The Saora are one of the oldest and most numerous of the 62 scheduled tribes of Orissa in southeastern India. The so-called Hill Saoras reside mainly in the remote district of Gajapati as well as neighbouring Ganjam and Koraput in the hilly region of the Eastern Ghats, near the border with Andhra Pradesh.
It is believed that the name 'Saora' derives from 'Sawari' (also found as 'Seori'), an elderly woman who gave refuge to Rama during his journeys in the Hindu epic Ramayana.1
Their exact numbers are not known but it has been estimated that the population of Hill Saoras is approximately 300,000 in all areas. Relatively unique among Orissa tribes the Hill Saoras maintain a casteless society; this independent of the fact that over the past few generations a large minority of them have converted to Christianity (Baptist or Roman Catholic). Others practice a traditional though unorthodox fusion of Hinduism and tribal spiritual beliefs (often characterized as ‘animism’).
These Saoras maintain permanent settlements in pastoral villages surrounded by steep hills which are terraced for paddy and vegetable cultivation. They supplement their food supply with forest-produce gathering. Their social culture, far from being primitive (a term often ascribed—wrongly—to Orissa’s tribes), is remarkable for its sophisticated governance, communalism and gender equality.
Many Saoras in Gajapati district are now engaged in employments schemes such as NREGS and OREGS2, and often entire villages work together quarrying rocks, building roads and check dams, setting up community centres and clearing land for new cultivation. Many groups, especially women, engage in micro-finance livelihood initiatives by local NGOs.
Despite these developments, the Saora remain under the omnipresent threats of soil erosion and desertification, corruption, extreme poverty, lack of access to education and health care, forced migration, and nearly futile battles with government and the mining industry over land use and rights.
These photographs were taken over the course of several visits in 2010 to Saora communities in Mohana, Chandragiri, Tabme Gorjang and Gumma.
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1-Verrier Elwin, Tribal Myths of Orissa (vol. 1), 1954
2-National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and Orissa Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme