Gadaba. Contemporary tradition

Dr. Peter Berger (Groningen)
Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

During my fieldwork among the Gadaba of highland Orissa the notion of niam
(‘tradition’, ‘custom’, ‘law’) turned out to be at the same time a crucial and elusive
concept. It is grounded in a system of ritual practice that pivots around the sharing
and feeding of sacrificial food that also gives rise to certain types of social
relationships associated with maintaining and re‐making niam. More generally, niam
is associated with valued and ‘even’ forms of relationships based on forms or
reciprocity and opposed to forms of ‘negative reciprocity’ particularly associated
with the rau demon.  
In contrast to, for example, the Santal and the Kond the Gadaba have had little
contact with the British colonial power and, moreover, they were not considered to
be sufficiently ‘primitive’ by the Indian government to be the target of elaborate
development schemes as are the Dongria Kond or the Bonda. However, the Gadaba
surely did not live in splendid isolation as is the stereotype of tribal society. The last
decade saw some more or less drastic changes. At the time the traditional dress of
women nearly had disappeared Western tourists arrived on the scene, who want to
see Gadaba women dance in exactly these dresses. Hindu teachers now force theirpupils to abandon their beef diet and scold their parents for their liquor
consumption. Ganesh puja becomes an obligatory ritual for school children. New
options in relation to Western medicine or botika have to be negotiated with
traditional healing practices. The paper will deal with the question how niam relates
to some of these aspects.