The Knight Without An Armour: Reexploring the Legend of Dharti Aba And His Munda Warriors


    Humans have taken a long period of evolution to find their social or ideological solidarity in their associations. It is where the sense of belonging arises from. Being part of a whole, contributing to it and protecting it are borne from the cognisance of mutual understanding. This, in turn, forms the basis of identity, individually or as a group. Over the years, these associations lead to the formation of communities that sustain themselves on their unique beliefs and practices even if they are in stark contradiction to contemporary social traditions. So naturally, a threat to this form of existence is perceived not just as a barrier to the way of living but also as an attack on one's identity.

    An uprising is a retaliation to this attack on the individual or group identity. It is a reaction aiming an immediate change. People can survive on the bare minimum with no dignity or agency as long as there is a possibility for them to remain alive. They keep doing that until they are cornered with various mental and physical abuse, inspiring anger and rebellion. Reading into this transition is the most practical approach to understanding tribal uprisings.

    This essay outlines one such uprising led by Birsa Munda that altered the tribal history of India. However, besides his armed revolt against the British oppressors, this paper also traces his spiritual journey, summarises the participation of his comrades to release his people from the shackles of exploitation, and pieces together the reasons and consequences of his actions. Based primarily on the historical anecdote of Birsa Munda’s life and times in colonial India as carefully recounted by authors Tuhin A. Sinha and Ankita Verma in their book The Legend of Birsa Munda (2022), this essay demonstrates how he became one the greatest freedom fighters of all time.

    Keywords: Birsa Munda, tribal uprising, oppressors, exploitation.


    This essay will be published in the book compiled under TMYS Review December 2023 project, themed on TRIBAL IDENTITY & CULTURE.


    in collaboration with the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI), University of Victoria.

    Submission deadline: 10 August 2023


    Abua Disshom Re! Abua Raj! (‘This is our country! We shall rule it!’)

                                                                                              - The Legend of Birsa Munda (2022)



    An in-depth study of the Indian tribal history can take us back to a time when stranded local communities inhabited the hills and dense forests of the subcontinent. Despite the fact that they have lived here for centuries, it can be quite difficult, even for a historian, to define or classify them. “In the various Census Reports and studies of the Castes and Tribes, they have been called by various names, like 'aboriginal tribes', 'primitive tribes', 'tribal populations', 'animists', 'Hindu tribals', etc” (Mehta 236).

    It is thus essential to understand how the definition of a tribe has changed with time. From being a scattered group of individuals following their ideals, observers with vested interests have morphed it into an idea of marginalised and uncivilised entity whose needs, culture and beliefs are backward and barrier-laden. It is in this regard that we see India's history fraught with tribal uprisings – all of them with a common agenda of preserving their unique identities, no matter how intimidating the adversary is. Tribal unrests in India, starting from the Chuar Uprising in Midnapore to the more recent revolts against the Japanese occupation of Andaman and Nicobar during WWII, not only aimed to preserve these tribes and their homes but also the land, water, air and the environment around them.

    Every effort of acquisition requires a justification. It is the first step in making a foothold with a probable cause. During the Chaur Uprising, the members of Bhumij tribe were labelled as thieves and robbers of the lowest kind, despite them being peaceful forest dwellers. (Bhattacharya and Bhattacharya 10) This degradation has been an essential tool in unjustified encroaching practices in the life and livelihood of the tribals. To have one's identity and agency taken away thus, forms the basis of an uprising. The Santhal Uprising, perhaps one of the biggest, was a manifestation of all those practices.

    Buddho Bhagat, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, Chakra Bisoi and many more have fought over the centuries for this very reason – the protection of personal beliefs, their land, resources, and way of being. To understand or delve deeper into any uprising, it is imperative to first take note of why and how a peaceful existence is forced to take up arms. It is in the attempt to systematically disintegrate a tribe and rob them of all kinds of basic human entitlements, that the oppressors look for ways to torture them. This essay approaches a detailed study into the Munda rebellion, to understand the gradual shift in the tribe’s outlook on account of years of attempted suppression. Violence is not the safest choice to seek freedom but when a tribal community pledges to resort to an armed revolt, it is often because they are not left with any other option.


