TRIBES OF CENTRAL INDIA

TRIBES OF CENTRAL INDIA

The 16,000 or so tribals who live in and around the remote Abhujmarh forest near Bastar in Madhya Pradesh state. They eat coarse rice and millet, scoop fish from streams and consider rats captured in the forest are roasted over an open fire as delicacies. One missionary told Reuters, "If they see a rat scurrying down a hole, the entire village will go after it. They will poke sticks or use smoke to drive it out. They just won’t give up until that rat is caught." Many drink a potent local brew made from the flowering mahua tree. Some consume marijuana and/or opium.

The tribals prefer life in the forest, where they can eat, sleep and drink whenever and wherever they like. At night they like to get together and drink, smoke, dance and sing, usually women chanting while men beat on drums. They have not adapted to life in society, where they are required to go to school and work. There are occasionally terrorized by leftist insurgents called Naxalites.

Deforestation pressures have caused disruptions in their lives. One driver in Madhya Pradesh told Smithsonian, "It's dangerous here at night. No single car travels alone. We go in twos and threes. It's the tribals. They stop the cars by blocking the road with rocks and then ambush you with bows and arrows. If you give them all your money, usually they let you go. But I've heard about lots of people getting killed here. It happens one or twice a month...It's not really the tribals fault, though. They were forced out the forests and into this place, and nothing will grow here."

Agairia

The Agaria a tribe that os believed to have originally been a Dravidian-speaking branch of the Gond tribe. Dispersed among the Maikal range on Madya Pradesh, they number around 20,000 and are known for making iron products completely from scratch, with both men and women participating. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Agaria get iron ore from the Maikla range, preferring stones that are dark red in color. They collect it and prepare it by roasting it on a fire. Ore and charcoal are placed in a kiln, with women often operating the bellows with their feet so that they push air into the kiln and make the fire get hot enough to melt the ore. The slag is removed and pounded into plowshares, mattocks, axes and sickles by the men.

Baiga

The Baiga are a tribe with around 200,000 members that live in central India in what is now Madhya Pradesh state. Also known as the Bhuiya, Bhumaia, Bhumiaraja, Bhumij, Bhumija and Bhumijan, they are a Munda or Kolarian tribe and have traditionally been slash-and-burn agriculturalists and hunters. Baiga means “sorcerer, medicine man.” Other tribes in their area consider them priests with special knowledge about the soil. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Baiga have traditionally been very isolated.. For a long time they knew nothing about Delhi or Bombay even these cities were not very far from their homeland. They were fond of Mahatma Gandhi and elevated him too mythical status but were not fond of his prohibition on alcohol. Christian missionaries have not had much success in their efforts to convert them.

The Baiga prefer to build their villages on top of steep hills, with limited access, surrounded by a 30-meter -wide no man’s land and magic wall intended to keep away wild animals and disease. They keep cattle and pigs and grow sweet potatoes, corn and tobacco. Their houses are made of wood and bamboo and have a veranda. A fire is kept going in a hearth for warmth and cooking. On the veranda is a rice husker, pestle and grindstone. They like to smoke ganja and drink alcohol made from the mahua tree. They hunt sambar deer, barking deer, mongooses, peacocks and various wild fowl and 17 different kinds of rat.

Baiga Society, Culture and Life

Baiga society is relatively egalitarian. Both men and women perform a variety of chores although hunting is primarily the domain of men. Premarital sex is common and sanctioned and the engagement process often begins not long after puberty. The marriage ceremony involves feasting, anointing and bathing of the bride and groom and the tying of the bride’s’s clothes The newlyweds spend their first night together in the jungle, performing a special ceremony in which they give each other a ritual bath.

The Baiga worship an ever-changing pantheon of deities, which are roughly divided into those that are good and those that are evil and includes some Hindu gods. Their religious practitioners include priests that presides over agricultural and anti-earthquake rituals; medicine men who use magic to cure diseases; and clairvoyants who communicate with spirts through dreams and visions. Disease is believed to be caused by witchcraft and evil spirts. The best cure for sexually-transmitted diseases is believed to be sex with a virgin. The Baiga believe that after death the soul breaks into three spiritual forces: one stay goes to an afterlife, one remains in the family’s home and a third, regarded as evil, ideally stays in the ground where the dead are buried.

