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Who are they?
The Gond is a very large tribe of Central India, numbering 12.7 million. Traditionally they have been cultivating land, producing crops, and raising livestock. They grow rice, wheat, and different types of lentils, sesame, millet and cotton.
They live spread out in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. A small number (2,500) live in Gujarat.
The derivation of the word Gond is uncertain. According to some, it may have come from khonda which means hill. General Cunningham, an ethnologist, speculated that it may come from Gauda, another name for eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. In fact, the Gonds call themselves Koitur or Koi.
They are the largest Dravidian tribe. Historically, they were the most important group of original Indian tribes. In the 1500’s, several Gond dynasties were established and the Gond Rajas ruled until they were conquered by Muslim armies in 1592. In the 1700’s, the Gond lost all power to the Maratha kings, who forced them to escape into the hills. The Gond kingdoms ruled in the north, south, with capital cities at Chandrapur and Garha-Mandla in Madhya Pradesh and central region with its capital at Kherla in Madhya Pradesh. Gond estates survived until the Land Ceiling Acts were enforced after India’s Independence.
A diverse society, the Gond demonstrates a range of cultural variations which extend from the most primitive to progressive. The Gond from the northern region appear to have been influenced by neighboring communities. According to a popular legend, Gond had divine ancestors who were nurtured by the goddess Parvati (Shiva’s wife). She had given birth after eating vegetables that had sprung up from Shiva’s urine. Shambhu Mahadev (another name for Shiva) was offended by their dirty habits and bad smell and imprisoned them in a cave in Mount Dhawalgiri. They were freed by their hero, Pahandi Kapar Lingar or Lingo, along with the assistance of another goddess. The ancestors emerged from the cave in four groups, and this division laid the foundation for the structure of their society. They are divided into four groups that trace descent through males only.
The people speak Gondi, which belongs to the Dravidian family of languages and is similar to Tamil and Kannada. In the eastern state of Bihar and Jharkhand, they speak Sadri and Gondi. In Assam, where they are migrants from Orissa, Oriya and Assamese are spoken.
The Gond tribe is listed as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in all states except Uttar Pradesh and Assam. They are listed as a Scheduled Caste (SC) in Uttar Pradesh which they resent, preferring to be listed as Tribal. These listings provide many benefits such as reserved and fixed quotas for government jobs and professional colleges, lower benchmarks in competitive examinations, age limit relaxations as well as reserved electoral constituencies from where only SC/ST candidates can contest polls.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Gond cultivates land, produces crops, and raise livestock. Pressure from the government to preserve forests and to change the way they farm has led many to do well by adopting better methods. Many still live of the land by hunting and gathering fruit from the forests. Others raise cattle for sale. In Assam the Gond works in tea plantations. There are also some professionals, teachers, doctors, administrators, businessmen and politicians.
The literacy levels of the Gond are below average. They are becoming more amenable to family planning and use both modern as well as local herbal remedies. Unfortunately, they have not taken advantage of the official development schemes that the government has provided for them.
Their social divisions are based on groupings of two or more clans who claim descent from a common patriarchal ancestor, either mythological or real. They do not marry from within their clan. The Gond marries among cousins and polygamy is socially acceptable. Marriages are arranged for them either as adults or children. A partner may also be acquired by mutual exchange (two families give brides to each other in marriage), by working to obtain a partner, or by forcing themselves into the home of their intended partner. This is a custom where a prospective bride intrudes on the household of an unmarried man who she fancies and stays on even if she is unwelcome, abused and refused food and shelter. After some time, she is accepted as a member of the family. Running away to get married and simply by gaining possession of a mate by capturing them is not unusual. A vermilion mark is the marital symbol for married women. Bride-price in cash and goods is paid to the bride’s father. The practice of dowry is less common but is becoming popular among some groups.
Families live as smaller unit with parents and children and also in extended families with other relatives. Gond society is male dominated and the sons inherit parental property equally. The eldest son succeeds to the late father’s authority in addition to receiving extra land and kitchen ware.
The Gond folk tradition is rich in art and craft and they are very fond of music and dance. Both men and women sing and dance to the energetic sound of instruments like the dholak, a double-sided drum. The Pardhan tribe is the official narrators of traditional folk stories for this community. They tattoo their bodies with stars, scorpions, flower, bird and animal patterns. The walls of their homes are painted with scenes inspired by nature – animals, birds, people and trees. These are drawn in red and black on a white background. They make colorful floor designs called rangoli and beautiful pottery, baskets and other crafts. Woodcarving is another talent.
Each subgroup of the Gond tribe is governed by a council known as the panchayat. The primary purpose of these councils is to maintain peace and harmony in their villages and to safeguard and uphold Gond customs.
Some social reform movements appear from time to time, encouraging the Gond to protect the uniqueness of their traditional Gond culture and customs. There are those that believe that the religion of the Gond is different from mainline Hinduism and have called on people to continue to eat beef (which is not permitted to a Hindu) to prove that they are different.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The majority are Hindu. Some are animists, who believe that things in nature – trees, mountains, and the sky, have souls or consciousness and that a supernatural force animates the universe. They believe that their gods inhabit the forest. Ancestor worship is an integral part of their religion. Village gods are worshipped by the villagers as a group and a priest conducts the rites. Idols of gods are often spear shaped, made of iron and are smeared with vermillion powder and kept at a special place called Deo-Khulla, the threshing floor of the gods. The Gond people were known to offer human sacrifices, especially to the goddesses Kali, Danteshwari and Bara Deo. This practice was abolished by the British in the late19th century but ritual animal sacrifices are still preformed.