Bhils are the most fascinating people and perhaps the oldest surviving inhabitants in the tribal belts of the country since their antiquity is evidenced by their extreme primitiveness. They provide a veritable field and an interesting area for ethnological and anthropological research. At present the Bhil society is undergoing a process of change and calls for fresh interpretations to explain these changes.
The present volume is an attempt to amass the bulk of Bhil literature, weave it into a theoretical framework and place the analysis into a wider perspective. It deals with the origin and social structure of the Bhils and dilates upon their fundamental transformation into caste-like groups. The diverse sections of the Bhils have been tried to be linked together in a diachronic chain and interpret the changes in tribal institutions as resulting from a process of increasing hierarchization.
The book describes very succinctly the Bhil institutions in their idealized form with an analysis of the changes encountered in the process of Hinduization. It not only highlights their village patterns – symbolic of a decentralised segmental organisation – butalso presents a penetrating account of their marital status and institutions.
A well-documented and a comprehensive work written in a lucid and coherent style, will prove to be of sustained interest to the sociologists, anthropologists and the reader in general both within and outside the country.
Until very recently, tribals have been the major concern of
anthropologists working in India. The main studies of Elwin
von Furer-Haimendorf, D.N. Majumdar, etc. were chiefly
devoted to the Hills areas of India and our knowledge of the
Hindu peasant society was scanty. This has changed over the
last 50 years or so and, nowadays, the major achievements of
Indian anthropology were attained among the Hindu castes.
In the last few decades, our knowledge of tribal India has
made very little progress; anthropologists like Béteille, Fuller,
Dumont, Pocock, Parry, Srinivas, etc. seemed to have no
interest at all for the tribes of India. Consequently, tribal
studies have been somewhat stagnant and little new has been
recently written. The few researches undertaken in tribal areas
did not add much to what had already been discovered in the
past, and did not go much beyond pure descriptive monographs.
This is particularly true of the Bhil tribes whose standard of
ethnography is quite low.
Furthermore, in the case of the great tribal groups like the
Bhils, the Gonds or the Santals, one has to face another pro-
blem: their society is so large, numbering several millions, that
a monograph can hardly give usa clear picture of a people
which extends beyond several linguistic regions. The Bhils of
Rajasthan are no doubt different from the Bhils of Maharashtra
but no attempt has been made so far to put some order in the
immense amount of ethnographic data collected among the
different Bhil subtribes.
The present study is a modest attempt to assemble a
reasonable amount of Bhil material and to order it in some
theoretical perspective. Therefore, notwithstanding our stay in
some Bhil villages of district Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh) and
district Surat (Gujarat) in 1976, this study is mainly based upon
second hand material and tries first of all to organize it
in order to provide a clearer picture of Bhil society.
Many aspects have, however, been forgotten and are left to
further studies. Generally speaking, this study deals with the
social structure of the Bhils, but also with the nature of the
transformation of tribal society into caste-like groups. One
is actually puzzled, while reading a monograph about the
Bhils, by the great confusion which exists due to the lack of a
diachronic perspective. The monographs often fail to see that
Bhil society is undergoing a process of change and that all Bhil
institutions should be interpreted according to this change.
Many writers have, for example, denied the reality of Bhil
society by pointing out some Hindu customs whereas it is necessary to analyze these customs in a diachronic perspective and
see that they are often recent adoptions in the process of
Hinduization. The pure tribal society does not exist any more,
it has to be reconstructed or even postulated and has therefore
only an ideal reality. In such a perspective, any custom, any
peculiarity or incongruity in the social institutions does make a
sense and, above all, we can arrange all the subtribes on the
If one is to make a scientific study of the tribal society of
Western Central India, one should also see that all the numerous subtribes which are found in many regions are not different
cultures, without interrelations, but are fast Hinduized subtribes
which differ from the Bhils only by their higher degree of
Hinduization. Therefore, in those regions where the tribals
are no longer isolated and are therefore strongly influenced by
easte Hindus, one can indeed see a Jot of small tribal groups
which have split off from the main body of-the tribe due to the
ongoing process -of Hinduization. Those small tribes are not
mentioned in the literature of the 19th century, and their names
—in many cases, names of headmanship—also point to a recent
existence. This process of fission constitutes the very subject
matter of this study. The Chodhras, Grasias, Naikas Dublas, etc:
are all envisaged as belonging to what can be labelled the Bhil
cultural area, i.e. the hilly and jungle regions bordering
Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Given this rather analytic approach, a general description
of the Bhil tribes will not be found in this study. Little will be
said here about religion of the Bhils, their economics, their
cultural life, etc. Many reports have indeed been written by
anthropologists, and those who read French can refer to my
research at Louvain University (Deliége 1977) which gives an
extensive discussion of Bhil institutions at various levels. As
stated above, we actually need some new perspective about
tribal India and, though more ethnographic data are still
welcome, we should reach deeper levels of theoretical know-
ledge in order to improve our understanding of tribal society.
Further researches about untouchables of south India convince me that there is indeed a basic difference between them
and the tribals. The harijans are usually ashamed of their caste
origin whereas many tribals are proud of being Adivasis. This
difference perhaps symbolizes the gap which separates tribals
from the rest of Hindu folk. Whereas the harijan is rejected
but dependent, the tribal is independent. The recent tribal
history is a progressive loss of this independence and freedom.
The observers of tribal society have often regretted this passage
from a free, open and rather egalitarian society to a hierarchized, sober caste-oriented society. The process of transformation
of tribal groups into castes is the passage from equality to hierarchy, and it is a paradox of history to see that while the Indian
nation was searching her way to democracy and equality, the
tribals were in a parallel process ranking their sections, and
claiming a status in the caste hierarchy.
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