We Westerners tend to think of India as one overgrown homogeneous country, primarily Hindu, brown skinned, ambitious, poor and energetic. That may be true of the majority of Indians but it certainly does not take into account the tremendous variety of peoples, religions and subcultures that exist there. Of special interest are the forty million or so folks who are considered tribals. That figure is, of course, a drop in the bucket of the more than a billion Indians who populate the peninsula but their practices are so varied and unique that they merit a visit or more of their own to satiate the interests of the intrepid traveler. I was lucky enough to put together such a journey for myself and it turned out to be a highlight of my travel.
Most of the tribal villages are in rural areas separate from mainstream Indian culture and often a distance from its vast cities. The more isolated these villages are, the more likely they are to have retained their differences in language, worship, dress and customs. These are primarily people who settled in India well before the Aryans arrived and the Hindu culture was established. Many of them are of Dravidian origin and practice one form or other of animist religions. The tribal villages are scattered throughout the country although there are a few places where one is more likely to encounter a variety of them. And the variations are staggering. Some folks pray to stone formations or to unique spirits, some others worship ancestors; others still wander about with bows and arrows, many of them value women equally or even above males and others provide for bride prices in contrast to the Hindu culture where dowries are commonplace. There are still many who practice animal sacrifice on a regular basis. There are tribals who are virtually naked in dress and others who are covered from head to toe and wear an abundance of jewelry, especially necklaces and nose rings made in tribal villages which specialize in such metalwork. There are patrilineal and matrilineal groups, bigamists and monogamists and even places where women take more than one husband; some communities allow easy divorce and others do not. A visit to their living areas is a veritable journey through National Geographic.
My trip began in the state of Madhya Pradesh with a visit to the most numerous minority group called the Bhils who number about 7,000,000 alone. I wrote earlier about their colorful Bhagoria Festivals where young people meet, boys convince girls to run off with them to spend trial days in the woods and ultimately take the mates they find worthwhile to the boy's home at which time the family prepares an offer to the bride's family. In that part of India, one can also visit other tribes including the Bhilala, the Ghonds and the Nagdas. These groups worship their own god, Bhagwan, and consider nature an object of reverence also. They pray to stone images sprayed with oil and offer liquor and animals to their gods. The Bhil's male and female dress for the Bhagoria Festival is incredibly colorful and original.
Another concentration of tribal life is in Orissa on the Eastern side of India. One can visit there the Kutia Kondh and view the geometric tattoos on the faces and hands of the women so that they will recognize one another in the after world while the men dress in loin clothes even today. This tribe has very elaborate rituals for birth, marriage and death, all of which can be observed on a visit. Another artifact to be observed among the various Kondh clans is the way the villages are laid out. They generally are built with two rows of houses facing a central street in the middle of which stands an altar to the earth goddess who is worshipped faithfully. The clan of the Dongariya Kondh features women who wear three large nose rings as well as men who have their hair bunched up on their head and are decorated with smaller nose rings. They are a fascinating, unusual looking group but the Bonda and the Gadaba who also reside in the general area are even more singular. The Bonda women, according to legend, may not wear any clothing but they have fashioned one of the most unique ways to cover themselves I have ever seen. They are known as "the naked people." This group also practices bride price instead of dowry for the men's families. The men are known for their violent, warlike manner and carry weapons to protect their women from relatively non-existent animal threats. The Gadaba female attire features gigantic earrings and the women are especially well known for their dancing.