Cultural Identity Crises of Munda Community of the Sundarbans Mangroveforest:An Anthropological Study

Cultural Identity Crisis of the Munda Community of Mangrove Forest: An Anthropological Perspective

A.B.M. Rasheduzzaman, Research Fellow, Department of Anthropology, University of Rajshahi,
This paper is presented in the 33rd National Seminar on “Preservation of Tribal Art and Culture: Question of Decline or Downfall”. The Institute of Social Research & Applied Anthropology, Bidisha, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal, India. Date: 11-13 November 2006


The Mundas, an ethnic community of the Sundarbans mangrove ecological zone is mere known to people of Bangladesh as well as to the social scientist. The name of the ethnic community is in the transitional position. The cultural diversity of the Mundas refers to the variation in institution, tradition, language, customs and rituals. The internal variation of the Mundas distinguishes (ethnic roots) from other ethnic groups and also from the mainstream culture (Taklie, 1993). This group is based on the common ancestral beliefs and common occupational status and identity. This community has glorious past of hundred years, though are now in crises of cultural and ethnic identity. Many of their culture have been merged with mainstream Hindu culture. The community is known as Bunos[1], Kuli2, and Mundari to the local Bengali people. The migrations of plain land people to the Munda settlement influence them to acculturate with mainstream culture.

Methodology and Data Sources

The research has been conducted through an intensive anthropological fieldwork in the Munda community. It is an outcome of data collection from the villages of Datnikhali and Vetkhali of Shamnagor upazila of Satkhira District under Khulna division of Bangladesh. Datnikhli, the last part of human settlement of this area are surrounded by beel, river and Sundarbans on the other hand Vetkhali is also nearer to Sundarbans.

Participant observation and in-depth interview are the key source of qualitative data about their existing culture. In-depth interview of the senior people provide the data on beliefs, rituals, values and tradition. Two FGD (Focus Group Discussion) have been done to identify the common problem facing the community and case studies on marriage and land aggression has been conducted to visualize the existing picture of the community. Finally a socio economic survey has been conducted for this research. Journals, unpublished academic paper, newspaper articles, periodicals and books are secondary sources of data. The data of this paper has been checked and justified through methodological triangulation.
Key Concepts: Ethnic community, Culture and Identity, identity Crises.

Ethnic community: Ethnicity, or ethnic identity, refers to membership in a particular cultural group. Language, food, and other cultural practices are often passed down from one generation to the next. An ethnic group is a group of human beings whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. Ethnic identity is also marked by the recognition from others of a group's distinctiveness and by common cultural, linguistic, religious, behavioral or biological traits. People can share the same nationality but have different ethnic groups.
Bangladesh is the fertile land of ethnic community. But most of them live in the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) area and northern part of Bangladesh. A few ethnic groups have scatter in the country. Munda is such an ethnic community, living in the south western part, especially in the Sundarbans area. They have distinct ethno cultural characteristics. Physical anthropologists classified Mundas as Dravidian race and they belong to Mundas branch of Austro-Asiatic language family (Khaleque, 1995). The Austric-Munda group includes Bhurmij, Birhor, Bonda, Didayi, Gadaba, Juang, Ho, Kharia, Korku, Koda, Parenga and Mundari. The Munda language is known as Nagri as well as mundari. They define themselves as specific cultural groups. Mundas have their own religion, called Sarna, in which they worship nature. The people of Munda community share certain beliefs values behavior, habits, customs, and norms because of their common ethnic identity. The distinctions of the group arise from the language, religion historical experience, kinship and race. The Mundas has collective name, beliefs in common descent, a sense of solidarity and association with territory (Ryan,1990). The Mundas of Bangladesh are migrated people from Indian part and by profession agricultural, though ecological setting of this part converted them diversify occupation.

