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For the legal term, see Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Women in a tribal Gond adivasi village, Umaria district, Madhya Pradesh, India

Adivasi is an umbrella term for a heterogeneous set of ethnic and tribal groups considered the aboriginal population of South Asia.[1][2][3] Adivasi make up 8.6% of India's population or 104 million according to the 2011 census and 40% of Nepalese population.[4][5][6] They comprise a substantial indigenous minority of the population of India and Nepal. The same term Adivasi is used for the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh, the native Madhesi people of Madhesh region of Nepal and also to the native Vedda people of Sri Lanka (Sinhalese: ආදී වාස).[7] The word is also used in the same sense in Nepal, as is another word, janajati (Nepali: जनजाति; janajāti), although the political context differed historically under the Shah and Rana dynasties. Adivasi societies are particularly present in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and some north-eastern states, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Many smaller tribal groups are quite sensitive to ecological degradation caused by modernisation. Both commercial forestry and intensive agriculture have proved destructive to the forests that had endured swidden agriculture for many centuries.[8] Adivasis in central part of India have been victims of the Naxalite insurgency and the Salwa Judum campaign by the Government.[9][better source needed][10][11]

Connotations of the word adivāsi[edit]

women of Banni tribe in traditional attire from Gujarat

Although terms such as atavika, vanavāsi ("forest dwellers"), or girijan ("hill people")[12] are also used for the tribes of India, adivāsi carries the specific meaning of being the original and autochthonous inhabitants of a given region and was specifically coined for that purpose in the 1930s.[13] Over time, unlike the terms "aborigines" or "tribes", the word "adivasi" has developed a connotation of past autonomy which was disrupted during the British colonial period in India and has not been restored.[14]

In Nepal, the infiltration of Khas people from west to east through the Middle Hills, then the consolidation of dozens of petty kingdoms by the Shahs followed by the usurpation by the Ranas brought indigenous nationalities under orthodox Hindu rule and then codified inferior social and political status into a corpus of law known as Muluki Ain. Although the Shah kings were restored to power in the revolution of 1950, they still governed mostly for and through high caste Bahuns, Thakuris, Chhetris and Newars. Enfranchisement of adivasis—except Newars—seldom advanced beyond lip service. This produced grievances that were instrumental in the Nepalese Civil War, where the rank and file of guerrilla fighters were largely adivasi. Thus in Nepal, there are no historical parallels to British interference with orthodox Hindu discrimination, nor was there much resembling India's significantly effective post-Independence efforts[citation needed] to improve the lot of adivasis.

In India, opposition to usage of the term is varied, and it has been argued that the "original inhabitant" contention is based on the fact that they have no land and are therefore asking for a land reform. They argue that they have been oppressed by the "superior group" and that therefore they require and demand a reward and more specifically a land reform .[15]

In Northeast India, the term adivāsi applies only to the Tea-tribes imported from Central India during colonial times, while all tribal groups refer collectively to themselves by using the English word "tribes".

Scheduled tribes[edit]

The Constitution of India, Article 366 (25) defines Scheduled Tribes as "such tribes or tribal communities or part of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to the scheduled Tribes (STs) for the purposes of this Constitution".[16] In Article 342, the procedure to be followed for specification of a scheduled tribe is prescribed. However, it does not contain the criterion for the specification of any community as scheduled tribe. An often used criterion is based on attributes such as:

  • Geographical isolation – they live in cloistered, exclusive, remote and inhospitable areas such as hills and forests.
  • Backwardness – their livelihood is based on primitive agriculture, a low-value closed economy with a low level of technology that leads to their poverty. They have low levels of literacy and health.
  • Distinctive culture, language and religion – communities have developed their own distinctive culture, language and religion.
  • Shyness of contact – they have a marginal degree of contact with other cultures and people.[17]

Particularly vulnerable tribal groups[edit]

The Scheduled Tribe groups who were identified as more isolated from the wider community and who maintain a distinctive cultural identity have been categorised as 'Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups' (PTGs) (previously known as Primitive Tribal Groups) by the Government at the Centre. So far seventy-five tribal communities have been identified as 'particularly vulnerable tribal groups' in different States of India. These hunting, food-gathering, and some agricultural communities, have been identified as less acculturated tribes among the tribal population groups and in need of special programmes for their sustainable development. The tribes are awakening and demanding their rights for special reservation quota for them.[18]

Geographical overview[edit]

Naga man dressed in traditional attire from Nagaland

There is a substantial list of Scheduled Tribes in India recognised as tribal under the Constitution of India. Tribal people constitute 8.6% of the nation's total population, over 104 million people according to the 2011 census. One concentration lives in a belt along the Himalayas stretching through Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand in the west, to Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland in the northeast. In the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, more than 90% of the population is tribal. However, in the remaining northeast states of Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, and Tripura, tribal peoples form between 20 and 30% of the population. Other tribal peoples, including the Santals, live in Jharkhand and West Bengal. Central Indian states have the country's largest tribes, and, taken as a whole, roughly 75% of the total tribal population live there, although the tribal population there accounts for only around 10% of the region's total population.

