In Pursuit of Kerang: The Bark Cloth of Gadaba Adivasis

in Overview
Published on: 16 November 2018

Pankaja Sethi

Pankaja Sethi is a textile designer and research scholar based in Bhubaneswar. She has received three Small Study Research Grants from Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum (NTICVA) to do research on the Kotpad textiles and natural dyeing of al in 2009-10, the quilting tradition of Ganjam (2015-16) and the bark cloth of Mahima Dharma in Odisha (2017-18). She did one year extensive research work on Dongria Kondh Adivasi Textiles and Wall Paintings supported by National Folklore Support Centre-Tata Fellowship in 2012-13.


This article illustrates the journey in the pursuit of kerang – the bark cloth of the Gadaba Adivasi women from Koraput district of south Odisha. It aims to record the last phase of bark cloth and the people who are still retaining it as a part of their ethnic identity. Kerang takes us to that period when human beings had a close relationship with nature and depended on it for their existence, as bark is one of the earliest known examples of handmade cloth to cover the human body.


The research illuminates several narratives related to the Gadabas’ material culture—how their local knowledge system created bark thread into cloth that imitates tiger skin and how this became a protective and sacred cloth for the tribe. The vertical stripes of kerang in vibrant blue, red and white colours are said to be inspired by legends of encounters with tigers.


Kerang is woven by Gadaba women on a back-strap loom to cover the body along with heavy jewellery around the neck and arms. This article illustrates the diverse vocabulary around the indigenous tradition of kerang based on the reminiscences and folk tales shared by elderly Gadaba women. It wants to locate and question, the place of the forest in the 21st century context, in which this tiger-like cloth was once needed. Where are the people who weaved the cloth? In the pursuit of kerang this research unfolds several dialogues which were silenced over time and are slowly vanishing altogether in the name of development.


State and nation, and other development interventions diluted the cultural architecture of the Gadaba community to a great extent. The indigenous modes of living have been shaken due to deforestation, plantations, industries, agriculture and migration, which resulted in the displacement of people and also affected people’s state of minds. The Gadaba are currently in a state of flux. Changes are inevitable and in some years the rich folk tales and traditions of the Gadaba will disappear. Therefore, this ethnographic study is imperative.


The module encompasses visual documentation through videos, photographs, narrative accounts and my interactions as a participant observant in villages where kerang remains are still visible. In the process of documentation this research questions, how do Gadaba women relate with kerang in the current context—is it still a sacred cloth or only a memory? I also question my own position—can a lost and intangible phase be recreated through memories of elderly Gadaba women? In case kerang is revived, would it carry the same social and cultural context as it did for their ancestors in the past?


In the process of unravelling stories of this indigenous cloth, several storied unfolded. Even though I was looking for something which was almost extinct, I was still hopeful for glimpses of kerang remains, both the tangible and the intangible.


As the research expanded several narratives unfolded and many voices echoed social concerns such as the Gadabas’ altered relationship with nature and the fading away of traditional practises. Gadaba women have forgotten kerang but it is still seen as being a part of their ethnic identity, albeit as part of their history rather than daily reality.


With the passage of time, the natural ecosystem has also altered as a result of outside factors and this has played a key role in the changing identity of the Gadaba. They have stopped speaking Gutob, their own indigenous language, and adopted Desia and Odia language to a large extent. Perhaps, when one traditional practice dies, another practice interrelated to it also dies.


This ethnographic research study is based on villages in Lamtaput block of Koraput district of Odisha, namely Gorihanjar, Sialipada, Guthalpada, Sisaput, Kangrapada, Tukum, Pipalput and Ongel villages scattered high on the hills. The first section will illustrate how the intangible relation of Gadaba with their natural environment is significant for their sustenance as Gadaba consider bana-debta (nature god) their world and creator. Living in harmony with nature is as per the niyam—the socio-cosmic order of the Gadaba.