Tattooing is practiced by both men and women. Women favor designs with triangles, fish bones, tumeric roots, flies, men, magic chains, peacocks and baskets. Men sometimes have moon tattoos on their back and scorpions on their forearm. The Baiga have dances exclusively for men, for women and for both men and women. Their oral literature includes songs, myths, proverbs and folk tales.

Bhil

The Bhils are the third largest tribal group in India after the Gonds and Santal and are regarded by some as the oldest of the subcontinent’s aboriginal tribes and are thus India's original inhabitants. The Bhil have traditionally lived in the forests of the Vindya and Satpura Hills, one of the remotest and hardest-to-reach areas of India. According to Joshua Project they number around 14 million with 40 percent of them in Madhya Pradesh, 35 percent in Gujarat and Rajasthan and 20 percent in Maharashtra. Their name is believed to be derived from the word in Dravidian languages for “bow,” which until fairly recent times they always were seen carrying. ” [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Bhils are not a very heterogenous group. Some have suggested they are best viewed not as a tribe but rather as a tribal group made up of many tribes and subtribes, including the Vassas, Dhankas, Barelas and Tadvis to name a few. They are regarded as the original inhabitants of the forests of central India and were driven into the current homelands by Muslim invaders and were ruled for many centuries by the Rajputs. In the 18th century many were driven off their land and forced to take up looting and armed robbery to survive. This led to led to retaliation by the Maratha ethnic group that left thousands dead. British rule brought relative peace.

Bhil tribal groups are divided into clans, which are each led by a chief who has power over matters concerning clan and caste. As a rule the clans are are relatively weak except when it comes to matters of deciding who are members and who are not members of clan and the impacts of this on marriage and family alliances. The caste system is observed with the tribes, sub tribes and clans often hierarchically ranked. Villages are led by hereditary headmen. Disputes are settled and important matters are addressed with the guidance of a village council led by village elders. Important decisions have traditionally been validated by eating opium.

Bhil Religion

The Bhils merge animism and Hinduism and many are Muslims and Christians. Traditionally, they believed in a pantheon of deities that over time absorbed Hindu gods. Important local deities include Wagh deo, the tiger god, and Nandervo, the god of agriculture, and Chagwam, the supreme deity. They also believe in an afterlife where one is reunited with family members, a pantheon of earth spirits that sometimes band together in groups and malicious individuals that cause harm through sorcery and witchcraft. Muslim Bihl were converted during Muslim invasions of India and interaction with Rajputs. Christians have adopted the faith relatively recently due to the efforts of missionaries.

The dead were traditionally buried but Hindu influences has meant that many are cremated and their remains and are buried. People who die unnatural deaths it is believed can become malevolent spirits that can cause great harm and those who die natural deaths become good spirits Twins and babies with unusual deformities are also believed to cause harm and have traditionally been destroyed immediately after birth.

Many tribes have priests that act as mediums, diviners and healers and undergo a long training period. For serious matters witch doctors are called in because they are said to have the power to battle sorcery and witchcraft. Among the important ceremonies are appeasements and exorcisms of ghosts, one of which is the exorcism of the cattle shed.

Bhil Life

The Bhil generally live in villages with three to 40 families that are established on a hill surrounded by crop fields. Village boundaries are marked by bundles of grass tied to trees. Careful watch is kept over the crops. Houses have wooden frames, bamboo walls sealed and with cattle dung and roofs thatched with grass or teak leaves.

In the old days the Bhil were hunters and gatherers who: 1) collected edible plants, tubers and fruits from the forest ; 2) used bows and arrows, slings, spears and axes to hunt rabbit, foxes, deer, bear, lizards, pigs, rodents and wild cats; and 3) utilized weir baskets, nets , bamboo traps and poison to catch fish. When they converted to agriculture they used slash-and burn techniques until these were declared illegal. Today the Bhil grow maize, millet, wheat, chickpeas, beans, tobacco, peanuts and vegetables. Their primary work animal is the bullock. Water buffalo are rare. Goats, pigs and chickens are kept. Cattle are kept for their milk, from which curds and ghee are made. Many Bhil are landless and work as farm laborers for others.

The Bhil have a tradition of making cloth, pottery or metal tools. They have traditionally obtained materials to make these things by trading grain and wild honey collected from the forest with other tribes. The father as head of the household traditionally decided on a daily basis what work needed to be done and who supervised the work, with the daughters collecting firewood and water and doing household chores while the men hunted and did heavy work in the fields.

