All About the Khond Tribes

By Sidhartha Mishra

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One development that has changed the world is the abolishing of human sacrifice which was practised during the pre-independence period by the Khonds in India.It was such a ghastly act but the belief system among the Khonds was such that they thought it to be a sacrifice to the forest god and took pride in doing it.Even these Khonds brainwashed the victims in believing that they are doing a noble job by sacrificing their bodies for the betterment of this world.And these victims were in turn willing to be sacrificed at the end.And they fully co-operated in this inhumanly act!

The British occupied the region where the Khonds lived, in 1835.During this time this practice of human sacrifice was widely practiced by these tribesmen.The persons whom these Khonds sacrificed were called Meriahs.

The sacrifice was therefore called Meriah sacrifice.This sacrifice was primarily performed with the intent of the fertilisation of the Earth.The victims were required to be purchased for a price .Unless and until they were purchased with a sum, they were deemed unacceptable for Meriah sacrifice.

The Khonds normally did not sacrifice their own tribesmen, however sometimes they did by paying a sum to the victim and their families, if they did not find any one else.Persons of any religion,race,caste,age,rich or poor were eligible as Meriahs.These victims were often kidnapped, normally children were taken from nearby communities,Then these children were kept with the tribe and were fed sumptuously and well treated.They were told about the importance of Meriah sacrifice and brainwashed.The women selected as Meriahs were encouraged to become mothers.About ten or twelve days before the sacrifice the hair of Meriah are cut.The tribesmen take a holy bath and go with the priest to the place where this sacred sacrifice is to be performed and inform the forest god about it.The ceremony lasts for three days and the victim are sacrificed on the last day of the festival.Liquor and other intoxicating drinks are taken by the tribesmen.

These Khonds were basically hunters.They hunted wild animals and ate their meat.They also ate fruits and roots collected from the forest and cooked their food from the oil extracted from the seeds of the sal and mahua plants found in the forest.These Khonds are designated as scheduled Tribes and live in the states of Andhra Pradesh,Bihar, Chattisgarh,Madya Pradesh,Odisha, West Bengal.

They speak Kui and Kuvi languages and write them in Odia script.They are adapted to the forest environment and have now began doing irrigation, plantation and are using modern techniques following intervention from the government, for development activities.

The large related groups of Khonds are called clans, having a common surname.The eldest male member of the most influential family of the clan leads them.These male members in turn elect their leader called ‘Kondh Pradhan’.The family is nuclear and joint families are also found.The female members are given equal status.They can inherit and own and dispose properties without the permission of their husbands, sons or parents.They have the right to choose their life partners.Remarriage is also prevalent amongst widowed or divorced men and women.

Bravery and hunting skills determine the amount of respect that a Khond man gets in the tribe.A large number of the Khonds were allocated to the British Indian army and sent to take part in World war 1 and 2 .Today they join state police and armed forces of India in large numbers.

Today though they no longer practice the human sacrifice,it was prevalent during the pre-independence period.The credit of the abolishment of this practice goes to the Britishers.The British discovered this practice during the period between 1836-1861 and they suppressed it .

The sacrificial mode differed but the most common practice was that the priest or the Jani(as he was called) would first cut the Meriah or Toki or Keddi (Toki or Keddi was called by the Khonds and Meriah was the Oriya name given to the victims).After the victim is injured,then others would rush and strip the flesh of the Meriah from bones.The head and intestines were not touched.Then they would go to their respective fields and bury them thinking it would fertilize their fields.

G.E.Russell first discovered the Meriah affair and gave his report to the British government on August 12,1836.Then Lieutenant Samuel Charters MacPherson of the Madras Army echoed the same sayings.Two years after that Lieutenant Hill of the Survey Department also confirmed that Meriah sacrifices were prevalent among the Khonds in Bastar,Jeypore,Chinna Kimedy, Ghumsar,Baud,Sonepur,and Daspalla.This was practised since many centuries in the whole region of Khondistan.But the outer world did not have any idea about it.

The first difficulty in front of the British was the Belief system of the Khonds.

It was very difficult to remove a practice which was in use since many centuries and with a belief that it was very vital for their existence itself.Further it had the sanctification of the local rajas or rulers who though had jurisdiction over the areas but had little control over the region of these tribesmen.

Then the Britishers were outsiders and the sudden change of their practice would result in bitter feelings of the tribesmen towards them resulting in bloodshed.

Further the tribesmen lived in hilly regions infested with wild animals and forests with no roads or source of travel except the locals who knew the region.Hence any sudden operation was not possible.

Then again the Khonds were illiterate and lead very unhygienic way of life with their cattle ,goats,fowls etc and pestilence was prevalent there.The British officers found it very difficult to even go there.

Thus the British formulated a slow and steady way of reform.British officer like John MacPherson was actively involved in the suppression of the rite.He devised various ways of trial and error like exerting influence over the priests, winning over the zamindars sothat they influence the tribals to give up this practice,etc.It was only after 1845 that effective measures were taken and Meriah Agency was established.

An act XXI of 1841 was passed and an agent was given charge and its main duty was to eradicate human sacrifice and female infanticide which was also prevalent among the Khonds.He was called the Meriah Agent or Hill Agent who was given the charge over the entire tribal tract ,be it in any region or state.

Officers like G.E.Russell,Captain William MacPherson, Captain Fyre,John Cadenhead,Lt.Colonel Campbell,Lt.Hill and Mc. Neill were appointed and tasked with the eradication of Meriah practice.They mixed with the Khonds,gave them clothes, tobacco, money to buy liquor,distributed beads to the women,went for hunting with the Khond pradhan,smoked together,gave them presents,and were told that the gifts and perks would be given further if yhey worked towards ending the human sacrifice.Many pradhans kept their promise while some did not.

Hundreds of victims were rescued before being sacrificed.The policy of persuasion and repression was effective in saving lives.Campbell rescued one-hundred and twenty five victims,S.C.Macpherson rescued two hundred and fifty five victims,in all twelve hundred and sixty victims had been rescued by the Meriah Agents!From 1837 to 1854 fifteen hundred and four Meriahs were rescued by the government.Dr.John Buckley,a missionary in Odisha, estimated a total of seventeen hundred victims being rescued from Meriah sacrifices.

The British government also deployed other measures like promotion of education,giving medical aid, construction of roads, opening of fairs sothat the tribal population could trade with the surrounding Hindu population,and missionary work by the missionaries etc.

The government worked in close cooperation with the missionaries for the rehabilitation of the Meriahs.The missionaries opened orphanages and asylums for the rescued Meriahs in Cuttack, Berhampur and Balasore.Education was provided to them along with native Christian children.All the students had to participate in three hours of manual work after six hours of study.The missionaries intended to make them sensible,moral, industrious and pious in their behaviour.They converted many of  the rescued Meriahs into Christianity and gave education and shelter to all the rescued Meriahs.

Thus, the combined efforts of the government and missionaries finally brought an end to the inhumanly practice of human sacrifice among the Khonds.It was a great change or reform that brought in a new era of development in the human civilization of the region and the whole world at large!

By Sidhartha Mishra, Sambalpur

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