India is a country that enjoys a unique diaspora. Geographically, we are adorned by the great heights of Himalayas, to sprawling beaches, and dry terrains. Historically, we introduced civilisation to the world, and have built some of the greatest empires over the years. And at this very moment, we are standing at the cusp of a deciding political and economic change but in the midst of all this we carefully ignore some of the backbenchers of our population, the people who reside away from the comfort of materialism, and who thrive and build their lives amidst nature, the tribals of India.
The Indian forests have been home to a number of different tribal cultures and groups, that continue to live the life of natural sustenance. While cases of environment affecting projects like the building of the Narmada dam brings them into the limelight, for the most part times they remain conspicuously away from activity. Today we round off seven indigenous tribes of India, and their most unique elements to give our readers an idea of the country’s internal diversity.
I. The Banjaras
The Banjaras are the colourful gypsies of India’s tribals who find their roots in states like Rajasthan and parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. You often spot them in popular culture with their bling-y outfits, chips of mirror attached to their garments reflecting shafts of light, and large hippie-esque jewellery. They are almost always completely covered up in clothes and jewellery due to their great reverence for silver and other reflective materials.
They are most well known for their dance, the Lambadi dance, that is, in fact, often an attraction for western tourists. The dance is composed of women, fervently shaking their hips to the sound of the flute and the dhol, and is extremely dexterous. It is considered the Indian equivalent of the Middle eastern belly dance style. Their costume style has caught on to such an extent that their embroidery is hugely adopted in fusion clothing.
II. The Naga tribes
Famed Indian photojournalist, Pablo Bartholomew, did a series of photographs on the tribal people of North East India. The inspiration stemmed from the story of Pablo’s father, artist Richard Bartholomew, who fled the invading Japanese forces from Burma and encountered the Nagas on the way who lent him great generosity and kindness. Indeed, the Naga tribe is most known for their intricate way of life, and their moral living.
The government of India recognises seventeen tribes that fall under the conglomerate of the Naga tribes, who inhabit the north east Indian states of Nagaland, and parts of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. They are most known for their headgear and their detailed dressing style although the Naga tribe gained fame for their practise of headhunting. Often counted as an event of great masculinity, the Naga people, especially the Konyak tribe would hunt for their enemies, and slay their heads only to preserve it as a mark of prestige and honour. This practice also believed to lend some of the enemy’s power and valour to the man who had slain him. The man who would bring home an enemy’s head gained fame and respect like no other.
III. The Jarawa Tribe
The Jarawa tribe of The Andaman islands have been going through a strange shift in lifestyle. Secluded from the hinterland of the main country, on a land that is virtually unaffected by contemporary changes in culture, the Jarawa tribe lived a life of exclusiveness, and were more oblivious of the happenings in the country than others. With their interaction with outsiders resting at a bare minimum, they were found to be extremely hostile in situations of interaction, often resorting to incensed reactions.
The Jarawa tribe is greatly studied due to the changes brought about in them due to modernisation. While the Andaman islands provided them with a great deal of seclusion, the increasing tourism in the island brought them into contact with westerners. Initial hostility stemmed way to infiltration, and now the Jarawa tribe are carefully shunning their practices and begging for food, alcohol and tobacco from the tourists. Though very little is known about the tribe, these changes have made it imperative for sociologists to study the remaining remnants of the Jarawa culture.
IV. Khasi tribe
India is at a social standpoint where the dominance of the male gender has spurred women to demand for gender equality, now more than ever. While feminists envision a society with equal footing, we often discuss a society where the roles are reversed. Except this situation of gender reversal stands true in the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya, where the man must leave his home after marriage, and do the household work at the mother-in-law’s who dictates the term of the household. The daughters inherit, and the children take the mother’s surname, while the men are left to ponder for gender equality. As such, The Khasi are harbingers of a matrilineal society, and not matriarchal. Even still, it’s important to note that despite this seeming reversal of gender roles, most members of the Khasi community do not believe that all of these things have led to complete equality. In fact, the power dynamics are still asymmetrical with men holding a majority of the power in traditional institutions.
V. Hunza Tribe
With evolution in modern medicine, not only is the life expectancy of people much higher but the need to look and feel young is great too, what with people resorting to all kind of modern nutritional benefits that award them so. But the Hunza tribe, who live at the northernmost point of India, and live amidst the Himalayas, have achieved the same with natural living and consumption. The Hunza tribe has attracted the attention of the world over with their youthful elders,and their natural ageing process, which reaps much more graceful looking adults.
The key to their exceptional longevity and grace is their consumption of natural food, sans any processing, comprising of whole grains and minerals, with meat forming a very minimal part of the diet. The alkaline water of the Hunza valley is also credited for the youthfulness of the community. The lessons that the Hunza teach the world is that, while they consume food that is available to the rest of us, natural consumption goes a long way in maintaining health and a long life span.
VI. Agaria Tribe
The great salt pans of Kutch in Gujarat are responsible for providing taste to probably the entire country, and the tribe directly responsible for salt farming, if one could call it that, is the Agaria tribe of Kutch. The socio economic conditions of this community are under serious scanner due to the problems faced by them in salt cultivation.
Working in harsh conditions, workers of the Agaria tribe face a peculiar problem after death. The community is comprised of muslim converts from the hindu religion, and hence they continue to burn the bodies of the dead like the latter religion commands it to. But due to salt making, their feet turn extraordinarily thin and abrasive, and hence do not burn like the rest of body and must be cremated. They also live in extremely poor conditions as the area of Kutch is dry land that is not very arable.
VII. Abuj Maria Tribe
A third of Chhattisgarh’s population is dominated by tribals and the hilly, densely forested area of AbujMarh is home to one of its most interesting, indigenous tribes, the Abuj Maria tribe, a sub caste of the Gond tribals. It was only in 2009 that the government of Chhatisgarh lifted a ban that prevented common people from visiting these areas which was imposed in the early 1980s so there’s not a great seat that is known about these unique folk who converse in Gondi, their native language, which is also Dravidian. It’s one of the reasons sociologists allude to when labelling them one of India’s oldest tribes.
Their abode is largely geographically isolated, with only 10 people living within one square mile, largely inaccessible, and is known as “liberated-zone” being an alleged hub of Naxalite-Maoist insurgency. As such, there is still no sign of civil administration here. They’re also feared by outsiders for ‘ferocious mannerisms’ and the likelihood of their shooting at trespassers with arrows, without warning. Much like the Jarawa, they are one of the few tribal cultures that has managed to keep their quintessential culture unaffected by the vestige of time and entirely disinterested in learning more about the modern world and its trappings of money.
Feature image photographed by Souvid Datta.
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