The Bhil marry when they are very young, typically when the girl is between 11 and 13 and the boy is 14 to 16. Girls are expected to be virgins when they marry and polygamy is allowed but high bride prices keep the custom from being widely practiced. Young couples generally move to the village of the groom and are given a few cattle but are often are dependent on their parents in the first years of marriages. One of the biggest holiday celebrations features men trying to claim a poll with some candy at the top while drunken women beat them with sticks. The man who gets the candy is regarded as clever and throws his treasure to the crowd.

The Bhagoriya is a dance performed by men and women in colorful costumes during Holi. It is a lyrical dance and is used by young men and women to find partners.

Chenchus

The Chenchus are a Dravidian-speaking nomadic jungle tribe of hunters and gatherers in Andhra Pradesh that subsists on wild roots, tubers, berries and game. Chenchu families have hereditary rights to certain parcels of land. Men usually hunt and make baskets. Women cook. Both sexes collect food. There are believed to be around 25,000 of them. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Chenchus live mostly north of the Kistna River on the Amrabad Plateau. This region get quite a bit of rain in the monsoon season but is quite dry in the dry season. Much of the area is covered by dense jungles and bamboo thickets that provide a home for a wide variety of wild animals, including bears, leopards, tigers, hyenas, antelope, monkeys and peacocks.

The Chenchus traditionally wandered through the forest hunting and colleting, relying on natural sources for 90 percent of the food. They lived under trees and in rock shelters and sometimes lived in houses made of bamboo and thatch. Most of their food came from fruits and roots collected and eaten the same day. Honey was greatly prized. A great deal of time was spent hunting, usually with a bow and arrow, and sometimes with guns, usually not yielding very much meat. A minimal amount of cultivation was done: some millet, tobacco, corn. A few cows were kept for milk, not for meat.

Many Chenchu spend some of the year living in small villages with three to 13 houses, made with circular wattle walls and conical thatched roofs, and some of the year wandering around the forest collecting food. The main social units are the clan, local group and family. There are four principal clans and villages are comprised of members of several clans.

Chenchu Religion

Chenchu believe in anthropomorphic gods and invisible spirits that affect "human spirits as part of the natural order." They do not have a creation theory and their attitude towards their gods is "free of emotional involvement." The Chenchus's concept of afterlife is vague and there is a clear association that good deeds in life are rewarded in the afterlife. Contact with plains people has resulted in the adoption of some Hindu beliefs and incorporating Hindu deities into their pantheon of gods.

The most important god is a female deity called Garelaisama. She is associated with edible plants and good luck in hunting as said to have the power to keep drunk people from quarreling. Whenever an animal is caught a piece is cut off and immediately offered to Garelaisama. In the past only male animals were killed so as not to upset the female deity. If one was accidently killed the hunter prayed for forgiveness. Another important deity is the god Bhagavantarau. He is thought to live in the sky and controls thunder and rain. Religious ceremonies consist of offering some millet to a stone altar. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Gonds

The Gonds are regarded as the largest tribal group in India and are one of the largest tribal groups in the world. They live primarily in eastern Madhya Pradesh. According to the Joshua Project there are maybe 13.6 million of them. Their exact numbers are difficult to ascertain because many have been absorbed into the Hindu caste system and many have given up their tribal way of life. They were first called the Gond by the Moguls. Their home land is known Gondavana, the “land of the Gonds.” [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Gonds, also known as the Gondi, look quite different from the Dravidians in the south and Aryan speakers in the north. Their language is called Gondi. Their origin is unknown but they are believed to be to be related to the Oraons of eastern India and arrived in their current homeland between the 9th and the 13th centuries. They became wealthy farmers and were incorporated onto the ruling Rajput dynasties. When the power of the Rajputs declined, the Gonds became powerful in their own right, and ruled a kingdom from the 16th to 18th centuries until they were overcome by the Marathas. The Gonds are very black. In the old days, men traditionally wore little more than a cloth around their waist.

Gond Religion

Gond gods include clan gods, an earth-mother, village deities, mountain gods, ancestor spirits and spirits associated with every hill, lake, tree, or rock or river. They are not arranged in a hierarchal order. Important deities include the Sivalike Bhagavan and Yama, the god of death. The earth goddess is responsible for bringing fertility and crops and evil gods, it is believed, bring sickness. In the old days their principal deities were cholera and small pox gods.

