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ETHNONYMS: Bhuiya, Bhumia, Bhumiaraja, Bhumij, Bhumija, Bhumijan


Identification. The Baiga (who call themselves Bhumiaraja or Bhumijan) are a Munda or Kolarian people (part of the Bhuiya tribe) located in the central highlands of India. The name "Baiga" means "sorcerer, medicine man" and is applied in this sense to the priests of the Chota Nagpur tribe. The Bhuiyar of Mirzarpur are also called Baiga, as are any Individuals who serve in the capacity of village priest in this immediate region (cf. the usage of the Pardhan, Ghasiya, Kharwar, and Gond). The Kol and Gond consider the Baiga as priests having knowledge of the secrets of the region's soil. They also recognize the Baiga as a more ancient people than themselves and respect their decisions in boundary disputes. It is believed that the Baiga migrated from Chhattisgarh into the Satpura Hills on the western borders of the plains, and were among the earliest residents of the Chhattisgarh Plains and the northern and eastern hill country.

Location. The locus of Baiga culture is an area formerly part of the Central Provinces of India and now part of Madhya Pradesh. It extends from about 22° to 24° N and 80° to 82° E.

Demography. In 1971 there were 178,833 Baiga.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Baiga have lost all trace of their native Austroasiatic language and have assimilated the speech of their neighbors. Verrier Elwin (1939) reported that in Bilaspur they adopted Chhattisgarhi, in Mandla and Jubbulpore they spoke a modified Eastern Hindi, in Balaghat they spoke Marathi, Hindi, Gondi (or a combination of Marathi, Hindi, and Gondi), and Baigani (a language of Indo-Aryan Stock belonging to the Indo-European Phylum).

History and Cultural Relations

Baiga contact with other peoples and knowledge of regions beyond their own has been minimal. Many have never heard of major urban areas adjacent to their immediate environs, such as Nagpur, Delhi, and Bombay. Relations with the British during colonial rule were favorable overall; the only substantial point of contention between the two parties was limitations placed on bewar (shifting agriculture) by the British. As India sought independence from British rule, mythological traditions about Mahatma Gandhi began to emerge, superhuman status being ascribed to him by the Baiga. Nevertheless, Gandhi's attitude toward alcohol prohibition did result in some negative Baiga sentiment. Christian missionary efforts have met with little success among the Baiga. Elwin observed that traditional village life had begun to decay (because of prohibitions against bewar and hunting, the effects of the Hindu caste system, and the pressures imposed by forced modernization) and that the Baiga no longer produced those items necessary for daily survival.


The Baiga build villages either in the form of a large square or with houses aligned on the sides of a broad street (approximately 10 meters in width). Villages are located in areas convenient for cultivation with consideration also being given to the aesthetic value and degree of isolation of the intended site. Village locations vary (jungles, high hills, and valleys), but, whenever possible, a location atop a steep hill (with Limited access by footpath) is preferred. The village boundary (mero ) is marked by a large expanse of land (approximately 30 meters wide) and is delimited by intermittently placed piles of stones. The boundary is reinforced by a magic wall intended to protect against wild animals and disease. The Village burial place (marqhat ) is located within this boundary. The fourth side of the village (which is open) is protected by either a bamboo or cactus hedge. Individual residence units within the village are detached structures connected by narrow roads. Surrounding the village one finds bari (land set aside for the cultivation of tobacco, maize, and sweet potatoes). Pig houses (guda ) are attached to each house within the village square. Cattle sheds (sar ) are similar in structure to and barely distinguishable from human habitations. Platforms (macha ) for drying and storing maize are found in the center or at the side of the village square. Granaries, corporate houses, temples, and shrines are absent from Baiga Villages. A small compound (chatti ) for use by travelers and Officials is located outside the village square. Often these squares are dominated by a single family and its relatives; members of other families build their houses in small groups at some distance from the main area of habitation. A typical Baiga house is rectangular in shape. It usually has a small veranda and a single entrance. The interior is divided into two parts by grain bins or a bamboo wall. The first room contains stands for water pots and a fire kept burning for warmth. The inner room has a hearth for cooking, behind which is a place for the gods (deosthan ). Access to the inner room by outsiders is prohibited. The veranda of the house contains the rice husker, pestle, and grindstone.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Baiga raise pigs (which are held in particularly high esteem), poultry, goats, and cattle (cows, bullocks, and buffalo). Dogs and cats are kept. The Baiga also grow several kinds of tobacco for Personal use and import an alcoholic beverage manufactured from the corolla of the mahua tree (Bassia latifolia ). Ganja is used frequently but opium use is rare. Rice, various kinds of grain (kodon, kutki, and siker ), sweet potatoes, cucumbers, dal (lentils), maize, roots, leaves, herbs, and young bamboo shoots are among the items grown or gathered for consumption. Pej (the broth in which rice or grain has been boiled) is a staple. The following fruit trees are among those grown by the Baiga: mountain black plum, mango, forest mango, white teak, coromandel ebony, wild fig, banyan, Indian quince, and sebasten plum. Leaves of the butter tree, which are ground to produce chutney, are also gathered. Fish is consumed, and all meats are considered to be acceptable for consumption. The following animals are hunted: sambar deer, blackbuck, barking deer, hares, mongooses, peacock, and various wildfowl. The Baiga also hunt rats (seventeen varieties of which have been noted) and gather eggs. Bewar is practiced. An area of forest is selected, its trees cut (leaving stumps about a foot high) and allowed to dry, then burned. Seed is sowed after the first rain. Land cultivated in this manner is worked for an average of three years. In addition to hunting, fishing, animal domestication, and agriculture, the Baiga derive income from the manufacture of bamboo products, from the cultivation and sale of honey, and by hiring themselves out as laborers.

