LOCATION: India (Southern Rajasthan and bordering areas of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra states)
POPULATION: 12,705,753 (2001 census)
RELIGION: Tribal religions (97%); Hinduism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 4: Minas; People of India; Rajputs
The name Bhil identifies various ethnic communities inhabiting the hills and forests of southern Rajasthan and neighboring areas of western India. Some scholars argue that "Bhil" comes from the Dravidian word for bow (billa or billu) and reflects the popularity of the bow and arrow as a weapon among these groups. The term is also used in a broader sense to refer to the aboriginal peoples of this region. Bhils are divided into numerous tribes and subtribes, including the Barela, Bhilala, Garasia, Gameta, Mina, Tadvi, and Vasave. Many of these groups, however, see themselves as quite distinct from the Bhil community.
The Bhils are mostly tribal in nature. In the past, they acquired a reputation for a fierce sense of independence. Isolated from the rest of Indian society by their rugged environment, Bhil groups have managed to preserve many of their ancient tribal customs. At the same time, close social and economic ties with their neighbors have exposed them to Hindu cultural influences.
Though little is known of their origins, the Bhils appear to be the oldest inhabitants of the area. They are generally dark complexioned and small of stature. Their racial affinities are uncertain, although they have been identified with both the Dravidian and pre-Dravidian peoples of South Asia. Some writers suggest that the wild, hill peoples of the region mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit literature were, in fact, the Bhils. A Sanskrit text dating to the very end of the 6th century AD mentions a Bhil chieftain, mounted on an elephant, opposing the passage of another king through the Vindhya Mountains. By the 7th century, various Rajput clans began to settle in western India and subdue the local peoples of the area. Some Bhils resisted the invaders and fled into the interior to preserve their independence. Other Bhil groups seem to have accepted this conquest peacefully, even intermarrying with the newcomers. One finds other ties linking the Bhils and the Rajputs. Bhils, for example, played a role in Rajput coronations. In some Rajput states, it was customary for a Bhil to place a ceremonial mark (tika) made with his own blood on the forehead of a new raja (king). Although no longer followed, the ritual has been seen by historians as a sign of Bhil allegiance to the Rajputs as well as of former Bhil power. The figure of a Bhil chief is included on the emblem of Mewar (Udaipur), an important Rajput state in southern Rajasthan.
The Bhils were treated quite differently by the Marathas. This Hindu group, which extended its military power northwards from Maharashtra into the region at the beginning of the 17th century, mercilessly persecuted the Bhils. If a criminal were caught and found to be a Bhil, he or she would often be killed on the spot. Historical accounts tell of entire Bhil communities being wiped out. The Bhils retreated to the safety of their strongholds in the hills. From there, they raided villages in the neighboring lowlands and robbed travelers passing through their lands.
Although their reputation for banditry, thievery, and lawlessness has been exaggerated, the unruly Bhils did pose problems for local rulers. The British government in India, which gained control of the region in the early 19th century, even set up special military units to pacify local Bhil populations. The Bhils also took part in local tribal resistance movements during the 19th and early 20th centuries, protesting political and social injustices. However, the Mewar Bhil Corps, a unit of Bhils formed in Mewar in the 1840s with a view to weaning them away from their predatory habits, to give them honorable employment, and to assist the government in preserving order, were the only native troops in Rajasthan to stand by the British during the 1857 Mutiny.
The Indian Constitution (1949) designated the Bhils as a Scheduled Tribe, one of the groups identified as needing special representation and assistance in India after independence from British rule. Today, the Bhils remain a disadvantaged community with high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and other social problems.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Bhil homeland lies at the western end of India's tribal belt. It includes southern Rajasthan and bordering areas of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra states. Bhil populations are concentrated in the southernmost hills of the Aravalli Range, the western uplands of the Vindhya and Satpura ranges, and the northernmost hills of the Western Ghats. Some Bhil groups occupy the nearby river valleys and coastal plains. The Gujarati term "Rewakantha," the basin of the Rewa (Narmada River), is sometimes used to describe the traditional territory of the Bhil peoples.
