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Bhils – Fiery and Full of Fun

Forced to migrate, the Bhil tribals made the central Indian valley of the river Narmada their home. Spirited and zestful, undaunted by the difficult living conditions, they have a past as colourful as their present.

With eyes that flash fire, they claim to be descendants of a tribe as old as the hills, forests and valleys that they inhabit. Their ancient lifestyles, their strange customs, their lilting songs, their rhythmic dances are all, I was told, part of a mighty continuity that dates back to pre-historic times.

Of all this I was unaware, because my first encounter with a Bhil had brought me face to face with a ‘world class celebrity’ as he styled himself- Karna Singh Bheel – the man with the almost unbelievably long moustache – the longest in the world at five feet eight inches. This happened in Rajasthan many years ago.

Karna Singh Bheel, like several others of his tribe who regarded dacoity (robbery) as an honourable profession, had once thrived as a killer dacoit. Changing times and several brushes wit the law, he told me, had transformed him into an accomplished nad (folk instrument) player. Twirling his world record length moustache, Karna Singh Bheel had waxed eloquent about its length, his daring exploits as a dacoit, the number of times he had traveled abroad to give exhibitions- of both his moustache and his musical skills, and his love for the nad. But he had too little time to talk to me at leisure about Bhils, past or present. Karna Singh Bheel was murdered in cold blood in 1987 when killers from Pakistan, it is alleged, beheaded him and carried his head – with its world acclaimed moustache – across the border as a trophy.

It was only recently when I visited Jhabua and Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh that I had the opportunity of interacting closely with the Bhils. Numbering about one million, they are concentrated in the four contiguous states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the Bhils have preserved through a strong oral tradition, interesting stories about their origin. One day, a fish in the river warned a washerman sitting on the bank of an approaching deluge. The washerman procured a wooden crate and, along with his sister and cock, who also took shelter in the crate, survived the deluge. But now the earth was one big sheet of water, and the occupants of the crate despaired.

The desperate crowing of the cock attracted God’s attention and his messengers brought the crate before him and opened it. The washerman, over-come with gratitude, related his story to God, who asked him who the woman was. Three times the washerman averred that she was his sister, but the fourth time, he said she was his wife. After this, he had no choice but to marry her.

Seven sons and seven daughters were born from this union brought about by the deluge. When the first-born son grew up, God presented him with a horse. But the son, unable to master or ride the horse soon gave up the responsibility of caring for the horse, and went away into the forest. Of this son, it is said, came the Bhil tribe, for in time, the ‘offspring of he first born deluge son’ multiplied into a sizeable population.

Another story has it that Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, originally regarded the Bhils as her brothers. One day, five Bhils went to visit Lord Shiva. Parvati told them about the great wealth that was stored in the hump of Nandi, Lord Shiva’s bull. On hearing this, the five Bhils conspired and proceeded to kill Nandi to procure the wealth in his hump. Parvati was outraged and informed them that they should have yoked the bull and used it to plough the earth and so obtain wealth instead of foolishly and thoughtlessly slaying it. Forevermore, she condemned the Bhils to miserable existence.

Over the centuries, the Bhils have indeed, eked a marginal, unsettled existence. But this has in no way dampened their spirit and zest for life. One of their many songs, set to music, describes how the Bhils were forced to migrate from some place because of famine and chose finally to live in the jungles where they succeeded in living happily – surviving on their hunting skills, the lore of the jungle, and an unquenchable appetite for fun and laughter even in the face of adversity.

A great love of music and dance characterize their lives even today. One evening, in the picturesque valley of the Narmada, I watched hundreds of Bhil men and women gather and sing and dance in gay abandon to the beat of drums and the notes of a pawli (an aerophonic instrument).

Many activities f the Bhils are ritualistic. Tattooing, for instance, which is common among Bhils, carries a meaning far beyond the decorative. Clan and group codes are often expressed through tattooing.

Before a Bhil girl attains puberty, she must acquire a chirlya (bird) tattoo, and naina (eye lines), even though the art of tattooing is a painful process. Like other tribal groups, the Bhils too have hereditary professional women tattooers. The more tattoo marks a girl has, the more beautiful she is considered.

Bhil girls have ample opportunity to display their tattoo adornments along with the symbolic significance at the weekly haats (markets) which are held amidst every cluster of Bhil habitations. These haats are also matrimonial markets, for it is here that young boys and girls from different villages can meet without inhibition and, if they make a choice, request their elders to approve and solemnize a marriage.

Occasions such as weddings and festivals bring to the fore two contradictory but great loves of the Bhils – liquor and worship. Some Bhil sects are worshippers of the moon and the stars. But all Bhils worship Bhilat Dev, their chief deity. It is said that Bhilat Dev was a cowherd, who learned the arts of music and magic.

One day, as Bhilat Dev was playing the harp, a monstrous serpent called Bheru appeared. Bhilat grabbed the serpent by the hood and carried it to Lord Indra – God of the wind and rain. Indra, pleased at the bravery and skills of Bhilat, rewarded him with hundreds of cow, and ordained that Bheru, the serpent should serve him for life. Ever since then, the Bhils have worshipped Bhilat Dev, whose image is generally found ensconced under some spreading shady tree near Bhil habitations.

Today, the Bhils, with all their colourful customs and traditions, still refuse to stand willingly on the crossroads of progress and prosperity. They are still loathe to exchange their freedom for all the comforts and security that a settled, prosperous existence would usher in. So far, they have remained like insular inlands, a law unto themselves, a link with the distant, primeval past. But for how long….?