From the high-altitude Himalayan settlements of the Bhotias and the Sherpas to the Nilgiri Hills’ Todas, from the lush forests inhabited by the Gonds and the Santhals to the arid deserts where the Bhils reside, the vast expanse of India is home to a rich diversity of Scheduled Tribes (STs), each with a distinct cultural and social identity. I have been fortunate enough to interact with these communities, delving deep into their lives and experiences and gaining a deeper understanding of the true essence of India’s tribal diversity. A journey through India’s tribal heartland is akin to walking through a living museum. The tribes, officially recognized as Scheduled Tribes, are indigenous communities that constitute around 8.6% of India’s total population, as per the last census I had access to in 2021. This numerical strength, however, barely scratches the surface of their cultural and social significance. India recognizes more than 700 tribes under the Constitution’s Schedule V and VI, offering them protection, recognition, and a framework to administer their unique socio-economic practices. My journey, spread across different terrains, languages, traditions, and times, revealed a staggering diversity under the collective identity of ‘Scheduled Tribes.’ Each community showcased a vibrant and distinct way of life, profoundly shaped by their natural surroundings and historical experiences.
My first tryst with India’s tribal diversity was with the Santhals of Eastern India. Santhals, primarily residing in Jharkhand, Odisha, and West Bengal, are one of the largest tribal communities in India. Their lives revolve around nature and agriculture, with music, dance, and art forming an integral part of their culture. As I danced with them to the rhythm of ‘Tamak’ and ‘Tumdak’ during their traditional Sohrai festival, I felt a profound sense of community and harmonious coexistence with nature.Journeying southwards, I was amidst the Todas of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. Living in hamlets known as ‘Munds,’ the Todas astonished me with their unique barrel-shaped houses, fascinating marriage customs, and intricate embroidery. Their strong bond with the buffalo, reflected in their rituals and socio-economic practices, demonstrated the depth of their ecological wisdom. The North-Eastern states, famously called the ‘Seven Sisters,’ presented a different world of tribal diversity. The Khasis of Meghalaya, the Nagas with their fierce warrior history, the picturesque tribal cultures of Arunachal Pradesh, and the handloom expertise of the Manipuris – each interaction was a vibrant chapter in India’s tribal saga. Here, matrilineal societies thrive, warriors become weavers, and nature is a deity revered and protected. In the arid deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, I encountered the Bhils. Known for their distinctive folk art, ‘Bhil Art,’ these tribes had a warrior past. I watched in awe as the Bhil artists, predominantly women, wielded their brushes, narrating tales of their ancestors and the natural world in vivid hues on their mud-plastered huts.
Venturing Central India, I met the most significant tribal community in India – the Gonds. Renowned for their ‘Gond Art’ and rich folklore, the Gonds offered a peek into their unique worldview, where every natural element is imbued with a spirit. Their ‘Dandari’ dance, performed to thank the gods for a good harvest, was a humbling display of gratitude and celebration of life’s bounty. Interacting with the Scheduled Tribes, I have learned about their struggles and resilience, their symbiotic relationship with their environment, and the wisdom of their customs and practices that have sustained them for centuries. However, I also witnessed the harsh realities faced by these communities – displacement, poverty, illiteracy, and a slow erosion of their cultural identity. Government initiatives and constitutional provisions have made strides in safeguarding their rights and promoting socio-economic development. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, the Forest Rights Act of 2006, and the Right to Education Act of 2009 are vital measures to protect tribal rights and interests. Yet, a lot more needs to be done. They require more focused and context-specific development strategies involving the tribal communities in decision-making.In my journey, I’ve understood that the Scheduled Tribes of India, while part of the Indian demographic mosaic, have preserved unique aspects of culture, tradition, and knowledge systems, often unrecognized and undervalued in the mainstream narrative. Their narratives offer a wealth of wisdom about sustainable living, community bonds, and respect for nature, lessons that are increasingly relevant in today’s climate change and social fragmentation context.
As I reflect upon my experiences, I feel an overwhelming sense of respect for the resilience and tenacity of these communities, standing at the intersection of tradition and modernity, struggling to hold onto their distinct identity amidst the relentless march of time. The Scheduled Tribes of India are an integral part of our shared heritage and future, providing a rich tapestry of culture, tradition, and wisdom that needs to be recognized, celebrated, and preserved.