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Society and World View of The Birhor (A Nomadic Hunting and Gathering Community of Orissa)

Society and World View of The Birhor (A Nomadic Hunting and Gathering Community of Orissa)
Item Code: NAF213
Author: Ashim Kumar Adhikary
Publisher: Anthropological Survey of India, Kolktata
Language: English
Edition: 2008
Pages: 115 (6 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 300 gms

Sarat Chandra Roy, the doyen of Indian Anthropology Introduced Indian Scholars to the craft of ethnography through his many studies on the customs of the tribes of Chotanagpur and the surrounding areas. In his famous book, the Birhors: Little-Known Jungle Tripe of Chotanagpur (1925), Roy was primarily interested in bringing into relief the archaic primitive culture of the Uthlu Birhor nomadic hunters.

Dr. Ashim Adhikary made a re-study of the Birhor in a different region, in Bonaigarh sub-division of Sundargarh district in Orissa, during four field sessions between 1971 and 1976. In this case Adhikary was not in search of the primitive archaic. He was interested in probing deeply into social and cultural reality of the life of the Birhor in the course of their adaptation to two sets of environment: the hill forests where they had an autonomous social life, intimately and morally they had an autonomous social life, intimately and morally articulated with the natural environment and a subordinated interaction with the dominant peasant of the plains and their market network.

Adhikary felt that they conceptual framework of “world View” would provide him with the most appropriate perspective for deep exploration into social reality. He followed the path of ‘thick description’, a purposive ethnography’, to gain a proper understanding of the world view of the Birhor. It became apparent to him in the field situation that it will not be possible for him to undertake a proper study of the world view as a dynamic process of rationalization and conceptualization for creating a meaningful world of living, if he r elide exclusively on rituals, crystalised symbols and conscious statement of the meaning of the respondents. He focused his attention on observing the major subsistence activities in total social and ecological context and then carefully noted down the self-stated meanings of different elements of social action and rituals given by his respondents. He presented him- Self to the Birhor as a genuine ‘learner’ and as an ‘assistant’. The Birhor accepted him as a helpful harmless friend, but not as a member of their own community.

The main thrust of this carefully and elegantly written thesis is to bring into relief how the Birhor have developed adaptive strategies of social inter action in the context of meaning in two sets of environment: a morally ordered gemeinschaft in Disum, their own territory in the forest, and rationalist-utilitarian gesellschaft orientation in Muluk, the territory dominated by the caste-peasants and market economy.

The Birhors of Bonaigarh have so far been able to retain their social and cultural autonomy and maintain the social processes required for the construction of social and cultural forms, as long as they have a viable ecological forest base to fall back upon. They have also shown enough adaptive resilience to present themselves meaningfully as repositories of forest lores and magico-religious knowledge. If the Birhor became substantially or totally deprived of this ecological base, they will have no other alternative other than to accept perpetual subordination to the dominant peasants. It would indeed be very difficult for them to carve out a genuine realm of gemeinschaft under such a situation. Perhaps the Birhor in Bhupati colony at the foot of the Ajodhya Hills in Purulia district are facing such a situation.

I think Dr. Adhikary has been able to demonstrate the special utility of properly applying the freamwork of world view in they study of social and cultural dynamics. I do hope scholars in the social sciences and administrators connected with the development of the smaller hunting and gathering tribes will carefully go through this important monograph.


The term hunting and gathering is generally used to denote a ‘primitive’ mode of subsistence and the people adopting such a mode of subsistence are though to represent a group at the base of human development. Subsequently, in most of the Earlier studies we find a tendency towards reconstructing an ideal type of primitive society (Boas 1888, furer-Haimendorf 1943; Kroeber 1925; Seligmann and seligmann 1911).Later on, the prevalence of hunters and gatherers over a wider range of ecological diversities and persistence of the hunting and gathering mode of subsistence in the changing techno-economic situations led ethnographers to give emphasis on their contemporary socio-economic organization and their adaptation to the natural environment ( Bichhieri 1972; Lee and Devore 1972; Steward 1955)

In Most of the studies mentioned above the hunters and gatherers are primarily treated as simple, ‘primitive’ isolates drawing their subsistence primarily from natural environment. Subsequently, their dependent relations with other societies are not considered seriously. It may, however, be mentioned here not Putnam (1950) in his study of the Pygmies of Ituri forest clearly points out an economic symbiosis between them and the neighboring Negroes. The Pygmies give honey and meat to the Negroes in exchange for plantains. He observes that the relationship between the Negroes and the Pygmies is primarily based on ‘an ethnic division of labor’, and there is ‘no strict negroes will hold back their bananas. If the Negroes are stingy, the Pygmies will leave the territory and go to live with other Pygmies serving other Negro host’s (ibid.:325). Turnbull (1961) also gives similar instance of economic interaction between the Pygmies and the Negroes of Central Congo forest in Africa. The Birhor of central-east India, especially of Dr. With whom we are concerned here present almost a similar . Though broadly branded as hunters and gatherers they can, no longer, be treated as a ‘primitive isolate. For their subsistence activites they regularly collect forest produce which they barter or sell in the neighbouring society. However, before I Introduce my present problem on the Birhor let me describe here some of the studies and observations on them made by the earlier authors.