The second part of the essay analyses the changing identities of the Gadaba as a result of penetration of outside agents such as government bodies, institutions, NGOs and tourism. Migration of the Gadaba for wages, a shift in the agriculture mode and perception has tampered with the cultural architecture of the community to a great extent. It is important to understand how outside agents represent the Gadaba and how they represent themselves to outside agents.


The final section is the focus of my research area—kerang—the bark cloth woven and made by Gadaba women. The article records the old narratives of the kerang weaving process and raises certain pertinent questions. Why did the craft languish and why have people stopped weaving? Why did it not pass on from one generation to another generation? Is there any hope of recreating the Gadaba cloth and will the recreated cloth carry the same significance as a sacred and protective cloth connected with the ethnic identity of Gadaba women? Did the Kerang die because of development changes?


Gadaba Adivasis and nature


As Berger notes in Dimensions of Indigeneity in Highland Odisha, India:


‘(The Gadabas) are classified as a Scheduled Tribe but not as a Primitive Scheduled Tribal Group, which is relevant as this means they receive less attention from nongovernmental organizations and state development institutions. Like many tribal communities in Middle India, the Gadaba are subdivided in two sections: a senior section that speaks an Austro-Asiatic language called Gutob (the Gutob Gadaba) and a junior section that speak a Dravidian language called Ollari called (the Ollari Gadaba). All Gadaba, around fifty thousand also speak a local Oriya dialect called Desia as a second mother tongue.’ (2014:20).


Here, the names of languages, which are also labels for ethnic groups, are a matter of indigeneity. Gutob means ‘creature of earth’ although this meaning is obscure to most Gutob speakers. The word ‘Gadaba’ was probably ascribed by others, but it is nowadays used by all Gadaba as a self-designation. The word is said to derive from the name of Godavari River, the mythical place of origin of Gadaba to which they will never return (Berger 2014:21).


Many Gadaba live along with other cultivating and non cultivating communities. The Scheduled Caste (the villagers use the word ‘Harijan’) areas are separate from the Gadaba area in the same village. In many villages the moment I entered, I was specifically told that the other side is Harijan and this side is Gadaba to draw a distinction. Gadaba are primarily cultivators and depend on other communities for trading and livelihood such as Kumhara, Dom, Praja, Sundi , Kondh and Praja . 


Being one of the earliest settlers, they claim ‘Gadaba hi aage dhana amal karile (Gadaba first initiated and cultivated paddy)’. Like other adivasis, nature is the supreme god and creator for the Gadaba. Nature is their parent and the adivasis consider themselves as children of nature. Nature is the giver, protector and creator and adivasis worship the nature god for whatever they have as blessings. Gababa make their own cloth, cultivate crops for living and make their own abodes. Being born in the lap of nature the customs, practices, oral traditions and visual language narrate how their indigenous beliefs and practices have close associations with nature.


Patal Kamini (goddess of the sky), Jal Kamini (god of water), Dongor Devi  (goddess of the earth) are the nature gods the Gadaba worship.  To show respect to their deities, sacrifices are made for the first cultivation of every season. Gadaba cultivate dhana (paddy), mandia (ragi), kosala (indigenous crop), sua (indigenous crop), haldi (turmeric), ada (ginger) and other cash crops for self-consumption and the rest is sold in the market.


Offering a blood sacrifice to please the nature deities is an essential custom. Many decades ago podo (male buffalo) sacrifice was practised and slowly it was abolished by government authorities, who considered it to be backward. Gadaba fear disease and misfortune, thus sacrificing goat or fowl, is an appeasement ritual as per their niyam.


The Gadabas’ indigenous world revolves around niyam. The niyam also says it is essential to take permission from Dharni (earth goddess) to build your house. Gadaba dig a hole and leave it overnight, marking a sign around the hole and keeping grain on a banana leaf where they want to erect their abode. The next day the hole is filled with soil, if it is less than earlier that means the earth goddess is unhappy. If the soil is the same or more than earlier, the earth goddess has granted permission to create their abode. This is the intangible relation the Gadaba share with nature.


