The term ‘Bhil’, evidently comes from the generic term Bil, meaning bow in the Daravidian language. Linguistically, the word is traced to the root of the Sanskrit verb meaning to pierce, shoot or kill in consequence of their proficiency in archers. There are numerous references on them in the Puranas.
In the epic Mahabharata, they are connected with Eklavya. Historically, they ruled over the territories of Southern Rajasthan, through the rulers like Dungariya (Dungarpur), Bansia (Banswara), Kotea (Kota), and Deawa (Udaipur).
They used to be considered as the most trustworthy soldiers and watchmen. In the book Ain-i-Akbari, the author Abul Fazal wrote about Bhils that they are the most industrious and law-abiding people.
The Bhils are the mountain-dwellers. They live in the hilly and mountainous areas of the Aravallis, Vindhyan and Satpura ranges. In fact, their main concentration is in the areas of isolation and relative isolation.
The climate of their abode is monsoonic, recording the highest mean maximum temperature (35°C) in the month of June and the lowest mean minimum temperature 18°C in the month of January. Mid-June to September is the period of barsat (general rains) resulting from the monsoon of Arabian Sea.
About 30 per cent of their territory is forested, but the forests are being shrinking at a faster pace. The denuded hills, eroded soils and removal of forest cover are creating many problems for the growing population of the Bhils
An overwhelming population of tribal’s in the country lives in scattered villages. A Bhil hutment is erected on a small hillock in the midst of its patch of cultivated land. Each hutment is complete in itself, consisting of a few rooms for the accommodation of the cattle or the storage of grains in addition to that used for dwelling purposes. All this is within a single enclosure.
The Bhils do not employ any mason for the construction of their houses, the walls being either of mud and stone or of bamboo. The roofs are usually of clay tiles, though the poorer ones use straw and leaves.
The interior is kept neat and clean and the furniture consists of one or two bed stead’s interwoven with bamboo bark or jute. Some utensils made generally of clay but rarely of metal, are a grinding stone for grinding maize and a bamboo cradle some of the items commonly found in a Bhil’s house.
The front walls of the huts are generally decorated with paintings of lime and red ochre which are crude and primitive. Men with bows and arrows, tigers and panthers are generally sketched on the walls. Some better-off Bhils have recently constructed pucca houses of the modern design.
Maize is the staple food of the Bhils throughout the year. The small millets like kodra (kodo), koori, and bathi are seldom taken even during the lean years. Rice (sokhd) is taken on festival and feasts’ occasions. The wheat distributed through the fair price shops has become now popular in the tribals.
Those living in the plains have also started growing wheat. Guests are invariably entertained with the food prepared of wheat. Rabdi is a common preparation which is made by boiling flour in butter milk. Pulses of gram, urad (black-gram), moong (green gram) and vegetables (sag) when available are also taken. Spices are added when available otherwise only salt is considered to be sufficient.
By customs and traditions, the Bhils are non-vegetarians. They eat mutton flesh of hare, deer or other animals and birds such as partridges, sand-grouse, etc., which they may catch in the forest. During rainy season, whenever opportunity is available, they go for fishing.
Food is taken thrice a day. In the morning, they eat the food prepared by previous evening. In the evening, loaves are prepared. The villagers are very fond of tea and take it very strong. When sugar is not available, they use jaggery. Their poor economic condition, however, makes it difficult for them to take tea regularly.
On ceremonial occasions, they take non-vegetarian food consisting of goats, sheep and buffaloes meat. If the whole community is invited invariably, the flesh of he-buffalo is cooked and served.
On the days of festivals such as Rakhi, Diwali and Holi, special food is prepared. Sweet-rice is the principal item on such occasions. Sometimes rice is also taken with milk.
At the time of marriage, rice and boiled grams are also served. They also prepare lapsi from wheat flour. Bhils are much addicted to liquor which is distilled from the flowers of mahuva tree (Bossia latifolia) or from the bark of babul, or molasses. At the time of festivals, marriages and after-harvest, the Bhils of all age-groups drink excessively.
The clothes of the Bhils in the past were very scanty; his long hair served as a pagri (turban) to protect his head from sword-cuts; and to some extent concealed his nakedness and his only garment appears to have been a pair of short drawers made of bark of a tree.
