Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Prakrti Series > Primal Elements: The Oral Tradition 


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

The Birhor Universe


Ashim Kumar Adhikary

Men has a primordial urge to know his own self, his place in the universe and his relation to it. Man, unlike other animals who respond to the demands of the physical world primarily by means of their sensory receptors and motor effectors, is not satisfied with just living life but also grasping it, knowing it, perceiving it meaningfully. Man is a symbolizing animal and he perceives his world symbolically. To understand man we need to understand his perceptions and classifications of the objects and phenomena of his universe in and around which he lives.

The culture of pre-literate peoples is homogeneous and is guided essentially by the oral tradition or the collective memory of its members (Saraswati, 1970). The perceptions of their cosmic and phenomenal world can hardly be grasped by a deductive and systematic analysis. They are to be understood through a careful study of their practice by an inductive analysis. The vision of cosmic order is reflected in the social and cultural organization of the pre-literate peoples.

In this chapter, an attempt has been made to delineate the nature of perceptions and categorizations of the elements and objects of the universe in an oral cultural tradition. The perceptions and categorizations will be studies in the context of the cosmogonic myth and everyday activities.

Birhor Economy and Social World

The Birhors belong to the Mundani group of tribes and are concentrated in the central-eastern India. In Orissa they are found mainly in the districts of Sundergarh, Sambalpur, Keonjhar, Dhenkanal and Mayurbhanj. In these regions they are locally known as Mankidi, Mankria or Mankar-khia Kol because of their habit of eating and sharing monkeys. In the Oriya dialect mankar means monkeys, and kkhia means the habit of eating. The self-ascription of the people is, however, Birhor, and there is no perceptible difference between them in different regions.

Though broadly branded as hunter-gatherers, the whole gamut of the Birhor economy in the above-mentioned areas of Orissa involves the exploitation of forest resources and the maintenance of an essential economic articulation with caste peasants and the market economy of the larger society. The Birhors collect jungle products and exchange them with the neighbouring settled Hindu peasants for their day-to-day livelihood. The jungle resources mainly collected by them are from the bauhinia creeper that grows profusely in these regions. From the barks (chhakkam) of these creepers, various kinds of ropes and rope-products are made. Various minor forest products are also procured and exchanged in the neighbouring society. Hunting of wild game is another of their economic activities. But hunting is pursued occasionally and the animals hunted are primarily used for consumption. Sometimes they also sell live monkeys and skins of langur. Though hunting does not contribute much to their economy, they keep up a spirit of hunting and continue this mode of production as a cultural norm.

In the context of their life-situation the Birhors cannot operate the clan-lineage based segmentary system of social structure, characteristic of the Mundani group of tribes. They now organize their subsistence activities, primarily in terms of two groups that are referred to by them respectively as orha (household) and tanda or tola (band). Orha serves as their basic production and consumption unit, and revolves around the nuclear family of husband, wife and unmarried children. Most of them, however, comprise of partial or broken families and show a flexible nature.

There is no central authority to regulate band-formations among the Birhors. The band has no territorial affiliation, and its formation is not seasonal. It is a regular phenomenon and the Birhors always move and live in bands of several related households. Though the Birhor bands are flexible in nature, they always comprise of marriageable groups. The role of exogamy, the principle of reciprocity as well as the autonomy of individual households to move from one band to another help maintain interaction and communication over a wider region. They divide their patrilineal clans and lineages into small operational groups and align themselves in such a way as to maintain an effective scale of society and to deal with the probable scarcity of marriageable spouses.

Structure of the Birhor Universe

The Birhor of Orissa broadly divide their universe into two parts — rimil (sky) and the utaye (earth). They conceive the earth as a round-shaped flat surface and the sky, a hollow concave overarching it. This structure of the universe appears to be somewhat like a cone, and is similar to the structure of their leaf-huts.

Some of the Birhors, however, say that there is a world beyond the sky and another below the earth. They do not have any specific terms for these worlds, and seem to have varying notions about them. Some call the world beyond the sky sarag (heaven), and say that the departed souls live there. Some say that the world beyond the sky is inhabited by human beings like those on earth but the men there are all cultivators. Water of their fields permeates through the sky on earth as rain. The Birhors do not have much to tell about the world beneath the earth. They simply describe it as a dark region full of water. These ideas seem to have been taken from the neighbouring Hindu peasants.

