Peep into the Life and Art of Tribes in India

The surprise element of our brief tour of Madhya Pradesh, a large state in central India, was The Tribal Museum in Bhopal. I have visited many museums around the world with many art  objects and artifacts. We saw very interesting art installations in the The Burning Man Exhibition in Washington DC last June and the Kochi Muziris Biennale in Kochi in 2014 and 2016 ( But we were completely taken aback when we entered The Tribal Museum in Bhopal. The curator had created real life-like installations of the tribal world in that relatively small space. The museum presented the culture of the tribes of Madhya Pradesh, their language, homes, rituals, festivals, toys, games and art. Here Is a small glimpse of it. I’m sure I have not done justice to the efforts of the people who have made this representation of the tribes in the state.

The Tribal Museum, Bhopal
Adivasi means the first inhabitants of the land. Adi means first or primary in Sanskrit and vasi means inhabitant in Hindi. Adivasis are the Indigenous People of India and refers to the tribal population of the country. The Constitution of India lists 744 tribes in 22 states of the country designated as the ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (ST). According to the Population Census of India, 2011 they constitute 8.6 percent, 104 million, of the population in India. The largest tribes are the Bhil (38 percent of the STs) and Gonds (36 percent). The tribal belt in Madhya Pradesh are the hill slopes between the river Narmada to the North and Godavari to the Southeast. The major tribes in Madhya Pradesh are the Gond, Bhil, Baiga, Korku, Bhariya, Haiba, Mariya and Shariya. In some districts of the state 30 to 50 percent of the population are tribal. Adivasis have been an historically disadvantaged group as they live in remote areas and forests. The constitution provides for affirmative action for the ST population such as reservation in higher educational institutions and in public sector jobs.
Home of the Baiga Tribe


Baiga Tribe: The old hamlets of the Baiga tribe were built around open space with a shared courtyard where a bonfire was made in the evening. The traditional homes have two sloped roofs and a courtyard. As the Baiga hamlets are close to the forest they are surrounded by a high strong fence of wood called ‘Purda’ to prevent entry of wild animals. Earlier roofs were made of local grass and plastered with clay, but are now replaced by tiles as maintaining grass roofs is difficult and expensive. The doors and door frames have intricate carvings.
Home of the Baiga Tribe
As we enter the house, on the left is the Padhenda, stand for keeping water, Khudari, bamboo granary to store grains, and a Katara Putali, container made of tree leaves to keep pulses and salt! The fireplace is on the right and containers and implements are kept on the left.

Bhil Tribe: The Bhils live in dry areas and on less fertile lands. They build their houses on their agricultural fields. Like the Baigas their house also have two sloping roofs and the courtyard which has a Padhenda, stand to keep pitchers filled with water. The walls and granaries are made of Siyawa shrubs that grow on the slopes of the hills. As these shrubs are now scarce, walls are made of bamboo and smeared with clay to strengthen them. The roof is made of teak leaves or now often of tiles. 


The home has two portion: Ohariwala is where food is cooked, grains are stored and the family goddess dwells on a five feet long pillar of teak called Ghinchari. The other portion, Mewada Ghar is for sleeping and keeping other household articles. 
The homes that are around the teak forests have rich carvings on the pillars. The women make auspicious drawings on the walls.
Bhil Home with carvings on the door and pillars and auspicious drawings on the walls

Weavers’s House with Spinning Wheel and Loom
Weaver’s Loom
Potter’s House with Potter’s wheel



Sahariya Temple with no idols
 Tatal Devi: Cures broken limbs
Goddess Shitala: Protects village from diseases such as chicken pox
Pithora: The Horse God

The Pithora paintings are a ritual performed by the Bhils to invoke God Pithora to bring prosperity to the family. One group narrates the myth and another group paints the narrative on the walls of the house. This is done in a single night and on completion the head priest performs a ceremonial worship for the betterment of the house and the family.

Dwelling Place of Baabdev: The Rain God

In Jhabua district every village has a dwelling place for Baabdev. Villagers gather there on a no-moon night and worship Baabdev. Terracotta figures of horses and sometimes pigs and cats are offered to propitiate Baabdev. Regions where the Bhils reside are generally water scarce and Baabdev can be seen as related to Indra, the Rain God. There is no idol except a stone, and the place can only be seen from a distance due to the heap of terracotta horse figures offered there.

Rituals: The story of the Karma festival goes that a god appeared suddenly from the darkness of the jungle sitting on the front branch of a Kadamb tree when women were dancing carrying an urn and lamp on their heads.  Seven brothers saw them and the eldest insulted the God. He later realized that God inspires all human action and took a vow to celebrate the festival every year at the seventh month of the Hindu calendar. This brass Karamseni Tree was created by skilled craftsmen of the Jhara community of Chatisgarh to depict this festival. Though there is no practice of worshiping the Karmaseni branch but the Karma dance and songs are very popular.