There a number of studies on the Birhor of India. The first holistic study on them is made by Roy (1925)whose main endeavour is to show in them an archaic base of the Mundari groups of tribes in India. This is followed by a few articles which are primarily first-hand descriptions of the life and culture of the Birhors (Bhattacharya 1953, Sen 1955, Sen and Sen 1955, Sen 1967). Later on, a few more studies have been made by D.P. Sinha from a different angle. He has followed the conceptual framework of ‘cultural ecology’ of Julian steward (1955), and has tried to show the life and culture of the Birhors as a result of adaptation of their subsistence economy with the forest ecology ( sinha 1958, 1959). Vidyarthi includes the Birhor within his economic category of ‘Forest Hunting’ type (1964:18) though he mention that ‘their exclusive forest economy has undergone modification, and with this their food habits, social behavior, and nature of wandering have undergone a chage’ (ibid.:242)

In contrast to the observations on the Birhor by the abvementioned authors, Bose (1956) points out that the Birhors maintains a regular and essential economic interaction with the settled Hindu peasantry of rural India. He observes that having specialized in hunting, gathering and Jungle-based crafts the Birhor have become a part of the regional agrarian economic structure. He says that since they do not get permanent patronage in any one village the are converted into a ‘nomadic caste’ and form a complement to the non-competitive productive system’ of the caste- based Hindu society of India.

This type of cast-like occuptational specialization among the Birhoris also point out by Fox(1969). Sinha (1969). Sinha, however, observes that the adoption of hunting and gathering mode of subsistence by the Birhor is a case of ‘secondary primitivization’ or devolution’. He pointed out that the Birhor, like many other Mundari groups of tribes in Chotanagpur were, in fact, shifting cultivators on hill slopes. Late on,’penetration of the caste-based economy into these areas and extensive deforestation’(ibid.:164) have forced the people to specialize in ‘hunting and gathering.”

Bose’s (1941) assumption is that the Birhor like many other tribes in India, having found a suitable alternative for their techno-economy within the regional ‘non-competive productive system’ gradually enter into the fold of the Hindu caste system by slowly emulating the cultural features of the dominant Hindu upper castes. Sinha (1972) observes, among many such tribes, a level of aareness that they are looked social constraint for the low social position accorded to them by other caste people. Sinha (1973) points out a phenomenon of ‘ocillation’ and a nomadic (Uthulu) life. Precisely speaking, while Bose mentions a kind of techno-economic force which pulls the Birhor, like many other tribes within the fold of the Hindu caste system, Sinha speaks of a kind of repulsive force which pushes them away and prevents their smooth integration into the caste-based Hindu society.


Chapter One
Introducing the problem3
Conceptual Framework used5
Area of study and Methods and Techniques followed13
Chapter Two
Sthe Birhor, their Ecology and Economy: The Background17
The Birhor and their distribution17
Ecology of the Area18
Forests vis-avis Cultivated Area18
Regional Economy18
Ethnic composition19
House Type and Material Belongings of the Birhor19
Staple Food21
Economic Activities of the Birhor21
Chapter Three
Social Organization of subsistence Activites26
Social Groups26
House Hold26
Selective Utilization of Forest Resources and Aspects of the Birhor social organization36
Symbiosis with the Larger Society40
Media of Contacts40
Nature and Extentsof articulation with the settled peasantry41
Chapter Four
Kinship and social Relationship48
Family, its Development and Interpersonal relationship49
Lineage and interfamilial relations51
Clain and marriage53
Chapter Five
World View60
The Birhor and Their Universe61
Concept of Time62
Natural Domain and Supernatural Deities63
Birhor's Relation with it The Society65
Spirits of the Dead72
The cycle of Life74
Phenomena of Birth74
Phenomena of Death75
Knowledge of Larger Society76
Occupational Categories76
Occupations vis-à-vis Human Categories77
Pattern of Interaction:Birhor vis-vis the Larger Society79
Focus of the World View80
Chapter six
Summary and Conclusion84

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