The Birhors divide the utaye into disum (forest-clad hilly regions) and muluk (regions other than the forest-clad ones). Specifically speaking, by muluk the Birhor refer to the villages and markets. The Birhors consider disum to be their own country and muluk to be the country of ‘other people’.

A careful study of meanings of their social interaction reveals that the Birhors constitute a morally-ordered gemeinschaft-type of social-cultural world in disum, their own territory in the forest, and a rationalist-utilitarian gesellschaft-type of social-cultural world in muluk, the territory dominated by the caste-peasants and market economy.

Natural Phenomena and Supernatural Spirits

The Birhors think that whole universe is created and presided over by Sing Bonga or the sun and his wife Chandu Bonga. Sing Bonga resides in the rimil and from there rules the entire universe. Though the Birhors assume that the union of a male and a female essential for the procreation of every object and phenomenon, they do not always explicitly narrate the origin of the phenomena in those terms. Sing Bonga is regarded by the people as the supreme deity. He is extremely powerful and the creator of all things on this earth. He is basically good and thought to be benevolent. He does not interfere in the domains of other gods and goddesses, though he is omnipotent. He is worshipped by the people once a year usually in the Bengali months of Paus-Magh (January-February), and a white cock and a white he-goat are sacrificed. Chandu Bonga is also worshipped in the months of Paus-Magh, sometimes along with Sing Bonga, and sometimes on different days. But in her case a black hen is sacrificed.

Though the Birhor cannot give an idea of the appearance of the deities, they seem to make a correlation between the sex and colour of the sacrificed animal and the deity worshipped.

Dharti Mai, a female deity, presides over the utaye. She looks after almost all the natural resources and the creatures on the earth. In brief, she provides food to all creatures and looks after their well-being. She is worshipped usually in the Bengali month of Agrahayan (November-December). A black hen or a black she-goat is sacrificed for her worship.

The Birhors also talk of two other deities — Lugu Haram and Burhi Mai. Some of the Birhors consider these deities as the offspring of Dharti Mai. Lugu Haram, a male deity, presides over the east, while Birhi Mai, a female deity, presides over the west. Both deities are worshipped together annually, preferably in the month of Paus-Magh.

Lugu Haram and Burhi Mai have seven sons, each of whom presides over a particular natural phenomenon. For instance, Hanuman Bir is regarded as the presiding deity of the animal species langur (Presbytes entellus). He is worshipped with red fowls. Bandra Bir presides over monkeys (Maccacus rhesus). Red fowls are sacrificed to this deity. Nanda Bir presides over the wind, while Paban Bir or Hoyo Bir presides over rain and storm. Black cocks are sacrificed to these deities. Bagh Bir presides over tigers and cocks of mixed colours are sacrificed to him. The bear is presided over by Hundar Bir. Babsa Bir presides over thunder and meteor. Both Hundar Bir and Babsa Bir are worshipped with cocks of mixed colour.

The Birhors identify two categories of ancestral spirits Hapram and Churgin. The Hapram are classified into Bura Burhi and Chowrasi. The Burha Burhi are the spirits of the near ancestors whose names are remembered by the people, while the Chowrasi Hapram refer to those ancestors whose names are not remembered. The relationship of the living with their Hapram is both contractual and ethical. Every Birhor family has an ancestral shrine called asthan, the seat of Hapram. The members of the family protect and worship it regularly, and carry it whenever they shift their camps. Hapram are thought to mediate between the supernatural deities and the living. They look after their descendants and guide them in a crisis.

Though the Hapram live in the supernatural world along with the Bonga, the Birhors make a distinction between these two categories of supernatural spirits. Hapram are placed just below the Bonga. For the worship of a Hapram the animal is sacrificed by beating (kutam) its head, while for the Bonga it is beheaded (bonga). If the Birhors show negligence towards their Hapram and do not propitiate them, calamity may fall upon them. It is not because the Hapram are angry with them but because the people fail to conform to the normal rules of relations with their ancestors who constitute an integral part of their moral community. The asthan is a sacred place, and is highly susceptible to pollution. Briefly speaking, the living people feel it is their duty to look after their Hapram who, in turn, take care of their descendants. They are bound by a perpetual reciprocal relation. According to custom, when a man dies his son buries his body and constructs a leaf-hut over the grave. After two or three days he has to call back the departed soul (jiu) to rest in the hut. An asthan (sacred seat) is prepared for the soul. The son then gives him food and drink. The belief is that if the son does not do this the soul of his father will remain a bhulah (wanderer) and would not be able to enter the supernatural world to live with other ancestral spirits or Hapram. The spirits of the dead continue the individuality of the living persons and have the same names and disposition as they had before death. The supernatural world of the Hapram is an extension of the social world of the Birhors.