Karamseni Tree
Ladder to heaven

In some villages a raised platform is where gods are worshiped. A sharp edged iron ladder called the Sarang Naseni which only a ‘pure’ soul can climb. The priest climbs the ladder without feeling pain and the offering is to help get rid of problems in the family or when a wish is fulfilled.  

This reminded me of a ceremony in the Khayast community where on the birth of a great grandson the great grandfather offers a ‘Sone ki Naseni’, golden ladder. In a ceremony the great grandfather ‘climbs’ the ladder to celebrate the arrival of a new generation. A slightly gender biased ceremony as I write on Women’s Day!

The Ceremonial Bangle

The Ceremonial Bangle: This bangle for the bride is adorned with standing crops, trees, well and other symbols of fertility and the life cycle. The bride prepares seeds for sowing wearing this auspicious ceremonial bangle.

Marriage Rituals: Magrohan Wedding Pillar: Among the Gond, Baiga and other tribes the wedding is solemnized before a beautiful carved pillar shaped branch of a tree. A two and half foot wedding pillar is installed in the middle of the ‘Mandapa’, the canopy under which the wedding is conducted. 

Wedding Pillar


The museum contained a large number of installation of the games played by children in the tribal communities.

Chaktaak Ghoda: This game was similar to the game we played as children except that we had an English rhyme to go with it.

“Tisket and tasket red and yellow basket,
I bought a basket for my mother and on the way I dropped it.
Someone came and picked it up and took it to the market.
Is it you, is it you, is it you?”

We played tag with this song. In the tribal version also the tag was the ghoda (horse) and had to quietly place the handkerchief behind a child who would then become the next tag!

The other games were also familiar ones that we played as kids. One called ‘Pittoo’ or ‘Seven Tiles’ was played with two teams. One team threw a ball at a pile of seven tiles and had to set it back without being hit by the ball by members of the other team. The team that succeeded in restoring the seven tiles without being hit won the game.

Other familiar installations of tribal games were the ‘Tug of War’ and walking on Stilts.

Gilli Danda: A familiar game in most rural areas is Gilli-Danda. Most village and tribal games, as we see here, required minimal equipment which could be assembled with local materials. Gilli Danda only required a long stick, Danda, and a very small oblong piece of wood, Gilli. It can be considered the Indian version of cricket! The gilli is placed on a small piece of stone as a see saw or a small ditch is drawn on the ground and the gilli is placed on it. The player hits the gilli with the long stick making it fly in the air and then hits it as far as he can! He get three chances in case he misses the first time. He then places the long stick down and ‘takes a run’ to a pre-designated place. If someone from the other team catches the gilli when it is hit, the player is out!! Ha Ha! Or if the team is able to hit the long stick with the gilli from a distance, again the player is declared out! Points are assigned for runs and there are various local versions of declaration of points. The team with the highest points wins! I must say that even a city born and bred person like me has played this game! Three cheers for a simple cheaper version of indigenous cricket!

Tribal Art: The tribes are very artistic and the walls of the houses are painted depicting folk stories, rituals, gods, and goddess.


The Tribal Museum was indeed a treat, very informative and one got a feel of the life and culture of the tribal community in Madhya Pradesh. But as an Economist and an observer of the economy and society I was left with a gnawing feeling in my head. While it is important to depict and expose the nation to the tribes of India, the scheduled tribes remain an isolated community and bereft of development compared to the rest of the country. 

The tribes generally reside near forests and on hilly regions. They are dependent on the forest for their livelihoods, but with the reservation of forests they have been losing their traditional rights to forest produce. Further, the lands they inhabit are often rich in minerals and in parts of India they are in conflict with the international mining companies that are acquiring their lands and displacing them.

In another post on this blog I had written While India has enacted progressive laws to protect the environment and indigenous tribal communities, the mining industry and financial capital are able to evade them with huge costs to the environment and tribal communities.” Interested readers could view this post and a video at the link below:

The tribal communities are not just passive observers of the encroachments on their lands. They have been organizing and trying to combat this ingress on their rights. A more complete picture of the reality of tribes in India could have depicted some of these issues and solutions to them. This is in no way to undermine the work and effort of the artists, historians and craftsmen who created this amazing set of installations and the impact it makes on the viewer.


2 thoughts on “Peep into the Life and Art of Tribes in India

  1. We have very few museums in India that have rich, well preserved heritage. Will definitely visit this one whenever I visit Bhopal. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Very interesting and informative piece of writing. Enjoyed reading it. There is one such museum in Gujarat Vidhyapith too. Worth going there once.This also reminds me of the games (seven tiles, Tug of War and Gilli-Danad) that I have played in my childhood.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s