The abode of the Gadaba is made of mud with a mesh of bamboo layered with mud blocks in between the walls.  The pillar is centrally located and vertically the house is divided into the storage section and the living section. Each space of the abode is beautifully adorned with coloured earth collected from the dongor (field). Geru (red), dhala (white), haldi (yellow) and black coloured earth are mixed with cow dung and applied on the surface of wall. The space is outlined in an abstract manner highlighting the wall, floor, and windows in a non-symmetric way. Every house is different from the other. The close relation between humans and their natural environment is reflected in the practices and visual art culture of the Gadaba community.


Gadaba and the mainstream world


The idea of representing the ‘exotic Other’ is itself a powerful equation where the outside agents other than indigenous community hold power to represent the ethnic group. These hegemonic power relations operate through the medium of State, developmental bodies and institutions to represent and control ethnic groups. The representation of Gabada and other adivasis by outsiders is based on the stereotypical mainstream cultural perception which considers them as backward. Thus, development projects are granted using ethnic labels for the development of the community and it is the prime motives behind all the institutions.


In the recent few decades the natural vegetation has altered as a result of deforestation, displacing the indigenous species of flora and fauna. Plantations of eucalyptus, coffee plants, cashew nut trees, silver oak tree entwined with pepper creepers has preoccupied acres of land displacing the natural ecosystem. The forest has disappeared to a large extent and one can see the current topography is created by the mainstream world. 


This indigenous place is the resource centre for excavating mineral resource to establish an aeronautical base. During field work I observed indigenous abodes are being replaced with modern concrete buildings through Indira Niwas funding. In this process of a shifting identity, the state, developing bodies, tourism, media, school, migration, plantations, and state events like Adivasi Mela play a significant role.


Another kind of forced change takes place at the school. A local Gadaba teacher mentioned that Gadaba students struggle with Odia language as it is difficult to cope from Desia language. In this particular school he was the only Gadaba teacher and the rest of them were from the plains and the eastern region of Odisha. School becomes the first medium of shaping the mind, to enforce the idea of development and slowly erase indigenous traditions. Some students told me that they do not feel like going back home and prefer living in the hostel.


Another example of representation is the Adivasi Mela in Bhubaneswar, one of the most popular State events where they celebrate indigenous traditions of sixty two tribes of Odisha including Gadaba. People look at the Gadaba and adivasis as exotic ethnic groups during the event. In the evening, a Dimsa dance is performed by women with loud music—a reformed version of the dance that has a mix of Bollywood moves. ‘Purba’ is a similar event organised by the state in the Koraput district to celebrate the local Adivasis. On the one hand the State is representing the adivasis as being different and on the other hand it is also making them a part of the mainstream and the national identity.


Dhanu Muduli, whose interview is featured in the module, mentions an event organised by the Gadaba. Women, who have abandoned kerang and adapted the six yards saree, wear kerang for foreigners who are brought by tour guides to show the indigenous traditions such as Dimsa dance. They also negotiate rates for their handmade products with tourist during the Bondo market in Ankadeli which happens every Thursday. Thus, these are example of a self-created identity similar to Adivasi Mela where Gadaba are representing themselves to others rather than being represented by the State.


Kerang — The bark cloth


Kerang is one the rarest living examples of indigenous culture. As narrated by the Gadaba, the story of kerang  (Kisalo in Gutob, revolves around the myth of an encounter with the tiger. A Gadaba couple were attacked by tigers while hunting in the forest. The tigers realised that the woman was pregnant, so, the tiger couple decided to rescue the new born baby girl and raise the child. In order to protect the child from other tigers they covered the body of the girl with the skin of a dead tiger. The girl roamed in the forest with her foster tiger parents and survived on hunting for many years.


One day Gadaba brothers went hunting and caught the girl covered in tiger skin and carried her to the village assuming her to be a tiger. Later they realised it was a girl wearing tiger skin with overgrown nails and living like an animal in the forest. One of the Gadaba brothers married the girl and she was asked to weave a cloth similar to tiger skin. Since then the Gadaba started wearing kerang as part of their identity.


