Orissa has the largest number of tribes in India. There are more than 62 tribal communities in Orissa. They have retained their tradition in-spite of the on slaughter of modern civilization. These tribes mainly inhabit the Eastern Ghats hill range, which runs in the north-south direction. More than half of their population is concerned in three districts of Koraput (undivided), Sundergarh and Mayurbhanj.
Orissan tribes are strong, assiduous and simple hospitable tribes, normally like to be reserved and maintain distance from the people of other communities, as they are too shy. The major occupation of these tribes is agriculture and fishing and hunting. Men usually wear loin attire and women rap long stretch of cloth around them. Women are adorned with ornaments like bangles, armlets, bracelets, necklaces, rings, hairpins etc usually made of silvers, aluminum, and brass. The practice of tattooing is prevalent among women folk. Girls above 5 years are found with tattoo mark on their faces and hands.
Mnay tribes, for instances, the Juanga, Bhuiyan, Saora, Dharua and Bonda, practice what is called shifting cultivation or Podu Chasa, also known as slash and burn. They select a plot of land and generally on a mountain slope, slash down all the trees and bushes and burn them to ashes. Spreading the ashes evenly over the land, they wait for the rains before planting their crops. Due to cultivation for two or three seasons on one plot of land the soil gets depleted, so the tribal move on. It is a way of life for them. There are cattle-breeders among the tribes, notably the Koya. There are simple artisans too like the Mohali and Loharas, who practice crafts of basket weaving and tool making. A sizeable part of the tribal population of Orissa has moved to the mining and industrial belts of the state, notably the Santals, Munda, Oran and Ho. This has helped ease the pressure on small holdings but in the process tribal villages have been abandoned. Traditional skills, land and other immovable assets have been lost without always bringing in adequate prosperity via jobs in mines and factories.
The core of tribal culture, the youth dormitory, is the largest hut in the village. It has only three walls, profusely decorated with symbols representing animals. The fourth side is open. By night dormitory is home to the youth of the village. But before and after a hard day’s work, people gather here to chat and relax. The council of elders meets here too to discuss matters relating to the welfare of the village. The open space in font of the dormitory is where youths and maidens dance with abandon every evening, for tribal culture allows free mixing of the two sexes. Despite their poverty the tribals of Orissa have retained their rich and colourful heritage of dance and music. Every tribal can sing and dance to the sound of pipe and drum and give tune to impromptu compositions that come to him/her as naturally as breathing.
The tribals of Orissa observe a string of festivals. Some are closed affairs, relating to a birth or death within the family or a daughter attaining puberty. Others relate to sowing or harvest time and these involve the entire community. Mostly a festival is an occasion for a good of Mahua liquor, a game roasted on the sprit and a night of song and dance is revelry. But that is not the end, there is an animal sacrifice too, for the deities and sprits must be appeased first, particularly the malevolent ones, so they don’t unleash drought or sickness on the land. Tribals are superstitious people and the ‘Ojha’ occupies a position of honour since he not only prescribes medicines for the sick but is also believed to exorcise evil sprits.