The environments inhabited by the Bhil are relatively inaccessible and unproductive. The rugged Aravalli hills of southern Rajasthan attain a height of 1,722 m (5,650 ft) at Mount Abu. The region experiences a semiarid climate. Annual rainfall in southern Rajasthan and Gujarat averages around 63.5 cm (25 in) and comes mainly from the summer monsoons. Rainfall is highly variable, however, and droughts are frequent. Maximum temperatures during the summer average over 40°c (104°f), but in winter they can approach freezing. The natural vegetation is thorn scrub forest, dominated by drought-resistant species such as acacias. The vegetation cover has been much degraded through overuse by humans and animals. To the south, in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, rainfall increases and temperatures become less extreme. Scrub forests give way to denser deciduous forests, but here, too, the vegetation has suffered from human and animal activity.
The Bhils numbered 12.7 million people (12,705,753 according to the 2001 Census of India). Assuming population growth rates that approximate those of the rest of India, the current population of Bhils will be close to 14 million people. The Bhils are exceeded in number only by the Gonds among the tribes of India and account for over 10% of the country's total tribal population. The accuracy of the census data, however, is open to debate because of questions concerning exactly which groups should be included under the classification of "Bhil." The Bhils remain, nonetheless, one of the largest tribal groups in South Asia.
The language of the Bhils is called Bhili, a term that refers to the numerous dialects spoken by Bhils throughout western India. For example, Wagdi, Dungri, and Mavchi are Bhili dialects spoken in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, respectively. Dialects change within a radius of 32 to 48 km (20 to 30 mi) and Bhils from one area may have difficulty in understanding those in a neighboring area. Bhili dialects show varying degrees of influence of regional languages such as Rajasthani and Marathi, but they all appear to have their origins in Gujarati. Gujarati, the language spoken in Gujarat, belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family. Thus, linguistically, the Bhils are unlike most tribal groups in India whose tongues more commonly are Dravidian or Munda in origin.
Bhil mythology and folklore place great emphasis on the antiquity of the Bhils, as well as the Bhils' traditional place outside the mainstream of Hindu society. At the same time, Bhil traditions demonstrate the longstanding influence of Hinduism on Bhil culture.
One account of the origin of the Bhils holds that Mahadeo (literally, the "great god," an aspect of the Hindu god Shiva) was resting in a forest, sick and unhappy. A beautiful woman appeared before him and, on seeing her, Mahadeo was cured of all his ailments. The god was smitten by the woman and together they produced many offspring. One of these children was an ugly and vicious son. Mahadeo, enraged when this son killed his favorite bull, expelled him. All Bhils are said to be descended from this outcast.
Numerous variants of this tale exist, but Bhil myths of origin universally ascribe the beginnings of the Bhil tribes to some similar misdeed, a misfortune, or an incestuous union.
Bhil religion is essentially animistic in nature. It is the belief in the powers of supernatural forces and the need to order one's relations with these forces that dominate Bhil religious life. The Bhils are highly superstitious. They believe in omens and the evil eye and wear charms and amulets for protection from ghosts, evil spirits, and witches. Individuals, usually women, suspected of witchcraft, sorcery, or magic are identified by a shaman or witch-finder. (This figure is called a Bhopa in Rajasthan and Badava in eastern Gujarat). Traditionally, the victims were subjected to trial by ordeal, tortured, and even killed. The Bhopa and Badava play an important role in rituals performed to exorcise ghosts. The Bhils recognize gods and goddesses in the natural world, revering various deities of the sky, trees, water, and rain. Fire is held to be sacred, and totemic animals include the horse, tiger, boar, peacock, and sparrow. Animal sacrifice is a common Bhil practice.
The Bhils have long paid homage to Hindu deities such as Mahadeo, viewed as the creator of the universe; his consort Parvati; Hanuman, the monkey-god; and Bhairon. Mataji (Kali) is much respected and propitiated by the sacrifice of goats and male buffaloes. Numerous lesser gods and local godlings are worshipped.
Groups such as the aristocratic Bhilala, the descendants of Bhil-Rajput marriages, and some plains' Bhil have adopted formal Hindu practices. They use Brahman priests, accept the existence of a caste hierarchy, and show a greater degree of integration into Hindu society. Small numbers of Bhils have converted to Islam. Others have adopted Christianity as the result of the efforts of Christian missionaries during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, census returns show that 97% of the Bhils follow tribal religions.