    The making of a leader

    The Legend of Birsa Munda (2022) authored by Tuhin A Sinha and Ankita Verma begins with Birsa’s birth on 15th November 1875, “in the far-flung village of Ulihatu” (Sinha and Verma 3) which was a rural area in the erstwhile Bengal Presidency. Sugna Munda’s youngest son Birsa was not an ordinary new-born baby. His face radiated with a glimmer of hope and had an unfamiliar “look of assurance” (Sinha and Verma 8). There was no scientific explanation or a valid reason as to why Birsa’s family and neighbours thought that he was naturally equipped with a strange power to alleviate their pain and agony. The belief was led by something that is very organic and grassroot – the feelings. New birth represents new beginnings and new beginnings come with hope. The boy’s spiritual growth over a significant amount of time only solidified their unwavering faith in him.

    The revolutionary tribal uprisings in pre-independent India restores a sense of pride and belonging for the communities and beyond. Birsa Munda was not a mythical figure. He toiled day in and day out to win back the land that once belonged to him and his people. He fought tirelessly and fearlessly, with the aid of his comrades, to set his community free from the shackles of slavery and help them regain their lost faith. When a new dawn brimming with new possibilities through appeals, conversations and negotiations seemed unachievable, Birsa Munda marched forward to scream a war cry – announcing armed revolution. A war that created history and was remembered by a plethora of Indians many decades later.

    The Legend of Birsa Munda (2022), written by Tuhin A Sinha and Ankita Verma, is a fictional retelling of the birth of an iconic revolutionary in the midst of an aggressive tribal revolt. Before diving deep into the narrative of Bhagwan Birsa becoming the ultimate leader of an unforgettable battle, what attracts the attention of the reader is the journey that he embarked upon prior to the most remarkable episode of his life. This book, thus, is almost like an unexplored treasure that carefully recounts every detail of his childhood and paints a vivid picture of a historical phase that led to the making of an icon. Birsa’s leadership showed him as the front-runner for his wars, strategizing moves and weapons in the absence of resources and amid terrible poverty, also inspiring a group of followers yearning for his mentorship.

    For a passionate researcher, who is eager to unearth the relics of the history of Indian tribal revolutionaries, this book can serve as a great introduction. Birsa Munda championed the fundamental rights of his clan. He was revered as ‘Dharti Aba’ or the Father of Earth as not only did he resist the monstrosity of the feudal system to save the tribal lands in Bihar and Jharkhand from the clutches of the British rulers, but he also inspired his followers to return to their tribal roots. In order to understand the struggles, the spiritual journey and the transformation, it is of utmost importance that the trajectory is studied as a rocky path beginning with dire needs and evolving into rebellion. To empathise with the hero and experience a cathartic release of emotions, it is crucial to comprehend his voice for the political, social and economic rights of the Munda tribe.


    The inward journey

    “The whole thrust of subaltern historiography is on reconstructing 'the other history', i.e., history of people's politics and movements and their attempts to make their own history” (Dhanagare 20). To study the historical significance of the consequences of colonial exploitation in India, it is necessary to interpret the various historical episodes that led to such consequences. The book, The Legend of Birsa Munda (2022), illustrates that since the time Birsa was born, his tribe was obligated to endure the ferocity of the British government in every possible way. The story begins with the Mundas thrown into disorder when they were told that their land and their jungles would now “belong to outsiders,” to “the dikus”* (Sinha and Verma 21). From surrendering their own lands to following the draconian policies of the government, the Mundas had no opportunity to resist their oppressive rulers and restore their rights.