Culture: The term culture refers to a way of life, traditions and customs - transmitted through learning that play a vital role in molding the beliefs and behavior of the people exposed to them (Kottak, 1999). Human being have some biological capabilities on which culture depends, that abilities are to learn, to think symbolically, to use language, to use tools and other means of organizing their lives adapting to their environments. E.B. Tylor defined culture “ ... is that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society "(E.B. Tylor, 1871: p.1). In general sense culture is a capacity and possession shared by people, but in specific sense the word culture is used to describe the different and varied cultural traditions of specific society. Leslie White saw culture as1
dependent upon symbolling.... culture consists of tools, implements, utensils, clothings, ornaments, customs, institutions, beliefs, rituals, games, works of art, language etc. (White:1959.p.3)
The learning of culture is depends on unique human capacity to use symbols. It is a integrated pattern of society. The changing of any part will affect the whole community identity.

Cultural Identity: Cultural identity is a self-selected concept that includes the beliefs, values and concepts. The cultural identity is used to promote the contractive integration into society. The identity formation arises as a product of skin colour, language differences, behavioral pattern, cultural values and norms, social stereotypes, religious beliefs (Beale Spencer & Markstorm Adams, 1989). The conventional view of culture has been as social glue being people through their common past but at present social scientist used it to remarking group identities. The people used culture to organize society into cohesive group with political, economic and moral goal. The anthropological use of culture is basis for new social identities. Malinowski (1922), Brown (1938) describe specific culture of the ethnic community, that is used to identify the specific community. It is used to specify a variety of ways to explain as assortment of phenomena and for identification of a community.

Identity Crises: In general sense crises used to denote shortage. It has several used but in this paper it is used for the search of cultural identity. Especially it is used to refer to identify the changing traits of culture, local people’s intervention, and also the acculturation process of the community.

Historical Identification of the Munda Community
The Mundas are found in the southwestern and northern part of Bangladesh, though northern part Mundas are well known to the people of Bangladesh. The information of this ethnic community has been found from the documents of Dalton (1872), Hunter (1876), Resley (1891). They noted that British government has collected socio cultural data of this ethnic community for military and political control. According to the data, Munda community lives in the northern part of Rajshahi and their livelihood pattern depends on agricultural activities but southwestern Munda was not in the account of their documents. The exploration of this community in this area is recent, Rahman (1998), Azaz (1998), TNO (1998), Rahman (1999), Karim.(2000). The people in this area live in the Khulna and Satkhira district, surrounding the Sundarbans Mangrove forests. The Mundas of Datnikhali and Vetkhali identify themselves as migratory people, from Rachi of India some 150 years ago. They demand that more than about 200 years ago the Zamindars 3 invite them and brought them in this area for clearing the jungle to make it cultivable. They believe that they are the first settler in this area who clean the forest and make it cultivable.

Historical part of Munda supports the above explanation. The migratory process of the Munda community at one time reported all over the India and Indo-china (Shing, 1996). It has been postulated that the Mundas come to India on an eastern route from south Asham and Nepal. They took the route through the Himalayan mountain of nepal and cross the Ganga river to settle down finally in the Choto Nagpur and Santal Pargona. Hunter (1875) describe that Mundas along with others comes from Rahmahal hills of India and settled in the northern part of Rajshahi District. Kheleque (1983) describe that in Bangladesh, the Mundas are found in the Rajshahi and Dinajpur districts. But the data of the southern part support the parallel migration of the northern part. There is no evidence that the Mundas of the southern part migrate from the northern part of Bangladesh. Rahman, (1999) identified that the Mundas of this part migrated by the intervention of British Government. The Mundas were agricultural labour but expert in throwing bow and cleaning jungle. The physical ability and diverse experience pay attention to the British Government. And so, they displaced here to clean the bushy forest and make it cultivable.

