10 Surprising Facts You Didn’t Know About India’s Tribes!

Posted on March 4, 2014 in Lists, Society, Specials

By Amrita Roy:

The tribal people of India are the oldest inhabitants of the country. But how much do we actually know about their culture and heritage? Here are ten very interesting facts that I found!

Picture Credits
Picture Credits: Jeremy Weate

1) The Bnei Menashe tribe, found in Manipur and Mizoram, are descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Instead of converting to other religions, these people converted back to the religion of their ancestors after rediscovering their roots. They have been practicing Judaism for the last thirty years. In 2005, one of Israel’s chief rabbis accepted the Bnei Menashe people as descendants of the lost tribes, and since then rehabilitation efforts have been made.

2) Birsa Munda, a freedom fighter in the Indian Independence Struggle, belonged to the Munda tribe that is primarily found in Jharkhand. He was one of the key leaders who led the struggle movement in the tribal belt of Bihar and Jharkhand. He was caught by Britishers at the age of 25 and died in the Jail at Ranchi in 1900. He has been honoured by the Government of India and is the only tribal leader whose portrait hangs in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament.

3) Most of the world today follows the patrilineality system where the father’s family name is adopted. In contrast, matrilineality is the system where descent is traced through the mother and her ancestors, and usually involves inheritance of property. The Khasi, Jaintia and Garo people (along with the Nair and Bunt castes) practice this unique system and form one of the biggest communities in the world that believes in matrilineality.

4) The Jarawa people are one of the last surviving tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Four years ago, the last speaker of the Bo tribe passed away. A learned linguist, Professor Anvita Abbi, has stated that the rapid extinction of these tribes is due to the abrupt contact the tribes have had with other people over the last decades. She states that the loss of language is the catalyst for the extinction ofone of the oldest civilizations in the world.

Since 2010, the situation already seems to have become worse for the Jarawa. Increasing tourism has led to many human rights violations. In 2012, The Observer exposed the human safari tours of the region and published a video where some girls were being forced to dance semi-naked for food. And recently, cases of sexual abuse have also cropped up.

5) Oraon people are spread across the eastern and central parts of the country. Kartik Oraon was an Indian Congress leader and a former state communication minister. Albert Ekka was posthumously awarded the Paramveer Chakra. They speak the language called Kurukh which has special recognition and is also taught in Ranchi University. They are also known worldwide for following the archaic customs of human sacrifice during the Sarhul festival to please the local deity.

6) The Bhil tribe is found mostly in the central and western parts of India. Till the early 20th century, the Bhil people served as warriors for the kings because of their impeccable knowledge of the terrain. Since then they have settled in villages. The Ghoomar, which is a traditional folk dance of Rajasthan, was developed by the Bhil tribe. Interestingly, during marriages it is the men who have to pay a dowry of sorts (10 goats) to be able to marry an eligible woman!

7) The Gaddi tribe is one of the very few tribes of India that live like gypsies. They travel with their flocks to higher pastures in the summer, leaving their villages for the season. They are found in the north of the country, mainly in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Legend has it that the Gaddi tribe took shelter in the hills due to threats from Mughal ruler Aurangzeb in the 17th century. Like the Jarawa and many other tribal cultures, the Gaddi culture also faces severe threats of extinction.

8) The Khasi people, who reside in Meghalaya, might just have the solutions to the 21st century problems of sustainable development, global warming and pollution! A sub-tribe, the War-Khasi people have built living roots bridges in Cherrapunji, which is famously known as the wettest place on earth. The roots of the Ficus elastica tree are strong enough to be able to support the weight of fifty people at the same time. The Khasi people saw this and now whenever they need to cross a river, they simply grow their bridges! Cool bioengineering like this could be the solution to many of our problems.

9) The word Bishnoi means 29. It contains twenty Hindu and nine Muslim principles and has reverence for nature as the main objective. In 1730 AD, the king of Jodhpur sent his army to cut trees in order to create space for him to build his palace. The Bishnoi people hugged the trees, shielding the trees with their bodies. After axing 363 people, the king finally declared the Khejarli region a preserve. This event was a precedent for the Chipko movement in the 1970s in Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh).

10) The word Dimasa means ‘children of the big river.’ Though the Dimasa people have a patriarchal society, their property is classified into paternal, maternal, and common. The paternal property is inherited by the son, and it includes cash money, cattle and land. The maternal property goes to the daughter which includes all the jewelry, clothes and accessories. And the common property includes utensils and household equipment, which is shared. Child marriage is absent here. Maybe the rest of the country where child marriage is still prevalent could take a cue from the Dimasa people.

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