Industrial Arts. The Baiga do not spin fibers or weave cloth. Clothing is purchased in local markets. Few implements are manufactured by Baiga artisans. Iron implements such as the axe (tangia ), sickle (hassia ), arrowheads, digging tools (kudari and sabar ), wood plane (basula ), drilling tool (bindhna ), and a grass-clearing tool (raphi ) are purchased from the Agaria, the Lohar, or other neighboring peoples. Many kinds of bamboo and leaf baskets are manufactured by the Baiga for personal use. Wooden beds are also produced locally.

Trade. The Baiga rely on trade to secure iron implements, salt, blankets, alcoholic beverages, and articles of clothing from neighboring peoples. Trade activity seems limited to these items. Otherwise, the Baiga are in large part self-reliant.

Division of Labor. There exists no clear division of labor based on gender. Women may engage in almost all of the activities undertaken by men. Men and women share the responsibility for cooking (the husband assuming full responsibility when the wife is menstruating), gathering water, fishing, and woodcutting. Only men are allowed to hunt, and women are not permitted to make khumris (wicker hoods lined with mohlain leaves, used when it rains) or thatch roofing for houses. Women may participate in cultivation by clearing and lighting the field debris. Women may not, However, touch plows. Women are also prohibited from killing pigs, goats, and chickens.

Land Tenure. The garden lands immediately surrounding the village and the fields used for bewar appear to be considered as the property of the individual members of particular households.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Baiga are strictly endogamous, though Baiga men who take non-Baiga wives may have their spouses admitted to the tribe by the performance of Certain rites. The tribe is divided into several relatively endogamous jat. Each of these jat occupies a separate territory and there is considerable intergroup rivalry over the issue of superiority. The various jat include the Binjhwar (also Binchwar), Mondya, Bheronnthya, Muria Baiga, Narotia, Bharotia, Nahar, Raibhaina, Kathbhaina, Kondwan (or Kundi), Gondwaina, Bhumia, Kurka Baiga, Sawat Baiga, and Dudhbhaina. These jat are also subdivided into exogamous garh and goti, the former being of greater importance than the latter. The garh is a unit based on residence. It is believed that originally every Baiga man was attached to a specific jungle or hill and was required to secure mates for his daughters from other jungles or hills, thereby preventing incest. These garh are not totemic. Elwin suggests that the Baiga kinship system emphasizes classification over other concerns. Descent is patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Iroquois kinship terminology is employed for first cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Premarital relations between men and women are common and socially sanctioned. Formal engagement takes place at any age, though frequently after puberty. The engagement process in initiated by the male. The consent of his desired spouse and her parents (along with payment of the bride-price) are required before the betrothal may take place. The chief actors in the ceremony are the dosi (two old men who are related to the bride and groom and perform the greater part of the religious ceremonies) and the suasin (young unmarried sisters or cousins of the bride and groom). The ceremony takes place over several days and includes feasting, the taking of omens, the anointing and bathing of the bridal pair, a number of ceremonial processions, the Construction of a booth (marua ), the tying of the bridal pair's clothes in a ceremonial knot, and the giving of gifts (by the bridegroom's father to the bride's paternal grandmother, her mother, her brother, the dosi, and the suasin). The couple spend their first night together in the jungle and perform the beni chodna ceremony, part of which includes the ceremonial bathing of one another. The ceremony described above may be performed only once in life. A less elaborate ceremony (having no social stigma attached to it) called the haldi-pani or churi-pairana marriage may be performed more than once. The latter ceremony is roughly equivalent to marriage in a registry office. It may precede the more elaborate form described above. Its use depends on the preference of the parties involved. Divorce is allowed and polygamy is practiced to a somewhat limited extent. Postmarital residence is patrilocal. Baiga norms also permit the marriage of a grandparent to a grandchild.

