Tribal Religions of India

Doctrines Contemporary tribal communities have a great variety and complexity in their religious beliefs and practices. However, they share one characteristic which binds them "by common understanding as to the ultimate nature and purpose of life" (Redfield, R, The Primitive World and Its Transformations, Ithaca, Ill., 1953, p. 12). This ultimate purpose is "the creation of a meaningful order through imitation of the celestial model, transmitted by myths and celebrated in rituals" (Kitagawa, Joseph M., Religions of the East, Philadelphia, 1968).
The Naga tribes live in the mountains of north-east India. They believe in an earthquake god who created the earth out of the waters by earthquakes. The sons of this god now watch over mankind and punish those who do wrong. Other deities without name or form live in the mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes, who need placating as they are hostile to men. Omens and dreams are generally believed in. Witchcraft is practised and some men are thought to be able to turn into tigers. Some groups sacrifice a dog or pig when making a wood carving, otherwise the carver will become ill or die. This most likely belongs to the older tradition of only allowing a man to carve a human figure in a morung (bachelors' dormitory) when he had taken a head. Head-hunting was an important practice, for fertile crops depended on a sprinkling of blood from a stranger over the fields. Reincarnation is believed by many Naga tribes, and the dead are buried in the direction from which their ancestors have come. The doctrine of genna (tabu) involves whole social groups - villages, clans, households, age groups, sex groups, in a series of rituals that may be regularly practised or be the result of an emergency such as an earthquake.
The Bhil are one of the largest tribes of western India, living in parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Many Bhil are Hinduised. There is a myth of descent from a tiger ancestor. The Jhabua Bhil and others believe in Bhagavan or Bholo Iswor, who is a personal supreme god. They also believe in minor deities who have shrines on hills or under trees. Worship of Bhagavan is at the settlement's central sanctuary. There is a human-oriented cult of the dead, whose main ritual is called Nukto and is practised in front of the dead person's house. Nukto purifies the spirit of the dead and unites it with Bhagavan. Gothriz Purvez is the collective ancestor. The concept of a spirit rider is important in Nukto and Gothriz Purvez accompanies the spirit on part of its journey to the afterworld.
The Todas are a small pastoral community living on the 7,000 Nilgiri Hills in South India. They believe in 1600 or 1800 superior godlike beings, the two most important being On and Teikirzi. On is the male god of Amnodr, the realm of the dead, and he created the Todas and their buffaloes. He was himself a dairyman. Teikirzi is a female deity and more important with the people, whom she once ruled when she lived in the Nilgiris and established Toda social and ceremonial laws. Most other deities are hill-gods, each associated with a particular hill. There are also two river-gods belonging to the two main rivers. Toda religion is based on the buffaloes and their milk. The temples are the dairies.
Many tribes in India show considerable syncretism with Hinduism, such as the Kadugollas of Karnataka, who worship gods such as Junjappa, Yattappa, Patappa, and Cittappa, but in reality are more devoted to Siva, who dominates their festivals and religious observances. Local deities are still of importance, though, as with the Bedanayakas of Karnataka, who worship Papanayaka, a deity supposed to have lived 300-400 years ago as a holy man among them and who performed miracles.

History There is a variety of archaeological evidence from the prehistoric period, but this tells us very little of early religion. By adding evidence from physical anthropology, philology, and other sources, we can say there were unified tribal communities. Some scholars go further and suggest that the prehistoric tribal community was a "religious universe" in which all living was a religious way of life. We must not assume that there are many similarities between prehistoric and contemporary tribal communities.
The eminent anthropologist Evans-Pritchard wrote that tribal communities "have just as long a history as our own, and while they are less developed than our own society in some respects they are often more developed in others" (Social Anthropology, Glencoe, Ill., 1951, p. 7).
From the 2nd millenium BCE, the tribal peoples have been increasingly dominated by the majority population, with their lands encroached on by peasant farmers. In this century industry and social planning have made inroads into the tribal lands. The result is a loss of cultural identity and Hinduisation. Tribal peoples are becoming absorbed into Hindu society at the lowest caste levels. Even the most isolated tribes are affected by this process. Cultural exchange has long been important, as with the Bhil, the Santal, and the Toda.
The Nagas remember their genealogies with great care. Stone monuments are erected in the belief that as long as the stone stands, so the family will endure, through the propitiation and aid of the dead. Such beliefs may relate to elaborate stone circles of an earlier time.
The Bhils are believed to be the Dravidian Billa (meaning 'bowman'), one of the non-Aryan tribes of India. In early Sanskrit writings they are the Pulinda and Nishada, and have been identified with the Phyllitai of Ptolemy.
The origin of the Todas has been much speculated on and it has even been suggested that they came from ancient Sumer. There are many stone circles and other megalithic monuments on the Nilgiri Hills, of which the Todas now take little interest, though these may have been erected by the older Teivaliol strata of the people who have been superceded by the pastoral Tartharol.
In the Vijayanagara period (1336-1565) the eclectic attitude towards religion resulted in the growth of folk forms of religion, whose influence still continues today, especially in the Tamil south. Gods such as Aiyanar, Karappacami, Mariamman (see separate entry), and Murugan have expanded into Hinduism, as has the Kerala god Aiyyappa.