The petticoat of the female was of the same materials and worn short so as not to impede her progress through the jungle while cutting grass and bamboos; while the numerous metal ornaments on her arms and legs (pejania) protected her from spear-grass, thorns and bites of snakes. There has been much transformation in the dress of both these sexes in the last three to four decades.
A male Bhil ordinarily covers his head with a turban (feta). It is white coloured, and in length about six to seven metres. The poor Bhils, who cannot afford to wear a feta, put on a feti (short turban) which is comparatively shorter in length. The younger generation, however, does not wear any turban.
They cover the upper portion of their body with a shirt, which is made of coarse textile (khadi). The younger people have now begun to put on tee-shirts and suits of synthetic cloth.
A Bhil generally covers the lower portion of his body with a dhoti. Those who still cling to old fashion also keep a shawl or a cloth on their shoulders. It has a length of three to four metres.
In winter it protects them from cold and during other season it is used to fetch grains and other requirements of house.
The dress of a Bhil boy is very scanty. Up to the age of ten years when he tends the cattle, he wears only a loin cloth (langoti). He does not possess any upper garment. Normally, he is not expected to wear the upper garment and head dress before his marriage.
The dress of a female mainly consists of a petticoat (ghaghara), a bodice kapda, and a sari (hadla). This is the typical Bhil woman dress. The petticoat is made of red colored khadi-sapta or tool with a number of plates and hangs from the waist to the ankle. It lasts for many years.
The traditional petticoat has now undergone a vast change. Its length has been reduced to the ordinary length found in vogue in the region. There is no rigidity about the colour also. This garment is found readymade with the tailors. Kapda or bodice of Bhil woman is sewn and is quite small in size. The new generation of women does not put on any undergarments. Instead they put on jhabla.
Hadla or sari is a long piece of cloth of the length of about 4 to 5 metres. It is used to cover the head and a portion of the body above waist. The unmarried girls are by convention not permitted to wear sari. Saris are meant for married and widowed women only.
The dress of unmarried girl consists of ghaghari, a small petticoat which is made of three to four metres cloth. Girls cover their head with a piece of cloth known as odhni.
Bhils wear ornaments of silver, brass, zinc and nickle. Gold being more costly, they prefer these cheap metals. They do not like ornaments of very complex design. Traditionally, a Bhil is fond of earrings.
On ceremonial occasions, they adorn their wrists with silver bangles. They have no ornaments on their chest except hansali—a large and thick circular ring around their necks.
Generally, the women attire themselves with lac and glass bangles. The other ornaments of women are hansali and murki. Both males and females put on shoes as they have to go out and have to work in the forests and fields. There are some persons who are at an advanced age of their life but have not used shoes at all throughout their lives. A shoe for children is a luxury.
Tools and Implements:
The favourite weapons of a Bhil are his bows and arrows. The state of the bow is made of a thick bamboo strip. The string is also made of bamboo strip which is slightly thicker at the end. The string is attached to the stage with the help of sinew. The arrows are of two kinds. One is called hario and the other robdo.
The hario is made of reed and at one end of it feathers are attached and the other end is that of an iron head. These are decorated with various designs, generally in black colour. The robdo is made of bamboo stick to which a bamboo arrow-head is shafted.
The hario is used for killing big animals, while the robdo is used for killing small birds, and teaching archery to the young boys. There is no ceremonial hunting and people go out for hunt occasionally and individually.
Another weapon used by the Bhils is sword, which is of ordinary cutlass type. Daggers are also common and are found in every house.
Swords are used for killing animals and in fights. The daggers are used for splitting bamboos and chopping meat or vegetables. A trap known as pbatkia is used for catching birds. Indigenous guns are also in use. Generally, the well-off Bhils use such guns.
The village settlement pattern is a scattered one. In this pattern, each house is away from other houses. In these houses fields surround the hutments. The scattered pattern of village has the obvious advantage of living on the holding which ensures proper vigil on the crops.
The scattered settlement is a handicap in the development of social amenities. Moreover, this makes it difficult to utilize effectively the development works, such as a sanitary well, a school or a public health centre. Some of the Bhils have started living in compact settlements. Despite modernization in settlement pattern, scattered living continues to be a primordial trait of the Bhil ethnicity.
The Bhils are organized into a number of patrilineal exogamous groups or clans. Each clan is distinctively named and consists of the totality of related individuals from the same ancestors.