Domestic Unit. The size and composition of the typical domestic unit vary. There is evidence of nuclear and extended family structure (e.g., father, mother, elder son, elder son's wife, younger son, and younger son's wife, forming a residential unit).

Inheritance. The practice of shifting cultivation and the nomadic tradition of the Baiga have contributed to a rather ambiguous stance toward property and inheritance. The corpus of Baiga possessions includes axes, cooking utensils, various ornaments, and cash. The home and all of its contents belong to the male head of the family. After marriage, Everything that a wife earns belongs to her husband. If she runs away from or divorces her husband, she forfeits claim to anything that her present husband has given her. However, whatever possessions she has brought with her into the union from her parents' home remain with her. A widow is able, in some instances, to retain a portion of her deceased husband's property. Such property would remain in the widow's possession should she choose to remarry. The earnings of sons and daughters also belong to their father. Should a father approve of his son's choice of a mate, then he may elect to give a Certain amount of his personal property (e.g., cooking utensils, axes, and cloth) to his son if the son has elected to establish a separate household. Otherwise, the earnings of the son and those of his wife belong to the son's father. The male head of household is empowered, during his lifetime, to apportion all property according to his discretion. When a man dies, his property is inherited by his son or sons. Provision is made for stepsons to receive a smaller portion. A son who remains with his father and maintains him until the time of the father's death will receive a slightly larger portion of the father's property. Widows are generally maintained on the estates of their deceased husbands until such time as they are remarried, and each widow is entitled to a share in her husband's estate equal to a son's share. Frequently daughters also receive a small portion of a deceased father's property. If a man is survived only by nephews and grandsons, his property is equally divided among them. Should he be survived only by an adopted son, then that adopted son receives all of the adoptive father's property.

Socialization. Child rearing is shared equally by both Parents. A child is suckled by the mother for three years, then weaned. From that point on, children are allowed a great deal of freedom, sexual and otherwise. As there are no children's dormitories, children are allowed to explore and experiment freely within their households and within the larger society.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. As has already been noted above, the Baiga are divided into several endogamous jat, which are themselves subdivided into exogamous garh and goti. Social relationships between the different jat are governed by a series of detailed and rather complicated regulations. Few, if any, caste prejudices are held by the Baiga, though some have been known to avoid untouchables and those who consume beef (out of fear of offending their Hindu neighbors).

Political Organization. Baiga villages appear to be governed autonomously, with leadership being exercised by the village headman (mukkadam ). Other village officials include the landlord (malguzar ) and watchman (katwar ). Legal disputes and tribal offenses are handled by the panch, a group composed of key village members who convene with a quorum of five.

Social Control. Traditional Baiga jurisprudence governs tribal life to a greater extent than regulations established by national authorities. This jurisprudence is concerned chiefly with the maintenance of tribal integrity and prestige. Control is maintained by tribal excommunication, fines, and imprisonment. These matters are decided by both informal procedures (i.e., by nonstructured consultation of various Community members) and formal procedures (i.e., by the village panch). Tribal consensus, obtained by both formal and inFormal structures, regulates social behavior.

