Orissa is a thickly tribal inhabited state, consisting of sixty two tribes living in different parts of the state - in the highlands, forests, valleys and in the foot hills. They make their own traditional ethnic cottage and live in it. In order to proclaim the self identity intra group wise, socially and culturally different tribes live in different places. Each tribal community has separate mode of living and they differ significantly in their dress, ornaments, skill in building houses, and moreover in their way of life. This difference in their life is clearly discernible from their material culture, art objects from the paintings and drawings and also from the size and shapes of different objects that they use. To the tribes, dress is a cultural need and it is also a part of their tradition.
Among the tribes the use of dress is very significant and worthwhile. The tribes do not use dress just merely to hide their nakedness rather it reflects the racial feeling and their cultural identity. The tribals use separate costumes at the time of festivals and ceremonies. In a specific tribe the dresses from birth to old age has immense variety. The costumes of the male members of the tribe and the females are also different. It is a fact that the female community pays more attention in covering their body. In some tribal communities the women folk want their male partners to be dressed elegantly and impressively. A tribal woman also wears a variety of dresses from her birth to death corresponding to different stages of her life. For instance, a Dhangedi (a maiden) adorns with fine clothes to attract the attention of others while the Gurumai, the priestess wears formal clothes to worship the goddess for the betterment of her community. Dress also helps them in many adversities and also helps to propitiate gods and goddesses who safeguard them against the malevolent atrocities of the ghosts, spirits, etc.
The tribals also use dress according to the position of individual in the society like the clan's head, the priest, and the revenue collector etc. The dresses that they use at the time of marriage, birth, death, worship etc. are also different. They use dresses keeping in view the occasion, age, sex and other factors. For example, the priest does not use the normal dress at the time of worship. And again at the time of dancing they dress in a very attractive manner. And the dancing costume has also special significance. They also wear dresses in different styles. While dressing they also keep in their mind the surroundings. They also think of their convenience and inconvenience while dressing themselves for an occasion. Especially they do not like to dress very pompously at the time of any work. But when they go for shopping to the near by market place or to visit any fair or festival they dress themselves quite exuberantly and exquisitely.
Different tribal communities use different kind of dresses, differing in their color and size. Their dresses are designed keeping in view their necessity and their surrounding. The socio-cultural and the religious views of the tribals slightly contribute for the variety in their dresses. There are several tribes like the Bondo and Gadaba who weave their own clothes. While the other tribes purchase their dress from another community or the neighboring Damas or Panas. The tribal dress and ornaments mostly belong to the non-tribal group and there are very few tribal artisans. The non-tribal artisans like the weavers they live adjacent to the tribal villages. These people manufacture the costumes of a specific tribe and sell them in the weekly village market. Sometimes these weavers are being paid in cash or in kind in the form of agricultural products. The tribal costumes are very simple and it provides immense comfort to the wearer. Generally, in the Kandha community the Dongria Kandha, the Kutia Kandha and the Desia Kandha, Lanjia Saora and the Santhals depend on other communities (non-tribal artisans) for their clothes. Lanjia Saora and some other tribal community make threads by themselves and give it to the Damas to weave for them. And again they purchase that cloth from the Damas by cash or kind. While the Bondo and the Didayi, the Gadabas weave their own clothes though the Dangrias purchase the cloth from the neighbouring Damas. They knit fine needle work on it and use it.
There is a little similarity among the tribals in their dress those who live in a specific area. The Koyas, the Halabs and the Gandias are inhabitants of the same districts. Though it seems that they have some kind of similarity in their costume but in reality they differ from each other. The Kandhas live in a specific area, like the Kutia Kandha and the Dongria Kandha both the communities live in two different sides of the same hill. But as far as dress is concerned they differ significantly. Similarly, the Mundas and the Santhals though they live as neighbours they differ in their dress and culture. The Juangs and the Bhuyan high lander live in close proximity but they differ in their dress. The Kisans and the Gonds though live in the same belt they have also difference in their dress. At times there are similarity of the dress in colour, design and pattern but they differ in their cultural and social life as well as in their ritual and rites.
The artistic nature of the tribals is very innate in their heart and mind. To them the artistic and aesthetic essence is to make life more enjoyable and to fulfill the cultural, social and religious needs. Even there are some tribes they envisage a better future with the help of art and craft, for the tribals art objects and the skill of the artist is a fit medium to propitiate their deities, gods and goddesses. The tribal art is not the contemporary one. It has the heraldry of a hoary past. It was the art which once widely acclaimed in the midst of the forest, the mountains, and in the springs. Art is the base and basis of the tribal life. It is the economic, social and cultural reflection of the tribal life. Hence art is the yardstick by which they measure their success.
