Monday, July 14, 2008

AN ENCOUNTER WITH VASAVA BHIL TRIBE OF DEDIAPADA, DISTRICT NARMADA, GUJARAT























Though I have been living in Gujarat since last five years, so far I have discovered very little of this wonderful state. It is since last seven-eight months I have started actively exploring the state, known for its wonderful mix of ethnic tribes, princely states, pilgrimage towns, and great social institutions. I began with Ahmadabad’s walled city and now exploring remote parts of rural Gujarat. On 12th and 13th of July 2008, I was in the district of Narmada, a tribal dominated district in the eastern part of the state, known for its scenic beauty of rolling hills, forests, river Narmada and the princely state town of Rajpipla.

Discovering this wonderful land, while chasing the monsoon was like a soul searching experience. Lush green landscape with contrast to brown mud huts inhabited by Vasava Bhil tribe was the main attraction of the district. I travelled far interior of the district to the remote villages and was quite moved to see the plights of the people in a district which is the source of prosperity for three large states of India – Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh due to the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project.

Vasava Bhil tribe is a homogeneous group with their own leadership, laws and customs is the main tribal group of the district. They worship various spirits which according to their belief inhabit their villages and forests.

Most of them have no land, and whoever has, manage to get a crop in a year, i.e. the monsoon crop. I visited the village of Ralda which is about 5/6 km from Dediapada (a town of 5,000 people) and was moved by seeing the condition of the people. A day of hard labour of firewood gathering and taking them to Dediapada for selling fetches only 20 rupees. Education is a far dream for a majority of Vasava Bhils. Being poor and illiterate they are easily exploited by the landlords and moneylenders. They burrow in kind – grains and other necessities and are charged exorbitant rate of interest. In the past, they used to go to the forest for hunting rabbits, wild boars and deers, which is prohibited now. Sometimes, when there is no food, they survive on roots and tender leaves.

Their houses are simple made of timber and bamboo’s available in the forest. The bamboos are used to build the sidewalls which are plastered with cow dung mixed mud. The roofs are covered with tile in pyramidal shape. Depiction of a peacock marks the corner of a roof top. I visited a few houses and felt in depth the poverty of the tribe.

The Vasava Bhils worship local gods, ghosts and spirits. Animals, plants, trees and places, which are useful or induce fear, and forces of nature like rain, mountains and mysterious phenomenon beyond their comprehension, are held in high esteem, looked at with awe and worshipped. On my way I came across some of these shrines surrounded with flags of red and black cloths and terracotta animals, and simple triangular stones.
Historically, the Vasava Bhils are the earliest occupants of the area including the surrounding plains which were once covered with thick forest. Until 10th century AD, they had their own territory which used to be ruled by respective Bhil chieftains. With successive immigration of Rajputs from the surrounding plains the Bhil chiefs in the succeeding centuries were supplanted by chiefs of Rajputs or mixed descendants. From the historical records of Rajpipla it is evident that the Gohil Rajput dynasty of the region had fought to protect this territory from the Sultans of Ahmedabad, the Mughals and the Marathas, each time regaining power by joining forces with the Bhils. From the 16th century onwards in the area outside the Rajpipla state due to successive waves of migration by the Hindu settlers, the Bhil tribe were driven deep into the forest leading to the fragmentation of Bhil political leadership. During the 18th century, deprived of their lands and finding their subsistence base greatly reduced, the Bhils resorted to looting. They were further labelled as a criminal tribe by the British in the act of 1871. The British also intervened for restoring peace and order in their territory. The Vasava Bhil settled down as cultivators.