Although their chief festivals are held to honor the dead, Bhils also observe the Hindu festivals of Holi, Dasahara, and Divali in much the same way as their Hindu neighbors. Holi, the spring festival of India, for example, is marked by the burning of bonfires and throwing of colored water; and Dasahara, the autumn festival honoring the goddess Durga, is accompanied by the sacrifice of goats and buffaloes. There are, however, differences in observances. Holi, in particular, is celebrated with much revelry, with singing, dancing, and drinking lasting for up to 10 days or more. Bhils tend to celebrate the festivals of their region. In Rajasthan, for instance, Gauri is a popular festival.
Bhils, in the new Indian state of Chhattisgarh, celebrate the Bhagoriya Festival, a festival that occurs a week before Holi when lovers are officially given permission to elope. A male applies gulal (colored powder) to the head of a girl he likes and, if she reciprocates, the couple is at complete liberty. The marriage is formally consecrated at a later date. On the occasion of this festival, Bhagoradev or the God of Dancing is worshipped religiously by the people of the Bhil community. The eldest member of the village supervises over the ceremony. Sweets are offered to the god and later these are distributed amongst the members of the tribe. (Chhattisgarh was created out of the southeastern districts of Madhya Pradesh and has a distinctive language and culture. It, along with Jharkhand and Uttarakhand, came into being as states in India in 2000).
RITES OF PASSAGE
Rites of passage of the hill Bhils tend to differ from those who live in the plains. For both groups, however, the chief ceremonies are associated with the naming of a child, the shaving of the male child's head, marriage, and death.
The birth of a son is announced to the community at large by a particular beat of a drum (dhol). Hymns may be sung to propitiate Shitala Mata, the goddess of smallpox who is widely feared by primitive peoples in India, and sweets and liquor are distributed. The male child's head is shaved after a few months and the naming ceremony soon follows. Among some groups, the shaving ceremony may not occur until the child is several years old. It is common for a child to be named for the day of the week on which it is born, or for some characteristic feature. For example, a child may be called Navapuria to denote that it was born on a Saturday, or Kalia (the dark one) because of its dark complexion. Male children are often tattooed on the wrist and forearm.
The ceremonies accompanying death are important in Bhil society. The dead are cremated after a period of mourning, although infants and victims of smallpox are buried. A carved wooden post or a stone tablet is placed at the site of cremation of males, with the deceased often represented on horseback with lance, sword, or shield. After 10 or 12 days, the kata (death-feast) is held for the community. Food consumed at this time includes maize, rice, sometimes the flesh of goats or buffaloes, and considerable quantities of liquor. During the feast it is important that a Bhopa be present to give voice to the demands of the spirit of the deceased. These demands are invariably met by the family and, once appeased, the spirit departs the confines of the settlement.
Social interaction among the Bhils conforms to local and regional practices. Bhil communities that are more integrated with broader society have greater contact with non-Bhil groups, while those in more isolated areas tend to keep to themselves. The Bhils are hospitable to visitors. No guest goes without food and refreshment, no matter how scarce such supplies may be.
Traditionally, Bhils live in small, dispersed hamlets known as phala, which are occupied by families of the same clan. Each settlement comprises a hut or group of huts standing alone in the middle of an area of cultivated land. Several hamlets may grow together to form a village or pal. The village may be a multi-clan community. Each village has a hereditary headman, who is a member of the village's dominant or founding clan. The headman is called panch, vasavo, tadavi, naik, mukhi, or other names according to local usage. The presence of the headman is necessary at most social and ritual functions in the village.
Individual huts are often surrounded by a bamboo fence. Their walls are typically built of mud or bamboo, wattled with mud, clay, and cow dung. The roofs are thatched, made from grass or leaves, and supported by rafters of teak or whatever wood is available. Huts are windowless and have a single entrance only. They are often used both as living quarters and for housing cattle. Bedsteads woven from bamboo or sleeping mats are used for sleeping, while household utensils are usually made from clay rather than metal. Earthenware jars and baskets are used for storage. The more affluent farmers may own cattle and possess a bullock-cart and other agricultural implements. Few Bhils attain this level of prosperity, and livestock is more commonly limited to a few goats and poultry.
