The Ambedkar Bhavan, standing inconspicuously at the Kankurgachi Morh on the busy CIT Road, houses four fascinating museums, graceful in contrast to its unkempt exteriors. Established in 1955 by the Cultural Research Institute (CRI), a wing of the Backward Classes Welfare Department (BCWD), Government of West Bengal, the Ethnographic Museum, commonly known as Tribal Museum, is an excellent attempt in preserving the indigenous artefacts of the tribal communities of not just Bengal, but of the entire eastern belt of India.
India has a rich tribal heritage and, according to 2012 statistics, is home to about 25 million tribals. The underlying stream of primitive culture in its multiple expressions runs deep in the psyche of the people of Eastern India. The Santal culture in particular is ingrained in our society.
The Santals, with a population of ten million, are the largest homogeneous community found in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Assam and beyond in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Other tribes found in Odisha and in the Chhota Nagpur Plateau are mainly the Oraon, Munda, Ho, Khariya, Bhuiya, Bhumija, Khonda, Juang, Larka, Kohl and Karua. West Bengal consists of a vibrant ethnic mosaic of forty scheduled tribes, including three particularly vulnerable groups – the Birhor, Lodha and Toto – and others from the northern region such as Lepcha, Bhutiya and Mech.
The Ethnographic Museum of CRI has a collection of 500 tribal artefacts of fourteen tribal communities, of which 360 artefacts are on display. The exhibits can be classified as follows:
Music plays a significant role in the lives of most tribal communities. Festivities are incomplete without music and dance performed by the community members to connect with nature and celebrate its creation. Dohari, Domkach, Janani, Jhumar, Jhumta, Mardana, Daidhara, etc. are various music forms of the tribals of Jharkhand. The use of musical instruments in festivals is prevalent among the Santal, Munda, Bhutia, etc. Instruments such as Santal dhamsha, madol, jhanj, kartal, jhamar, violin, sarpa, Lepcha domru, Santal and Mech flute, singas, Bhutia trumpet and horn will leave you in awe of their cultural and technical exuberance.
Household, Fishing and Hunting Equipment
There is an excellent collection of various household items of the different tribes such as Lepcha bowls and spoons, Bhutia tea cup, Mech hand fan, Toto basket, Santal flower basket, Bhumij basket, etc.
Hunting, fishing and agriculture play an important role in the tribal economy. Hunting equipment such as bows and arrows, swords and clubs, nets and traps, Santal baghnakh, axe and Lepcha sword, and various fishing equipment such as Rabha fishing trap, Lepcha fishing basket and Orion plough, etc. can be seen here.
The tribal dress and ornaments of West Bengal depict a vivid blend of the tradition and culture of the region and its people. The very thought of a Santal woman brings to our mind the image of a lady in a bordered saree, with her hair tied in a neat knot at the back of her head and decorated with flowers. The daily apparel used by the tribals and also their costume during weddings can be seen in the Museum.
Tribal jewellery is a craze among women all across the globe. The ornaments are made of brass, bronze, nickel, silver and even gold. Santal women wear paina, convex anklets and kharua, a ring on their first toe. They wear wristlets called phora sakom, various rings called taka mudam and tunki mudam and head ornaments called jhijhipi. Apart from the versatile nature of materials used in their ornaments, the intricacies of ethnic designs portray their level of craftsmanship coupled with the ease of usage.
While Santals are popular for their simplistic art forms, Lepchas and Bhutias are noticed for their colourful designs and unique patterns. A beautiful collection of tribal ornaments can be seen at the Museum. From hashuli, a Santal neckpiece, to bonmala, the witchcraft ornament made of teeth and bones, the Museum houses an exclusive collection of tribal jewellery to complement the modern woman’s fashion statement.
The Santals are religious people. They worship Thakur-Jiu, Maran Burun (Great Mountain), Jaher Era (goddess of the Sacred Grove) and Gosae Era (benevolent spirit of the Sacred Grove). The village priest Naeke worships Maran Burun on behalf of the village.
Bhutias on the other hand follow Tantric Buddhism. Various religious items such as Bhutia Bazro, wooden box, bell, Tibetan box, prayer box and the idol of the God of Kanchenjungha can be seen to have Buddhist reflections. According to ballads, the God of Kanchenjungha with its open mouth depicts that anyone who dares to step on the sacred mountain peak is sure to be swallowed by the god. Hence, expeditions to this sacred peak is banned by the government, respecting the religious sentiments of the Bhutias.
The tribal arts are very simple yet colourful and vibrant enough to speak volumes about their rich cultural heritage. The paintings make use of locally available resources for rich pigmentation. Tribes of West Bengal use basic colours with floral designs, while those from the hills use a combination of colours following the geographical forms available in nature.
The Thangka paintings of the Bhutias depict their religious interpretation of the philosophy of their life. The very famous ‘scroll painting’ is a rich traditional folk art of West Bengal. The elaborate scroll paintings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata by the tribes of West Bengal can leave you in amazement.
The Museum exhibits other rare items like terracotta and Dokra artefacts and the masks used by the Chhau dancers of Purulia, the Gambhira dancers of Malda and those used in the ‘Devil’ dances and other socio-religious festivals of Darjeeling. These are colourful relics of priesthood.
The Ethnographic Museum transports you deep into another world, far from the cacophony of our urban existence. A trip to this Museum questions our tendencies to blindly emulate the western lifestyles while being blissfully ignorant of the more sustainable lifestyle choices in our own backyard.
The Ethnographic Museum
Days open: Monday – Friday
Timing: 10:30 am – 5:00 pm
Parking: Inside the compound on special request
Photography: Not allowed