In Bangladesh the total population of Munda is 2132.2. But Hider (2001) identified that around 3000 Munda people live in the southwestern zone, among them 85% depends on agriculture for their subsistence and 50% are landless. The Munda population of Satkhira District is 1961 of which 365 in Tala Upazila and 1606 in Shamnagor Upazila (Poritran, 2002). Two study village, Datnikhali consist 17 family having 82 people (47 male, 35 female) and Vetkhali consists 25 families with 136 people (male 64, female 72). The education status of Vetkhali and Datnikhali are 74% and 63% illiterate, 22% and 34% primary education and rest on is higher education. The Mundas of Datnikhali do not posses any land, even live in the land of a local landlord though Vetkhali Munda family lived in their own land.

Ecological Setting and settlements
The Mundas of this area live in the Sundarbans mangrove ecologiy. The mangrove ecology supports them for their subsistence. The community settlement is either side (Khas land) by cannel or beel side or side of coastal embankment (Bheri) that is isolated from the mainstream community people (village). The settings of their residence are easier to communicate the field that supports to collect their food. The communication of their setting is very poor, aieel is used as road for the villages. The people do not extract the forest resources, but collect the resources to mitigate their minimum needs, such as firewood, fencing the house, roofs and so on. The Mundas of these villages visit the mangrove forest for honey collection and for firewood.

Distinct Munda Community
Every ethnic community is unique for its norms, values, customs, activities etc. Most of the people do not know the uniqueness of their traditions, culture and customs. Anthropologists express their views that ethnic community is the preset of nation, but in reality they are usually known as uncivilized, backward community. As a distinct community the Mundas have their own language, economic activities, residential pattern, food pattern, marriage culture and ritual, worship and festivals.

Language: The people of the Munda community speak in Nagri language among them and teach this language to their children. The Nagri language has similarities with the Hindi language, though Bangla and Parshian words are in their language. Khaleque (1983) mentioned that Munda language belongs to the Austro-Asiatic language family. Mentionable that Munda community people use bangla language with the surrounding people, but it is totally prohibited in their ritual and festivals. The counting system is as follows "One"-Mi-a-en , "Two"-Bariya, "Three"-Apiya, "Four"-Upuniya, "Five"-Modeya, "Six"-Turiya , "Seven"-Eya, "Eight"-Irliya, "Nine"-Ariya, "Ten"-Geleya. Other higher numbers are pronounced by combining words from these in required order like "Twelve"-Gel-bariya[ten-two].

Economic Activities: The southwestern part of Munda live surrounding the Sundarbans mangrove forest. The people of the community depend on the ecology for their subsistence. The Mundas are known as agricultural, 38% family of the study villages distinguishes their parent’s occupation as cleaning forest and 62% agricultural activity. Both male and female members work in the local landlord’s field for their economic subsistence. The ecological settings support them diversify occupation. But they do not extort the mangrove resources due to believe surrounding forest. They catch fishes; collect wood for mitigation of their family consumption (food, firewood, fencing house, roof and so on). They also collect honey and catches shrimp fry from Sundarbans. From observation the status of Mundas as day labour, local businessman used them as labour in collection of Sundarbans resources.

Food Habit: The Mundas are all eater. As a distinct people they are fond of rat meat and snails. The surrounding ecology helps for specific food habit and snails. In the lean period, Vadro and Srabon month they collect bulb of lily floor. They do not eat beef because of their religious tradition. But it has economic significance for their family subsistence.

Housing Pattern: The Mundas used locally available resources to construct their residence collected from the Sundarbans. Normally their housing structure is built up with wood of forest (Sundari, Goran, Pashur) and roof is made of Golpata, Hogla and straw, sometimes Chas as wall. Normally they built their wall by mud. In every house there remain some big pottery to preserve rainwater for drinking whole the year. Munda house, takes a place for worship of God, but there has no sculpture. The house is adorned by different colour and picture.

Rituals and Festivals: The life of the Munda community livelihood strategy is a set of rituals. A ritual is a symbolic statement that says something about the individual and events. In Broad sense, it includes all the behavior and etiquette of daily greetings. Turner (1967) described the ritual as the class of behavior, which accompany social transition and ceremony to denote behavior, which serve to conform a particular status. The daily activity of the Munda has been conduct through rituals but it has been observed clearly in the festivals. The community used the ritualistic action and beliefs as symbolic statement of social order.

