A Bhil wedding
a Bhil hut
from Mahua berries
Bhil men performing
in the Gavri festival
MEWAR'S INDIGENOUS BHIL TRIBE (The Bowmen of Rajasthan)
The Bhil tribe forms an important community, which inhabits mainly the
southern districts of Rajasthan, including the hilly regions
surrounding Udaipur and Chittaurgarh.
According to the 1991 Nationwide Census they constituted over 2.3
million people, making them the second-largest tribal group in
Rajasthan. The generic term, which describes their tribe, apparently
derives its name from ‘bil’, meaning bow, which refers to their
original talent and strength.
History corroborates the legends, which tells of the Bhils’
superiority in archery. From the Mahabharata emerges Eklavya, a Bhil
who surpassed the skill of Arjuna only to be repressed by the command
of his guru. The Ramayana tells of Vail, the Bhil bandit who reformed
with the blessings of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, to become
Valmiki, the renowned poet sage.
It is difficult to trace the history of the Bhils and even harder to
say for certain whether they originate from Indian soil or whether
they migrated here. Many scholars believe that they inhabited India
before the arrival of the Dravidians, and it may be that they are
amongst the earliest group of people in the sub-continent.
The generally medium-sized stature, dark skin and thick hair points to
the possibility that they derive from African stock. The Bhils are a
hardy and brave people, of simple lifestyle & habits. Thousands of
years ago, their ancestors would have led similar lives, using their
knowledge of farming land & domesticating animals in much the same
ways as they do today.
The Bhils are gentle and make great friends, but in battle they are
implacable enemies. Rana Pratap's camaraderie with the Bhils proved to
be a great asset and strength to him and a nightmare for the Mughals.
Whilst the Bhils of old played a major role in the shaping of history
in the erstwhile Rajputana, their descendants do not seem to have
benefited from the bravery of their forefathers. The Bhil
tribes-people of Today appear rather neglected and unappreciated. This
may largely be due to their simple way of life and the fact that they
have never come to the fore!
LIFESTYLE and SOCIAL CUSTOMS
A Bhil community known as a ‘pal’ normally sprawls over scattered
settlements without a distinct boundary. In the plains, the
settlements are more compact than in the hills, where river beds
decide the space for the habitat. The local chieftain, referred to as
the ‘mukhi’, has the final word in all matters - social, legal and
financial, and his decisions are respected by the community over which
he presides. The usual arbitration arises over thefts and cases of
The most important period of the year to a Bhil is the 40 days
following the Monsoon. During this period Bhil men consider it an
honour and a duty to participate in a roving group of performers who
enact Hindu stories in village squares throughout their district. The
Gavri is an exciting time for participants and audience alike. The
audience will often be just about every inhabitant of the village.
Females cannot participate, so female roles are also played by men,
who dress up in the most gaudy costumes they can find. But the Gavri
is not merely fun time it is a series of acts based on the Hindu
epics; tales of the heroes and villains that make up the essence of
Hinduism. It is considered a religious, even holy event, and the
participants must follow very strict and arduous regulations during
the entire 40-day period.
A participant cannot consume green vegetables, meat, cigarettes, or
alcohol, neither can he perform sex, wear shoes or go upstairs in his
own home. Some won't even stay in their own home. If a participant
dies during the Gavri period, he is considered a saint, and as with
sadhus, he will not be cremated, but buried. After the Gavri, the
relations of any man who has participated are expected to present him
with gifts of new clothes.
Popular enactments include the legends of the great goddess Amba Mata,
who is depicted sitting upon a tiger, as she performs battle with
demons. The Gavri is never complete without the story of one of the
aspects of Lord Shiva, Gouri and his wife Buriya, otherwise known as
Parvati. Gavri starts just after Raki (Rakhsha Bhandan). At the
commencement of the period, wheat is sown in pots full of mud. On the
last day these pots full of bright green wheat shoots are carried on
the head in a grand procession.
Gouri, the main Gavri deity (one of the aspects of Lord Shiva, sits
atop a model elephant and is carried to a lake or river in which it is
consigned. The Gavri season takes on the semblance of a holiday.
Building work in the city almost grinds to a halt, since the Bhils who
make up most of the area's construction workforce, would never give up
this most important festival for mere monetary gain!