Bhil - History and Cultural Relations

Although empirical evidence is lacking, the Bhil are credited with the earliest occupation of their area; with successive Immigrations of Rajputs and conflicts with periodic waves of Muslim invaders believed to have driven them farther into the refuge of the forested central Indian highlands. The Rajputs, in feuds, periods of truce, and even alliances against the Muslims, were a constant source of interaction. By the end of the tenth century, most of Rewakantha was under the rule of either Bhil or Koli (a neighboring tribal group) chieftains. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, the Bhil were supplanted by chiefs of Rajput or mixed descent. In recognition of the Bhil's prior occupation of the land, many Rajput ascensions of the throne in recent times necessitated validation by the performance of a tika or consecration ceremony, by representatives of the Bhil chiefs of the area. Around 1480, Rewakantha came under Muslim administration, leading to conversion to Islam among many Bhils. However, these Tadvi Bhils, as they came to be known, maintain many of the traditions as well as the religious beliefs of the past. A Political system of rulership is ascribed to the Bhils from the earliest times. From the sixteenth century, which coincides with the Rajput supplantation, the Bhil political leadership fragmented into several chieftainships, leading to speculation that the Hindu encroachment, driving the Bhil into the hinterland, was a dynamic force that led to sociopolitical change. During the eighteenth century, deprived of their lands and finding their subsistence base greatly reduced, the Bhils resorted to looting and pillaging in large, armed bands. This led to conflict with the Maratha invaders and local rulers who retaliated by attempting to eradicate them. The Bhils were killed by the hundreds, and the survivors took refuge even deeper in the hills; this move resulted in greater disintegration of their leadership but increasing self-reliance and Individualism. These developments are reflected in today's egalitarian structure of social relations, quite different from the system of rulership that is believed to have existed prior to the successive waves of immigration into Rewakantha. It took the intervention of the British imperial administration to restore peace and order in the Rewakantha territory, enticing the Bhils back through the extension of an amnesty and persuading them to settle down as cultivators. An agreement hammered out by a Mr. Willoughby, a British political agent and Kumar Vasava of Sagbara, a powerful Bhil chief, ensured a semiautonomous status for the Bhil under Rajput territorial administration and provided them with land for cultivation, loans with which to purchase seed and bullocks, as well as rights to resources of the forest. Similar pacts were worked out in Khandesh. At present, the Bhils are a settled agricultural people whose short history of brigandage undeservedly besmirches their image on occasion. Those who have lost their lands now work as laborers. Extensive deforestation that has now reduced the forest to portions of the eastern highlands has considerably diminished Bhil dependence on forest resources.

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