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Munda a small ethnic group living in different parts of Bangladesh. According to some estimates based on information gathered by some non-government organisations, there are 212 Munda families in the country. As counted locally, 1,163 Mundas live in scattered villages of koyra and dumuria upazilas of khulna district and shyamnagar, debhata and tala upazilas of satkhira district - all falling within the sundarbans. The ecosystem of the Sundarbans seems to suit the indigenous ways of living and cultural traits of Mundas.

Until recently, Mundas (and Mahatos, another tribe bearing close affinity to them) were known as bunos or jungle clearers. They are said to have come to this country about two hundred years ago from Ranchi and Chota Nagpur of the Bihar State of India to help reclaim land for agriculture for zamindars and dig lakes and ponds for them. They also came to work as wage labourers in the Duars tea plantations in Jalpaiguri district, close to the tea gardens in Bangladesh. According to a 1921 census, as many as 34,601 Mundas were working in the Duars tea estates as against 115,350 oraons and 23,488 santals, who too came from the same region. They had a deep attachment for their homes and lands back in Bihar. British settlement officers of the time reported from Ranchi that 'large numbers of those who emigrate to Assam and the Duars return, if they are able to save a little money, and buy back the farms they had lost, or acquire some land in the vicinity'. According to some accounts, Mundas along with other tribes akin to them came from the Rajmahal Hills of India and settled in the northern part of Rajshahi district. Some of them, like the Oraons, Mahatos and Santals, settled in this country permanently and were employed in agriculture, at indigo factories and at tea plantations. These days most Mundas and Mahatos depend mainly on agriculture.

Ethnically, Mundas are described as a large Dravidian tribe of Chota Nagpur closely akin to the Hos and Santals and on linguistic grounds classified as Kolarian. The name Munda is said to be of Sanskrit origin meaning headman of a village. This titular designation is used by the members of the tribe. Mundas and Oraons are also known by the general name of Kol. The languages of the Munda subfamily are spoken in parts of northern and central India and comprise more than 20 tongues, the important of which is Santali written in Roman, Devanagari, Bengali and Oriya scripts. These languages belong to an Austroasiatic family of languages spoken by about 65 million people. The Munda languages, spoken by about 4 million tribals, are closely related and are referred to by the single name of Kherwari.

Mundas are divided into 13 sub-tribes and some such sub-tribes are Kharia-Munda, Mahili-Munda, Oraon-Munda, Bhuihar-Munda, and Manki-Munda. The sub-tribes are again divided into numerous sects or kilis along totemistic lines. Mundas are of medium stature, stocky in build and black in skin and are known for their hard work as labourers especially in removing forests and cutting earth. Initially, they came as seasonal labourers but as demand for their services increased, more of them flocked in. Many of these workers settled in different parts of Bangladesh. But as jungles and forests dwindled under pressure of population and consequent clearing and settlements, they found their traditional occupation not economically viable any more. To survive, they resorted to alternative occupations such as agriculture, fishing, van driving, small businesses and jobs.

A Munda may not marry a woman of his own sect. Adult marriage is in fashion and sexual intercourse before marriage is tacitly recognised but as a common practice, the matches are made by the parents. A bride-price is a custom and in a late 19th century study, it was found to be Rs 4 to 20. sindur dan, or the smearing of vermilion on the forehead of each other by the pair is the essential and binding part of a marriage ceremony. Munda widows may marry again by the ritual known as sagai. Divorce is allowed at the instance of either party but in case of adultery the seducer is required to pay to the husband the full amount of the bride-price. After marriage, a Munda son with his wife remains part of the joint family. In the past, Mundas used to burn the body of their dead but wood being expensive, they put fire to the face symbolically and then bury it.

At the head of Munda religion stands Sing-Bonga, the sun. There are other gods to take care of different aspects of human and natural life and they require constant propitiation by way of sacrificing of animals or fowls to keep the diseases off and save crops. The Munda festivals are mostly related to seasons and crops. Some of these are: Sarhul or Sarjun-Baba, the spring festival in Chaitra (March-April); Kadleta or Batauli in Asad (June-July) at the commencement of the rainy season; Nana or Jom-Nana, the festival of new rice in Aswin (October-November); and Kharia Puja or Magh Parab, the festival of harvesting the winter rice.

Mundas and Mahatos in Bangladesh claim to be Hindus. They perform Shyama puja and Kali puja sometime in November, Ashadi puja in July and Bhadu puja in September. They also observe poush-parbon as harvesting ceremony. They are not, however, caste bound like the Hindus. They are very simple people and do not associate themselves with criminal activities. It is rare to see them even engage in quarrels or fighting with neighbours. They live in thatch houses. They are quite hospitable and it is their tradition to entertain guests with jawa or country liquor. They love to drink jawa and sing at weddings and other festivals. Special dishes include crabs, mice and snails.

Mundas have a montri or minister for all villages of a given area. He resolves conflicts among the tribals with the help of modols (village leaders). Continuous inflow of Bangalis from other regions creates ecological stresses for the dwindling forest, animal and aquatic resources of the Sundarbans. Only very recently, Mundas started sending their children to schools and with the help of someNgos , they are taking to income generating activities to mitigate their poverty. This may be one reason why the number of the aboriginals in the area including the Mundas has been falling. [Enamul Haq]