The material culture is also part of their artistic life. Even their costume and dress materials have the touch of artistic workmanship. It is also reflection of the art which had been passed onto them from generation to generation. That art has the accumulated knowledge of ages, which has assimilated in their social tradition. It is a medium to express their inner quest. Dress has multi-farious significance in their social life. At the surface level one can observe that they use dress only to avoid the nakedness, or to protect from cold, rain and sunshine. But in fact, the tribal costumes exhibit the uniqueness of the specific community, their self-identity. The possession of the right kind of dress is a matter of pride and a great source of enthusiasm. The "Ringa" of the Bondos and the embroidered shawl of the Dangarias have a special social and cultural significance. The Dangria shawl has a direct link with the marital relationship and the success of their conjugal life depends upon it. The dance costume of the Lanjia Saoras as well as their general dress is a fine testimony of their rich cultural heritage. At the time of dancing from the dress of the clan's head "Gamango" they get the trace of the regal pride and heroism.
The origin, history and development of tribal textile commensurate with the general history of man's progress from primitive barbarism to civilization. The state of nakedness was disgusting, to avoid that the tribals used leaves as their dress. This was used in a crude form. Then they used bark of the tree as their dress. This gave them much discomfort, so they used some son bark to avoid this inconvenience. It was not also so soothing; hence they started extracting fibers from the barks and subsequently converted it into thread. Gradually they came to know more about fiber thread etc. and then began the weaving of clothes. Later on, they also dyed the fibres to make it beautiful. They also use turmeric to colour the threads. These are also several trees in the forest that excrete colour in their bark and the tribals use the bark of these trees to dye the thread. Firstly, they boiled the bark and soak fibres in it. By that way they got various coloured threads and wove according to their requirement. Sometimes instead of making the coloured threads themselves, they purchase them from the market and then weave. Some tribes like to wear clothes of a single color, while some others like to use multi-color clothes and at times they knit fine embroidery work on it and make it fit for their use. Through the dress they reflected their traditional culture, artistic skillfulness and thoughts, for which their cultural life flourish on the base of dress. It gave a special luster to their community life and differentiated one tribe from the other.
To weave clothes they use their own indigenous technology. They use bamboo and other trees to get the fiber usually; they install the wooden loom in front of their house or in the backyard and some of them also install it in the narrow path of the village. They weave during their leisure time. Both men and women weave. In some communities only women weave. The women weave various clothes for them as well as for the male members of their family.
Orissa has the largest variety of tribal communities, which are at various stages of socio-economic development. At one extreme are the groups which lead a relatively secluded and archaic mode of life, keeping their core culture intact, while at the other extreme there are communities which are indistinguishable from the general agricultural communities. The tribal people express their cultural identity and distinctiveness in their social organization, language, rituals and festivals and also in their dress, ornaments, art and craft.
In India there is an amalgam of 437 tribes, and in Orissa the number is sixty two. According to 1991 Census, in Orissa the total strength of tribal population is approximately seven million which constitutes 22.21% of the total population of the State.
Linguistically the tribes of India are broadly classified into four categories, namely (1) Indo-Aryan speakers, (2) Dravidian speakers, (3) Tibeto-Burmese speakers, and (4) Austric speakers. ln Orissa the speakers of the Tibeto-Burmese language family are absent, and therefore Orissan tribes belong to other three language families. The Indo-Aryan language family in Orissa includes Dhelki-Oriya, Matia, Haleba, Jharia, Saunti, Laria and Oriya (spoken by Bathudi and the acculturated sections of Bhuyans, Juang, Kondh, Savara, Raj Gond etc.). The Austric language family includes eighteen tribal languages namely, Birija, Parenga, Kisan, Bhumiji, Koda, Mahili Bhumiji, Mirdha-Kharia, Ollar Gadaba, Juang, Bondo, Didayee, Karmali, Kharia, Munda, Ho, Mundari and Savara. And within the Dravidian language family there are nine languages in Orissa, namely, Pengo, Gondi, Kisan, Konda, Koya. Parji, Kui, Kuvi and Kurukh or Oraon.
The tribes of Orissa though belong to three linguistic divisions, yet they have lots of socio-cultural similarities between them. These commonalities signify homogeneity of their cultures and together they characterise the notion or concept of tribalism. Tribal societies share certain common characteristics and by these they are distinguished from complex or advanced societies. In India tribal societies had apparently been outside the main historical current of the development of Indian civilization for centuries. Hence tribal societies manifest such cultural features which signify a primitive level in socio-cultural parameter.