There are smaller numbers of tribal people in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala in south India; in western India in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and in the union territories of Lakshadweep and the Andaman Islands and Nicobar Islands. About one percent of the populations of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are tribal, whereas about six percent in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are members of tribes.


Haplogroup F and it's descendant haplogroups.

According to the phylogeographic distribution of haplotypes observed among South Asian populations defined by social and linguistic criteria, the possibility arose of Y-DNA haplogroup F and mtDNA Haplogroup M might have originated in South Asia.[19] The presence of several haplogroup F, Haplogroup M and K that are largely restricted to the Indian subcontinent is consistent with the scenario that a coastal of early human migration out of Africa carried ancestral Eurasian lineages first to the coast of the Indian subcontinent, or that some of them originated there.[20] Studies based on mtDNA variation have reported genetic unity across various Indian sub–populations.[21][22][23][24] The early Dravidian speakers have a epipaleolithic heritage with origins in South Asian. Based on both archaeobotanical material evidence and colloquial agricultural terms, independent centers of agriculture and domestication took place within Indian-Subcontient.[25][26][27] Subsequently, the Indo-Aryan migration into subcontinent from Sintashta culture about 4,000 ybp.[26][28][29] and the Tibeto-Burmans and Austroasiatics via the Himalayan and north-eastern borders of the subcontinent around 4,200 ybp.[30]

The most frequent mtDNA haplogroups in the Indian subcontinent are M, R and U.[31]

All major Y chromosome DNA haplogroups in the subcontinent are Haplogroup F's descendant haplogroups R (mostly R2a, R2 and R1a1), L, H and J (mostly J2).[32] Haplogroup F itself is found mostly in South Asia.[19]other notable haplogroups include O3 among Tibeto-Burman speakers, O2a among Austroasiatic speakers, G, Haplogroup P and T.[33]

Arguing for the longer term "rival Y-Chromosome model",[19] It is highly suggestive that India is the origin of the Eurasian mtDNA haplogroups which he calls the "Eurasian Eves". According to Oppenheimer it is highly probable that nearly all human maternal lineages in Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe descended from only four mtDNA lines that originated in South Asia 50,000-100,000 years ago.[34]


Pre-Mughal period[edit]

Although considered uncivilised and primitive[by whom?],[35] adivasis were usually not held to be intrinsically impure by surrounding (usually Dravidian or Aryan) casted Hindu populations, unlike Dalits, who were.[by whom?][13][36] Thus, the adivasi origins of Valmiki, who composed the Ramayana, were acknowledged,[37] as were the origins of adivasi tribes such as the Grasia and Bhilala, which descended from mixed Rajput and Bhil marriages.[38][39] Unlike the subjugation of the Dalits, the adivasis often enjoyed autonomy and, depending on region, evolved mixed hunter-gatherer and farming economies, controlling their lands as a joint patrimony of the tribe.[35][40][41] In some areas, securing adivasi approval and support was considered crucial by local rulers,[13][42] and larger adivasi groups were able to sustain their own kingdoms in central India.[13] The Gond Rajas of Garha-Mandla and Chanda are examples of an adivasi aristocracy that ruled in this region, and were "not only the hereditary leaders of their Gond subjects, but also held sway over substantial communities of non-tribals who recognized them as their feudal lords."[40][43]

Mughal period[edit]

This relative autonomy and collective ownership of adivasi land by adivasis was severely disrupted by the advent of the Mughals in the early 16th century.

Rebellions against Mughal authority include the Bhil Rebellion of 1632 and the Bhil-Gond Insurrection of 1643[44] which were both crushed by Mughal soldiers.

