The digital age of information has brought with it heightened materialism and wastefulness too, which seems to have consumed India’s urban population, turning them into market-driven beings of a rather one-dimensional nature; but there are perks to living in such an explicitly dual country. Living in complete juxtaposition to our cubicle ways, is an equally vibrant and culturally rich India whose lifestyles, culture, religious beliefs, traditions, rituals, dressing, food, language are so far removed from the rest of our country, they represent an anthropological wealth of heritage.
Home to the largest tribal population in the world, India has the privilege of hosting a variety of truly diverse, colourful indigenous people and we’ve always been fascinated by their lineage but we’ve only ever gone skin-deep. We took a step further in uncovering stories within the 600+ tribes that live within our borders to identify the most interesting tribes from the country, that too, one from every state.
[Note: We picked tribes from each Indian State on the basis of which ones provided a particularly unique insight into an alternative way of life through faith, dressing, music, art, rituals and so forth. For easier reading, we divided the country into five zones, namely, South India, North & Central India, East India, North East India and West India.]
A. South India
I. The Kurumba Tribe of the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu
...the tribal experts on sorcery and magic
This unique tribal community in the mid-ranges of the Nilgiris, believed to be descendants of the 7th Century Pallavas, has a rather mysterious identity. Male temple-care members and village Priests create beautiful works of art, while music expresses great, old traditions through Bamboo pipes (Kolu and Bugiri) and drums (tambette). While art, music, religious traditions and rituals of the Kurumbas are fascinating though, we were more enthralled by their unusual beliefs of sorcery.
Their powers are believed to be so effective that other tribes fear and respect them. Illness and death are deemed Kurumba-cast spells. Magical roles such as The Diviner (Kanigara), Exorcist (Devvagara), and Sorcerer (Odia) are played by the Kurumbas, aided by herbs, spells, and roots. The Therapist (Maddugara) is the curer, whilst The Wizard (Pilligara) is believed to turn himself into an animal. Supposed supernatural Kurumba deeds in the 1800s caused a massacre of retaliation from other tribes in the Nilgiris - so entrenched are their beliefs of sorcery. Oh, and on an unrelated but equally fascinating note, while Kurumba men are hunters, cultivators and gatherers, Kurumba women are traditionally body tattooists.
II. The Cholanaikkan Tribe of Kerala
...completely untouched by civilization until just 50 years ago
Sons of the earth and children of the forest - that is the way of life for the Cholanaikkans, the most primitive and vanishing of Kerala’s tribes. Found solely in the Karulai and Chunagathara forest ranges, this hunter-gatherer tribe lives in rock shelters or crude huts beside brooks. This tribe enjoyed the pleasures of solitude until very recently - they were first contacted only in the late 1960s. The most fascinating aspect of the Cholanaikkans is the extent to which they managed to escape urban and conventional ways of life into the latter half of the 20th Century though. When first contacted, they didn’t even have any form of clothing, and represented a world still existing in stone-age culture. Living purely off the green earth and its gifts, the Cholanaikkans are animists and worship ‘ancestral spirits’. Trees are their only icons of devotion. Ultimately, this unique tribe gives the digital age a rare perspective into an ancient way of life.
III. The Hallaki Tribe of Karnataka
...are singing beautiful songs to keep their dying culture alive.
Northern Karnataka’s picturesque Ankola town has the privilege of housing the primordial Hallaki Vokkaliga Tribe. Exposure to the urban lifestyle has made this tribe a quickly vanishing one, as its new generation is a victim of modernisation, abandoning ancient Hallaki customs and traditions. This tribe vanishing will be a great tragedy and loss, chiefly because of their incredible songs. Yes, the ancient Hallaki tribe has a beautiful culture of singing their lives. The women compose poetry, sonnets and songs vocalizing every aspect of their lives, from simple daily routines to their historic traditions chronicled. Unwritten accounts of elaborate Hallaki rituals flow from these tribal women in music - every oral historian’s dream, and it’s on the verge of fading away.
IV. The Koya Tribe of Andhra Pradesh
...whose life emerged out of water, legend has it.
