From the Book: Tribes of India
The Struggle for Survival
Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf
Among the tribal populations of India the Gonds stand out by their numbers, the vast expanse of their habitat, and their historical importance. No exact figures for the present size of the group of Gond tribes is available, for the census of 1961 was the last in which all individual tribes were enumerated. At that time 3,992,905 persons were returned as Gond, and there can be little doubt that by now the number of Gonds must long ago have exceeded the four million mark. Figures for the speakers of tribal languages are still being published, and in 1971, 1,548,070 Gondi-speakers were recorded. But this does not give an indication of the present strength of the ethnic group embracing the various Gond tribes, for more than half of all Gonds speak languages other than Gondi, such as Chhattisgarhi Hindi, an Aryan tongue which must have replaced the Dravidian Gondi.
The majority of Gonds are found today in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Their main concentrations are the Satpura Plateau, where the western type of Gondi is spoken, and the district of Mandla, where the Gonds have adopted the local dialect of Hindi. The former princely state of Bastar, now included in Madhya Pradesh, is the home of three important Gond groups, namely, the Murias, the Hill Marias, and the so-called Bisonhorn Marias, all of whom speak Gondi dialects. The states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh also contain substantial Gond populations, and the majority of these have traditionally been described as Raj Gonds, though in their own language they call themselves Koitur , a word common to most Gondi dialects. The term Raj Gonds , which in the 1940s was still widely used, has now become almost obsolete, probably because of the political eclipse of the Gond rajas. The rulers of Chanda, situated now in Maharashtra, were until 1749 powerful princes whose dominion included a large part of the Adilabad District of Andhra Pradesh. The rule of the Gond rajas of several princely states in Chhattisgarh lasted until 1947, when the British withdrew from India and the Gond states were merged with Madhya Pradesh.
There exists little accurate information on the early history of the Gonds, and it was not until Mughal times that Gond states figured in contemporary chronicles. But the ruins of forts ascribed to Gond rajas suggest that in past centuries the Raj Gonds did not live in the isolation typical of many other tribal communities but entertained manifold relations with other populations whose style of living their rulers imitated. Until comparatively recent times, a feudal system prevailed also in the highlands of Adilabad, and myths and epics depict the life of Gond chieftains who were not subject to any outside power. The Gonds were then already settled farmers who cultivated their landwith ploughs and bullocks. Land was plentiful, and individuals could freely move from one settlement to another. In the following chapters we shall see that this mobility has now come to an end, and with this the entire life-style of the Gonds has changed.
Gond society has both its vertical stratification and its horizontal divisions, and while with the decline of the raja families the stratification based on hereditary rank has been reduced in relevance, the division of society into exogamous patrilineal units has retained its importance. The basis of the social structure is a system of four phratries, each subdivided into clans, and the origin of this system is attributed to a divine culture hero. The members of each clan worship a deity described as persa pen (“great god”), and in some cases the shrine of this deity lies within the ancestral clan land. Today the clans are widely dispersed, but they still form a permanent framework which regulates marriage and many ritual relations.
Closely linked with each individual Gond clan is a lineage of Pardhans, bards and chroniclers, who play a vital role in the worship of the clan deity and many other ritual activities. The Pardhans, though themselves not Gonds and of a social status lower than that of their Gond patrons, are nevertheless the guardians of Gond tradition and religious lore. The recent deflection of their interests and energy to other enterprises will undoubtedly have an adverse effect on the preservation of Gond traditions.
A role similar to that of Pardhans is being played by another and much less numerous group of bards and minstrels known as Toti. These too have hereditary ritual relations with individual Gond lineages and act as musicians and story-tellers.
The Gonds of Andhra Pradesh, whose fortunes in recent years are the subject of a large part of this book, are only one of the many sections of the Gond race, and differ in cultural characteristics from the various Gond groups inhabiting the hill country of Bastar, which lies due east of Adilabad.
The Koyas, a tribal population largely, though not exclusively, concentrated in Andhra Pradesh, are the southernmost section of the great Gond race. Known also as Dorla Koitur, they merge on the southern border of Bastar with the Bisonhorn Marias, and some groups of Koyas, notably those in the lower Godavari regions, also possess bisonhorn head-dresses. In that area Koyas still speak a Gondi dialect, but the majority of Koyas have lost their own language and now speak the Telugu of their Hindu neighborus. In the districts of Khammam and Warangal, Koyas make up the majority of the tribal population. There they have suffered a fate similar to that of the Gonds of Adilabad District, in the sense that they have lost much of their best land, which they used to cultivate with ploughs and bullocks, and are largely reduced to the role of tenants and agricultural labourers. The process of detribalization has progressed further among Koyas than among any other Gond tribe.
Elwin, Verrier. Maria Murder and Suicide. Bombay, 1943.
The Muria and Their Ghotul. Bombay, 1947.
Fürer-Haimendorf, C. von. The Raj Gonds of Adilabad. London, 1948.
The Gonds of Andhra Pradesh. Delhi/London, 1979.
