C.R. Bijoy, an expert on India’s aboriginals, wrote of the Adivasis: “The struggles for survival… for livelihood and existence as peoples — have today intensified and spread as never before in history… Adivasis belong to their territories, which are the essence of their existence; the abode of the spirits and their dead and the source of their science, technology, way of life, their religion and culture.

The republic of India has 645 district tribal community (as per 2011 census report) and constitution of India recognized them as scheduled tribes or Primitive Tribal Group (PTG). Let us take a detail note on historical background of the tribes in India.

The tribal India lives in the forest hills and naturally isolated regions known as a rule by different names meaning either the people of the forest and hills or the originals inhabitants, and so on. The popular names are: Vanyajati (castes of forest), Vanvasi (inhabitants of forest), Pahari (hill- dwellers), Adimjati (original communities), Adivasi (primitive people), Anusuchit Janjati (Sheduled tribe) and so on. Among all these terms Adivasi is known most extensively and Anusuchit Janjati (Schedule Tribe) is the constitutional name covering all of them. Till today they have retained their customs and regulations; nearly all marry within their restricted local groups, and are sometimes guided by their own elders or political chiefs in their internal and external affairs. In other words, they form socially distinct communities in contrast to their neighbors. It is these communities which have been designated tribes, and listed in a schedule for special treatment.

Coming to the tribal history, we find that the tribals are an integral part of the Indian civilization. Various elements in the ancient civilization of India were contributed by the tribals. It is believed they were the earliest among the present inhabitants of the country. So far as we know, four main races and cultures welded together into one people, the Hindu people (Chatterjee, 1968:1). These are : 1. The Austro-Asiatic, in their primitive form are represented by the Kols or the Mundas, the Khasi and the Nicobarese; 2.the Mongoloid people speaking dialects of the Sino-Tibetan family who are found largely among the sub Himalaya regions and who are represented by the  Nagas, the Bodos , the Kuki-Chins etc.   3. the Dravidians- the Malers, the Oraons, the Gonds and the Khonds – who are supposed to be the last to come to India. Thus we see that the first three racial and cultural elements made a great contribution to the formations of the Indian people.

In the ancient literature of the Indian their names, in the ancient language, the Sanskrit, would appear to have been, respectively

 1. Nishadas, Sabaras, Bhills and Kollas.                                                                                         2.  Kitaras  and                                                                                                                                     3. Dasas, Dasyus, Sudras, Dramidas and Dravidas.

The ancient and epic literature, the Vedas, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, present good accounts about the people of India. All these emphasize that India is inhabited by several types of tribes or people. When the Aryans immigrants entered the country they found in the land non-Aryans people and called them “Dasyus”. The word Dasyus was in to denote the people other than themselves, i.e the Aryans. The Dasyus of the vedic antiquity, the non- Aryans, are mainly of two stocks, viz. the Kolarians and the Dravidians (Ragozin, 1961: 287). The Mundas, the Santhals etc, of today are considered to be the descendants of the non-Aryan Kolarian stock. The major representative Dravidian tribes are the Gonds, the Kondhs (the Kandhs) etc. Both Kolarians and the Dravidians came into the land at a pre-historic period far anterior to the Aryan from two opposite directions, the Kolarians from the east or northeast, the Dravidians from the north-west. It is thought that the Kolarians came first and after spreading over the present north-eastern Himalaya region and Bengal encountered the Dravidian cureent somewhere in the Vindhya region. The Kolarians being broken up by the tide dispersed in the valleys and forests of Vindhya high lands. The Dravidians marched ahead and inhibited the south (Hewitt, 188-89).

Manu Sanhitas (X4) suggest that the tribes which by loss of sacred rites became outcastes from the pole of the recognized castes and sub-castes awe the Dasyus. In the Aitareya-Brahmana and in a few Puranas, like the Bhagawat Vaivaria Purana, Parasara Sanhita, most of Dasyus tribes are the descendants of the cursed younger sons of Viswamitra Muni.

Hutton (1931:460) consider that the Austro-Asiatics or Kolarians as well as the Dravidians are outsiders as is the case with the Indo-Aryans. He thinks that the Negritos were the earliest inhabitants of India but they did not leave any marked trace here (he excludes the Andamanese of Andaman). Referring to the Guha’s classification he further believes that all the tribes of India are covered under the three types, viz. the Negritos, the Proto-Australoids and the Mongoloids. Majumdar (1961:63) after appraising different finds of different authorities has come to the conclusion that “there are therefore more reasons than one, we think, to regard the earliest inhabitants of India as Proto-Australoids”. According to Ghurye (1963:12) it is possible to contend that even if the tribes are aborigines of the exact area they now occupy, they are the autochthones of India and to that extent they may be called the aborigines. Keeping the entire discussion in mind we may conclude that the tribals fall in the line of ancestry of the Indian people and are a constituent of the admixture of the Indian population.

We have seen the early peopling of India and the contribution of the tribals, through ancient literatures. In the early historical period of India which coincides with the Hindu period, the tribals either compromised with the Hindu neighbors or went further in the deep forest. Ghurye (1963:18) has discussed the matter in detail and opines that “almost all the so-called aboriginal tribes of the region have a Hinduized section, small or large, that they have been in fairly intimate contact with the Hindus in matter of religion and gainful occupation”.