The Churgin includes spirits of the dead who wander about and live in uninhabitable places on earth. The Birhors identify eight such spirits: Daini, Pangri, Churni, Draha, Khut, Bhulah, Bhulah Chandi and Baghat. The classification of these spirits is made primarily by the nature of death as well as the nature of their habitat and disposition after death. This category of spirits is placed below the rank of the Hapram. The Birhors seem to have a constrained relation with these spirits who are considered basically malevolent.

However, these evil spirits are not kept completely out of communication. The recognition of malevolent ancestral spirits and the custom of offering food and drink to them in different ritual contexts helps maintain the structural equilibrium. The Birhors ceremonially invoke these spirits and offer oblations. They are worshipped at the boundary of the settlement primarily to placate their wrath, and are requested not to interfere with the acitvities of the living.

All the Birhors cannot get Hapram-hood. To achieve it one needs to conform to the prevalent norms and customs that emphasize personal conduct as well as maintenance of good relations among relatives. If a Birhors dies unmarried, he cannot get Hapram-hood. Marriage is an important social phenomenon, and it gives a man direct access to his Hapram, and raises him to the status of manhood or, more precisely, 'birhor-hood'.

The Birhor broadly classify the animals into three distinct categories and arrange them in a hierarchical order. This classification shows not only their attitude towards the animals but also the nature of the relation they have with them. In the first category are cows, buffaloes, goats, fowls and the like. All these animals are of the domesticated variety and do not belong to the jungle. These are first sacrificed to their deities and then taken for consumption. The second category includes langurs, monkeys, rabbits, porcupines, squirrels and the like. These animals are consumed by the Birhors without any ceremonial slaughtering. In the third and the lowest category are dogs, tigers, bears, snakes and the like. The Birhors do not eat these animals and believe that neither god nor any other human being takes their meat.

The Birhors maintain a symbiotic relationship with the natural phenomena and live in peaceful co-existence. They believe that even the ferocious animals do not inflict harm if they are not annoyed or harmed. One of my informants of about 50 years of age told me that he had never in his life seen any case of snake-bite, nor any case of death from the attack of tigers. On many occasions I came across snakes moving around the settlements of Birhors and noted that they simply drove them away with mild scoldings as if they were pets. The children appeared to be sportive at the sight of snakes in their camp-sites rather than being afraid. However, there are instances of attacks from wild animals. Though such cases are usually explained as expressions of anger of supernatural deities or as consequences of the violation of some social norms, they are often explained as a result of breach of a normal rule of behaviour with the animals. The Birhors do not cut the branches of the trees like uli (Mangigera indica), matkom (Basia latifolia), sarjom (Shorea robusta), taraf (Buchanania latifolia), triil (Diospyrosmelanoxylon) when they start blooming in the jungles during March and April. Even the trees like kadam daru (Anthrocephalon Cadamba), hesa daru (Ficus infectoria) and bari daru (Ficus bengalensis), which offer little by way of subsistence, are treated carefully when they blossom.

The Birhors gear their activities keeping in view the prominent environmental and natural phenomena. They divide their calendar into three seasons—rabang (winter), shitang (summer) and da or jargi (rainy) corresponding to the natural phenomena of cold, heat and rains.

Days (singi) and nights (ninda) also correspond to the normal presence and absence of singi or the sun in the sky. The Birhors distinguish four parts of a day — sheta (morning), tikia (noon), ayub para (afternoon), and ayub (evening). Sheta starts with the barking of dogs when the sun peeps through the eastern horizon. The literal meaning of sheta is dog. When the sun is above the head, it is tikin, and when the sun comes down towards the western horizon, it is ayub para (the coming of evening). Ayub is the time when the sun is no longer visible but its rays still illuminate the earth. In all these cases the Birhors usually point out the positions of the sun in the sky with their fingers.