Kinship among the Bhils reflects regional Gujarati, Rajasthani, and Maharashtrian patterns. Bhil tribes and subtribes are endogamous; that is to say, marriage occurs within the social group. There is, however, little intermarriage between the inhabitants of the hills and the plains. The Bhils also make a distinction between the Ujwala (pure) Bhils and the Kalia (impure) Bhils, groups that also rarely intermarry. The Bhils are divided into numerous clans, and clan exogamy (marriage outside one's own clan) is strictly followed. However, beyond its name and its role in defining a pool of marriage partners, the clan is of little significance in Bhil society.
In practice, brides come from villages within a limited geographical area—villages that are already linked through institutions such as the Gauri festival, weekly markets, and existing matrimonial ties. Marriage proposals invariably come from the suitor or his family, rather than from the girl's father. The groom's family pays a bride-price to the father of the bride. Marriage among the Bhils occurs much later than among Hindus, occurring between the ages of 16 and 21 years. The eve of the marriage ceremony is marked by singing, dancing, feasting, and drinking. Marriage rituals are similar to Hindu rituals, with the bride and groom walking around the sacred fire, and the giving of presents.
Bhil society is patrilineal, with inheritance passing down the male line. The new bride moves into the home of her husband's family and assumes the burden of household chores. She also participates in the family's agricultural activities. It is customary for a father to provide his son with land and a hut on his marriage, so that among the Bhil the nuclear rather than the extended family is the norm.
Polygamy, the custom of having more than one wife, is acceptable, particularly if the first wife is barren or too ill to keep house. Widow remarriage is permitted, with the deceased husband's younger brother being the most desirable partner. Divorce, though uncommon, is allowed but can only be initiated by the husband.
Though many have now adopted the local dress of loincloth, jacket, and turban, the Bhil formerly went nearly naked, wearing a loincloth and perhaps a blanket during cold weather. As is common throughout India today, some males wear Western-style shirts. The hair is traditionally worn long, either partly plaited and fastened with a wooden comb, or falling freely to the shoulder. Males wear earrings, and some carry guns or swords. The Bhils' traditional weapon, however, is the bow and arrow.
Women's dress consists of a skirt, bodice, and a loose cloth pulled up over the head. Clothes worn for festivals and special occasions are more colorful and made of finer cloth. Women wear head ornaments, usually made of silver or tin, and commonly wear brass rings around the arms. Brass rings may also be worn on the legs, often extending from ankle to knee. Children wear few clothes until close to puberty.
The Bhils were originally hunters and gatherers. They subsisted by hunting small game such as rabbits, foxes, deer, wild pigs, birds, and rodents. They fished the local streams and rivers, and gathered edible plants and fruits from the forest. When they turned to agriculture, the Bhils adopted the slash-and-burn techniques of shifting cultivation (jhum). Many continued this form of subsistence activity up to the middle decades of the 20th century. Today, however, most Bhils engage in settled agriculture using the plow and draft animals. The staple foods are maize, millet, barley, pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, and vegetables. Food is taken twice a day, normally in mid-morning and then again in the evening. Rice is occasionally eaten, but the Bhils partake of the flesh of the goat or buffalo only on special occasions.
Bhils are strongly addicted to the use of tobacco and alcohol, making liquor from the flower of the mahua tree (Bassia latifolia) or from the bark of the babul (Acacia arabica). The consumption of alcohol accompanies every feast and celebration.
As an economically depressed group, often inhabiting isolated and difficult terrain, the Bhils' access to education is limited. Despite the availability of state-supported schools and government-sponsored programs for the Scheduled Tribes, literacy levels and educational achievement among the Bhils are low, literacy rates being 6.6% (for women it is less than 1%).
Music, song, and dance are an integral part of Bhil life and accompany all feasts and celebrations. The Ghanna or Gher is a ring dance of Rajasthan. Men carry sticks in their hands and revolve in a circle around the drummers, alternately hitting the sticks of the men ahead and behind them. Other dances are performed to propitiate Mataji and other deities.