Only very small sections in the recesses of hills and the depths of the forests have not been more than touched by Hinduism and they have retained much more tribal creeds and organizations than many if the castes of the Hindu society, yet they are in reality Backward Hindus. The observations of Bradley Birt, Baine (1891:118), Risley (1901:98) O’Malley (1911:235), Shoobert (1931:403), Elwin (1952:35), etc., also suggest the assimilation of the tribals with the Hindu culture.

During the long Hindu period of Indian history of about two thousand years from 800-600 B.C., we have only a few scattered references to the tribals. Their history cannot be traced exactly and here only the Historical Anthropology which includes the popular beliefs, legends, myths, tales, short history of the locality or regions, etc., of the folk people can help us known about the unrecorded past. The internal movements of these people in the country themselves tell the history of the tribe in particular and the tribal population in general that they cannot be considered to be  the autochthones of their present tracts. The tribe inhabiting middle India and adjoining western India are so many and constitute four-fifths of the tribal population. Again there have been such continuous migrations in these areas, even during the historic period, that it is not possible to locate their original places in the absence of records.

General Cunningham in his Archaeological Report (Vol. XVII:139) has identified the Suiris of the area with the Saoras which is probably a genetic name for all the Kolarians tribes, viz. The Kurkus and the Bhills in the west, and the Mind as, The Santhals, the Bhuiyas, the Hos,the Bhumijs and the Juags in the east. From Azamgargh the Mundas migrated successively to different places following the circuitous route. The Santhals (Roy, 1912:59, consider that till that period both formed one tribe), speak of a struggle with another tribe- The Kharwa- before they left Rohtasgarh and retreated to the wilder recesses of the Vindhyas. Hence they crossed the Sone and marched on in a south-east direction to reach Omedanda, their first settlement in Chotanagpur. After a time the Santhals and the Mundas parted company. The Santhals crossed the Damodar and settled down in Sikharbhum(modern district of Hazaribagh and Giridih) and later followed the course of the Damodar and went on to Dhanbad and to the Santhal Pargana. The Munda families made their hatus (village) later known as Khuntkati hattu (village of original settler) by clearing the forest patches. A few centuries later, the Oraons, a Dravidian tribe, came upon the stage and found their intrusive way into the jungle tracts of the Mundas. It was probably during this period, the Horo or Mundas, (presently the Hos) that one branch of them, more traditional perhaps than the rest, marched off southwards down the river Koel and settled in a part of Singhbhum which is known after them as Kolhan.

About another Kolarian tribe, the Saoras as such, Elwin (1955:33) opines that “they were distributed right across middle and eastern India and that at least during the period of 800 B.C. to 1200 A.D. they were the dominant race of aboriginals”. The Bhils, still another major tribe of the middle and western India, have migrated from north-west into Malwa. About a Dravidian tribe, namely the Oraons, who are also called Kurukh they pushed the Mundas eastward and settled in Ranchi. Their internal migration perhaps starts from somewhere near Coorg in Karnataka in South India. The Oraons claim their decent from the Vanaras of the Ramayana period (Roy, 1915:19). Philologist trace in the “Kannada” language of Karnataka a close resemblance to the Kurukh. Later the Oraons appear to the have proceeded up the Narbada till they reached the Sone valley.

In South India we find that in ancient days the ancestors of Urali Kurumbas of Kerala were the Kurumans or Kurumbas (Pallaras) who were supreme till the beginning of the 8th century A.D. when they were repeatedly defeated by the Kongas, the Cholas and the Chalukyas and finally overthrown and scattered by a Chola King. They are considered the very ancient inhabitants of the Western Ghat (Luiz, 1962:238). The Kallars of Tamilnadu, once a type of worriors, claim to be the descendants of the royal Panyas and the Cholas (Aiyapaan, 1960).

The early history to the north-eastern Himalaya tribe explained that the Bodos were spread all over the Brahmaputra valley and had occupied the Garo hills ultimately leaving their mark throughout the north-eastern Himalaya. Later Indo-Mobgoloid Assam or Ahoms established themselves in the east of Brahmaputra valley at the beginning of the 13th century and gave their name to Assam.

In the central Himalaya, the Khasa area was inhabited as early as 300 B.C. (edict of Ashok). The aboriginal Austic or pre-Dravidian population is represented by the Koltas of Janusar and Bawar. Locally the Khasas represent both the Rajputs and the Brahmans. They are physically similar to the Kashmiris. In pre-historic times they occupied various parts of the northern India. It is supposed that the Khasas came here from Kashmir long before the Christian era (Majumdar, 1962). The Tharus inhabit the Tarai area of central Himalaya right from the river Sharda in the west to the river Kosi in the east. Srivastava (1958) confirms that the Tharus represent the northernmost extension of the middle India aboriginal races rather than an offset of any Mongoloid people living on Himalaya.

In these way we find that the tribals in the early historical period appeared to have lived in a state of internal movement cutting across the country and their movements were generally guided by the river valleys, and destinations were the hills and the forest regions of the country.

Source : The Tribes of India

Picture courtesy : Debashis Bhattacharjee