The King’s Elder Brother: Forest King and “Political Imagination” in Southern Orissa

Raphael Rousseleau


Today, any traveller can make a “tribal tour” proposed by the local Tourist Offices of Orissa State in order to take snaps of Saora, Kond or Bondo “tribes” at their colourful weekly markets. Our common imaginary of tribes is the product of the 19th century perception, which needs to be clarified. With this aim in view, this communication will try, firstly, to trace a short history of the British gaze on the so-called ādivāsī ‘Indian tribes’, before proposing a renovated perspective on those groups. By using both ethnographical and historical sources of Southern Orissa, we will show here that the “tribes” of this particularly remote area were not so isolated from Hindu kingdoms, as commonly believed. Leaving aside British colonial categories (“tribes” versus “castes”), which so far have been adopted as socio-cultural tools to label those groups, we can find more complex relations by simply coming back to the local Indian categories. Once relocated in their historical and sociological context, even the myths offer rather clear data about the self-image of the people who invented them. By taking into consideration the practical politico-ritual frame of the kingdom, beyond the theoretical castes-hierarchy, this article will eventually throw light on the pre-colonial “political imagination” (Pollock 1993) or rhetoric of the Hindu kings about the tribes and their mythical ancestor.

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