British period[edit]

From the very early days of British rule, the tribesmen resented the British encroachments upon their tribal system. They were found resisting or supporting their brethren of Tamar and Jhalda in rebellion. Nor did their raja welcome the British administrative innovations.[45] Beginning in the 18th century, the British added to the consolidation of feudalism in India, first under the Jagirdari system and then under the zamindari system.[46] Beginning with the Permanent Settlement imposed by the British in Bengal and Bihar, which later became the template for a deepening of feudalism throughout India, the older social and economic system in the country began to alter radically.[47][48] Land, both forest areas belonging to adivasis and settled farmland belonging to non-adivasi peasants, was rapidly made the legal property of British-designated zamindars (landlords), who in turn moved to extract the maximum economic benefit possible from their newfound property and subjects.[49] Adivasi lands sometimes experienced an influx of non-local settlers, often brought from far away (as in the case of Muslims and Sikhs brought to Kol territory)[50] by the zamindars to better exploit local land, forest and labor.[46][47] Deprived of the forests and resources they traditionally depended on and sometimes coerced to pay taxes, many adivasis were forced to borrow at usurious rates from moneylenders, often the zamindars themselves.[51][52] When they were unable to pay, that forced them to become bonded labourers for the zamindars.[53] Often, far from paying off the principal of their debt, they were unable even to offset the compounding interest, and this was made the justification for their children working for the zamindar after the death of the initial borrower.[53] In the case of the Andamanese adivasis, long isolated from the outside world in autonomous societies, mere contact with outsiders was often sufficient to set off deadly epidemics in tribal populations,[54] and it is alleged that some sections of the British government directly attempted to destroy some tribes.[55]

Land dispossession and subjugation by British and zamindar interests resulted in a number of adivasi revolts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as the Santal hul (or Santhal rebellion) of 1855–56.[56] Although these were suppressed ruthlessly by the governing British authority (the East India Company prior to 1858, and the British government after 1858), partial restoration of privileges to adivasi elites (e.g. to Mankis, the leaders of Munda tribes) and some leniency in tax burdens resulted in relative calm, despite continuing and widespread dispossession, from the late nineteenth century onwards.[50][57] The economic deprivation, in some cases, triggered internal adivasi migrations within India that would continue for another century, including as labour for the emerging tea plantations in Assam.[58]

Participation in Indian independence movement[edit]

There were tribal reform and rebellion movements during the period of the British Empire, some of which also participated in the Indian independence movement or attacked mission posts.[59] There were several Adivasis in the Indian independence movement including Dharindhar Bhyuan, Laxman Naik, Jantya Bhil, Bangaru Devi and Rehma Vasave.

List of rebellions[edit]

During the period of British rule, India saw the rebellions of several backward castes, mainly tribal peoples that revolted against British rule. These were:[60]

  1. Great Kuki Invasion of 1860s
  2. Halba rebellion (1774–79)
  3. Chakma rebellion (1776–1787)[61]
  4. Chuar rebellion in Bengal (1795–1800)[62]
  5. Bhopalpatnam Struggle (1795)
  6. Khurda Rebellion in Odisha (1817)[63]
  7. Bhil rebellion (1822–1857)[64]
  8. Paralkot rebellion (1825)
  9. Tarapur rebellion (1842–54)
  10. Maria rebellion (1842–63)
  11. First Freedom Struggle By Sidu Murmu and Kanu Murmu (1856–57)
  12. Bhil rebellion, begun by Tantya Tope in Banswara (1858)[65]
  13. Koi revolt (1859)
  14. Gond rebellion, begun by Ramji Gond in Adilabad (1860)[66]
  15. Muria rebellion (1876)
  16. Rani rebellion (1878–82)
  17. Bhumkal (1910)
  18. The Kuki Uprising (1917–1919) in Manipur
  19. 1st Rampa Rebellion (1879), Vizagapatnam (now Visakhapatnam Dist.)
  20. 2nd Rampa Rebellion (1921–1923), Visakhapatnam Dist.
  21. Santhal Revolt (1885–1886)
  22. Munda rebellion

Tribal classification criteria and demands[edit]

Scarification, a traditional symbol of Great Andamanese tribal identity (1901 photo)

Population complexities, and the controversies surrounding ethnicity and language in India, sometimes make the official recognition of groups as adivasis (by way of inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list) political and contentious. However, regardless of their language family affiliations, Australoid and Negrito groups that have survived as distinct forest, mountain or island dwelling tribes in India and are often classified as adivasi.[67] The relatively autonomous Mongoloid tribal groups of Northeastern India (including Khasis, Apatani and Nagas), who are mostly Austro-Asiatic or Tibeto-Burman speakers, are also considered to be adivasis: this area comprises 7.5% of India's land area but 20% of its adivasi population.[68] However, not all autonomous northeastern groups are considered adivasis; for instance, the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Meitei of Manipur were once tribal but, having been settled for many centuries, are caste Hindus.[69]

It is also difficult, for a given social grouping, to definitively decide whether it is a 'caste' or a 'tribe'. A combination of internal social organisation, relationship with other groups, self-classification and perception by other groups has to be taken into account to make a categorisation, which is at best inexact and open to doubt.[70] These categorisations have been diffused for thousands of years, and even ancient formulators of caste-discriminatory legal codes (which usually only applied to settled populations, and not adivasis) were unable to come up with clean distinctions.[71]

