God of small hills

Inside Niyamgiri range the Dongria Kondhs worship the forest hills as their spiritual sovereign

By Sayantan Bera
Published: Monday 15 July 2013

Niyamgiri ranges seen from Bissamcuttack railway station in Rayagada district, Odisha. The forest dwellers crowd the station in the morning to sell pineapples, mangoes and jackfruit grown in the forests (photos: Sayantan Bera)

A Dongria Kondh woman at Bissamcuttack railway station. The goods train loaded with coal supplies to the alumina complex of NALCO in Damanjodi, Koraput district

A goods trains shunted at the Bissamcuttack station. In the backdrop is the Niyamgiri range

One of the over 100 perennial streams that originate from the Niyamgiri hill range

Lado Sikaka will not allow me to photograph him. “I don’t trust you. This is your first time here. Come and attend our meetings and rallies, come back again to our village. Only then will I know you won’t betray us.” I show him his photos published in news reports, short clips I made on my way to his village inside the dense forests. He is blunt and on-your-face: “next time”. Lado will speak to me, but no photos.
It’s my second day inside the tropical forested hills of western Odisha—the epicentre of a forest-dwelling community’s adamant stand to not allow their habitat be mined for bauxite. Cocooned inside the hill range of Niyamgiri, the 8,000 odd Dongria Kondh people along with other tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers have been living a peaceful and self sufficient existence. All their needs are fulfilled by the forests—perennial streams, plenty of fruits, spices, mushrooms, wild tubers and roots and an enviable mix of native millets, pulses, legumes and oil seeds grown on small shift-and-burn patches on hill slopes, locally known as dongar. They depend on the outside market for a few metres of cloth, salt, kerosene and the occasional dried fish.
“We can survive a drought year on fruits, tubers and mushrooms. Money has no use for us,” says Lado Sikaka, the feisty leader of the Dongria Kondh, calmly. It's a sleepy afternoon in Lado’s village—little girls sleeping on bare mud floor, a few chickens roaming about, an old woman sorting mushrooms collected from the forest, faraway a man polishing his axe on a stone; feels more like a pleasant November than a gruelling June, with the mild chill and a careless breeze. While walking between the lush hills, for the first time in my life I saw approaching rains travelling with clouds—drenching us and moving further away. You can almost play catch-me-if-you-can with the rain.

A Dongria Kondh girl from Kadraguma village in Rayagada district reacts to the camera

The forests inside the Niyamgiris sustain 53 varieties of crops cultivated without any chemical inputs alongside 273 varieties of wild food

Beginning July 18, district judges nominated by the Odisha High Court will have to brave the forest slopes and walk for hours to reach secluded hamlets. Their job is to record the decision of the forest people of Niyamgiri: whether bauxite mining by a joint venture of Orissa Mining Corporation Limited and Sterlite industries, the Indian arm of London Stock Exchange listed metals and mining giant Vedanta, will infringe on the cultural and religious rights of the forest dwellers.

For the first time in India, local people will take a decision on the fate of a mining project, with the state and Central government assisting them and the judiciary tasked to ensure the decision is unbiased and uninfluenced by the project proponents. The reclusive Dongria Kondh will bring the government and judiciary, literally to its doorstep—a landmark event without any parallels.

The Dongria Kondh, designated a “primitive” tribal group or PTG, along with other tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers worship the Niyamgiri hill range as the precursor to their lives. The provider and keeper of the forests, Niyam Raja is both their supreme deity and ancestral kin. The Supreme Court, in its judgement on April 18, recognized this, but narrowly, “if the bauxite mining project, in any way, affects their religious rights, especially their right to worship their deity, known as Niyam Raja, in the hills top of the Niyamgiri range of hills, that right has to be preserved and protected.”

The Odisha government had argued in the Supreme Court that the Dongria Kondh worship the hill top known as Hundijali, 10 km away from the hill top known as Niyam Dongar, the mythical birthplace of Niyam Raja and the proposed mining site. Even though the forest dwellers worship the entire range of hills, the state government craftily tried to narrow down the space of worship. “It’s as if they have a temple like Balaji or Tirupati, which is not the case,” advocate and a lawyer in the Supreme Court case, Sanjay Parikh, told me over the phone from Delhi.

When I ask Lado Sikaka if they have an exact place of worship, he smiles and says, “If you take away my arm or head and leave the rest of my body, will I survive?” It is not often that one comes across a community where an entire forest-based ecology and way of life is worshipped.

Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery started a school, a child care centre and constructed roads inside Niyamgiri, as part of its corporate social responsibility, to ease entry for its bauxite mining project. The CSR project was abandoned due to stiff resistance from the locals

The conveyor belt to transport bauxite from inside the Niyamgiris gathers rust next to the Lanjigarh refinery of Vedanta. The company illegally constructed the conveyor belt between 2008 and 2010 without the necessary forest clearance. The locals will take a final decision on the fate of mining, the Supreme Court ruled in April this year

An anthropological study published as a book in 2002—Forest Tribes of Orissa: Dongaria Kondh—records the importance of Niyam Raja penu (penu means God in Kuvi language) in their lives. “Their oral history refers to the importance of Niyamgiri hill range as a place of heavy rainfall, cold climate and the birthplace of numerous perennial hill streams... (they) believe that their surroundings had been provided by their benevolent supreme god king...The Dongaria regard Niyam Raja as their first king and consider him to be their eternal spiritual sovereign... He is perceived to be benevolent in most cases, but is angered when the jungle laws established by him are violated. He punishes those who undertake mass hunting in the forest or clear forest patches without appeasing him. Niyamraja is also believed to be the chief of the gods of small hillocks.”

A photo book published in 2008 by the Odisha government’s Scheduled caste and Scheduled Tribe department relegates the “eternal spiritual sovereign” to two sentences. “Niyam-Raja penu: is a male deity, represented by a sword and worshipped during Dasara and Jura Parab. He saves people from unnatural deaths and accidents.”

I ask bejuni, the young village priestess of Lakhpadar who Niyam Raja is. “He is all the hills... he keeps the jungles, roots, tubers and water safe for us.” And what if there is no Niyam Raja? “Then who will tell our worries to the other gods. When it does not rain, we pray to Niyam Raja—he sends word to bhima penu (god of rains).” For the Dongria’s Niyam Raja is not only keeper and provider but also their communicator with other forces of nature, the rain, the sun (gama penu), the earth (dharani penu) and the numerous perennial streams (gangi penu). She also tells me, as a mark of respect to the hill god they never clear any hill top of the Niyamgiri range.
It is only after visiting Lakhpadar that I realise how embedded nature and worship are to the forest people of Niyamgiri. A day earlier, in Kadraguma village, I had met Krushna Kudrak. He had travelled to Delhi to protest against mining and to Bengaluru to attend a millet festival. “We go mad outside the Niyamgiris,” he mumbles with eyes fixed to the ground, “everything including water has to be bought with money. Our ancestors have left us with this forest and we will follow their path. We only know how to farm on the hill slopes. We cannot plough in the plains below. We cannot work as kuli-kamari (daily wagers).”

The bejuni, village priestess of Lakhpadar, offers ritual sacrifices to appease Niyamraja before small patches of forests are felled for shift and burn cultivation

Wild mushrooms collected from the forests of Niyamgiri hills

Women workers return from Vedanta’s alumina refinery in Lanjigarh on the foothills of Niyamgiri

Writing on the walls of the Vedanta refinery in Lanjigarh. Proposed bauxite mining in 660 ha will wipe out much of the 721 ha of forests in the Niyamgiri, the source of sustenance of the Dongria Kondh and other forest dwellers.

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