Grigson, Sir Wilfrid. The Maria Gonds of Bastar. London, 1949.
Jay, Edward J. A Tribal Village of MiddleIndia.Calcutta, 1970.
Rao, P. Setu Madhava. Among the Gonds of Adilabad. Hyderabad, 1949.
Until a generation ago a tribe known as Kolam (or in their own language, Kolavar) lived in this highland of Adilabad in a style very similar to that of the Konda Reddis of Bison Hills. Reservation of forests has largely destroyed the life-style and indeed the entire economic basis of Kolam society. In the 1940s, however, groups of Kolams still practised slash-and-burn cultivation, and their agricultural methods differed from those of the Reddis of the Godavari region only in minor details. Whereas the Reddis cultivate with digging sticks, the Kolams use a small hoe with an iron spike affixed by means of a socket to a knee-shaped shaft. It is a poor instrument compared to the broad hoes of such tribes as the Maria Gonds or Saoras, and does not turn over the soil but only scratches it. The same iron point can be hafted alternatively on hoe and digging stick, the latter being used for dibbling sorghum and maize, while the hoe is frequently used also for digging up edible roots. Unlike Chenchus and Konda Reddis, who speak only Telugu, the Kolams have a language of their own which belongs, like Gondi, to the intermediate group of Dravidian languages. When talking to Gonds or Pardhans, Kolams generally speak Gondi, in which tongue most of them are fluent. In the eastern part of Adilabad District there are some groups of Kolams who have lost their original language and speak Telugu, and some groups in the Kinwat Taluk of Maharashtra speak Marathi. In these cases the loss of the tribal language means that Kolams living in adjoining regions can no longer communicate with each other, for members of the somewhat detribalized groups do not necessarily speak Gondi either. The social organization of the Kolams is based on a system of exogamous patrilineal descent groups, each of which is associated with an ancestral territory and a common cult centre. Several of such lineages are grouped together in larger equally exogamous units which bear names identical with those of some Gond clans. Intimately linked with the system of localized patrilineal clans is the cult of a deity known in Kolami as Ayak, but referred to by speakers of Gondi as Bhimal and by those of Telugu as Bhimana. Within the territory which the members of a Kolam clan consider as their ancestral homeland there is a shrine of Ayak. In the chaos created by the expulsion of Kolams from areas of reserved forest, these Ayak shrines remain the only focal points of clan unity, for all Kolams, unless totally detribalized, return to their ancestral Ayak shrine for the performance of important rites, when the living members of the clan are united in worship and the dead of the clan are propitiated with offerings. The care of each Ayak shrine is the responsibility of a clan priest whose office is hereditary in the male line. Once in every three or four years the symbols of an Ayak may be taken on a circuit and visit Kolam and Gond villages within a radius of twenty or even more miles. Ayak is considered a benevolent god, accessible to the prayers and offerings of ― 13 ― men. Though all Kolams emphasize the one-ness of Ayak, he is worshipped under different names derived from localities containing shrines of Ayak. The Kolams are renowned for their skill in divination and the propitiation of locality gods. This reputation has led many Gond communities to entrust the cult of certain local divinities, and particularly of the gods holding sway over forests and hills, to the priests of nearby Kolam settlements, and it is because of this sacerdotal function of Kolams that Gonds refer to the entire tribe as Pujari.
The wooded hills and secluded valleys of Adilabad District which were the habitat of the Kolams also served some groups of Naikpods as a refuge area, where until the 1940s they practised slash-and-burn cultivation with hoe and digging stick. Like the Kolams, whom they resemble in many respects, the Naikpods fell victim to the policy of forest reservation, and today only insignificant numbers of Naikpods live in hill settlements. Most of them are found in villages of the plains, where they work as tenant farmers or agricultural labourers. Few of them own the land they cultivate. They are scattered over a large area, and communities of Naikpods are found also in the districts of Karimnagar and Warangal. Naikpods originally had a language of their own which closely resembles Kolami, but today only a few small groups of Naikpods in the western part of Adilabad District and the adjoining taluks of Maharashtra still know this ancient tongue. The majority of the tribe speak Telugu as their only language and have largely been assimilated within the Hindu social order. They are regarded as a caste of low status but as superior to the polluting castes. Unlike the Kolams, the Naikpods have no institutionalized link with Gonds
- Fürer-Haimendorf, C. von. “Tribal Populations of Hyderabad: Yesterday and Today.” Census of India, 1941. Vol. 21. Hyderabad, 1945. ——. “The Cult of Ayak among the Kolams of Hyderabad.
- Wiener Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte und Linguistik 9 (1952): 108-23. Russell, R. V. The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India. Vol. 3. London, 1916. Pp. 520-26.
- Fürer-Haimendorf, C. von. The Raj Gonds of Adilabad. London, 1948. Pp. 37-39.
Adilabad, a treasure trove of tribal culture
Tribal people are a grossly misunderstood segment of society as they are considered superstitious and their poverty is often confused with lacking in culture. In reality, the way of life of the Adivasis is one of absolute consonance with nature and it is this aspect which can be seen in tribal villages in this district.