The community is divided into several clan, Tuti, Baghoar, Vimrul, Votkuea, Rajkuea, Ruapadma,and Kachua. Each clan has distinct ancestor and the clan member of particular group resist the clan symbol (Totem). Tuti beliefs that they are originated from sundary tree, Baghor beliefs that Tiger is their ancestor. The totem is sacred to the clan members, each household hold the totem and used it in the major part of life cycle, festivals and special event. The clan origin of the Munda community has also implication to the Sundarbans and this reasons they do not extract the mangrove resource. The use of the resources is subsistence level.

Mundas practice indigenous religion similar to the Sanaton Hidu religion, but worship pattern and the religious festivals are quite different. The Mundas believe in god and also belief in their different origin. In the worship ceremony cock is considered as sacred symbol.

The Life cycle of Munda people is full up with traditional beliefs and rituals. In every stage of rites of passage (child birth, adolescence, marriage and death) of Mundas have separation, liminality and incorporation. The rites separate them from normal life leading of the community and perform some rituals, taboos to incorporate him/ her in community. The community members celebrate the news at the 9th day of born and recognize the new baby and also the mother. Rituals regarding newborn baby is known as Shoshi puja. The mother will come out the house and bath in the pond after that he will bring water and used the water to wash her husband’s foot. Father of baby provides new dress to the mother and also to the child. Getting new dress she below his neck to her husband and pray (Shaba). The new baby is addorn by tagi this day. In the ceremony a red cock, candle (aroti) is needed for worship. Purahit (religious leader) of Hindu community conducts the puja. Through this ceremony the women come back to societal activity serving food to the community member. In this day invited members also provide gift the mother and also the child. Haria (local wine made by the community) is essential for any festivals. All the adult members drink haria in this ceremony.

The ancestral worship is called Sharul puja by the community members, held in the month of chatro at any Shoni (Saturday) Mongol (Tuesday). The community members remember forth father and pray for their departure soul. In this puja they use clan symbol, candle and white cock. It is notable that all purpose they use red cock except this. They belief that white is the symbol of peach and through this rituals it will helps for community solidarity. Clan members are invited in this ceremony and drink haria together.

Gohil Puja is colourful festival of the Munda community. It is held every year at the month of kartik at new moon night. The puja is conducted for safety and production of cattle. Mundas believed that through this ceremony they will get healthy cuff, enough milk and meat. At the new moon night drinking haria, the members of the community awake all the night, dancing, singing, and gossiping in their own language. Female member of the community conduct the puja at the early morning in the cow hut welcoming (boron using kori, rice and grass) the animal after that there has to provide a special food to the animal that has been eaten by the members of the community in the same pot. At one stage, a red cock has hit to the head of the cow and cooks it to serve the inviting members.

The community also celebrates seven generation through a festival named pahari puja. They belief that they are lucky, gets the ceremony in their life period. It is held in the out of the community residence in the month of Chatra. The members of the clan of the nearest village are invite in the ceremony. Everyone wish the child. There arranged a feast to the members. Mentionable, the wastage and extra food and equipment keep under a hole in the place. Only iron metal has taken into the house.

Valua puja is done for the better production crop. They conduct the puja before planting paddy.

They are also worshipper of Kali, the gods of power but do not make any sculpture of Kali, at this puja they arrange all the elements used by the conventional hindu kali puja. They believe that she will save them from danger, famine, and epidemic diseases. The community people pray the Monosha because of their living near by the beel, frequent movement in crop field, canal and so on. Monosha, the gods of Snake will save them from attacking of snake through this puja.