Demands for tribal classification[edit]

An additional difficulty in deciding whether a group meets the criteria to be adivasi or not are the aspirational movements created by the federal and state benefits, including job and educational reservations, enjoyed by groups listed as scheduled tribes (STs).[72] In Manipur, Meitei commentators have pointed to the lack of scheduled tribe status as a key economic disadvantage for Meiteis competing for jobs against groups that are classified as scheduled tribes.[69] In Assam, Rajbongshi representatives have demanded scheduled tribe status as well.[73] In Rajasthan, the Gujjar community has demanded ST status, even blockading the national capital of Delhi to press their demand.[74] However, the Government of Rajasthan declined the Gujjars' demand, stating the Gujjars are treated as upper caste and are by no means a tribe.[75] In several cases, these claims to tribalhood are disputed by tribes who are already listed in the schedule and fear economic losses if more powerful groups are recognized as scheduled tribes; for instance, the Rajbongshi demand faces resistance from the Bodo tribe,[73] and the Meena tribe has vigorously opposed Gujjar aspirations to be recognized as a scheduled tribe.[76]

Endogamy, exogamy and ethnogenesis[edit]

Part of the challenge is that the endogamous nature of tribes is also conformed to by the vast majority of Hindu castes. Indeed, many historians and anthropologists believe that caste endogamy reflects the once-tribal origins of the various groups who now constitute the settled Hindu castes.[77] Another defining feature of caste Hindu society, which is often used to contrast them with Muslim and other social groupings, is lineage/clan (or gotra) and village exogamy.[78][79] However, these in-marriage taboos are also held ubiquitously among tribal groups, and do not serve as reliable differentiating markers between caste and tribe.[80][81][82] Again, this could be an ancient import from tribal society into settled Hindu castes.[83] Interestingly, tribes such as the Muslim Gujjars of Kashmir and the Kalash of Pakistan observe these exogamous traditions in common with caste Hindus and non-Kashmiri adivasis, though their surrounding Muslim populations do not.[78][84]

Some anthropologists, however, draw a distinction between tribes who have continued to be tribal and tribes that have been absorbed into caste society in terms of the breakdown of tribal (and therefore caste) boundaries, and the proliferation of new mixed caste groups. In other words, ethnogenesis (the construction of new ethnic identities) in tribes occurs through a fission process (where groups splinter-off as new tribes, which preserves endogamy), whereas with settled castes it usually occurs through intermixture (in violation of strict endogamy).[85]

Other criteria[edit]

Unlike castes, which form part of a complex and interrelated local economic exchange system, tribes tend to form self-sufficient economic units. For most tribal people, land-use rights traditionally derive simply from tribal membership. Tribal society tends to the egalitarian, with its leadership based on ties of kinship and personality rather than on hereditary status. Tribes typically consist of segmentary lineages whose extended families provide the basis for social organisation and control. Tribal religion recognises no authority outside the tribe.

Any of these criteria may not apply in specific instances. Language does not always give an accurate indicator of tribal or caste status. Especially in regions of mixed population, many tribal groups have lost their original languages and simply speak local or regional languages. In parts of Assam—an area historically divided between warring tribes and villages—increased contact among villagers began during the colonial period, and has accelerated since independence in 1947. A pidgin Assamese developed, whereas educated tribal members learned Hindi and, in the late twentieth century, English.

Self-identification and group loyalty do not provide unfailing markers of tribal identity either. In the case of stratified tribes, the loyalties of clan, kin, and family may well predominate over those of tribe. In addition, tribes cannot always be viewed as people living apart; the degree of isolation of various tribes has varied tremendously. The Gonds, Santals, and Bhils traditionally have dominated the regions in which they have lived. Moreover, tribal society is not always more egalitarian than the rest of the rural populace; some of the larger tribes, such as the Gonds, are highly stratified.

The apparently wide fluctuation in estimates of South Asia's tribal population through the twentieth century gives a sense of how unclear the distinction between tribal and nontribal can be. India's 1931 census enumerated 22 million tribal people, in 1941 only 10 million were counted, but by 1961 some 30 million and in 1991 nearly 68 million tribal members were included. The differences among the figures reflect changing census criteria and the economic incentives individuals have to maintain or reject classification as a tribal member.

These gyrations of census data serve to underline the complex relationship between caste and tribe. Although, in theory, these terms represent different ways of life and ideal types, in reality they stand for a continuum of social groups. In areas of substantial contact between tribes and castes, social and cultural pressures have often tended to move tribes in the direction of becoming castes over a period of years. Tribal peoples with ambitions for social advancement in Indian society at large have tried to gain the classification of caste for their tribes. On occasion, an entire tribe or part of a tribe joined a Hindu sect and thus entered the caste system en masse. If a specific tribe engaged in practices that Hindus deemed polluting, the tribe's status when it was assimilated into the caste hierarchy would be affected.