Though Adivasis are present throughout the district, their concentration is greater in the tribal mandals of Indervelli, Utnoor, Jainoor, Sirpur (U) and Narnoor with Utnoor being the seat of tribal administration through the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA). It is in villages of these mandals that culture tourism can be promoted by involving local communities.
The Adivasi calendar is broadly divided into two with agriculture being the main activity between June and November. The remaining months see tribal people indulging in religious activities and marriages
The religious season starts after Dasara with the Gonds and Kolams celebrating the colourful Ghusadi festival. The performance of Dandari dance troupes in villages is a manifestation of how the Adivasis relate to nature.
The jatara season, which begins in November, is when Adivasis traverse the countryside, visiting temples of their clan gods and other deities. The marriage season starts close to Holi and ends in May before the start of agriculture operations.
If the Ghusadi festival and the jatara season bring out the relationship between humans and gods as inherent in various components of nature, the wedding season highlights the finer aspects of matrimony. For example, there is no dowry system and it is the bridegroom who foots the entire bill of a wedding.
The Tourism Department can tie up with the ITDA in the selection of villages where visitors can be taken to witness any of these activities. Any number of villages from the agency mandals can be selected for showcasing tribal culture.
Chance discovery of Gondi script opens new vistas of tribal culture
Prof. Rao said the discovery of the script had even made the Gonds rediscover their old pride and self-respect.
A chance discovery of ‘Koyaboli’ or Gondi (dialect) script recently in Adilabad district has opened new vistas in the educational and cultural development of the major primitive Gond tribe in the country besides creating scope for deeper research in Proto-Dravidian languages. The find is so recent that it has yet to gain broader acceptance, but enthusiasts like former Director of AP Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Centre (APOMLRC) Professor Jayadheer Tirumal Rao and his team have started working on it for realisation of its full potential.
“The new find could well be the all important link to Proto-Dravidian languages. It can help in retracing the origins of these languages”, the well-known manuscript expert from Andhra Pradesh opined as he talked of the much promising event recently on the sidelines of the Akhand Bharatiya Gondwana Gondi Sahitya Darbar at Gunjala village in Narnoor mandal where the dozen Gondi manuscripts were found.
Prof. Rao said the discovery of the script had even made the Gonds rediscover their old pride and self-respect.
The extra spring in the gait of the organisers of the Darbar and the plans for future indicated his contention to be right. “The plan is to run a Gondi language school permanently at Gunjala for Gond children to learn their mother tongue up to SSC. Students at Intermediate and Degree level will learn the language at a facility at Utnoor and those at Post-Graduate level will study it at Hyderabad”, he said after participating in the inauguration of the school as the key initial measure being undertaken by the Gond community in development of their language.
“Among other developments, a temple like structure for ‘reverence’ of the Gondi script, which has been named Gunjala Gondi Lipi, will be constructed at this village. Efforts will also be made for acceptance of the language in the literary world and at international level too”, he revealed.
Professor G. Manoja of Palamur University, Mahabubnagar and Edcational Puppeteer Padmini Rangarajan from Hyderabad attended the Darbar.
Gonds’ wisdom on solar eclipse remains in residues
S. Harpal Singh
Tribal people extracting the membranous nest of black ants from a field near Harkapur in Indervelli mandal of Adilabad district on Wednesday. Photos: S.Harpal Singh
The nest of black ants
The light-blue coloured sun when looked through the nest.
The tribe had used membranous nest of black ants to study solar eclipse
The membranous nest of black ants can well provide an insight into the astronomical knowledge of the Gond tribe, one of the most ancient of people in the country. Though the tribe is credited with possessing many a wisdom, it is believed that it had little knowledge about astronomy in general and solar eclipse in particular.
According to locals in Indervelli mandal of Adilabad district, the Gonds used to study solar eclipses by gazing at the sky through a piece of a thin but opaque brown-coloured nest found underneath rocks in agriculture fields. This aspect came to light when some children at Harkapur village were playfully gazing at the hot mid-afternoon sun through the nest membrane which they had pulled out from beneath a rock.
If looked through the fragile film of the nest, the sun appears as a sphere light blue in colour even when the unbearable brightness of the sun is at its peak. The image of the great ball of fire is also reduced considerably.
“There is no specific name for the nest, but we have known the application since childhood,” reveals Pole Ramesh, a rig operator in the mandal. No Gond contacted by The Hindu could go beyond what Ramesh had disclosed which indicates that the tribe has lost its knowledge of astronomy over the period of time.
Professor Mayank Vahia of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and advocate Ganesh Halkare of Amaravati in Maharashtra, who had made a study on the astronomical knowledge of the Gonds last year, had concluded that the tribe has no knowledge of the solar eclipse.
The finding related to the ant nest, however, creates scope for further studies in this area.
In their paper published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage on aspects of Gond astronomy, Vahia and Halkare had said that Gond astronomy has its roots in early farming needs and was designed several thousand years ago.
They concur with the general consensus that the origin of the Gonds is much older than currently known.