An important Bhil institution is the Gauri, a dance-drama with a strong ritual element that presents various episodes from the life of Mahadeo and Parvati. Undertaken by a village once every three or four years, the Gauri festival is held at the end of the rainy season (usually in August). The festival may extend over a period of 40 days or more. Once the bhopa has given permission for the Gauri to take place, the village sends out a troop of male actors to stage performances in neighboring villages. The host villages are expected to provide food and gifts for the visitors, hospitality that is reciprocated when these villages in turn stage their own Gauri celebrations. The Gauri festival serves to tie villages together through ritual exchanges, because the villages visited by the performers are those where there are kinfolk, daughters who have been married, and those with important economic ties to the village that stages the Gauri.
Most Bhils are farmers. However, the pressures of subsistence agriculture, uneconomic land holdings, the burden of debt, and frequent drought have forced many Bhils to leave the land and turn to other occupations. Many are laborers or earn a living cutting wood, preparing charcoal, and gathering forest products like gum and lac. Bhils in the past have made their living from hunting and other forest activities, and are renowned as trackers. Some Bhils have been employed as watchmen, while others have learned shop-keeping from their encounters with the bania (trading) castes, and a small number of them—perhaps 3%—operate shops, tea stalls and flour mills. Again, largely because of a lack of education, a few Bhils are involved in the service industry, but the vast majority are agricultural laborers.
Despite efforts by the Union and State Governments to promote economic development among the Bhil Adivasis (tribals), especially in the areas of agriculture, sericulture, and education, Bhils in India remain socially and economically disadvantaged.
The Bhils do not engage in any organized sports.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
The Bhils, though regarded by outsiders as shy and retiring, have a strong sense of community. Social and cultural occasions are celebrated by singing, dancing, and feasting, with the free consumption of liquor. Hunting and fishing, formerly a means of subsistence, are popular pastimes, although opportunities for such activities today are greatly limited.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The Bhils do not possess a tradition of folk art or crafts. They rely on artisan castes to provide clothing, utensils, and other material necessities.
During the last 100 years, many attempts have been made to improve the social and economic conditions of the Bhils. Christian missionaries, Hindu reformists, the followers of Mahatma Gandhi, and modern social workers have all worked to eradicate what have been perceived as the evils of Bhil society—the traditions of magic and witchcraft, thievery, alcoholism, meat-eating, and animal sacrifice. Many Bhil groups have abandoned their traditional customs and one community, the Bhagats, has even adopted the observances and practices of orthodox Hinduism.
The Bhils face many social and economic problems today. Frequently inhabiting isolated and marginally productive environments, they experience widespread poverty and live in depressed economic conditions. Rapid growth of population, land fragmentation, unproductive landholdings, inefficient farming techniques, and constant indebtedness have forced many off the land to seek work as landless laborers.
While some groups have assimilated to a degree into Hindu society, the Bhils remain a people set apart from the mainstream of Indian society. They have yet to share in the wealth and social and economic advances of post-Independence India.
Generally, women in tribal societies experience more gender equality than their counterparts in Hinduism or Islam, although they still play a subordinate role to men. Bhil women are subject to arranged marriages and their families receive a bride price rather than pay dowries, but marriage remains a loose arrangement, and pre-marital and extra-marital affairs are common. However, once an affair becomes public, disputes are resolved by local panchayats, which tend to favor males and give short shrift to women's rights. In the past, movements existed among the Bhils for the identification and killing of witches.
Bhil women are sometimes subject to many of the restrictions of their Hindu upper caste neighbors. For instance, some Bhil groups have adopted the Hindu custom of veiling their women. Married women have to veil themselves in front of their elder male in-laws. This means that whenever they go out into public places like a market where an elder male in-law might pop up at any time, the married Bhil women have to remain veiled all the time, even though the custom is opposed by the Kansari nu Vadavno, a mass organization of Bhil women formed in 1998 to address women's issues (Kansari is the goddess who symbolizes the life-giving power of jowār (sorghum), the staple of Bhil life).
Kansari nu Vadavno ran a fairly successful campaign against the sale of illicit alcohol during the late 1990s. Their take was that the men under the influence of alcohol not only did not work but also beat them up and demanded excessive sex from them. They contended that the alcoholism of their men added considerably to the overall patriarchal oppression that they suffered.
Domestic violence, poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access to education remain issues for Bhil women.
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—by D. O. Lodrick