Another story suggests that in earlier days Gadaba men and women both used to hunt for survival. Men were always equipped with a bow and arrow to save themselves from tigers and other wild animals. However, women never had any tools for protection. Thus, Gadaba women with the local knowledge of plants made the bark cloth to cheat the tiger in the forest and wore heavy metal ornaments around the neck and hands to further protect themselves.


The vertical stripes of the kerang in vibrant blue, red and white colours was woven by Gadaba women on back strap looms to cover the upper torso tied with a single knot on one shoulder. The bottom part was linked with another Kerang by a rope tied around the waist with a string made of natural fibre. The upper part of the body is covered by taking the fabric under the arm of the right hand and the end of the cloth is tied with a knot on top of the left shoulder.


The indigenous tradition of kerang was slowly unmade along with other local practices in the process of becoming a part of the mainstream. Women have left the tradition of kisalo (kerang) many decades ago. Gadaba cited that elderly women used to weave earlier but now nobody weaves. A young woman said in Desia, ‘Dokri mane karu thele abe pasari jayechu (In earlier days elderly women used to do it, now we have forgotten). I asked them, ‘What did men wear in earlier days ?’ They replied ‘lengti’ and giggled.


After some conversations I received the same repetitive answer from every woman that kerang weaving has finished. Budhai Muduli, an elderly woman who used to be a weaver said, ‘I have lost my sight and have poor vision, therefore, I cannot weave.’ The indigenous bark cloth which is woven and created by women from fibre to fabric is only a memory.


In every house kerang is cherished as a memory and in some houses we found a horn is also kept as memory of ancestors. It is a souvenir, a memory from the past which lives with the Gadaba as an ancestral practice. A woman pulled out an old piece of kerang which was woven by her ancestors to show their craft, tradition and cloth.


Kerang is a coarse, thick and heavy textured fabric woven in warp faced rib weave construction. The warp is more visible than the weft and weaving construction is very tight. Interestingly, the dimension and pattern of kerang was almost the same in all the villages indicating that the Gadaba received the legacy, knowledge and skill of weaving cloth.


Sami Sisa from Gorihanjhar told me that she had weaved kerang several years ago and now the art has died because nobody wears kerang thus, nobody weaves it. The style has changed so the need to weave kerang is not required any more. I asked if she can teach me how to create kerang fibre to fabric. I drew rough sketches on paper to give a vague idea of how a back-strap loom looks to illustrate the position of loom, poles and the weaver. I did some gestures of warp and weft to motivate her and then she mentioned some terms related to weaving of kerang after looking at the illustration.


Laxman Gadanayak, whose interview is a part of the module, recollected that he has some remaining parts of loom at his house and he pulled out all the old tools. As we examined the damaged tools and tried to place the poles, lease rod and sticks, an elderly woman participated and tried to explain the use of each tool and how it was used for weaving. This was a wonderful exercise as we discovered there is hope for recreating and remembering the old techniques. 


In Guthalpada Village I met Samari Sisa, who was wearing an old piece of kerang like a skirt covering the bottom half and another piece of lungi tied on the shoulder.  Her woven pieces of kerang were drying outside her house. It was woven during different stages of her life. Every cloth is associated with a memory, with different time periods weaving many stories together into a cloth.


She is a weaver, who used to weave extensively once upon a time but now, she has grown older and lost the ability to see clearly. She weaves the cloth occasionally. Samari Sisa explained the fibre-making process.  Two types of plants—jati dor and chitkudoi—are collected from the forest when they are tender. The fibre is also called kerang. Now chitkudoi in not available because the forest is no longer there. These plants are also medicinal plants. The bark of the plant is removed by hand with the help of katuri (sickle shaped tool of small size). The bark or the skin of the plant is further removed to take out the white part. The skin is dried, beaten with a wooden tool and soaked in the water for long hours to soften. The fibres are short in length. They are twisted by hand and joined slowly for the required length on the weaver’s thighs.