The majority of Adivasi practice Hinduism and Christianity. During the last two decades Adivasi from Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand have converted to Protestant groups. Adivasi beliefs vary by tribe, and are usually different from the historical Vedic religion, with its monistic underpinnings, Indo-European deities (who are often cognates of ancient Iranian, Greek and Roman deities, e.g. Mitra/Mithra/Mithras), lack of idol worship and lack of a concept of reincarnation.[86]


Animism (from Latin animus, -i "soul, life") is the worldview that non-human entities (animals, plants, and inanimate objects or phenomena) possess a spiritual essence. Encyclopedia of Religion and Society estimate 1-5% India's population is animist.[87] India's government recognizes India indigenous have pre-Hindu faith of animist-based religions.[88][89]

Animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the belief system of some indigenous tribal peoples,[90] especially prior to the development of organized religion.[91] Although each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, "animism" is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples' "spiritual" or "supernatural" perspectives. The animistic perspective is so fundamental, mundane, everyday and taken-for-granted that most animistic indigenous people do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to "animism" (or even "religion");[92] the term is an anthropological construct rather than one designated by the people themselves.


Main article: Donyi-Polo

Donyi-Poloi the designation given to the indigenous religions, of animistic and shamanic type, of the Tani, from Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern India.[93][94] The name "Donyi-Polo" means "Sun-Moon".[95]

Main article: Sanamahism

Sanamahism is the worship of Sanamahi, the eternal force/cells responsible for the continuity of living creations. Sanamahi referred here is not to be confused with Lainingthou Sanamahi (The Supreme House-dwelling God of the Sanamahism). The religion has a great and unique traditional history which has been preserved till date for worshiping ancestors as almighty. Thus it signifies that Sanamahism is the worship of eternal force/cells present in living creations.

Sidaba Mapu, the Creator God of Sanamahism. Sanamahism is one of the oldest religion of South East Asia. It originated in Manipur and is mainly practiced by the Meitei, Kabui, Zeliangrong and other communities who inhabit in Manipur, Assam, Tripura.

Main article: Sarnaism

Sarnaism or Sarna[96][97][98] (local languages: Sarna Dhorom, meaning "religion of the holy woods") defines the indigenous religions of the Adivasi populations of the states of Central-East India, such as the Munda, the Ho, the Santali, the Khuruk, and the others. The Munda, Ho, Santhal and Oraon tribe followed the Sarna religion,[99] where Sarna means sacred grove. Their religion is based on the oral traditions passed from generation-to-generation. It strongly believes in one God, the Great Spirit.

Other tribal animist[edit]

Animist hunter gatherer Nayaka people of Nigrill's hill's of South India.[100]

Animism is the traditional religion of Nicobarese people, there religion is marked by the dominance and interplay with spirit worship,witch doctor and animal sacrifice.[101]


Adivasi roots of modern Hinduism[edit]

Some historians and anthropologists assert that much of what constitutes folk Hinduism today is actually descended from an amalgamation of adivasi faiths, idol worship practices and deities, rather than the original Indo-Aryan faith.[102][103][104] This also includes the sacred status of certain animals such as monkeys, cows, peacocks, cobras (nagas) and elephants and plants such as the sacred fig (pipal), Ocimum tenuiflorum (tulsi) and Azadirachta indica (neem), which may once have held totemic importance for certain adivasi tribes.[103]

Adivasi sants[edit]

A sant is an Indian holy man, and a title of a devotee or ascetic, especially in north and east India. Generally a holy or saintly person is referred to as a mahatma, paramahamsa, or swami, or given the prefix Sri or Srila before their name. The term is sometimes misrepresented in English as "Hindu saint", although "sant" is unrelated to "saint".

