The Dongria Kondh tribe resides amidst the lush green mountains of Niyamgiri in the state of Orissa. With a population of 8000 distributed into 80 villages, the tribe believes in maintaining a harmonious, sacred and symbiotic relationship with nature. The people of dongria kondh are one of the best known conservationists in the world. Despite being labelled as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”, they are known for the valiant and spirited manner in which they advocate for the habitat they live in.

The Dongrias regard Niyam Raja as their first king and spiritual leader, and according to their belief he lives atop the hills. They worship not only Niyam Raja, but also the hills, forest and their way of life. According to the bejuni, (a village priestess) of Lakhpadar, “Niyam Raja is all the hills… he keeps the jungles, roots, tubers and water safe for us”. For the Dongria’s Niyam Raja is not only a deity but he also relays their worries to the other forces of nature, the rain, the sun, the earth and the numerous perennial streams. The Dongarias as a symbol of respect to the Niyam raja never clear any hill top of the hill range. 

A peek into their practices and traditions:

A wealth of information, secrets of the forests are passed down from one generation of the tribe to the next, preaching the practices and imparting knowledge on the best way to sustain and thrive while remaining in harmony with nature.

  1. The tribe’s religion is based on respect for nature and they observe traditional rules of restraint known as ‘niyam’, regarding everything that is acquired from nature. As a part of these laws, felling trees on mountain tops is considered taboo and as a sign of disrespect to their supreme deity.
  2. A palm tree is one of the seven trees, considered as a ‘must’ in Dongria Kondh’s sacred grove. Dongria men gather juice from the forest’s giant sago palm trees, a drink that provides energy for the long hikes they make throughout the Niyamgiri Hills.
  3. The Dongrias practice shifting cultivation, growing different types of lentils. This particular practice is performed to ensure that the soil deprived of one nutrient is replenished by another. It also prevents crop failure. They also preserve the seeds in order to ensure diversity in produce.
  4. The Dongarias believe that the forest should be shared among all those who reside in it, and hence maintain peaceful relations with all creatures in the forests.
  5. During springtime, Dongria families spent hours in the jungle collecting Mahua flowers. These highly valued flowers are dried and made into liquor. The seeds yield oil that can be used for cooking. The paste is used medicinally to facilitate childbirth. 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.

Dongrias versus Vedanta

Odisha is one of the poorest states in the country despite being a storehouse of resources. The government in an attempt to reduce the number of people below the poverty line, signed 79 MoUs with various companies to set up mineral-based industries. One such agreement was signed with Vedanta Aluminum Limited (VAL), for the development of an alumina refinery and a bauxite mining plant in the most environmentally diverse region of the Niyamgiri Mountains in Odisha. The objective of this project was to aid industrial growth and increase the financial status of the people. This however meant a sudden crashing of the worlds of the Dongria community and their self sufficient nature.

For the dongrias, Niyamgiri was more than just a home, it was a source of perennial water streams, food, worship and most importantly being self-sufficient. 

The Dongria put up a strong front to fight the breaching of their territory by protesting on not only a local or national level but also at an international level. They showed their resistance against the mining and refinery by holding roadblocks, forming a human chain around the Niyam Dongar (the mountain of law). 

‘Vedanta has come here to destroy Dongria. We will drive them away. They don’t have any right to touch our mountains. Even if you behead us, we are not going to allow this.’ — Rajendra Vadaka.“Where will us children go? How will we   survive? No, we won’t give up our mountain!”

The Dongrias pride the hills and nature that have been bestowed over them and prefer it over money and other comforts of the world. They believe they would be lost in a world outside Niyamgiri where they would have to pay for the very basic necessities such as water. They are grateful for the safe haven that niyamgiri is, and would even sacrifice their lives before they abandon their home.

‘This Niyamgiri Hill is our God, our Lord, our Goddess, our father, our mother, our life, our death, our flesh, our blood, our bones.’ — Putri, a Dongria woman

Leave a Reply