Andhra Pradesh’s multi-racial, multi-lingual Koya community’s relationship with nature extends beyond survival - it is the key to their existence. They don’t just live off nature, they live because of it. According to their mythology, life originated from water, and the friction between the fourteen seas resulted in the emergence of moss, toads, fish and saints. God, the last saint, first created Tuniki and Regu fruits. The association of birth with life translates to marriage rituals as well, when water - the symbol of fertility - is poured on a new bride. Another interesting Koya tradition revolves around social and religious occasions. An intoxicating beverage, ‘Ippa Sara’ or Mohuva drink, is a refreshing relief for the Koyas after the physical hardship of a day. With such a close relationship with nature, as most tribes have, one question rears its head - Who does the earth belong to? Customary laws of the Koyas ensure communal ownership of natural resources, administered by the Pedda (village headman) who controls social, political and religious activities.
V. The Chenchu Tribe of Telangana
...The devout Shiva worshippers of the South.
Telangana’s Chennapur Village is host to a small, conservative Chenchu hamlet, a tribe of the Dravidian language family so far from urban lifestyle, that money and materialism are of little or no importance. With deeply spiritually inclined lives, their devotion is the centre of their universe.
Unlike most tribes who worship Mother Nature, the Chenchu’s system of belief revolves around deities such as Lord Eshwara (Lingamayya for the Chenchus) with rituals such as Pujas. Chenchu legend has it that Lord Mallikarjuna, Lord Shiva’s incarnation, fell in love with a young maiden by name Chenchu Laxmi, and this happy couple tied the knot. The tribe believes that they are the descendents of this couple, and have a special place and mention in Puranas, temple records and chronicles. Ritualistic celebrations vary, from austere, serene and simple ones to wild, intoxicating and mystical. Dance, gaiety, and the lyricism of their life reflects contentment, as they find peace and aspire for very little.
VI. The Gowda Tribe in Goa
...showcases a harmonious merging of two faiths. World, take note.
Two distinct characteristics of Goa’s Gowda Tribe make them every anthropologist’s dream. The women of this tribe are given a wide range of rights, from economic to social to political matters, which is exceptionally progressive for a primitive tribe like the Gowdas. So progressive in fact, that after their husbands’ deaths widows inherit their deceased spouse’s property - a remarkable tradition that does not translate to most other Indian tribes or even India as a whole.
The second unique attribute of the Gowdas is their religion, or should we say, all their religions. Although originally Hindu, the Portuguese forcibly converted a part to Christianity in 1620, breaking this tribe into two distinct belief systems, which even overlap in certain ways. Defying traditional funeral rituals, the Hindu Gowdas do not cremate their dead - and adopt their Christian brothers’ burial practice, displaying a beautifully harmonious co-existence of two differing religions.
VII. The Katkari Tribe of Maharashtra
...an under-appreciated and oppressed tribe for whom rodents are both part of their diets, and significant culturally.
At the bottom of the indigenous pyramid lies the under-appreciated Katkari Tribe of Maharashtra. With low literacy rates and high discrimination, their lives are lived in constant oppression on the fringe of society. Faced with intolerance from other Maharashtrian tribes, their lifestyles have grown in this atmosphere of non-acceptance, and seem to be rather peculiar. Primarily hunters, Katkaris catch and eat rodents regularly, and even have a festival pertaining to rodents. Two major vices include alcohol, which is an easy escape from indebtedness and the reality of poverty, and Hindi films, which eat up most of their income. Sexual exploitation is rampant, while child marriage is a norm. The culture of the Katkari tribe has sadly formed around their socio-economic misfortune, making them the forlorn indigenous community of Maharashtra.
VIII. The Siddi Tribe of Gujarat
...the lost gems of ancient Africa, hidden away in India.
Deep in Gujarat, hidden in the quaint Sirvan village, is a hidden gem. Inhabited by the Siddis, these parts of Gujarat are honoured by the presence of one of the most unusual tribal communities in India. Their origins, although specifics are lost in legends and historic calculations, can be traced back to Africa. Legend has it that this community was brought to India as slaves by the Portuguese for the Nawab of Junagadh. The Siddis don’t retain much of their African heritage, neither language nor history. Fortunately, the one gift of their African lineage they still hold precious is music and dance. Most famous for the Dhamal dance, Siddis are guardians of a rich and unique musical tradition that is a truly hidden jewel of Indian indigenous culture.
