Tribes : Habitat, Economy and Society of Gonds, Bhils,Santhals, Nagas, etc and Trends of their Transformation.


Tribals constitute 8.61% of the total population of the country, numbering 104.28 million (2011 Census) and cover about 15% of the country’s area. The fact that tribal people need special attention can be observed from their low social, economic and participatory indicators. Whether it is maternal and child mortality, size of agricultural holdings or access to drinking water and electricity, tribal communities lag far behind the general population. Some of the important tribes of India and their mains characteristics are as follows:


Habitat: Gonds live all over central India, and in the states of Maharashtra and Orissa. As “hill people,” they traditionally have been associated with hills and uplands in the Deccan Peninsula. Many Gonds live around the Satpura Hills, Maikala Range and Son-Deogarh uplands, and on the Bastar plateau. Many Gond tribes also live in the Garhjat Hills of northern Orissa. The upland areas generally lie between 2,000 to 3,000 feet (600 to 900 meters), with isolated peaks occasionally exceeding approximately 4,000 feet (1,200 meters). The region is drained by the head-waters of many of India’s major rivers.

Society: Gond society is divided into four groups known as phratries or sagas in Gondi. Each saga traces its descent to one of the four groups of gods who emerged from the cave after their release by the hero Lingal. The saga is divided into several clans (pari) . A clan consists of a group of people who believe they share a common ancestor. Generally, it is good to marry outside the clan.  Kinship and marriage customs among Gonds reflect broader regional patterns. The norm is cross-cousin marriage (for example, marrying one’s mother’s brother’s daughter), which is typical in southern India. Gond groups that have been influenced by northern peoples such as Marathas, however, follow northern customs in determining marriage partners. Similarly, northern Gonds allow widows to remarry a brother of the deceased husband.  Gonds typically choose their marriage mates, and a tribal council approves the matches. The father of a groom pays a bride price. Gond weddings include many significant ceremonies. The main part of the wedding occurs when the bride and groom walk seven times around a wedding post. Newlyweds live with the groom’s family until it is possible for them to move into a house of their own.  Sometimes, Gond matches are made when a groom and bride elope. These marriages must be approved later by relatives and the village council.

Economy: All Gonds are in some way or other engaged in agriculture or work in the forest. They would not dream of accepting any other occupation. Originally they must have been nomadic hunters and food gatherers and then switched to shifting cultivation, retaining, however, their close connection with the forest. Shifting cultivation is not merely one type of agriculture but a complex cultural form, a way of life. It requires no draft animals and allows the cultivators more leisure time for work in the forest, hunting, fishing, and the collection of Jungle produce. However, most Gonds have been forced to abandon shifting cultivation by the government because it is harmful to the forest, and some Gond sections had already voluntarily changed over to plow cultivation and even to terrace cultivation. They prospered economically and acquired a high social standing.

Bhils or bheels

Habitat: Bhils or Bheel are primarily an Adivasi people of North West India. Bhils are also settled in the Tharparkar District of Sindh, Pakistan. They speak the Bhil languages, a subgroup of the Western Zone of the Indo-Aryan languages. According to Census, 2011, Bhils were the largest tribal group in India followed by Gond tribe. Bhils are listed as Adivasi residents of the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan – all in the western Deccan regions and central India – as well as in Tripura in far-eastern India, on the border with Bangladesh. Bhils are divided into a number of endogamous territorial divisions, which in turn have a number of clans and lineages. Most Bhils now speak the language of the region they reside in, such as Marathi, Gujarati or a Hindustani dialect.

Economy: As hunters and gatherers, the Bhils traditionally relied primarily on the bow and arrow, although spears, slings, and axes were also used. Game hunted by the Bhils included rabbits, foxes, deer, bear, lizards, pigs, birds, rodents, and wild cats. The same weapons were also used for fishing, along with weir baskets, stone and bamboo traps, nets, and poisons. Edible plants, tubers, and fruits gathered from the forest supplemented their diet or their income, as also did honey, wild fruits, and firewood. The mahua tree ( Bassia latifolia ) is an important source of berries and flowers. When they converted to agriculture, the Bhils used slash-and-burn techniques until the method was declared illegal to prevent extensive destruction of the forests. Today fields are farmed continuously, although the lands that were allocated to the Bhils, as enticement to settle down in the nineteenth century, were generally poorer fields that lacked water. Crops planted include maize, millet, cucumbers, cotton, eggplants, chilies, wheat, chickpeas, wild rice, lentils, barley, beans, tobacco, and peanuts. Many Bhils today are landless and make a living working as laborers, primarily in clearing forests and in road repair. The primary draft animal is the bullock, of which each family owns at least a pair, as well as cows with which they may be bred. Buffalo are rare, but goats are kept for their milk and meat, as are pigs and chicken. Most Bhils are nonvegetarian, consuming all forms of game and raising pigs, poultry, and goats for their meat.