    Access to land is essentially important for livelihood of the rural population of any agriculture-based economy like India. In fact, in a report in 2013, DNA confirmed that Supreme Court had “held that (Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers) have right to maintain relationship with their land which is their most important asset.” (DNA, 2013). Dwelling in the remote corners of the country, land alienation is disastrous for the economic sustenance, social status and safe shelter of the tribal communities since land is their only and most important asset. This has been highlighted in every study related to tribal history and welfare across India and beyond. Birsa Munda grew up witnessing his father handing over his own land to their ruthless zamindar. This was the land where Sugna Munda sowed the seeds that he had saved for months before he was hired as a labourer. Hopelessness and despair was overwhelming, as he mourned that the “land that had once rightfully been mine, the land that was snatched away from me so easily. Nothing that grows on it will ever be ours, Karmi. But here I am, still pouring my sweat and blood into that same land.” (Sinha and Verma 38). Within the span of a single day, his fate underwent a shocking transformation as now he was allowed to work on the land, that once belonged to him, in exchange for a minimum wage. Any resistance in handing over the land would result in physical torture by the British rulers, compromising the basic dignity of human existence and forcing people to believe that they deserved such horrific treatment. Broken confidence of the community made them fearful and obedient – though unwilling. Birsa witnessed his father from a distance over several years, being grossly underpaid and finding it tremendously difficult to feed his family, all his pleading with the British rulers falling into deaf ears. He eventually decided that these tough times could only be tackled through a revolt.


    This essay will be published in the book compiled under TMYS Review December 2023 project, themed on TRIBAL IDENTITY & CULTURE.


    in collaboration with the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI), University of Victoria.

    Submission deadline: 10 August 2023


    Women’s role in shaping Birsa Munda’s ideology

    “Tribal women play a very vital part in the local as well as household economy by participating along with men in all activities.” (Kumar 3). They have also consistently played a pivotal role in organising resistance movements against any form of exploitation across different time periods. Almost every prominent tribal uprising against the colonial power including the Kol rebellion, the revolt of the Mundas and the Santhal uprisings, involved tribal women in different capacities. Birsa Munda is a name that is still worshipped by large groups of Indians because he summoned the courage to envision a future that could free his people from the clutches of their oppressors. This, however, would not have been possible without his family, friends and a sea of followers who believed in his dream.

    The Legend Of Birsa Munda (2022) beautifully portrays how Birsa’s mother Karmi and later his friend Moina were instrumental in helping him convert his dream into reality. Karmi, through her presence and actions, showed resilience and unfaltering strength to raise Birsa in a household that often ran out of food supplies. She also stood by her husband in times of crisis when they were forced to pack their belongings and relocate to another village. From saving her daughter Champa from a sexual predator to comforting her son at different vulnerable times, Karmi contributed passionately in building the anger and perseverance in Birsa which stood up eventually seeking a change.

    The novel introduces the fictional character of Moina who befriended Birsa when he was enrolled in a German missionary school in Chaibasa. Back in those days, despite embracing the ideologies of the Isaahi dharma, Birsa had the emotional prowess to remember the traditions of his own religion. Moina was a true friend who understood his journey. She was an anchor for him to think aloud and sometimes discuss matters. Birsa could candidly ponder over various matters that bothered him in front of her: “If Christianity is indeed the solution to all our problems, then why are most of these missionaries so insecure about its place all the time? Why are they so scared about us continuing to follow our traditions, huh?” (Sinha and Verma 90).

    Years later, when Birsa was planning an aggressive uprising against the British officials and the Christian missionaries who had stripped the entire Munda clan of their pride and glory, Moina travelled from a distant village to just meet him. Birsa asked her to join them in their relentless fight against the system as he could foresee Moina to be a valuable addition to the team, and indeed she was.

    In this context, it is equally important for us to acknowledge another woman’s presence in Birsa Munda’s life: Karmi’s cousin, Jani. When Sugna was compelled to uproot his family from Ulihatu as he was desperately looking for a safe space to raise his children, Jani wanted to offer Birsa a more secure life in Ayubhatu. She “loved Birsa as though he were her own child” (Sinha and Verma 65). Not only was she fiercely protective of young Birsa but also she did everything in her power to keep him safe, including taking him to Khatanga where she lived with her in-laws.

