I had mentioned the great plateau of Chota Nagpur earlier, with regard to the Santhal tribe, an Austroasiatic people. This is an ancient land, sandwiched between two mighty rivers – the Ganga to the north and the Mahanadi to the south. Occupying around 65,000 square kilometers, it is a reminder of the geological forces that shaped South Asia. Once part of the great southern continent of Gondwanaland (named after the Dravidian Gond people, who live in Central India), it broke off (in the shape of the Indian Plate), drifted north and collided with Eurasia. That was tens of millions of years before the evolution of modern mammals, and human beings.
Chota Nagpur is rugged country, with hills and plateaus criss-crossed by rivers and swathed by thick forest. It is exceedingly rich in natural resources, above and below the ground. Spread out over Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar and Bengal, it forms the backbone of the country’s heavy industry. The status of being an industrial hub of the subcontinent is a recent development. Before the British colonial administration and their Indian successors opened up Chota Nagpur for its coal, iron ore and bauxite deposits, it was the haunt of the Munda (a branch of the Austroasiatic linguistic group) and North Dravidian tribes.
It would be incorrect to say that they were completely isolated. But they were certainly on the margins of the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian polities evolving all around them in South Asia. The Munda people are distant relatives of the Vietnamese (Vietnam), Khmer (Cambodia) and Mon (Burma). One wouldn’t guess that on the basis of physical appearance. The Munda tribes (including the Munda proper, Ho, Santhal and others) look nothing like the people of Southeast Asia. But they do look a lot like some of the Dravidian inhabitants of Central India.
In fact, the North Dravidian tribes (the Oraon or Kurukh, and the Malto or Paharia) cannot be distinguished from their Munda neighbours at first glance. The cultural and genetic admixture that has taken place between these two great language families of Asia needs to be studied in great detail for it holds the key to many historical secrets. I will be writing more about the Austroasiatics and Dravidians in the posts to come. My interest has been piqued by certain news reports in the media (related to genetic studies being conducted on some of these tribes).
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and has been taken from a book, ‘The People of India’, an eight-volume series compiled by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye between 1868 and 1875. This ethnographic study was conducted at the behest of the then Governor General of India, Lord Canning and is a treasure trove of information (especially the photographs of different communities across the length and breadth of the subcontinent).