  • Sant Buddhu Bhagat, led the Kol Insurrection (1831–1832) aimed against tax imposed on Mundas by Muslim rulers.
  • Sant Dhira or Kannappa Nayanar[6], one of 63 Nayanar Shaivite sants, a hunter from whom Lord Shiva gladly accepted food offerings. It is said that he poured water from his mouth on the Shivlingam and offered the Lord swine flesh.[7]
  • Sant Dhudhalinath, Koli, Gujarati, a 17th or 18th century devotee (P. 4, The Story of Historic People of India-The Kolis)
  • Sant Ganga Narain, led the Bhumij Revolt (1832–1833) aimed against missionaries and British colonialists.
  • Sant Girnari Velnathji, Koli, Gujarati of Junagadh, a 17th or 18th century devotee[105]
  • Sant Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma or Guru Brahma, a Bodo whose founded the Brahma Dharma aimed against missionaries and colonialists. The Brahma Dharma movement sought to unite peoples of all religions to worship God together and survives even today.
  • Sant Kalu Dev, Punjab, related with Fishermen community Nishadha
  • Sant Kubera, ethnic Gujarati, Koli tribal of Sarsa, taught for over 35 years, and had 20,000 followers in his time.[106]
  • Sant Jatra Oraon, Oraon, led the Tana Bhagat Movement (1914–1919) aimed against the missionaries and British colonialists
  • Sant Sri Koya Bhagat, Koli, Gujarati, a 17th or 18th century devotee[105]
  • Sant Tantya Mama (Bhil), a Bhil after whom a movement is named after – the "Jananayak Tantya Bhil"
  • Sant Tirumangai Alvar, Kallar, composed the six Vedangas in beautiful Tamil verse [8]


  • Bhaktaraj Bhadurdas, Koli, Gujarati, a 17th or 18th century devotee[105]
  • Bhakta Shabari, a Nishadha woman who offered Shri Rama and Shri Laxmana her half-eaten ber fruit, which they gratefully accepted when they were searching for Shri Sita Devi in the forest.
  • Madan Bhagat, Koli, Gujarati, a 17th or 18th century devotee[105]
  • Sany Kanji Swami, Koli, Gujarati, a 17th or 18th century devotee[105]
  • Bhaktaraj Valram, Koli, Gujarati, a 17th or 18th century devotee[105]


  • Maharshi Matanga,[107] Matanga Bhil, Guru of Bhakta Shabari. In fact, Chandalas are often addressed as ‘Matanga ’in passages like Varaha Purana 1.139.91
  • Maharshi Valmiki, Kirata Bhil, composed the Ramayana.[37] He is considered to be an avatar in the Balmiki community.


  • Birsa Bhagwan or Birsa Munda, considered an avatar of Khasra Kora. People approached him as Singbonga, the Sun god. His sect included Christian converts.[9] He and his clan, the Mundas, were connected with Vaishnavite traditions as they were influenced by Sri Chaitanya.[10] Birsa was very close to the Panre brothers Vaishnavites.
  • Kirata – the form of Lord Shiva as a hunter. It is mentioned in the Mahabharata. The Karppillikkavu Sree Mahadeva Temple, Kerala adores Lord Shiva in this avatar and is known to be one of the oldest surviving temples in Bharat.
  • Vettakkorumakan, the son of Lord Kirata.
  • Kaladutaka or 'Vaikunthanatha', Kallar (robber), avatar of Lord Vishnu.[11]

Other tribals and Hinduism[edit]

Some Hindus believe that Indian tribals are close to the romantic ideal of the ancient silvan culture[108] of the Vedic people. Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar said:

The tribals "can be given yajñopavîta (…) They should be given equal rights and footings in the matter of religious rights, in temple worship, in the study of Vedas, and in general, in all our social and religious affairs. This is the only right solution for all the problems of casteism found nowadays in our Hindu society."[109]

At the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar, there are Brahmin and Badu (tribal) priests. The Badus have the most intimate contact with the deity of the temple, and only they can bathe and adorn it.[110][111]

The Bhils are mentioned in the Mahabharata. The Bhil boy Ekalavya's teacher was Drona, and he had the honour to be invited to Yudhisthira's Rajasuya Yajna at Indraprastha.[112] Indian tribals were also part of royal armies in the Ramayana and in the Arthashastra.[113]

Shabari was a Bhil woman who offered Rama and Lakshmana jujubes when they were searching for Sita in the forest. Matanga, a Bhil, became a Brahmana.[citation needed]

ed against this custom.[114]

Demands for a separate religious code[edit]

Some Adivasi organisations have demanded that a distinct religious code be listed for Adivasis in the 2011 census of India. The All India Adivasi Conference was held on 1 and 2 January 2011 at Burnpur, Asansol, West Bengal. 750 delegates were present from all parts of India and cast their votes for Religion code as follows: Sari Dhorom – 632, Sarna – 51, Kherwalism – 14 and Other Religions – 03. Census of India.[115]

Tribal system[edit]

Tribals are not part of the caste system,[116] and usually constitute egalitarian societies. Christian tribals do not automatically lose their traditional tribal rules.

