An afternoon experiencing the food and culture of the Oraon Tribe in India

Wikipedia excerpt of the Orao Tribe:

The Oraon or Kurukh tribe (KurukhOṛāōn and Kuṛuḵẖ), also spelled UraonOran, or Oram, are an Adivasi group inhabiting various states across central and easternIndiaRakhine State in MyanmarBangladeshNepal, and Bhutan.[6]Traditionally, Oraons depended on the forest and farms for their ritual and economic livelihood, but in recent times, a few of them have become mainly settled agriculturalists. Small numbers of Oraons have migrated to the northeastern part of India, where they are mainly employed in tea estates. 

“Oraon” is an exonym assigned by neighboring Munda peoples, meaning “to roam.”

Sharmila Ekka, my comrade throughout my early and teenage years, came to our house when she was 12 and I was 9. My brother was an infant and my parents simply wanted someone slightly older to live with us because I created a ruckus everytime anyone left me home alone even for 5 minutes. I would cry like the demon from Emily Rose was specifically unleashed upon me from hell. It wasn’t a pretty sight to say the least. And she was sent because her parents had 6 other kids and wanted her to have a better life than her other siblings.

What struck about her from the very first day was her insane zeal to learn. She reached us with a fair share of her clothes and a Bible with pages falling apart and she read that everyday. Without fail. Throughout the day she would be found in different corners of our house bent over newspapers, trying to grasp as much information as she could about the world outside her bubble.

To my mother this was quite fascinating. On one hand she had me- her daughter who would find every excuse in her dictionary to exchange her study time for play time and feigned headache or stomach ache everyday to miss school. And on the other hand was Sharmila who would study at every chance she got. So she stood up one day and enrolled her in a school that would let her study from a couple of standards below to compensate for the number of years of school that she had missed.

Any child would have been mortified to go to school with kids younger than her in her class but not Sharmila. By now we had become close friends and I called her Milo. Milo took this opportunity in her stride, got her first set of uniform, books, carefully oiled and pleated her hair and off she went to create adventures of her own. Every afternoon when I returned from my school and she from hers, we would exchange stories of the day and somehow her life always seemed far more adventurous than my otherwise drab school life.

Then came my teenage years and I turned the most difficult teenager ever- someone I don’t even wish upon my worst enemy (or maybe I would). She somehow didn’t care enough about boys and I had a crush on every cute guy who passed by me, maybe to compensate for the fact that I was actually crushing hard on my girlfriends. She sailed through those very years without the slightest glitch. Her only aim was to complete education something that her other sisters didn’t get the opportunity to pursue. Many afternoons I even found her hunched over my books. Knowledge was her only drug.

Soon school was over. I completed 12th and was set to fly off to a different state and she had responsibilities back home. She had only completed her class 10th then and didn’t want to stay back with our family because she would get lonely all by herself. She made the choice to return home and complete 12th in a school in her vicinity. However, a boy entered her life and she couldn’t continue her studies- a decision she regrets to this day. Meanwhile, a boy entered my life in Delhi and disrupted my education- a choice I do not regret to this day.

The only time I ever got to meet her was when I visited home and she always made it a point to visit us every couple of years. Our lives turned poles apart by now. I made the choice to make starting a family my last priority and she got married to a boy of her community and have a daughter. I met her in 2014 last before a couple of months ago. She heard that I was studying Psychology last so she came to visit me because she had been hearing voices and seeing visions. Everyone in her village thought she had been chosen by Christ to make prophecies, while the doctors diagnosed her with Schizophrenia and grandiose delusions.

She told me how she would stay up all day, reading, seeing things, she even mysteriously predicted a few deaths in my family, she saw her life be turned into a movie and in the end, with disappointment clouding her eyes, she thought her thirst for learning new things turned her manic. Knowledge- her biggest virtue- turned into her vice.

One thing led to another and we decided to vlog about her life and her culture in the village inside The Matidhar Tea Estate. She squealed with a joy a little considering her dream to be in a movie was about to come true. I murmured, it was hardly going to be a movie. She didn’t care and I got a story to showcase.

A couple of months of going back and forth through text messages, we finally fixed on a date to shoot the vlog. I could hear her buzzing with excitement every time she called me to feed me with more information about what she wanted me to portray through my vlog. She arranged for everything and got a lot of young girls from her village to come on board with the idea. I was happy to oblige being a sucker for a great story.

On the day of the shoot, off we went to her village, a few kms ahead of Siliguri town, ready with all my shooting gear and we were welcomed warmly by everyone who knew her. After a quick stroll to see her village, the river that flows through it and the irrigation system, we were officially welcomed into her community where the girls washed our feet and hands and shook hands saying “Jay Yeshu”.

Decked in colorful yellow sarees with red border, the girls began their singing and dancing ritual and asked me to join in as well. After the dance and our introduction to the community, we were invited to join in for lunch. And what a lunch that was.

She cooked up a hearty beef curry, rice, dal, saag, fried up some papad and their local roti shaped like dough balls- made from wheat flour, rice flour, semolina and crushed coconut and peanuts. It is made only on special occasions and is called “Parab ka roti”. Slightly sweet in taste it paired wonderfully with the spicy beef curry.

While the rest of the community stands divided in terms of the meat we eat, the adivasi (tribal) community, despite originally being Hindus, eat whatever they can locally source and their diet consists of beef, mutton, chicken, pork, freshwater fish, snails and a lot of them still forage for mushrooms and other herbs. Almost everyone of them have a vegetable garden at home and organically produce vegetables and saag (leafy greens).

Their worshipping practices still require them to perform animal sacrifices and consist of different mystical elements. The forefathers were worshippers of land and nature and it is said that they could look at the sky and predict the weather- something the younger generations have forsaken. Even most ailments were treated through the herbs found or grown locally.

Having lived in Bengal throughout their lives, most of the Oraon population in the state have picked up eating and cultural habits of the Bengalis and some even speak fluently in the language of the state. What however worries me is their lack of education and growing trouble with alcoholism. Domestic abuse isn’t uncommon and most of them believe that sticking to a strict catholic faith is the only way out of their troubles. Considering Brahmanical traditions are yet to fully accept tribal people as their own and they are looked at as outsiders by the monstrosity that is the caste based system of India.

The afternoon with the lovely people from the Oraon community forced me to take off the colored glasses that we wear everyday. The love and the warmth of the people living the simple everyday life, far from the overcrowded madness of the city bypass most of our values. While they embraced and showered me with the best of what they had, I had only one question to ask myself, will they soon be forgotten amidst the diversity of our country? Their language and culture reduced to just an exotic experience for an afternoon? Can the immense diversity of our country accommodate its oldest citizens and highlight their traditions too?

-Mohana Ganguly

This year I aim to live through the local traditions of our country and bring out the stories of our tribal populations. Help me make this dream of mine come true by subscribing to the “Through the lanes” Youtube channel.

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