The clans among the Bhils are generally named after plants or animals to which the clan members ascribe their origin. The tribe is thus sub-divided into a number of clans, each clan based on a common descent, and the members of each clan live for the most part in separate pals or villages, and observe the rules of exogamy.
The clan name indicates that the persons are agnatic ally related to all those who bear the same name, and further; it enables the members of the tribe at the time of marital contracts to enforce the exogamous injunctions. In the absence of any genealogical evidence of kinship, its very name is sufficient evidence to determine the exogamous relationship.
Each clan has its own totems. The totem may be a plant, tree or animal. All clan members invoke their respective totemic gods and goddesses during domestic difficulties or on the occasion of the performance of ceremonies.
Marriage among the Bhils is not a sacrament. For a Bhil, both male and female, getting married is a mark of adulthood and maturity.
As agriculturists, they require the assistance of helpers whom they get in the form of wife and children. Young or old, a Bhil must have a wife and he does obtain one either through an arranged marriage or through elopement.
A person who does not marry is looked down upon. One strong factor that affects marriage among the Bhils is the acute poverty of the tribe. The bride price has substantially gone up to ten thousand rupees.
The exorbitant amount of bride price compels the poorer Bhils to have the elopement form of marriage. Widow marriage is in vogue. The widow marries only after the mourning period of the deceased husband is over. Traditionally, the Bhils practice polygamy.
Literacy and Education:
Over 85 per cent of the Bhils are still illiterate. The level of overall literacy among the Bhils is increasing. The Bhil boys, at present, are studying at different levels of education in different faculties.
Now, one could find Bhil boys working in laboratories and studying in libraries and going even for engineering and medicine professions.
The Bhil girls, though in smaller number, are also coming forward to take education. The trend has been set and it is believed that in near future both literacy and higher education (both technical and professional) would become popular among the Bhils.
Position of Women:
The position of women is not very strong among the Bhils. Both father and father in-law exercise great influence on daughter-in-law. The parents take greater care of a girl than that of a boy because she is an asset in two ways:
(i) When unmarried, she assists her mother at home and in farms; and
(ii) When married, she brings for her father a considerable amount of bride price (dapa). In the selection of her husband, her consent is not given any weight age. Settlement of marriage entirely depends upon the will of parents.
The position of the wife conforms to the form of the marriage. In a polygamous family, the position and status of a wife are accorded in relation to the degree of preference she gets from her husband. However, if she is the senior most, she enjoys a better status. No family ritual can be performed in her absence. In fact, all rites from birth to death are performed by her.
The life of the Bhil children is marked by many rites, starting with the milk-sucking, when the child is ceremoniously put to the breast by an elderly woman two days after birth.
Till then, someone else has to feed it. There is always a search for any recognizable marks on its body to give a clue as to which of the relatives has been reborn in this child. The child must not be given the father’s or grand-father’s name.
The Bhils believe that when death is about to enter a house, a creaking sound (joring padsha) is heard for it, coming to take away someone from the house.
Sometimes a bird is seen on the top of the house. After the death takes place, relations and friends gather around, and each pours a little liquor into the dead man’s mouth saying, “Drink my share”.
At the cremation ground, the body is placed with its head to the north. On the third day, the Bhils of the village assemble together. There, the moustache and beard of close relatives are shaved.
On the twelfth day, there is drinking and marry-making, shooting arrows into the trees, followed with singing and dancing. For a year from then, the dead person is offered food and water twice a day out of the daily food that is cooked, as also on all festival occasions.
The Bhils commemorate a dead ancestor by a memorial stone. It is either plain or ornamented with carving, generally showing the ancestor to advantage in heroic poses, these largely determined by the social status the person enjoyed when alive. The ancestral stones lie in every village grove in clusters, each standing for the dead ancestors of single lineage unit.
As the Bhils live in symbiotic relationship with forests and trees, they have come to identify them with supernatural spirits. The most respected trees are the mango, amri, banana and pipal. Planting the mango tree is obligatory, done as ritual.
The most popular and sacred among the trees is the pipal, with many taboos attached to it. No leaves or branches can be cut. It is especially worshipped in the month of March. Amri is another sacred tree. The banana tree is also held in veneration. They also worship the weeds which grow on river banks.
