Identification. The Bhils are the third-largest (after the Gonds and Santals) and most widely distributed tribal group in India. Although their racial origin remains undetermined, they have been variously classified as Gondids, as Proto-Australoid Veddids, and as a subsection of the "Munda race." The name "Bhil" is believed to have been derived from villu or billu, which in most Dravidian languages is the word for "bow," in reference to the weapon that, until recent times, they seemed almost always to be carrying. Many Urdu speakers, however, equate the term "Bhil" with the English "aboriginal," leading to speculation that the term is a generic one associated with a number of tribes in contiguous areas bearing cultural similarities. Recent work on the Bhils appears to indicate that what has always been treated as one tribal group in fact is heterogeneous in nature. This is reflected in the 1961 census by the numerous tribes that are to be found under the name of "Bhil." It seems best to consider the term "Bhils" as covering a number of subtribes that include the Barelas, Bhagalia, Bhilalas, Dhankas, Dholi, Dublas, Dungri, Gamits or Gamtas, Garasias, Mankars, Mavchis, Mewasi, Nirle (Nilde), Patelia, Pathias, Pavadas, Pawra, Rathias, Rawal, Tadvis, Talavias, Vasavas, and Vasave. The Dhankas, Tadvis, Pavadas, and the Gamits or Gamtas may refer to themselves as separate tribes, or at least as distinct from the main stock, with the Dhankas even having an origin myth that upholds their derivation from the Rajputs. The Bhilalas are generally acknowledged as a mixture of Bhils and Rajputs. Yet the members of each tribe regard themselves as belonging to an ethnic unit separate from their neighbors and have developed a shared tribal consciousness. The areas inhabited by the Bhils remain some of the more remote and inaccessible parts of India today. Their unique scattered settlement pattern has hindered government efforts to provide services as has their general distrust of government officials. Recent studies of the progress made by the Hindu Bhagat movement appear to indicate that there may be a process of transformation from Tribal group to caste under way among the Bhils.
Location. The area occupied by the Bhil is the forested lands of the Vindhya and Satpura hills in the western portion of central India between 20° and 25° N and 73° and 77° E. Straddling the borders of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan states, most of this territory, traditionally referred to as "Rewakantha" (a Gujarati term for the drainage of the Rewa, another name for the N armada River), is the homeland of peoples collectively referred to as the Bhil.
A total number of 5,172,129 people are to be found under the heading of
"Bhils including other subtribes" in the 1971 census. The
largest concentration, 1,618,716 strong, is found in Madhya Pradesh. In
Gujarat there are 1,452,987 Bhils, while there are 1,431,020 in
Rajasthan. In Maharashtra 678,750 registered as members of the tribal
group. The Bhils as a whole recorded an astounding
64.5 percent increase in population (from 2,330,278 to 3,833,331) during the decade 1951-1961, but this remarkable rate may be in large part attributable to the reclassification of the tribal group in the census. Between 1961 and 1971, the Bhil population registered a much more moderate
45.9 percent growth rate.
Linguistic Affiliation. The numerous and varied Bhili dialects spoken by the Bhil belong to the Indo-Aryan Family of languages and exhibit divergent levels of Rajasthani and Gujarati influence. A radius of 32 to 48 kilometers appears to be the limit of each dialect's boundaries.