Habitat: Santhal, also called Santal or Manjhi, ethnic group of eastern India, numbering well over five million at the turn of the 21st century. Their greatest concentration is in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Orissa, in the eastern part of the country. Some 200,000 also live in Bangladesh and more than 10,000 in Nepal. Their language is Santhali, a dialect of Kherwari.

The Santhal have 12 clans, each divided into a number of subdivisions also based on descent, which is patrilineal. Traditionally, members of the same clan do not marry each other. Membership in the clan and subclan carries certain injunctions and prohibitions with regard to style of ornament, food, housing, and religious ritual. Marriage is generally monogamous; polygyny, though permitted, is rare. The traditional religion centres on the worship of spirits, and the ancestral spirits of the headmen are objects of an important cult.

Economy: Santals originally were hunters and gatherers, as their near relatives and neighbors, the Birhors, still are. Their knowledge of plants and animals is reflected in their pharmacopoeia (see below). In hunting technology, their past is evidenced by the use of some eighty varieties of traps. Later, their main economic base shifted to slash-and-burn agriculture and husbandry. Today, wet rice is grown in terraced fields; on the plains, irrigation by canals and ditches is used. Several varieties of rice are grown along with some sixteen varieties of millet. Leguminous vegetables, fruit, mustard, groundnut (in Orissa), cotton, and tobacco are important crops. The Santals keep cattle, goats, and poultry and are nonvegetarian. Fishing is important whenever they have access to rivers and ponds. The economy of the Santals is biased toward consumption, but they sell or barter (in Bihar) goats, poultry, fish, rice and rice beer, millet, groundnut, mustard seed, vegetables, and fruits when a surplus is available.  Migrant labor plays an important role; many Santals have migrated to work in plantations, mines, and industries. In Bengal, some are gardeners or domestic servants. A small educated elite includes politicians, lawyers, doctors, and engineers, while considerable numbers of Santal women work as nurses. Seasonal or temporary migration is particularly important for women, who are working in construction or mining.


Habitat: The Naga tribes belong to the Indo-Mongoloid race. It is believed that most probably, the Nagas moved south-east from Sinkiang (China). Some of them trekked along the Brahmaputra into the present Arunachal Pradesh and some of them pushed to Myanmar (Burma) and Indonesia.  From the myths and legends of the Nagas, one gathers that they have some relationship with the natives of Borneo. They have had common cultural traditional way of head-hunting.

the habitat of Naga tribes—is situated in the north-eastern part of India. It has an area of 16,579 sq. kms, and according to the census of 2001 it has a population of 19, 88,636 with an average density of 120 persons per sq. kms. The literacy rate is over 67 per cent and the sex ratio is 909 females to 1,000 males.  There are nineteen major Naga tribes, namely, Aos, Angamis, Changs, Chakesang, Kabuis, Kacharis, Khain-Mangas, Konyaks, Kukis, Lothas (Lothas), Maos, Mikirs, Phoms, Rengmas, Sangtams, Semas, Tankhuls, Yamchumgar and Zeeliang  The habitat of Nagas is mountainous, characterized by elevated ridges, spurs and peaks of Naga and Patkoi hills which are a southward extension of the Himalayan folded mountain system. Barring a few hundred square kilometres of plains around Dimapur, the entire state of Nagaland is hilly and mountainous.


Society: In each of the villages of Nagas, there is a large hall in which the bachelors sleep in the night. In fact, it is a club and the hub of the villager’s cultural activities. In the opinion of some of the experts, morung is a training centre and a guard house. In front of the morung, there is a big platform on which the boys sit out and talk.  In dimension it is about 16 metres long and 7 metres wide. It is too high to step over and too slippery quickly to scramble over, so that an attacker, even if he got through the door, would have to jump on to it and down the other side and would be bound to expose him while doing so.  There are sleeping benches around the walls and two hearths on the earth floor. Out of the two hearths, the one nearer the door is reserved for the senior inmates and the back bone for the young boys.

The religion of the Nagas is neither a deep-rooted philosophy nor does it demand any spiritual or mystic participation by the followers. Human needs and biological functions determine their religion which is not free from magic and sorcery.  During the last about 150 years, the Christian missionaries have converted most of the Nagas to Christianity. The Nagas have no idols and they do not believe in image or idol worship. Though Christian by faith, they still follow some of the old practices of tribal religions.

Economy: The Nagas’ economy is essentially agrarian in character. They largely depend on jhum land and forests for their sustenance. Shifting cultivation, locally known as jhuming, is widely practised in Nagaland.  It covers about 73 per cent of the total arable land of the state. Under jhuming, land is cultivated in hill side tracts as long as it retains sufficient productivity to support the inhabitants, usually from two to three years. Subsequently, the jhumia shifts his cultivation to a new location and develops new fields, leaving the former to lie fallow long enough to regain fertility.



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