Marriage Rituals: The marriage of Munda community is a set of ritualistic phenomena that has significant social and economic meaning. Marriage of this community does not allowed within the same clan, often it becomes arranged within different clans because of changing prevailed kinship terminology. If any one denied the rules he will be ostracized from the own community. But the society has own system to bring him back in the society. Then the convicted people have to arrange a feast inviting ten village people (Munda village) and serve meal of sacrificed goat. Particularly it is an important tool of social control. The economic condition of the Munda community does not support to arrange such feast. As a result peach and discipline will prevail in the community.

No incantation is uttered in a marriage ceremony of a Munda community; it always ends up with the formal ceremonies. The marriage ritual differs from clan to clan though similarities in major customs and rituals. Any party can propose for marriage but it must occur through Matobbar (community leader) of the community. Matobbar arrange bridegroom choice ceremony. The consensus of parents is also important, but without certification of the matobbar marriage is prohibited. Munda marriage happened in the month of Falgun and Baishak.
Girls of this community are usually married at early age. Many time the guardian of a family arrange marriage before their child’s birth due to complexity of date related to marriage because auspicious date may not found within two and three years. The marriage in Munda community built up a relationship between women and patriarchal residence. The woman comes to her husband house and has to take responsibility of household immediately.

The social leaders perform the rituals of marriage. At first a white hen is sacrificed and then putting his left leg on the blood starts the journey for bride’s house. They believe that it will save them form any evil power. One of the customs is that blood of little fingers from both bride and grooms are kept separately on mango leaves. They wrapped the leaves and altered it in each other neck.

Groom has to provide verbal assurance of taking responsibility of the bride forever. Otherwise father of the groom will not permit to adorn the bride with vermilion. After that, groom takes the hand of the bride to take in his house. According to the patriarchal Munda community, reaching his own house the groom rides on the roof of the house for suicide as per custom, then wife request to come down by making the promise she will maintain him through out the year. Hearing that, he descends from the roof.

Identification Challenges
The ethnic community is under threat for their identification. The Mundas of this area is known as Bunos, Kuli, Mundari by the dominant Muslims and Hindus, though they are belonging to a same race and posses same beliefs, rituals and customs. In 1991 population census, there has been documented this community as two separate community Bunos and the Mundas. The community faces problem in their title, the British government used community title as sarders in the first census in this area. The community was affected mostly by the first land survey. The Surveyor was not popular in the gosti terms. Consulting with local landlords used Sharder as Gosti title of Munda people and merged them with the common plain land people. Long period they hold this identity due to possess their family land property. But unfortunately, most of the Munda people are landless. Government never paid attention to the Mundas, ethnic community.

The Nagri language is rarely practice among the children of this community. The Mundas are in the process of acculturation, going to the schools and learning Bangla language, culture, norms and values. As they have to mix with mainstream community people in the school, they feel shyness to talk Nagri among themselves; moreover they have to face teasing. The community people are to cope with the Bengali people every moment for their economic need; they are talking Bangla as first language. The frequent use of bangla language is taking behind the Nagri language. Now the Nagri is used only in the religious and festivals purpose. The aged people are rich with the Nagri language; middle age people can continue the cultural activities and new generation are little concern with the language.

The community people believe that they have lost their land property due to lack of education. Now their children are going to schools. The worship of Sharoshoti, gods knowledge has been practiced followed by the hindu religion.

The Changing Pattern of Munda Community

Shrimp cultivation has changed adaptation pattern of Munda community. In mid 70s it spread in the Sundarban areas that limit the access on common grazing land. It totally impact on their livelihood strategy. It restricts fishing in the beels, cattle movement and agricultural activities. Those are living in this ecology have been influenced to change adaptation strategy and becoming dependable to the coastal resources. The people of study villages are engaged in different occupation on the basis of seasonal variation and resource availability. The primary occupations of two villages are given below:

Table-1: Occupational status of study villages

Occupation Name of the Village Total
1. Vetkhali % (n) 2. Datnikhali % (n) %( n)

Cultivation 11.11(7) 11.48 (7) 11.29(14)