Conflict. Christian missionaries and Hindu culture have had minimal direct influence on the Baiga. Material culture, however, has been affected by Hindu influence. The Baiga are almost completely dependent on neighboring peoples for the manufacture of the goods that they consume, and their relations with these peoples (as well as with the British and Indian governments) have not been characterized by longstanding conflict. The only major issue of contention has been that of Baiga agricultural practice.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Baiga worship a plethora of deities. Their pantheon is fluid, the goal of Baiga theological education being to master knowledge of an ever-increasing number of deities. Supernaturals are divided into two categories: gods (deo ), who are considered to be benevolent, and spirits (bhut ), who are believed to be hostile. Some Hindu deities have been incorporated into the Baiga pantheon because of a sacerdotal role that the Baiga exercise on behalf of the Hindus. Some of the more important members of the Baiga pantheon include: Bhagavan (the creator-god who is benevolent and harmless); Bara Deo/Budha Deo (once chief deity of the pantheon, who has been reduced to the status of household god because of limitations placed on the practice of bewar); Thakur Deo (lord and headman of the village) ; Dharti Mata (mother earth); Bhimsen (rain giver); and Gansam Deo (protector against wild animal attacks). The Baiga also honor several household gods, the most important of which are the Aji-Dadi (ancestors) who live behind the family hearth. Magical-religious means are used to control both animals and weather conditions, to ensure fertility, to cure disease, and to guarantee personal protection.

Religious Practitioners. Major religious practitioners include the dewar and the gunia, the former of a higher status than the latter. The dewar is held in great esteem and is responsible for the performance of agricultural rites, closing Village boundaries, and stopping earthquakes. The gunia deals largely with the magical-religious cure of diseases. The panda, a practitioner from the Baiga past, is no longer of great prominence. Finally, the jan pande (clairvoyant), whose access to the supernatural comes by means of visions and dreams, is also important.

Ceremonies. The Baiga calendar is largely agricultural in nature. The Baiga also observe festivals at the times of Holi, Diwali, and Dassara. Dassara is the occasion during which the Baiga hold their Bida observance, a sort of sanitizing Ceremony in which the men dispose of any spirits that have been troubling them during the past year. Hindu rites do not, however, accompany these observances. The Baiga simply hold festivals during these times. The Cherta or Kichrahi festival (a children's feast) is observed in January, the Phag festival (at which women are allowed to beat men) is held in March, the Bidri ceremony (for the blessing and protection of crops) takes place in June, the Hareli festival (to ensure good crops) is scheduled for August, and the Pola festival (roughly equivalent to the Hareli) is held in October. The Nawa feast (thanksgiving for harvest) follows the end of the rainy season. Dassara falls in October with Diwali coming shortly thereafter.

Arts. The Baiga produce few implements. Thus there is Little to describe in the area of the visual arts. Their basketry may be so considered, as may their decorative door carving (though this is rare), tattooing (chiefly of the female body), and masking. Frequent tattoo designs include triangles, baskets, peacocks, turmeric root, flies, men, magic chains, fish bones, and other items of importance in Baiga life. Men sometimes have the moon tattooed on the back of a hand and a scorpion tattooed on a forearm. Baiga oral literature includes numerous songs, proverbs, myths, and folktales. Dancing is also an important part of their personal and corporate lives; it is incorporated into all festal observances. Important dances include the Karma (the major dance from which all others are derived), the Tapadi (for women only), Jharpat, Bilma, and Dassara (for men only).

Medicine. For the Baiga, most illness is traceable to the activity of one or more malevolent supernatural forces or to witchcraft. Little is known of the natural causes of disease, though the Baiga have developed a theory about venereal diseases (all of which they place within a single classification). The most frequent cure cited for the cure of sexually transmitted diseases is sexual intercourse with a virgin. Any Member of the Baiga pantheon may be held responsible for sending sickness, as may the mata, "mothers of disease," who attack animals and humans. The gunia is charged with the responsibility of diagnosing disease and with the performance of those magical-religious ceremonies required to alleviate sickness.

Death and Afterlife. After death, the human being is believed to break down into three spiritual forces. The first (jiv ) returns to Bhagavan (who lives on earth to the east of the Maikal Hills). The second (chhaya, "shade") is brought to the deceased individual's home to reside behind the family hearth. The third (bhut, "ghost") is believed to be the evil part of an individual. Since it is hostile to humanity, it is left in the burial place. The dead are believed to live in the same socioeconomic status in the afterlife that they enjoyed while alive on earth. They occupy houses similar to those inhabited by them during their actual lifetimes, and they eat all of the food that they gave away when they were alive. Once this supply is exhausted, they are reincarnated. Witches and wicked persons do not enjoy such a happy fate. However, no counterpart to the eternal punishment of the wicked found in Christianity obtains among the Baiga.

See also Agaria; Bhuiya


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