The Dongria Kondhs, devotees of their mountain gods in the remote hills of eastern India, are custodians of dozens of vanishing seed varieties.With the region in an agrarian crisis due to recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall, the tribe is on a mission to return to its farming roots and resuscitate long-lost heirloom crops.The tribe hopes the effort will help it overcome malnutrition and climate distress.Journalist Sonali Prasad and photographer Indrajeet Rajkhowa captured a glimpse of this effort for Mongabay. RAYAGADA, India — The sun rose above the jagged spires of the Niyamgiri hills, the sky a wisp of apricot on rolling mounds of green. Trees bent with mangoes and jackfruits dropped manna for the occasional passerby. Around a dirt bend, a warm symphony drifted from a hill slope: the strike of a sickle, the pitter-patter of seeds, shuffling bangles of women unraveling weeds. It was sowing season for the Dongria Kondhs. The Dongrias, one of the most vulnerable and traditional tribes of India, live in remote hamlets scattered throughout the Niyamgiri hill range in southern Orissa, a state in the country’s eastern limb. Thirty-year-old Gatri Kadraka sits outside her house in Rodango village in traditional Dongria attire. Image by Indrajeet Rajkhowa. In the village of Rodango, not far from the hillside planters, 30-year-old Gatri Kadraka laid out a colorful array of seeds in her courtyard: three indigenous varieties of finger millet, two varieties of foxtail millet, pearl millet, barnyard millet, little millet, an upland variety of paddy or rice, two local varieties of sorghum, maize, black gram, cowpeas, pigeon peas, castor beans, cucumber, pumpkin, gourd and spinach, and tubers of tapioca and forest turmeric. “These are presents from Niyam Raja, the king of all mountain gods in Niyamgiri,” she said. The Dongrias call themselves royal descendants of Niyam Raja, and their deep reverence for the natural resources that have been conferred on them perfuses their everyday lives. “As long as we respect our hills, rivers and soil, he will keep us nourished,” she added. Forgotten varieties of paddy, millets, beans, oilseeds and pulses stored in a Dongria household. Image by Indrajeet Rajkhowa. As abundant as Kadraka’s collection is, the Dongria Kondhs once possessed many more varieties of heirloom seeds. But they started losing their self-sufficient food systems when the forest became degraded due to unrestrained logging and the government introduced subsidized high-yielding paddy in the late 1990s. From a diverse indigenous farming system, the Dongrias gravitated toward rice monoculture, losing numerous landrace strains in the process. “Their mindset shifted from good old co-dependence on nature to productivity,” said Debjeet Sarangi, founder of Living Farms, an Orissa-based nonprofit that works on food and resource management with indigenous communities. “They traditionally farmed for subsistence, but with rice came more mercenary concepts of ‘profit’ and ‘yield.’ They became reliant on commercial seed suppliers.” A Dongria girl holds a chicken in Hundijali village. Chickens are often used as barter during seed exchanges between different Dongria communities. Image by Indrajeet Rajkhowa. The villagers’ consumption also shifted as rice cultivation gained hold and disrupted the nutrient-dense medley of traditional grains and legumes that once filled their food plates. Many communities began a slow descent into food insecurity. However, with Orissa undergoing an agrarian crisis due to recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall that affect water-intensive crops such as rice, the Dongria Kondhs are on a mission to return to their farming roots. With a renewed sense of their rights to the forest after ousting a U.K.-based mining company in a much-publicized resistance in 2013, and a little help from grassroots organizations such as Living Farms, the tribe began resuscitating lost seed varieties soon after. The Dongria women, through their elaborate cultural rituals, are leading this initiative.