfort of their own privileged lives, while lacking the knowledge of the deeply tumultuous past and present of the same communities.

India’s past is rooted in structural oppression that also barred tribal women from wearing any hairstyle resembling the ones adorned by upper caste women. Tribal hair traditions are inspired by lived experiences and a feeling of community unlike the hair and rituals of advantaged groups that are inspired by scripture. While tribal traditions definitely played a part in the feminine identity of women from the community, one that was often stripped away at the hands of upper caste people, they speak to a larger issue and form a unique identity based on their relationship with the land.

To extort these hair rituals as mere beauty regimes or ‘inspiration’ is to continue a history of oppression in a country that has still not made living conditions viable for a majority of tribal communities.

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