Symbols Among the Nagas status symbols are displayed at major festivals and ritual dance acts out oral tradition. Woven designs are mainly geometric with a limited colour range. Animal or human forms are rare except on the bags and sashes of the Khampti. Once certain tatoos showed the wearer had taken an enemy's head. Costumes and ornaments of hair, fur, shells, cane, ivory, carved and polished wood, and monkeys' skulls are not only for aesthetic effect but possess power and each ornament is restricted to certain groups. The same object can be used on different occasions depending on the tribe, particularly male status insignia. After head-hunting ceased in the late 19th or early 20th century, wood-carving of heads (or brass versions from Hindus) was important to males, symbolising their bravery and status. Such carvings are on drinking mugs, smoking pipes, and morung pillars, and are often decorated with cloth, hair, or beads and painted black or red. They are formal in expression with faces like the dead. Carvings on the morung are for prestige and power, and include warriors, dancing couples, powerful animals, and fantastic creatures such as a tiger with two heads. Erotic motifs among the Konyak are based on the mithuna (Sanskrit: loving couple) or buffalo, symbolising wealth or fertility. The hornbill is only carved on the chief's morung. Carved effigies of the dead were formerly placed before the tomb.
Among the tribes of eastern and central India, body tatooing and painting is important. Elaborate female hair combs also appear as love-tokens for the Juang and symbols of married status among the Muduva and others. Certain ornamental materials have magical significance, such as iron and cowries as a cure for headaches and to protect from lightning. Iron objects are associated with itinerant ironworkers and cowries with Lambadi nomads, who have special power due to their marginal status. Ritual significance of animals or birds is symbolised by horned headdresses worn at festivals and dances by the Maria, and the Khondh use the beak of a hornbill. Masks of wood and terracotta can be used to ensure success in hunting or may relate to former human sacrifice. Masks are offered to Dharni Pinnu, the earth mother, by the Kuttia Kondh of Orissa, and stones symbolise her. Hinduism is lampooned by tribes in the Mandla area at the Laru Kaj ritual when someone acts as a Hindu ascetic who is offered pork and alcohol.
The Bhil offer terracotta model horses as spirit riders at small shrines on hills and under trees. Uncarved symbolic stones in the central sanctuary represent Bhagavan. From the 6th century the influence of the Rajputs has brought the image of the mounted horseman. Gothriz Purvez, the collective ancestor, is shown as a small equestrian figure made of brass with copper from the anklets of the dead man's widow. The anklets symbolise the marriage and the clan. Together with a small figure of a cow, the spirit rider is central to Nukto ritual.
Until fairly recently Toda women were tatooed in patterns of dots and circles as a sign of adulthood. A small scar or scars on a boy's wrist, elbow or under the shoulder showed that he had the status for milking buffalo. Before British rule, most jewellery was made by metalsmiths of the Kota tribe for the Todas. Gold pendants adorned sacrificial buffalo, one being in the form of a stylized buffalo mask with plant motif at the back. This had magical power. Another elaborate buffalo adornment is of three large rosettes of hundreds of cowries sewn on black cotton cloth with gold and silver beads and silver pendants at the edges of the rosettes. This ornament is triangular and hung between the forelegs of the buffalo with one rosette attached to each horn. The triangle symbolises Thekkis, the mother goddess. Large cloaks are worn by men and women. These are made by Hindus and then embroidered by Toda women in long stripes and zigzags as well as traditional motifs.

Adherents About 7% of Indians, between 60 and 65 million people, are officially classified into 'Scheduled Tribes' (The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner, New York: Macmillan, 1996, Vol 15, p. 731).

Main Centre
 Each tribal community has its own main centre.