When in 1891 a missionary asked 150 Munda Christians to "inter-dine" with people of different rank, only 20 Christians did so, and many converts lost their new faith. Father Haghenbeek concluded on this episode that these rules are not "pagan", but a sign of "national sentiment and pride", and wrote:

"On the contrary, while proclaiming the equality of all men before God, we now tell them: preserve your race pure, keep your customs, refrain from eating with Lohars (blacksmiths), Turis (bamboo workers) and other people of lower rank. To become good Christians, it (inter-dining) is not required."[117]

However, many scholars argue that the claim that tribals are an egalitarian society in contrast to a caste-based society is a part of a larger political agenda by some to maximize any differences from tribal and urban societies. According to scholar Koenraad Elst, caste practices and social taboos among Indian tribals date back to antiquity:

"The Munda tribals not only practise tribal endogamy and commensality, but also observe a jâti division within the tribe, buttressed by notions of social pollution, a mythological explanation and harsh punishments.

A Munda Catholic theologian testifies: The tribals of Chhotanagpur are an endogamous tribe. They usually do not marry outside the tribal community, because to them the tribe is sacred. The way to salvation is the tribe. Among the Santals, it is tabooed to marry outside the tribe or inside ones clan, just as Hindus marry inside their caste and outside their gotra. More precisely: To protect their tribal solidarity, the Santals have very stringent marriage laws. A Santal cannot marry a non-Santal or a member of his own clan. The former is considered as a threat to the tribe's integrity, while the latter is considered incestuous. Among the Ho of Chhotanagpur, the trespasses which occasion the exclusion from the tribe without chance of appeal, are essentially those concerning endogamy and exogamy."

Inter-dining has also been prohibited by many Indian tribal peoples.

[118]==Education== Extending the system of primary education into tribal areas and reserving places for tribal children in middle and high schools and higher education institutions are central to government policy, but efforts to improve a tribe's educational status have had mixed results. Recruitment of qualified teachers and determination of the appropriate language of instruction also remain troublesome. Commission after commission on the "language question" has called for instruction, at least at the primary level, in the students' native language. In some regions, tribal children entering school must begin by learning the official regional language, often one completely unrelated to their tribal language.

Many tribal schools are plagued by high drop-out rates. Children attend for the first three to four years of primary school and gain a smattering of knowledge, only to lapse into illiteracy later. Few who enter continue up to the tenth grade; of those who do, few manage to finish high school. Therefore, very few are eligible to attend institutions of higher education, where the high rate of attrition continues. Members of agrarian tribes like the Gonds often are reluctant to send their children to school, needing them, they say, to work in the fields. On the other hand, in those parts of the northeast where tribes have generally been spared the wholesale onslaught of outsiders, schooling has helped tribal people to secure political and economic benefits. The education system there has provided a corps of highly trained tribal members in the professions and high-ranking administrative posts.

An academy for teaching and preserving Adivasi languages and culture was established in 1999 by the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre. The Adivasi Academy is located at Tejgadh in Gujarat.

Adivasi(STs) Demography in India[edit]

Scheduled Tribes distribution map in India by state and union territory according to 2011 Census.[119] Mizoram and Lakshadweep had the highest % of its population as ST (~95%), while Punjab and Haryana had 0%.[119]

According to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Orders (Amendment) Act, 1990, Scheduled Tribe can belong to any religion. The scheduled tribe population in Jharkhand constitutes 26.2% of the state.[120][121] Tribals in Jharkhand mainly follow Sarnaism, an animistic religion.[122] Chhattisgarh has also 32-25 per cent scheduled tribe population.[123][124][125] Assam has 40 lakh Adivasis.[126] Adivasis in India mainly follow Animism, Hinduism and Christianity.[127][128][129]


Tribals in India are most backward community educationally. First generation learners have to face social, psychological and cultural barriers to get education. This has been one of the reason for poor performance of tribal students in schools.[130] Poor literacy rate since independence has resulted in absence of tribals in academia and higher education. The literacy rate for STs has gone up from 8.5% (male – 13.8%, female – 3.2%) in 1961 to 29.6% (male – 40.6%, female – 18.2%) in 1991 and to 40% (male – 59%, female – 37%) in 1999-2000.[130] States with large proportion of STs like Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya have high literacy rate while States with large number of tribals like Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh have low tribal literacy rate.[131] Tribal students have very high drop-out rates during school education.[132]

Tribal languages[edit]


Most tribes are concentrated in heavily forested areas that combine inaccessibility with limited political or economic significance. Historically, the economy of most tribes was subsistence agriculture or hunting and gathering. Tribal members traded with outsiders for the few necessities they lacked, such as salt and iron. A few local Hindu craftsmen might provide such items as cooking utensils.