IX. The Bhil Tribe in Rajasthan
...whose electric and colourful Baneshwar Fair will make you wish you were a Bhil.
(Watch the Bhil’s famous Ghoomar dance here, in all its colourful glory.)
With special mentions in the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, this race of Pre-Aryans is South Asia’s largest tribe. Although they are found all over India, Rajasthan may rejoice as they are predominantly from this lucky State. The vibrant Bhil culture makes them a fascinating community - with intriguing music, dance, craftsmanship and celebration traditions. Baneshwar Fair is the main festival of the Bhils, dedicated to Lord Shiva. This occasion is celebrated with Bhils gathering on the banks of the Som and Mahi rivers, setting up camp and performing dances to traditional songs around a fire. This gorgeous visual is made complete with cultural shows, magic shows, animal shows and acrobatic feats. And, as if this burst of culture isn’t mesmerising enough, the Bhils’ most famous folk dance, the Ghoomar, is a captivating demonstration of movement and colour.
North and Central India
X. The Muria Tribe of Chhattisgarh
...and their inspiring sexual liberation.
The plains of Narayanpur and Kondagaon Tehsils in Bastar are home to one of India’s most interesting tribal communities - the sexually liberated Murias. Tradition calls for an institution known as Ghotul, which encompasses their entire lives. The most unique characteristic is the extensive unsupervised sexual freedom enjoyed within the Ghotul. Although sex isn’t the Muria’s only occupation, it is one of the most important ones. Everything they do is geared towards its realisation.
Still - it isn’t so simple, such progressive sexual liberation has rules. For one, no boy (chelik) or girl (motiari) may sleep with the same person more than two or three times in a row, encouraging a regular switching of sexual partners, and discouraging preferential treatment. Children learn sexual technique from their elders by example and by actual instruction, because if you’re doing it - you might as well get it right.
XI. The Sansi Tribe of Punjab
...the so-called ‘criminal’ tribe.
Originally of Rajput descent, the Sansi tribe have been a nomadic tribe settling in different parts of Punjab. For time immemorial they have wandered Punjab, found in Ludhiana, Amritsar and Karnal. Their nomadic existence is a result of compulsion, not choice. Made to live on the fringe of society, this tribe has been neglected and pushed away from civilization for decades. And deprivation has shaped their lifestyle, with prostitution, beggary, theft and criminal activities pilfering their habits out of desperation. Failed by Indian people and our government, this tribe has been pushed to its limits, with no land to call their own either. To make matters worse, they are labelled Vagrants and Criminals, and there’s no attempt to protect this community. Sansis women are especially downtrodden, both economically and socially. For instance, marriage traditions dictate that the bride is covered by a basket on which the groom sits during the nuptials.
XII. The Baiga Tribe of Madhya Pradesh
...are the creators of the Indian race, legend has it.
We all owe the Baigas our lives, legend dictates. This tribe’s mythology believes that they are the harbingers of the Indian race, with Nanga (nude) Baiga as the Indian Adam and the Nangi (nude) Baigin, as the Indian Eve. As the story goes, this tribe was hand-crafted by God himself, making them the Chosen people. Nanga Baiga was a great wizard with potent charms. His right shoulder was said to be the source of white magic, while his left that of black magic. These magical beliefs shape lifestyle, customs and traditions of the Baigas. Omens and superstitions are highly valued, and dictate several life choices. For example, women, cows, tigers, full pitchers of water, corpses are good omens, while bad ones are men, ghosts, empty pitchers of water and so forth.
XIII. The Tharu Tribe in UP
...where animal, and even human body sacrifice is the norm.
Uttar Pradesh’s Tharu Tribe is a multi-talented community, dipping their fingers into different skills such as cultivation, animal rearing, fishing, professional hawking, basketry, masonry, carpentry and so forth. Still, their most elaborate task seems to be their deity worship. Following Hinduism, Islam, Animism, Buddhism and Christianity, this community is a religious melting pot. Whichever the religion a household devotes themselves to, worship of their family deities is observed in quite an elaborate manner.