Concept of Self and Some Essential Elements

Though the Birhors are ascribed by others in the locality as Mankria, Mankidi, Mankirdia or Mankar-Khia Kol, they distinguish themselves as Birhors from all other people who are categorized as diku (alien or foreigner). The term Birhor is a summation bir (jungle) and hor (man). Collectively the term Birhor means ‘man of jungle’. However, as to the origin of the people, there is a story among the Birhors of Orissa.

Once there was a Kherwar king in Chotanagpur who had two sons. After the death of the king his sons started quarrelling over the throne. The elders of the state came forward to mitigate the dispute. They asked the princes to run a race on horseback and told that the throne would belong to the man who would win the race. Accordingly there was a race, and the younger prince won. The older prince was delayed because his turban got entangled in the thorns or a bush on his way. The younger prince got the throne while the elder one took to a wandering life in jungles. The present Birhors are the descendants of the elder prince.

In this story it is noticed that among many other things, the emphasis on their association with a glorious past. Many of them, even today, feel proud if they find an opportunity to identify themselves as nagbasi Kherwar, i.e., Kherwar of Chotanagpur. The story also speaks of their traditional association with the jungles.

The manner in which the term hor is used in contrast to other human groups indicates that it is primarily a category of human beings — the category hor is meant for ‘we’, and diku, for ‘they’. It is found that some of the Birhors can specify 23-24 different ethnic groups within the broad category of diku. All these ethnic groups are referred to in terms of their occupations. Some of them are also reckoned in terms of their place of concentration or peculiar idiosyncratic personality or habit. The Birhors use the term horhon for Mundas, Santhals and other Mundari tribes. By this the implication is that they are not hor, but people like hor or very close to hor. They are not ‘we’ but like ‘ourselves’.

The Birhors of Orissa do not have clear conceptual categories distinguishing man from not-man. But a distinction between man and not-man becomes apparent in the way and the manner in which they confront the various natural phenomena in the context of their life-situations. The assumptions are mostly unstated, and may be grasped through an inductive analysis of their practices, and by asking the respondents about the meaning of their behaviour in the context. The Birhors, however, consider every natural phenomenon and object in the universe having a life (jiu) which is created by Sing Bonga. They do not view man and nature as separate. Life is the common factor commenting the relationship between man and other phenomena and objects in nature.

S.C. Roy (1925) narrated a story of creation of man and earth prevalent among the Birhors of Bihar. The story is very similar to the one found among the Santhals.

In the beginning all was water. There was only one lotus (salki) plant with its head above the waters. Sing Bonga or the Supreme deity was then in the nether regions (patal). He came up and sat on the lotus flower. He commanded the tortoise (horo) to fetch some clay from the bottom of the ocean. But it failed.

Sing Bonga then told the crab (karkom) to bring up some clay. It too failed. He then ordered the leech (lendad). The leech dived into the ocean and devoured its fill of clay. Coming up to Sing Bonga the leech vomitted out the clay into the hands of Sing Bonga. Sing Bonga then pressed it between its hands and threw bits of clay in each of the four directions of the ocean. Instantly there arose land mass on the surface of the water, and thus developed the earth. Sing Bonga then levelled the moist and uneven earth by means of mer. In the course of levelling, earth came to be heaped up at places which became the hills and mountains.

Sing Bonga scattered seeds on the moist earth from which sprang up various kinds of trees all around. The winged-horse known as Pankhraj was then created by the supreme deity. After that Sing Bonga created a figure of a man out of clay, and left it to dry. But Pankhraj trampled it under its feet at night. Sing Bonga then created a dog and another figure of man that were left to dry with their faces turned towards the direction from which the wind was blowing. By evening the clay figure of the dog dried up. As the wind entered its nostrils it became endowed with life. The dog then guarded the figure of the man from the horse. When the clay figure of the man dried, Sing Bonga endowed it with life (jiu) by blowing wind into its nostrils.

In this story there is the concept of primeval ocean from which life came forth. There is a preponderance of watery substances in the process of conception and birth in the animal kingdom. Water is viewed as a fertilizing agent. Seeds and bulbs and eggs of insects are lifeless in soil until thers is rain.

Life is often equated with wind force. In the story, the clay (hasa) figure of the dog becomes endowed with life when the natural wind (hoyo) enters its nostrils. So, also is the case of the figure of human being that was given life by Sing Bonga by blowing wind into its nostrils. The earth not only sustains lives but forms the very constitution of man and other creatures in nature. That hasa (clay) constitutes the hormo (body) of human being, and the hoyo (wind), the (jiu) (life) is often verbalized by the people.