In the early 20th century, however, large areas fell into the hands of non-tribals, on account of improved transportation and communications. Around 1900, many regions were opened by the government to settlement through a scheme by which inward migrants received ownership of land free in return for cultivating it. For tribal people, however, land was often viewed as a common resource, free to whoever needed it. By the time tribals accepted the necessity of obtaining formal land titles, they had lost the opportunity to lay claim to lands that might rightfully have been considered theirs. The colonial and post-independence regimes belatedly realised the necessity of protecting tribals from the predations of outsiders and prohibited the sale of tribal lands. Although an important loophole in the form of land leases was left open, tribes made some gains in the mid-twentieth century, and some land was returned to tribal peoples despite obstruction by local police and land officials.

In the 1970s, tribal peoples came again under intense land pressure, especially in central India. Migration into tribal lands increased dramatically, as tribal people lost title to their lands in many ways – lease, forfeiture from debts, or bribery of land registry officials. Other non-tribals simply squatted, or even lobbied governments to classify them as tribal to allow them to compete with the formerly established tribes. In any case, many tribal members became landless labourers in the 1960s and 1970s, and regions that a few years earlier had been the exclusive domain of tribes had an increasingly mixed population of tribals and non-tribals. Government efforts to evict nontribal members from illegal occupation have proceeded slowly; when evictions occur at all, those ejected are usually members of poor, lower castes.

Improved communications, roads with motorised traffic, and more frequent government intervention figured in the increased contact that tribal peoples had with outsiders. Commercial highways and cash crops frequently drew non-tribal people into remote areas. By the 1960s and 1970s, the resident nontribal shopkeeper was a permanent feature of many tribal villages. Since shopkeepers often sell goods on credit (demanding high interest), many tribal members have been drawn deeply into debt or mortgaged their land. Merchants also encourage tribals to grow cash crops (such as cotton or castor-oil plants), which increases tribal dependence on the market for necessities. Indebtedness is so extensive that although such transactions are illegal, traders sometimes 'sell' their debtors to other merchants, much like indentured peons.

The final blow for some tribes has come when nontribals, through political jockeying, have managed to gain legal tribal status, that is, to be listed as a Scheduled Tribe.

Tribes in the Himalayan foothills have not been as hard-pressed by the intrusions of non-tribal. Historically, their political status was always distinct from the rest of India. Until the British colonial period, there was little effective control by any of the empires centred in peninsular India; the region was populated by autonomous feuding tribes. The British, in efforts to protect the sensitive northeast frontier, followed a policy dubbed the "Inner Line"; non-tribal people were allowed into the areas only with special permission. Postindependence governments have continued the policy, protecting the Himalayan tribes as part of the strategy to secure the border with China.

Government policies on forest reserves have affected tribal peoples profoundly. Government efforts to reserve forests have precipitated armed (if futile) resistance on the part of the tribal peoples involved. Intensive exploitation of forests has often meant allowing outsiders to cut large areas of trees (while the original tribal inhabitants were restricted from cutting), and ultimately replacing mixed forests capable of sustaining tribal life with single-product plantations. Nontribals have frequently bribed local officials to secure effective use of reserved forest lands.

The northern tribes have thus been sheltered from the kind of exploitation that those elsewhere in South Asia have suffered. In Arunachal Pradesh (formerly part of the North-East Frontier Agency), for example, tribal members control commerce and most lower-level administrative posts. Government construction projects in the region have provided tribes with a significant source of cash. Some tribes have made rapid progress through the education system (the role of early missionaries was significant in this regard). Instruction was begun in Assamese but was eventually changed to Hindi; by the early 1980s, English was taught at most levels. Northeastern tribal people have thus enjoyed a certain measure of social mobility.

The continuing economic alienation and exploitation of many adivasis was highlighted as a "systematic failure" by the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in a 2009 conference of chief ministers of all 29 Indian states, where he also cited this as a major cause of the Naxalite unrest that has affected areas such as the Red Corridor.[133][134][135][136][137]


Notable Adivasis[edit]

Freedom movement[edit]

Politics & Social service[edit]






Some portraits of adivasi people.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Russell, R. V., The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, London, 1916.
  • Elst, Koenraad. Who is a Hindu? (2001) ISBN 81-85990-74-3
  • Raj, Aditya & Papia Raj (2004) "Linguistic Deculturation and the Importance of Popular Education among the Gonds in India" Adult Education and Development 62: 55–61
  • Vindicated by Time: The Niyogi Committee Report (edited by S.R. Goel, 1998) (1955)
  • Tribal Heritage of India, by Shyama Charan Dube, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Indian Council of Social Science Research, Anthropological Survey of India. Published by Vikas Pub. House, 1977. ISBN 0-7069-0531-8.
  • Tribal Movements in India, by Kumar Suresh Singh. Published by Manohar, 1982.
  • Tribal Society in India: An Anthropo-historical Perspective, by Kumar Suresh Singh. Published by Manohar, 1985.

External links[edit]