Ceremonies for gods and spirts are generally brief and infrequent although the gods are often consulted for advice and help with problems. The most important ceremonies are sacrifices of cows, goats and sheep which are held in thatch temples twice a year. Religious objects include iron spear points and yak-tail whisks like those used by Hindus. During festivals, priests dress up in peacock feathers and masks to act out dramas about mythical figures and shamans go into a trances, acting as oracles and mediums, so that the gods can speak directly to the people.

The Gonds believe they are kept alive by a substance called jiv that when removed after death changes the person's personality. The dead live in their own personal sphere with clan deities. There is no connection between the gods and morality nor is the one between good deeds and a positive afterlife. Gonds were buried with toothpicks for use in the after-life. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century.

Gond Life

The Gonds live in villages, which are further broken down into hamlets and homesteads. Each homestead is compromised of an extended family and several widely scattered homesteads make up a hamlet. Originally the Gond were hunters and gathers. Now most after farmers who hunt, fish and collect foods from the forest.

The Gonds have liberal views about premarital sex but frown upon adultery, which they believe is punished by ancestral spirits and may cause crop failures or epidemics. Marriage entails the payment of a bride-price by the groom’s family and are often arranged when the bride and groom are very young. The marriage is sanctified when the couple walks seven times around a pole erected in a wedding booth. Cross-cousin marriages are preferred; polygamy is only practiced by men who are rich enough to support more than one wife. Marriage by capture used to be common. Divorce is relatively easy to get. The Gondis in Madhya Pradesh practice polyandry. A single woman may have four or five husbands.

The Gond put great emphasis on having a son. Women inherit almost nothing. Barrenness is regarded as a curse and a number of rituals are conducted to protect women while they are pregnant. Disease is believed to be caused by the work of spirits and recognized as having natural origins or being caused by sorcery. Illnesses are treated with jungle medicines or by diviners and healers employing various rituals and sacrifices.

The Gonds have scores myths and sacred texts transmitted from generation to generation orally. Hereditary bards keep the tradition alive and most tribe members believe the myths are true. A number of dramas and stories celebrate a great hero named Lingo. The Gond are also regarded as passionate dancers, singers and flute and drum payers, and skilled artisans. Many decorate their homes with artistic designs and carve memorial pillars from wood to honor the dead.

Kol

The Kol is a tribe that lives in a parts of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. There are around 2.1 million of them according to the Joshua Project and they have a reputation for changing a great deal over time. They used to live in the hills, where they were very good at getting high crop yields with little irrigation. Later they moved into the valleys and practiced wet rice cultivation. Today, many make a living collecting forest products and firewood.

The Kol have traditionally had higher numbers of women than men and many Kol kept concubines, who generally lived on their own separate dwellings. Widows can not remarry but they can become concubines. Sometimes the concubine is the sister of the wife. Married women wear vermillion marks and bangles as a symbol of their married status. Some concubines wear them too.

Most Kol are Hindus. They worship a number of family and village gods and spirits that predate the adoption of Hinduism. Priests known as pandas serve as healers and exorcists. The Kol usually cremate the dead. Those who die from snake bites are buried.

Kolam, Korku and Koya

The Kolam are a Dravidian-speaking tribe found in Yavatmal District in eastern Maharashtra. Related to the Gonds, the work mainly as farmers and farm laborers. They offers rice balls to dagger-shaped wooden tombs erected for deceased clan members.

The Korku is a tribal group that lives in the forests of the Mikal Hills and Satpura Hills of northern Maharashtra and western Madhya Pradesh. They have traditionally been hunters and gatherers and slash-and burn agriculturalists but now most practice settled farming. There are around 830,000 of them. Extended families are often the norm and marriages are viewed as a bonding of families. Wealth is measured and passed with animals. When a child receives his or her first animal it is a bonding deal and a symbol of coming fo age.

The Koya are a subdivision of the Gond tribe that lives mostly in Andhra Pradesh, with smaller numbers in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. There are about 840,000 of them. Many are Christians and many have been absorbed into the Hindu caste system. The tribe has a history of launching rebellions. The Koya were traditionally slash-and-burn farmer but now they are settled agriculturalists. The grow millet and legumes for personal consumption and rice to sell. They Koya gather various foods and products from the forest. They used to hunt quite expensively but not so much anymore. Koya society is dived into three main occupational groups: blacksmiths, bards and funeral drummers and singers.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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