With these perceptions of some of the basic elements of life and nature, the Birhors also have a notion of the life-process. Though they consider SingBonga and Dharti Mai as the creator and the protector of lives on earth, they are aware of the natural biological process of physical union between a male and a female in the procreation of an organism. Male sex is called sanre and female, enga. In their traditional method of fire-making they use two sticks — one, called sanre, used perpendicularly, and, the other, enga, used horizontally on the ground. Fire is produced when the male stick is drilled into the groove of a female stick. It is to be noted continuous wind is to be blown with the mouth on the meeting point of the sticks during the process of drilling for making a fire.

Fire is called singel, that has also life and death. On occasions of thathi ceremony after a birth and hoyon ceremony after a death, the old fire is ceremonially extinguished and a new fire is lit. On occasions when animal sacrifices are made in a Birhor family two fire-sticks or guglus are lent out as the belief that it might bring misfortune or even death to its members. The Birhors believe that by slaughtering animals, they give their jiu to their deities. So, fire which is sacred and forms an integral part of life should not be parted off during an animal sacrifice.

The birth of a child is regarded as the creation of a new jiu (soul). They say that Sing Bonga is always creating new jiu and sending them to earth. Once a soul is created by Sing Bonga its gets entangled into the cyclic order of the life process. The sun or Sing Bonga is the ultimate source of life. It creates the jiu, hardens the hormo and also protects them. In their perceptions there is an implicit assumption that sunrise and sunset symbolize the phenomena of life and death. It is observed that the Birhors bury their dead with the faces turned in the direction of the east.

Death, to the Birhor, is an important stage of life when some perceptible change occurs in one’s life and physical activities. Though the nature of death among the Birhors decides their fate in after-life, they do not believe in a complete cessation of life. It is a phenomenon of transition and is often termed as gach enaia, i.e., to die, to depart, or to go out of sight. There is a continuity between the worlds of the living and the supernatural, and death mediates the two.


It is evident that the Birhors perceive many more visible and invisible things in the natural and supernatural domains than described in the preceeding pages, and maintain a kind of intimate relation with them. Though they seem to have some empirical knowledge about the utility of many plants and jungles, and are aware of the regular courses of many natural phenomena, they do not think that they can control and regulate them. They think that the ultimate power lies with the presiding supernatural deities with whom they need to maintain a ritual relationship. There is a significant relation between the human world of the Birhors and the natural and the supernatural universe they conceive of.

It is observed that the elements and objects the Birhors encounter within their life-situations or inherit from their ancestors through myths, stories and legends, form an integral part of their oral cultural tradition. All these elements are, in a way, within the limits of their own space and time that are concrete and not abstract notions. Disum is the centre of their moral life. Their divisions of a year are correlated with the perceptible natural phenomena of cold, heat and rain. Days and nights are directly related to the positions of the sun in the sky. Earth and wind are considered to be the basic elements of the constitution of man and other animals. Water, specially its moistening nature, is also thought to be an essential element in the development process of life and organism on earth. Heat, emanating specifically from the sun, is considered essential for the hardening of the constitution of the human body that is made up of soft clay, and there is reflection of such a notion in their myth of creation.

The sky is the place of Sing Bonga or the sun. The other world that the Birhors perceive is on the other side of the sky and is somewhat similar to theirs.

Sex, colour, and sometimes, shape, habitat, personality and temperament are used by the Birhors as criteria for classification of objects and elements and for the grasping of their social relations. There is no distinction between animate and inanimate things, and the entire universe is endowed with life. Their Supreme Deity is not an abstract concept. He comes out of primeval ocean, and is entangled in the cyclic order of the life-process of birth and death. Like the Birhor he also needs a female partner. The perception and classification of the objects and phenomena of their universe revolve round the axis of their self and society.


Adhikary, Ashim Kumar, 1984, Society and World View of the Birhor, Calcutta, Anthropological Survey of India.

Durkheim, Emile and M. Mauss, 1963, Primitive Classification, London, Cohen & West (English edition).

Roy, S.C., 1925, The Birhors: A Little-known Jungle Tribe of Chotanagpur, Ranchi, Man in India Office.

Saraswati, B.N., 1970, Contributions to the Understanding of Indian Civilization, Dharwar, Karnataka University.


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi