Resilience of indigenous culture in the face of assimilatory processes and modernisation: Reflections on tribal identity in Bastar District – Chhattisgarh

Photo © Museum Rietberg >>

Excerpts from interviews on the occasion of a major exhibition in Museum Rietberg, Zürich (Switzerland), The Telegraph, Sunday , July 22, 2012

“The Bastar bronzes are usually considered handicrafts and not high art. But these bronzes have an aesthetic value and we wanted to present them as an artistic collection and enhance their stature,” says Johannes Beltz, curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Museum Rietberg. […]

“Things are changing so fast with the tribals dismantling the old mud huts where these bronzes were kept to make cement temples with cement figures. The aesthetic is changing and the whole ritual tradition is vanishing,” says Mallebrein, who has been doing field research on tribal traditions in India since 1989. […]

Mallebrein points out that each Bastar bronze is unique because of the casting technique and because each craftsman “brought his own vision and desires to the figure” unlike say, the Chola bronzes which followed an established model. “The earlier metal casters were even inspired by the sirhas [the human mediums of the gods] so the connection with the ritual comes through in the art. The bronzes and the rituals go hand- in-hand. You can’t understand them unless you go into the field,” she says.

Yet, modernisation is also causing an “identity crisis” among the tribals, and their “living tradition” is slowly moving to the realm of “folklore”, she says. Perhaps, the Street Parade of the Gods will help more people to understand the nature of that tradition.

Source: Tribal tryst
Address :
Date Visited: Wed Jan 28 2015 13:02:10 GMT+0100 (CET)

Book review by Nanditha Krishnan, The Hindu, Sunday, February 06, 2000

Bastar Folk Art – Shrines, Figurines And Memorials by Michel Postel and Zarine Cooper, Franco-Indian Research Private Limited, Mumbai : Franco-Indian Research, 1999. | Find this book in a library near you on >>

TRIBAL art is a spontaneous response to nature and natural events. Ritual plays a major role, yet it is closely linked to food security, health and survival. The lack of codified rules makes it colourful, vibrant and evocative, the natural expression of people. This has resulted in some of the most wonderful works of art. Bastar is one such region, and the book under review is a wonderful compendium of Bastar’s art heritage. […]

Bastar district in Madhya Pradesh has been described as a “melting pot of races” and, consequently, of cultures. The homeland of the Muria, Muria Gond, Hill Maria, Bison-horn Maria, Halba, Dhurwa, Bhatra and Dorla tribes, it differs from other tribal enclaves in that there were, concurrently, other diverse traditions from surrounding civilisations and those who ruled the area. For Bastar has a history as varied as that of the rest of India. It was a Buddhist enclave in the Fifth/ Sixth Centuries A.D., raided by the Eastern Chalukyas, Cholas, Western Chalukyas and Hoysalaas between A.D. 844 and 1150, and ruled by the Telugu Nagvansis from the 11th to the 14th Centuries. In A.D. 1323, Bastar was conquered by the Kakatiyas of Warangal and became the largest Hindu kingdom to have survived the next few centuries till its merger with the Indian Union in 1947. While the Gonds speak a Dravidian dialect, the lingua franca is Halbi, of Sanskrit origin, spoken by the Haliba, the descendants of the Maratha soldiers recruited from the area. The influence of the various dynasties is most apparent in the art of the region.

Unlike other tribes who lived in splendid isolation, those of the Bastar region had constant interaction with the ruling powers. […]

Most of the tribal shrines are situated either in the open or beneath a tree or below a simple shelter. […]

The objects of worship range from pillars and memorial stones to stylised sculptures of Devi or Shiva, or even the Buddha and Jaina Tirthankaras, now the recipients of tribal animal sacrifices. The popularity of snake stones in this region is probably due to the powerful Naga cult in the area and the rule of the Nagvanshis. The popular deities are forms of Kali and Devi, Bhangaram and his spouse, Mauli. There are apparently two assimilatory processes at work: the first is the identification of female deities with Durga, the second is the interpretation of existing Hindu, Buddhist and Jain deities as local tribal deities. Hero stones, sati stones, a table stone, wooden stump or elaborately carved figures of the goddess vie for positions of honour in the tribal temples which dot the Bastar landscape. The authors have frequently described some figures as “Hindu” and others as “tribal” traditions. Such a division seems arbitrary, although the difficulty in distinguishing the two, in view of the long and subtle interaction, has been acknowledged by the authors.

Source: The Hindu : When tribes co-exist with kingdoms
Address :
Date Visited: Wed Jan 28 2015 12:06:25 GMT+0100 (CET)

Excerpts from an interview with Niranjan Mahawar, 75, “a self-taught ethnologist of Chhattisgarh made famous in a series of interviews by the writer Dom Moraes, considered an authoritative voice on central Indian folk art, folklore, tribal myths and theatre”

Like this woman Tallur Muttai (shows a picture of a woman in bronze, embracing a child with her left hand and holding a stick with a funnel on top with her right). She, in tribal myth, lives in palmyra fruit trees. To the tribals, palmyra juice is the breast milk of Tallur Muttai. She, therefore, is the earth mother. But then there is the massive Hindu-isation of the tribal myth and the earth mother is made to sit on a tiger as Hindus prefer their goddesses on the tiger. I have a problem with this makeover. If the tribal gods are comfortable on the trees, let them be…why make them a Hindu? Besides, the market forces are also changing the artefacts.

So, in spite of the overlapping of the images of the icons, a tribal is in no way a Hindu?

P.N. Haksar, while heading a national committee on the tribals, once asked that. I said, tribals don’t believe in chatur-varna or the caste system that is the basis of Hindu society. Tribals lived with their native tradition and for over five thousand years refused to get dominated by Hindus. Hence they are not Hindus.

So, the difference with Hindus has been there for a long time?

Of course. In the Ramayana, you have the demon. Remember the woman, Tadoka, the demoness. The word Tar or palmyra is in her name too. I assume, she is the same Tallur Muthai and she, like other rakshas, got a snub-nose. The Gonds have a snub-nose. So while Ram represents the upper caste Hindus, the Aryans, Tadoka and her friends represent the tribal society, the Dravidians. This resistance against the outsiders was documented in modern times by the British gazetteers, anthropologists. They published how the locals resisted them. When the British tried to enter the region, one of the kings of the area, the Raja of Kanker, asked them to refrain. The kings, however, were small and while they also were outsiders, always avoided confrontation with the Bastar tribals.

You mean, Bastar almost always accepted the local rulers, but not the big imperialist forces?

Yes. They will not accept you easily. Even now, you would find tribals while talking among themselves would call you a ‘thug’ — a cheat. They don’t trust outsiders. Now, associate this thought with today’s mining. Bastar will resist mining and outsiders. […]

Source: “I have a problem with the makeover of tribal culture” by Suvojit Bagchi, The Hindu, 24 October 2012
Address :
Date Visited: Wed Jan 28 2015 12:27:12 GMT+0100 (CET)

“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Image © The Hindu for “The Adivasi in the mirror: The lynching of Madhu in Kerala must shock our conscience into recognising the dispossession of India’s tribals” by Nissim Mannathukkaren >>

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” | Learn more about India’s caste system and the effects of “casteism” on tribal communities >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta in “Are mega residential schools wiping out India’s Adivasi culture?” (The Hindu, 13 February 2021) | More about the role of tribal communities in preserving India’s biodiversity and ethnobotany >>

Bastar, the land of tribes and about 70% of the total population of Bastar comprises tribals, which is 26.76% of the total tribal population of Chhattisgarh. The major tribes of the Bastar region are the Gond, Abhuj Maria, Bhatra Bhatra are divided into Sub Cast San Bhatra ,Pit Bhatra, Amnit Bhatra Amnit Hold Highest Status, Halbaa, Dhurvaa, Muria and Bison Horn Maria. The Gonds of Bastar are one of the most famous tribes in India, known for their unique Ghotul system of marriages. Gonds are also the largest tribal group of central India in terms of population.The tribes of Bastar region are known for their unique and distinctive tribal culture and heritage in all over the world. Each tribal group in Bastar has their own distinct culture and enjoys their own unique traditional living styles. Each tribe has developed its own dialects and differs from each other in their costume, eating habits, customs, traditions and even worships different form of god and goddess.

Source: District-Bastar,Chhattishgarh
Date Visited: Sat Feb 11 2017 11:49:56 GMT+0100 (CET)

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

Bastar District is a district of the state of Chhattisgarh in central India. Jagdalpur is the district headquarters. The district has an area of 10755.79 km². Bastar District is bounded on the northwest by Rajnandgaon District, on the north by Kondagaon District, on the east by Nabarangpur and Koraput districts of Odisha state, on the south and southwest by Dantewada District, and on the west by Gadchiroli District of Maharashtra state.

Bastar and Dantewada districts were formerly part of the princely state of Bastar. Bastar state was a princely state in India during the British Raj. It was founded in the early 14th century,[1] by Annama Deva, the brother of Kakatiya king Pratapa Rudra Deva of Warangal (Telangana). After Indian independence in 1947, the princely states of Bastar and Kanker acceded to the Government of India, and were merged to form Bastar District of Madhya Pradesh state. The district, which had an area of 39,114 km², was one of the largest in India.

In 1999, the district was divided into the present-day districts of Bastar, Dantewada, and Kanker, and in 2012 it was divided in one more distrct named as Kondagaon which constitute Bastar Division. In 2000, Bastar was one of the 16 Madhya Pradesh districts that formed a part of the new state of Chhattisgarh. […]

Tribals of Bastar[8]

Bastar, the land of tribes and about 70% of the total population of Bastar comprises tribals, which is 26.76% of the total tribal population of Chhattisgarh. The major tribes of the Bastar region are the Gond, Abhuj Maria, Bhatra Bhatra are divided into Sub Cast San Bhatra, Pit Bhatra, Amnit Bhatra Amnit Hold Highest Status, Halbaa, Dhurvaa, Muria and Bison Horn Maria. The Gonds of Bastar are one of the most famous tribes in India, known for their unique Ghotul system of marriages. Gonds are also the largest tribal group of central India in terms of population. […]

Each tribal group in Bastar has their own distinct culture and enjoys their own unique traditional living styles. […]

A large number of Bastar tribals are still living in deep forests and avoid mixing with outsiders in order to protect their own unique culture. The tribes of Bastar are also known for their colorful festivals and arts and crafts. The Bastar Dussehra is the most famous festival of the region. The tribals of Bastar were also amongst the earliest to work with metal and have expertise in making beautiful figurines of tribal gods, votive animals, oil lamps, carts and animals. […]

Arts and Crafts

An area where Handicraft is most widely practiced in Bastar is Kondagaon. Many products are made from such art such as vessels, jewellery and the images of the local deities and some decorative. The method of preparation of the products is quite simple and also called as the lost wax technique that happens to be perfect for the tribal settings. […]

The Dhokra and Bell Metal Handicraft can be found all over the world but the way in which the artisans of Chhattisgarh carve the things by the impression of their sheer dexterity is worth watching. Some of the handicraft items are so appealing that the tourists take them back as souvenirs.

Source: Bastar district – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Address :
Date Visited: Wed Jan 28 2015 11:48:07 GMT+0100 (CET)

For more information, type “bastar tribe“, “Kanker tribals”, “lost wax tribe” or similar search terms in the search window here:


Search for an item in libraries near you: >>

Related posts

Tips for using interactive maps

  1. toggle to normal view (from reader view) should the interactive map not be displayed by your tablet, smartphone or pc browser
  2. for details and hyperlinks click on the rectangular button (left on the map’s header)
  3. scroll and click on one of the markers for information of special interest
  4. explore India’s tribal cultural heritage with the help of another interactive map >>

About website administrator

Secretary of the foundation
This entry was posted in Anthropology, Bastar, Central region – Central Zonal Council, Colonial policies, Crafts and visual arts, Customs, De- and re-tribalisation, Economy and development, Figures, census and other statistics, Gadchiroli, History, Literature and bibliographies, Misconceptions, Modernity, Names and communities, Photos and slideshows, Press snippets, Quotes, Tiger, Worship and rituals and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.