    Had it not been for these important women, Birsa might not have been able to become who he was. He could stay focused on his goal throughout his life primarily because his hopes were constantly sustained by them.


    Birsa Munda and his comrades

    Sinha and Verma have beautifully depicted in the novel how Birsa Munda fought and led his army like a true warrior. The uprising gained momentum because of his loyal comrades: Gaya, Bharmi, Komta, Donka, Majhia and Moina. Not only did they put in “a lot of hard work and planning into the movement while Birsa was in jail” (Sinha and Verma 250), but they also took complete charge under his able guidance to triumph over their oppressors. Notwithstanding their unimaginable hardships from “battling a group of guards” (Sinha and Verma 269) at the church in Tamar which they invaded to steal sacks of grain to feed their community, to setting a camp at “a perfectly hidden spot in the middle of a thickly forested stretch of land” many miles away from Chalkad and setting Zamindar Tribhuvan Singh’s mansion on fire – the Munda Sardars never stopped believing in Birsa. They never doubted the final outcome of this revolt and stood in solidarity with their leader while conceiving a shared vision for a dignified future.

    Much before Birsa Munda joined hands with his fellow comrades, he sought inspiration from his teachers. His first teacher was Jaypal Nag whom he met at the village school in Ayubhatu. Jaypal Nag played a significant role in shaping young Birsa’s perceptions of the world and satiated his thirst for knowledge and curiosity. His teaching techniques deviated from the mainstream standards of education. In fact, unlike most other teachers in the tribal communities of colonial India who preferred resorting to restrictive teaching methods, Jaypal Nag believed in being impartial to each of his students and never treated them “with disdain and indifference because they were tribals.” (Sinha and Verma 64).

    Similarly, Birsa’s days in Bandgaon attained “a well-defined rhythm under the tutelage of Anand Pandey” (Sinha and Verma 149). After spending years in bitter disillusionment when Birsa stood at Anand Pandey’s door with a wounded boy who had barely been breathing, he was taken in by his guardian angel.


    Religious and Spiritual Awakening

    It was at Anand Pandey’s residence where Birsa gradually experienced a spiritual metamorphosis through his daily morning chores, the Gayatri Mantra that he chanted eloquently “in perfect diction” (Sinha and Verma 149) and the verses that he learnt from the Upanishads. Anand Pandey, despite not being a strict disciplinarian, ensured that Birsa should be encouraged to question, navigate infinite possibilities to comprehend how the universe works and “explore both the world beyond and the one within.” (Sinha and Verma 150).

    When Birsa returned to Chalkad from Bandgaon where he had spent a certain length of time under Anand Pandey’s tutelage, and finally reunited with his parents, he understood that his family had gone through a series of trials and tribulations. The conditions in their village did not improve even a little bit. In the midst of severe financial crises and emotional distress, he found solace in recalling everything that he had learnt from Anand Pandey. Although his journey to envisage his people enjoying the taste of freedom started by offering them spiritual guidance, he soon realised that it was not enough. “From being Birsa Bhagwan to being a commander leading an army…” (Sinha and Verma 243) Birsa was convinced that he would do anything to save his people from their misery.  

    Despite questioning the system a number of times, Birsa had a unique temperament that separated him from others. Even if his traditional faith and cultural roots inspired him to remain loyal to their god, Lord Singabonga, Birsa never showed any sign of disrespect towards another religion. Time and again he reiterated that he had absolutely nothing against the Isaahi dharma and that he always believed in the power of a peaceful protest:

    “I still believe that a peaceful, spiritually driven movement is the only correct way to get back our land and our rights. But the British see our non-violence as cowardice. They think that they can squash us like insects because we don’t fight back.” (Sinha and Verma 244).

    Thus, it can be asserted with a certain amount of conviction that Birsa’s spiritual transformation found its impetus in the brutal everyday experiences that he gathered from his surroundings. How rationally he assessed the merit of the situations without letting any pre-conceived prejudice cloud his judgment, is unbelievably inspiring.