The bark removing process is called tulaiba in Gutob and small fragments are joined together slowly into a continuous thread. The twisting process is called nesaiba. A small ginara (spindle) tool is used for spinning and twisting fibre to thread. I found the tool in Pipalput. The handspun threads from fibre are made into small balls for warping, it is called badi. A winding tool called unokda that I found in Sisaput was used to warp threads before creating the warp.


Based on the conversation with the Gadaba, to weave the cloth, a small pit is made in the ground and four poles are erected around its four corners. Two rods are placed horizontally on opposite sides and tied to the poles. Threads tied to two cylindrical wooden rods on two ends are fixed; thin sticks were probably used as lease rod to separate the threads from entanglement and a bamboo strip, which was probably used to lift the threads and insert the small thread balls with the help of a horn of deer or sambhar as a tool. After inserting between the shed of warp and weft threads while weaving this horn was used to beat and make threads intact and tight.


Somehow the tradition of kerang did not pass from one generation to another generation, from mother to daughter. How did the community let it languish when it was part of the community’s pride and the pride of a women weaver? The marriage of a Gadaba woman was also assessed based on the kerang. Once the girl matured, she was eligible for marriage only if could weave two pieces of kerang. 


When I enquired about the reason behind kerang falling into disuse some people said in earlier days when people did not have access to so many materials Gadaba women weaved their cloth by themselves. Today an abundant variety of material is available locally in cheap prices. There is a drastic change in the perception. Local people are justifying this saying that due to unavailability of materials and lack of money in those days the Gadaba were dependent on local plants for making textiles.


Another piece of information was shared by Madana Gadanayak about kerang and women weavers. The identity of a Gadaba woman was connected with kerang. She was a weaver, farmer and she took care of household activities as well as the children. She weaved many kerangs throughout her life. The number of kerang she weaved was her pride. When she died, the number of kerang she weaved was burnt along with her as being a part of her identity and honour. Death of women meant death of kerangs—it was the cloth of dead women. This could be another reason for it dying out as the younger generation never picked up the tradition with the same pride and honour.




This research examined how the story of bark cloth has altered over a period of time. Once a sacred and protective cloth, indigenous to the Gadaba, it became a mark of identity for their community. The indigenous cloth was associated with the cultural pride of the community, especially its women. A tiger-striped cloth born in the forest establishes the deep connection of humans with the environment and shows how both the realms are interconnected and interdependent. The folklore of the Gabada suggest that nature and culture are one, part of one realm rather than culture and nature as separate identities.


With the passage of time, developmental changes in the local villages in the process of becoming part of the mainstream led to a disassociation with their indigeneity. The forest disappeared as the natural ecosystem changed. Many indigenous traditions were altered as the connection with nature diluted over the time. A Gadaba said, ‘Our language Gutob died that is why Kerang died.’ 


The socio-cosmic order—niyam—of the forest has been disturbed. When one species dies another species also dies because everything is interconnected. It is the niyam, the norm of nature and the natural world. The process of making Gadaba part of mainstream world and the Gadaba becoming part of the mainstream world is an ongoing one that is perhaps inevitable. Several changes were made, unmade and remade in the name of development. The representation of community by outside agents and self-representation by Gabada to the outside world also seems contextual and changeable.


In the pursuit of kerang, I weaved several stories recollecting through folklore and reconnecting memories of people from the past to the present. By interconnecting parts of looms I found in different villages and multiple layers of narratives shared by the elderly Gadaba, I weaved the stories of kerang cloth. In the process of documentation my research questioned, how Gadaba women relate with Kerang in the current context: is it still a sacred cloth or is it only a memory. Can it be recreated and to what end?


The bark cloth of Gadaba may not carry the same social and cultural context it did many years ago. However, in the present context the identity and connection with kerang is unmade and recreated as an ongoing process by reconnecting with the past. Thus, the identity of this sacred and protective tiger cloth—the kerang—is contextual and changeable.




Berger, Peter. 2014. Asian Anthology: Dimensions of Indigeneity in Highland Odisha, India. Nanzan University: Asian Anthology