Day labour 39.68(25) 19.67 (12) 29.84(37)
Shrimp fry collection 25.4(16) 40.9 (25) 33 (41)
Shrimp farm labour 20.6 (13) 24.9 (15) 22.5 (28)
Fishing net maker 1.6 (1) 3.3 (2) 2.4 (3)
Van Puller 1.6 (1) ( 0) .8 (1)

Total 100 (63) 100 (61) 100 (124)

Source: Field survey, 2007

The data of the table provide the information that only 11.29% people are in their traditional occupation where dependency on coastal resources (56%) has been increased. The dependency will be high because most the day labour work in the shrimp field and engaged in collection of honey, wood, Golpata, catching fishes etc. from Sundarbans by the local businessman. The changing occupation is enforcing their socio-cultural changes.

The community has plenty of land for cultivation. The property was under the gosti title but problem occurred when they are used the title Munda. Land record was in the previous title “Sarder” that create problem in transformation property through generation. The local people occupied their land without document or making false document. Many of the Mundas file case in the lower judicial court but they are losing the case due to their community title.

The government has taken several initiatives for restoring mangrove ecology that has little implication on the Mundas, living in this area because of low dependency on Sundarbans forest resources. A group of people migrated in the inland in early 70s due to poor adjustment with ecology. Both Pull and Push factor are embedded to their migration. The Push factor are limitation on agricultural land and economic hardship in this area and push factors are better opportunity of survival i.e. Housing land provided by the local land lord, and the ecological condition where they lived. They settle down near by the char or khas land of Tala and Ashasuni upazila.

Mundas are very close to the Shudro and Khatrio, schedule caste of Hindu religion who living near by their residence. Approximated 75% time is passing with the community members mentioned by the young Mundas and sharing their needs, problems and views with them. The intimate interaction with the hindu community make changes in their attitude, behavior and cultural responses.

Government and Non Government Initiatives in the Development

A few NGOs i.e. PORITRAN, BHUMIJA, RISHILPI, PRODIPON are working for the development of Munda community. But Father Lewezi an Italian is working for restoring the solidarity and cultural development of the Munda community. He has established the identity of the community as Mundas. Now Mundas people used the title Mundas as Sham Munda, Atul Munda.

The Munda people are voter of Bangladesh. They get benefits of VGD/VGF and other relief from government through local governments. Government lunching house of Mundas in the rehabilitation projects but it make cultural crises. A few Mundas has migrated in the newly provided house but all the time living with Bengali people that insist to import culture and changing their distinct culture.

Policy Recommendation and Conclusion

The Munda community is in the process of cultural change and also facing identity crises. The findings of this research claim some policy implication on their cultural preservation, ethnicity and overall their distinct identity in the southwestern part of Bangladesh. Anthropologists of this region have to conduct rigorous ethnography on the community that will be a document of their culture with their internal and external crises and government and NGOs should respond to restore their culture. A few recommendation haws drawn below:

Learning of Nagri language can take into formal institution because it is first tools of communication. In the Indian part the community have rich vocabulary and also the written form. So, for the cultural preservation Nagri version school can be provided. On the other hand, formal school can open only for Munda community people where the children will talk themselves in Nagri language.

The integration among Munda villages must be strong to resist Bengali peoples intervention. NGOs can play roles in their social networking.

Khas lands have to provide for the community people through government initiatives for their economic stability and taking back to their parental occupation (farming).

Restrict plain land people migration/ settlement within the Munda settlement territory.

Government and NGOs can take rehabilitation project only for the Munda community, not with the mainstream cultural people. The socio cultural and housing logic of the Munda community will take into consideration in build up their residential pattern.
1. [1] Buno refers to understand backward, uncivilized forest people
2. Kuli is also used to same determination of the community by the local people.

3 Zamindars are local tax collector in the British period


HcoRealEstate said...
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Sumita said...

Excellent post! I was wondering if you had a list of your works cited?