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Who are they?
The Kol are an ancient tribal community, one of the original inhabitants of northern and central India.
They are located throughout the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tripura. In Uttar Pradesh (where they number 270,000) they are mainly distributed in nine districts of Allahabad, Mirzapur and Varanasi. In the adjoining state of Madhya Pradesh where they are also known as Gonthiya or Gondhya, their population is smaller (150,000) but they inhabit twenty-three districts within the state.
The name Kol occurs as a generic category in Sanskrit literature along with the names of other prominent forest tribes like the Bhil and Kirat. Reference to the Kol people is found in medieval texts such as Ram-charita-manasa (The Lake of Rama’s Deeds) written in the late 16th century by the Hindi poet Tulsidas.
Most primitive tribes who spoke the Austro-Asiatic language (like the Santal, Munda, Ho, Bhumji, Kharia, Khairwar, Korwa and the Oraon tribes) were labeled as the Kol. Likewise, their languages were placed in same family of languages, better known as the Mundari or Austro-Asiatic language group. Incidentally, this distinctive family of languages bears many resemblances to the ones spoken by the aborigines of Australia.
During the colonial British period, the name Kol acquired a negative connotation. It became a synonym for savage, lowly, militant and aggressive and for those performing menial jobs. One of the legends of the origin of the Kol, as related by the same authors, is that Sing-Bonga or the Sun deity created a boy and girl and put them together in a cave to people the world; but finding them too innocent, he instructed them in the art of making rice-beer, which inflames the passions, and in the course of time they had a dozen sons and a dozen daughters. From one pair of such siblings were descended the Kol community. Anthropologically speaking, they belong to the Proto-Australoid ethnic stratum.
The Kol have largely forgotten their ancient language. Today they speak Hindi and use the Devanagari script to write it. They speak the Angika dialect in Bihar, Marathi in Maharashtra and Bengali in Tripura.
What are their Lives Like?
The Kol are mostly landless in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. A large number of them work on farms as labourers and as sharecroppers. Many others work as skilled or unskilled masons in the construction business or in mines and quarries. In Uttar Pradesh their traditional and present-day occupation is collecting and selling wood and leaves from the forest, while some are engaged in animal husbandry. In Tripura they work in the tea estates in addition to basketry. A few educated members are professional, work for the government and private sectors.
Their diet includes wheat, rice, jowar, maize and lentils. Vegetables, fruits, as well as milk and milk products, and chicken, eggs, fish, mutton and pork are all included in their normal food and drink. The Kol do not eat beef, although it was enjoyed by their aboriginal ancestors. They drink alcohol, mostly cheap country liquor, which they purchase from the local market. Tobacco is smoked or chewed in its various forms.
The Kol would like their children to enjoy the benefits of formal education; in recent years they have been sending their young boys to schools, but the dropout rate after the middle school level is very high. The girls are not given education and tend to be mostly illiterate. They have positively responded to modern health care and family planning programmes, but also continue to use indigenous medicines. They continue to use dried cow dung cakes as a cooking fuel.
There are several aid facilities under federal government developmental programmes such as employment generation schemes, subsidised loans and a few of this community make use of them. A reasonable number utilise the benefits available under the Public Distribution System. (PDS)
The Kol are divided into different endogamous groups and exogamous clans in the different states they live in. In Madhya Pradesh they have several groups like Rautiya, Thakuriya, Birtiya, Garbhariya, Gondhiya, Bhumiya and Rawtele. The Rautiya are considered the highest in their social hierarchy. In Uttar Pradesh they are currently divided into seven exogamous kuris (clans), namely, Barwarira, Kol, Momasi, Rautia, Rojaboria, Thakuria and Tukrel.
Although polygamy is not forbidden, the Kol are generally monogamous. Marriages are arranged through negotiation between family members on both sides. Marriages by elopement and intrusion also take place among them. Child marriages are still practised but adult marriages are becoming more common. In the case of child marriages, gaona (ritual departure of the bride to her husband’s residence) is performed upon the girl attaining puberty.
Sindur (vermilion), lac and glass bangles are the symbols of married women. Divorce is socially permitted as is remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees. Junior sororate and junior levirate are prevalent. Junior levirate is a form of marriage in which a widow marries the younger brother of her dead husband. Junior sororate is form of marriage in which after the death of his wife, the husband marries her younger sister.
All sons inherit an equal share of the parental property, while the eldest succeeds as the head of the family. The women of this people group are granted a secondary status to men. The Kol women attend to all the domestic chores as well as contribute directly to the family income by working as agricultural labourers or, as in Tripura, taking part in fishing. The women also have specific roles in religious and social affairs.
This tribal community has their own folk songs and folk dances and an indigenous percussion instrument, the dholak, accompanies both. The Kol women tattoo their bodies with depictions of flowers, leaves and animal forms some of which has religious significance.
In each state, the Kol have traditional community councils which look after the socio-economic affairs of about fifteen villages. In Maharashtra the Kol have formed an association named the Bharatiya Shivri Samaj, which is affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Kol Samaj, a national-level organisation of the Kol community.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Being Hindu, the Kol worship all the deities of the Hinduism. The Kol living in rural forested areas still worship their tribal gods. Their Hinduism is intermingled with their animistic beliefs.
As H.H Risley (The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, 1891) notes the Kol invoke their tribal god Sing-Bonga to avert sickness or calamity and to this end, sacrifices of white goats or white cocks are offered to him. They also worship Marang Buru, the mountain god, who is supposed to reside in the most prominent hill in the neighbourhood, and who controls rainfall and is appealed to in the time of drought and epidemics. Animals are sacrificed to him and the heads left and appropriated by the priest.
Other such deities preside over rivers, tanks, wells and springs, and it is believed that when these gods are offended they cause bathers to be afflicted by skin diseases and leprosy. Deswali is their traditional village god and every Kol village has a shrine to him. He is held responsible for a good harvest and receives an offering of a buffalo at their agricultural festival.
Among the Kol the dead body of a married person is cremated while that of an unmarried person is buried. Both death and birth pollution are observed for ritually specified time periods. The Kol visit the sacred places of pilgrimage like Allahabad, Haridwar, Bandakpur and Maihar Mata and celebrate festivals like Holi, Ramanavmi (Rama’s birthday), Diwali (Festival of Lamps), Janamashtami (Krishna’s birthday), Shabri Jayanti (Shabri’s birthday, she being a lowly tribal lady who fed a wandering Rama berries).
There is a strong belief in evil spirits and witchcraft and usually a sokha (witch-finder or witch doctor) is employed. Cases of possession by the Devi (goddess) are reported and involve piercing their cheeks with tridents.