Animal ritual sacrifices are performed to appease deities in times of natural calamities, or for prevention of diseases. Special rituals are associated with these worships. Apart from chickens, pigeons, and other animals, milk and gorgeous silk clothes are given as offerings too. It is not uncommon to sacrifice human body parts too, such as the forehead, arms, throat, legs etc, and even blood of a family’s male member. Since the belief is that a pleased God is the answer to cure diseases, the onus of pleasing gods and defeating evils falls on these Shamans (Tharu doctors) who use to beat drums and offer sacrifices.
XIV. The Gujjar Tribe of Himachal Pradesh
...Where did they come from? Well, there are more than a few theories.
Held in high esteem, the Gujjar tribal community occupies the north western provinces of Himachal Pradesh - but where did they come from? Several anthropologists have attempted to trace their fascinating origin, which has given root to different theories. It is suggested that at the time of the Hunas invasion, the Gujjar clan moved into northern India along with the Huna tribes. Perhaps the Gujjar tribes were foreign migrants, belonging to a branch of Hephthalites known as ‘White Huns’.
An alternate school of thought assumes that the Gujjar’s ancestry originates from the Turkic ethnic group though, also known as the Khazar Tribe. Indo-Aryan languages replace the sounds ‘kh’ and ‘z’ with ‘g’ and ‘j’ respectively, suggesting that the name Gujjar is a derivation of Khazar itself. If these anthropological theories were to be relied upon, Himachal Pradesh is home to a 5th or 6th century old foreign-settled tribe with a beautifully mixed and evolved ethnic origin.
XV. The Changpa Tribe of Jammu and Kashmir
...Whose beautiful life in the hills will make you wonder why you live anywhere else.
Deep inside the Changthang plateau of Ladakh’s ranges lives a nomadic tribe of high cultural exuberance. And, the lofty snow-covered mountains of Jammu and Kashmir have only added to their unique lifestyle. Living off the mountains’ resources and glory, the Changpas traditions are shaped by the hills. Cultivating barley on hilly slopes is only one of their occupations though. Trade is booming for this tribe as they gather salt from the northern shores of the Tsokar Lake in Rupshu region to sell in Ladakh, along with products from rearing cattle and flocks of pashmina goats. Living in beautiful tents constructed from goat and yak hair, the Changpas have learned to use their natural surroundings optimally, and their lives are perfectly intertwined with the hills.
XVI. Bhotiya Tribe of Uttarakhand
...and their regular use of Marijuana. Calm down, it’s purely for religious reasons only.
Speaking the fascinating language of Rongba, this tribe of Shepherds is found in various States of India, primarily Uttarakhand - which we presume has ideal weather to grow pot. Yes, the Bhotiya Tribe’s most interesting characteristic is the ritualistic use of marijuana - an easily available intoxicant - not for recreational but religious purposes. Through inter-marriage with Hindus over the years, their originally Buddhist culture has evolved to incorporate a harmonius combination of Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism. Hindu mythology and religious traditions have provided Bhotiyas with an interesting set of rituals involving marijuana and hash (although, alcohol is forbidden). Lord Shiva’s association with Bhang, who uses it to keep the world safe from his anger, is a strong Bhotiya belief. Following Shiva’s example, this tribe offers Bhang (a mixture of ground marijuana leaves in milk) at celebrations of Holi and Maha Shivaratri.
XVII. The Meo Tribe of Haryana
...where the perfect balance between the ancient and modern worlds exist.
Blending Hinduism and Islam, the Meos are both a Rajput Caste as well as a Muslim community. This peaceful coexistence of two religions is only one of many reasons for which the Meos are known to be extremely progressive. Originally livestock farmers, occupation for this tribe has evolved due to urban influence and exposure to modern lifestyle. Owners of trucking businesses, government services like military or police, daily wage labourers, plumbers, electricians, basket traders, money lenders - Meos new-age occupations are wide and varied. With their lifestyle so ingrained in modern society, they have begun to see the value of formal education. Utilising both medical as well as traditional doctors (hakims) we see a unique amalgamation of ancient and modern cultures.