Do you remember the last time you were so awestruck with the tenacity, strength and sheer beauty of a person or community? I do. I’ve spent many hours this month sprawling through article after article and image after image of a tribe that really inspires me.
The Dongria Kondh is one of India’s most remote tribes. They live in the Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha state. Niyamgiri is an area of densely forested hills, deep gorges and cascading streams. The Dongria Kondh settle in high altitudes and worship the Niyamgiri mountain, which they refer to as ‘Niyam Raja’. Dongrias have a deep reverence for the mountains, streams and are also called ‘Jharnia’: protector of streams. The Dongria live in villages scattered throughout the hills and believe that their right to cultivate Niyamgiri’s slopes has been conferred on them by Niyam Raja, and that they are his royal descendants. They have expert knowledge of their forests and the plants and wildlife they hold. From the forests they gather wild foods such as wild mango, pineapple, jackfruit, and honey. Rare medicinal herbs are also found in abundance, which the Dongria use to treat a range of ailments including arthritis, dysentery, bone fractures, malaria and snake bites.
The Dongria also cultivate orchards in the forest, producing crops such as oranges, bananas, ginger, sweet papaya and the aromatic resin jhunu, all of which are sold at local markets. A recent study found that the Dongria gather almost 200 different types of food from their forests and harvest over a hundred crops from their fields. This amazing diversity sustains them all year-round, with very little need for food or goods from beyond their hills.
I was originally drawn to their community when looking into weaving and embroidery methods of tribes across the world. The deep reverence the Dongria Kondh have for their hills and streams by seeing it as a representation of life’s origins, is apparent in every aspect of their lives. It was this expression of love and life which attracted me to their aesthetic leaning. Even their art, the clothing they wear, their weaving process and patterns reflect the mountains, streams and fields they hold so highly; repetitive triangular designs and sacred art is found on village walls and shawls, earthy colours, natural dyes and fibres.
Dongria Kondh’s sport long hair, tattoos and love accessorising with multiple hair clips, flowers, ear rings, neck rings, hand rings made up of brass, iron and an alloy called Hindalium which they make themselves. Dongria’s use their jewellery for aesthetic and practical purposes. They create hollow Hindalium ankle rings and fill them with metal/stone balls, so that their every step makes a noise. This was done to ward off wild animals. Beaded necklaces, multiple hair pins, three plain nose rings, dotted triangular tattoos on arms, chin, inner eye and forehead are also unique to the Dongria Kondh community. Women wear white saris which fall to their knees and are tied behind their neck and the men wear only a loin cloth called ‘Kodi’. Their love and understanding of the local ecology resonates in every stitch and layer of what they wear and how they express their values visually. Communities who sustain this in how they like to be distinguished aesthetically has been an area which has always fascinated me. But when it came to this particular community, it was so much more than just the art of their fabric and foraging, it was their zeal and resistance that compelled me to find out more.
For a decade now, the 8,000-plus Dongria Kondh community have lived under the threat of mining by a UK based company called Vedanta Resources, which wants to extract an estimated $2billion-worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the sacred hills. Their fierce battle against this mining giant has not been an easy one but has been recognised across the world. The tribe organised several protests against the mining activities. Many of these protests were led by Dongria Kondh women who blocked roads and entrances into the forest by the Vedanta loggers and put their lives on the line for their homes and values. Environmental groups had begun lawsuits against the mine, based on its negative environmental and social effects and as a result of almost ten years of pressure, the tribe were able to prevent Vedanta from extracting from Niyamgiri Mountain.
The Dongria have been praised for their resilient determination to save their Hills in the face of intimidation and harassment by paramilitary police on their land and Vedanta Resources’ repeated claims that the Dongria support the mine. During their struggle to defend Niyamgiri, Dongria leaders have been imprisoned and tortured, but they remained strong in their resistance.
Twelve Dongria villages unanimously voted against Vedanta’s mine during consultations ordered by India’s Supreme court in April 2013, because their religious, cultural and social rights would be jeopardised if mining were to go ahead. Dongria leader Lodu Sikaka said, ‘Our God lives in open space, you keep your God locked up with a key. We won’t leave Niyamgiri. If the government and politicians ask for it we will fight.’
Their success in protecting their sacred home and self sufficient way of life is in my opinion one of the world’s best examples of creating and applying the art of resistance.
I look forward to one day meeting this community in their sacred hills and thanking them for inspiring me from a thousand miles away.
“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
© 2014 Shroomantics ~ Rahima Begum