Agricultural tools and implements are also worshipped, for any mishandling of them would mean the destruction of the family. The tools are worshipped in the month of Shrawan 0uly) at the festival of Raksha Bandhan. Cow-dung is also worshiped as it enhances soil fertility, and helps in the production of bumper crops.
Holi is the most important festival of the Bhils. It is not a borrowed version of the Hindu festival, but has a Bhil background, for the goddess Holi is also called Jogan Mata (mother of the universe). She is symbolized by a green bamboo pole, especially erected.
A bone fire is lit around it, and singing and dancing in praise of Holi Mata far ahead of the actual festival day. Holi is essentially a community festival and money is collected from every house for the feast. There are no animal sacrifices to Holi but only coconuts and flowers are exchanged.
Diwali is another important festival in which earthen lamps are lit and placed in rows on the roof and steps of houses. On the occasion, the river is worshipped. In addition, the Bhils also worship sacred water-springs.
The Bhils are well-known for their large variety of dances. Every important occasion in their life is linked with dance and song. During Holi, many dances are performed. On the Diwali eve, there is the picturesque dance by men who sometime dress up as women. Colourful costumes are worn for this dance which makes it truly ravishing.
There are special dances for occasions like marriage, death or any eventful occasion in their daily life. The men folk perform a dance in chain group of ten to fifteen persons.
Some dances are performed by men and women together forming a chain. Dance is thus interwoven into the life of the Bhil. In fact, nothing seems to move without a dance or a song.
Living in the forests and hilly tracts, especially in the areas of isolation and relative isolation, the Bhils are largely dependent on forests and agricultural land.
While they gather fruits, leaves, nuts and roots from the forests and hunt wild animals and birds for their sustenance, they grow cereals, vegetables and fodder crops for their families.
The agriculture which is subsistent in character is practiced with primitive and indigenous technology. Consequently, the yield per unit area is low and at the failure of summer monsoon, the Bhil’s economy becomes highly vulnerable.
In fact, in the past, the Bhils, as a whole, have been lawless and independent, earning their livelihood from forest produce and game. If the Bhil did not get enough to eke out a living through the forest, he took recourse to theft or plunder. His arable land, being unirrigated, provided him poor subsistence.
But now the Bhils are moving towards the market-oriented economy. Today, the Bhils have, by and large, taken to commercial crops. The Bhils who have some large size holdings and have irrigation facilities have moved to market-oriented economy and started harvesting three crops in a year.
Those who do not have access to irrigation facilities constitute the lower class in the tribe. In recent years, the Bhils’ economy has been diversified.
Land with the Bhils is decreasing day by day. Size of landholdings is becoming smaller and smaller. This has resulted in the migration of Bhils to the tehsils and district headquarters and in some cases to the cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Nanded, Bhilwara, Kota, Udaipur, Indore and Bhopal.
A few of the Bhils have taken to entrepreneurship. Outside agriculture, they have adopted small scale trading. They are running small1 tea-shops, cycle repairs workshops, tailoring and small contractorship in mining and collection of tendu leaves. A few of them are employed as teachers, compounders, nurses, electricians, fitters, drivers and masons.
The new trend observable in the Bhil economy shows its diversification from agriculture. They are increasingly involving themselves in the competitive cash economy of the region.
The economic classes are also emerging among them. There are rich and elite Bhils; there are Bhils belonging to middle classes. And, at the lowest rung, there are Bhils who are buried in dire poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. The lower stratum constitutes the vast masses of them.
The Bhils, as a tribal group in the Bhils territory, have covered a long journey from subsistence economy to a competitive economy, from isolation to involvement in the local mainstream and for lawlessness to a law-abiding community. They have witnessed the development period of about forty-four years. Some of their problems have been solved.
They are at par with non-Bhils so far their dress pattern; housing, tastes, and life styles are concerned. If they have any ethnic specificity, the other multitude ethnic groups of the regions also have some ethnic specificity.
Any group, tribal or non-tribal, needs some socio-cultural identity. And, therefore, if we find anything particular about the Bhils, it is their mark of identification.
Without it they cannot survive as a cultural group. At present, a social movement is going on to bring them in the national stream. The Bhils are being mobilized to live in compact villages. This will help in overcoming many of their socio-economic and cultural problems.