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Truly Tribal – Tribals of Madhya Pradesh

Madhya Pradesh is home to almost 40% of India’s tribal population who, in most cases, live apart from mainstream India.

Madhya Pradesh was once ruled over by a people known as the Gonds, whose descendants today inhabit the jungles south of Jabalpur. As successive waves of Aryans defeated the Gonds, they gradually retreated into increasingly inaccessible hills and forests. The Gonds gave their name to the central region of the State which is called Gondwana.

Two branches of this tribe, the Muria Gonds and the Madias both live in the Bastar district. This is one of the largest districts in the country, covering a massive 40,000 square kilometres, and in its remote forests and valleys live many of the State’s tribal people. The Gonds are goods cultivators, owning landed property. Their economic status has made them dominant. They have tribal courts, and the worst punishment is banishment from the tribe. Their society is patriarchal. Sex before matrimony is not considered a sin, and if an unmarried woman conceives, the man concerned is simply told to marry her. Monogamy is the rule but polygamy is not uncommon, and child marriage is rare. Killing cattle for food is a crime, although beef-eating is allowed. One of the most distinctive forms of tribal art comes from the Bastar region, and is a form of metal casting done by the “lost wax” method.

To the western side of Madhya Pradesh lives another tribal group, the Bhils, whilst the Oraons inhabit the eastern part of the state. The Bhils get their name from a Dravidian word for bow, which is the hallmark of the tribe. Believing themselves to be descendants of Shiva, the Bhils practice witchcraft. Another group, the Baigas, are forest dwellers, skilled in the varied facets of jungle life.

Despite the encroaching influence of 20th century urban life, the tribals have largely managed to retain their own way of life, relatively untouched by modernization