    While excavating the history of tribal communities and their uprisings, one cannot help but notice how nature played a colossal role in shaping their traditions and values. Apart from the lucid descriptions of the life of the Munda tribe and how they experienced pain and destitution, The Legend of Birsa Munda (2022) also takes us through the traditions and the cultural identity of this tribe. That Sugna practised the primitive method of cultivation known as ‘jhum’, which is a traditional shifting cultivation technique practised by indigenous communities where the farmers cultivate the land that is cleared and the forest trees are burned. Birsa’s family making preparations for ‘Sarhul’, the tribal new year, helps the reader to observe and imbibe the significance of their community’s traditions. The book demonstrates how Birsa’s cultural roots and surroundings influenced his actions later and inspired his sensitivities.

    It is interesting to note that non-tribal authors like Tuhin A. Sinha and Ankita Verma have taken a step forward to work on an inspiring icon from the Munda community, who was unfortunately underrepresented in the popular narratives till date. An important historical era has been explored, documenting many unknown facts on India’s struggle for independence and also highlighting unheard stories of the tribal culture and traditions. An active participation of the non-tribal authors navigating the tribal glory offers an impetus in inviting readers across regions to share the pride. Also, the story of Birsa Munda, emerging from the grassroots of Indian history, extends the stereotypical image of a ‘hero’ in dramatic literary renditions and familiarises the mainstream audience with terms like Singabonga (the supreme deity worshipped by the Munda tribe), ulgulaan (the Revolt of 1899-1900 led by Birsa Munda), Johar (a tribal greeting), or names like Komta/Donka etc.   

    The unforgettable history of Indian tribal uprisings has shown time and again that the oppressed have resorted to fatal measures only when pushed to the brink. However, this stage has always been preceded by the imposition of unfair rules, communal tensions, casteist discrimination, use of force and intricate scheming, all in an effort to break the tribe from within. Birsa Munda and his army yielded to violence because the exploitation was already perpetuated by their oppressors. The Munda warriors had nothing more to lose when they finally decided to not stoop before their colonial masters. Instead, they were brave enough to claim what lawfully belonged to them. Bhagwan Birsa, once and for all, challenged this age-old master-slave dynamic, not with a whimper but a bang.


    *dikus: The outsiders; people who made the tribal communities depend on them for sustenance.

    Works Cited

    Bhattacharya, Sutapa, and Ananda Bhattacharya. “The Adivasi Resistance in Jungle Mahal: A Case Study of Chuar Rebellion.” Journal of Adivasi and Indigenous Studies (JAIS), XI, no. 2, Aug. 2021, pp. 1–19.

    Dhanagare, D. N. "Subaltern Consciousness and Populism: Two Approaches in the Study of Social Movements in India." Social Scientist, 1988, pp. 18-35.

    Kumar, Gurpinder. “Impact of Birsa Munda on Indian Tribal Society and Feminist Movements.” LIFE AND MOVEMENTS OF BIRSA MUNDA, edited by Manoj Sahare, Dr.V.D.Chore, 2021, pp. 1–10.

    Mehta, B.H. “HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF TRIBAL POPULATION.” Indian Journal of Social Work, vol. 14, no. 3, 1953, pp. 236–244.

    Sinha, Tuhin A and Ankita Verma. THE LEGEND OF BIRSA MUNDA. AMARYLLIS, 2022.

    “Tribes Have Right to Maintain Relationship with Land: Supreme Court.” DNA India, 21 Nov. 2013, www.dnaindia.com/india/report-tribes-have-right-to-maintain-relationship-with-land-supreme-court-1824456.


    Author: Manjima Sarkar

    Manjima is a graduate in English from Loreto College, Kolkata and a Post-Graduate in English literature and language from the University of Calcutta. Currently she is a PhD scholar at Bankura University, Bankura, West Bengal under the able guidance of Dr. Ipsita Sengupta (HOD, Bankura University). Besides being a voracious reader, learner, and academic aspirant, she is a passionate singer, theatre practitioner, and a trained Odissi dancer. Her research interests include queer studies, performance studies, and trauma studies.


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