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Totemism in Tribal India

The term totem refers to natural object or item either inanimate or animate with which a group of individuals identify themselves. The system of mystical attachment of groups of people with totems is called totemism. The group that observes totemism is called a totemic group. A totem may be a plant, or an animal or even an object like a rock.

The members of a totemic group distinguish themselves from other groups by wearing totemic emblems as charms and by painting or tattooing the figure of the totem on the walls of their houses, canoes, weapons and even their body. A prominent exhibit is the construction and erection of a totem pole representing the figure of the totem that is generally carved or painted in the locality where the specific group members reside.

Totemism is widely prevalent in tribal India. The Santhals have hundreds of totemic groups named after plants, animals or objects. The Gonds have a goat clan whose members regard the goat as their totem because a goat that had been stolen by their ancestors for sacrifice turned into a pig when the theft was discovered and thus saved the thieves from punishment.

The Kamar tribe have totemic groups named as Netam(tortoise),Sori(a jungle creeper),Wagh Sori(tiger),Nag Sori( snake),Kunjam(goat) and so on. A tortoise saved the Netam at the time of the deluge. Among the Toda the buffaloes are the revered totems. Most of the rituals have to do with buffaloes and the treatment of their milk. The Oraons erect wooden totem posts and make occasional offering to them. Totemism is thus an integral part of the tribal India