This tribe bury their heads in ground for a living

Have you ever seen someone with their head buried in soil? While the very thought sends a chill down the spine, members of a community in Odisha perform this unthinkable act, which requires exceptional breath control, for a living.

The community — Mundapota Kela (a denotified tribe) — is left with few members who earn a livelihood with this bizarre act. Hit badly by the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the last inheritors of the skills are now out on the streets more frequently than before to earn much-needed bucks.

The Mundapota Kela community is believed to have migrated to Odisha from Rayalaseema area of Andhra Pradesh decades ago. Being street performers, they travel from one village to another and bury their heads in soil for several minutes. They collect rice, vegetables and money from villagers for putting up the show.

However, the younger generation have not been able to pick up the breath control skills and have opted for begging and other odd jobs instead of risking their lives.

Burying one’s head for even a couple of minutes carries life-threatening risks. A man digs up a pit into which his head can fit. Subsequently, he puts his head in the pit and piles the dug-out soil on to his head. His head remains completely invisible.

“When I put my head in the pit, I have to be very careful about my eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Fine soil can enter into pores. While I close my eyes and mouth as soon as I pile soil on my head, my breath control helps me avoid letting in soil in my nose or ears,” said Murali Shikari, who hails from Nageswar village in Brahamagiri block of Puri district.

Mr. Shikari and his brother-in-law are the only two left in Nageswar who can lie motionless on the road with their heads buried in soil.

“Earlier, there was limited scope for entertainment for villagers. Our act used to attract massive crowds. Though we risk our lives for the act, we no longer catch the attention of people,” he said.

Another peculiar problem the Mundapota Kela members face is that almost all village roads have been converted to concrete. It is difficult for them to dig a pit on concrete surfaces to perform their act.

The population of Mundapota Kela is scattered across the State.

“The community is extremely poor. Not all members have their own houses. Till the 2001 Census, they were not enumerated as a Scheduled Caste. The small community is one of the most vulnerable population blocks among Dalit communities,” said Sandeep Pattnaik, who has conducted research on them.

During natural disasters such as cyclones, they find it extremely difficult to get a roof over their heads for survival. Other castes dislike their presence near them. Members of the Mundapota Kela are often looked down upon.

Gadadhar Pradhan, another researcher, said the government should ensure land rights as per the Odisha Prevention of Land Encroachment Act, 1972, for the marginalised community.

The State and Central governments should prioritise housing allocation for members of the Kela community under the Pradhan Mantri Housing Scheme and Biju Pucca Ghar Yojna, Mr. Pradhan added.