How Did Tribal Groups Live? Tribal, Dikus and the Vision of a Golden Age

By the nineteenth century, tribal people in different parts of India were involved in a variety of activities.

Some were jhum cultivators

Some of them practiced jhum cultivation, that is, shifting cultivation. This was done on small patches of land, mostly in forests. The cultivators cut the treetops to allow sunlight to reach the ground and burnt the vegetation on the land to clear it for cultivation. They spread the ash from the firing, which contained potash, to fertilize the soil. They used the ax to cut trees and the hoe to scratch the soil in order to prepare it for cultivation.

They broadcast the seeds, that is, scattered the seeds on the field instead of plowing the land and sowing the seeds. Once the crop was ready and harvested, they moved to another field. A field that had been cultivated once was left fallow for several years.

Some were hunters and Gatherers

In many regions, tribals lived by hunting animals and gathering forest produce. They saw forests as essential for survival. The Khonds was such a community living in the forests of Orissa. They regularly went out on collective hunts and then divided the meat amongst themselves.

They ate fruits and roots collected from the forest and cooked food with the oil they extracted from the seeds of the saland mahua. They used many forest shrubs and herbs for medicinal purposes and sold forest produce in the local markets.

Some herded animals

Many tribal groups lived by herding and rearing animals. They were pastoralists who moved with their herds of cattle or sheep according to the seasons. When the grass in one place was exhausted, they moved to another area.

The Van Gujjars of the Punjab hills and the Labadis of Andhra Pradesh were cattle herders, the Gaddis of Kulu were shepherds, and the Bakarwals of Kashmir reared goats.

Some took to settled cultivation

Even before the nineteenth century, many from within the tribal groups had begun settling down, and cultivating their fields in one place year after year, instead of moving from place to place.

They began to use the plough, and gradually got rights over the land they lived on. In many cases, like the Mundas of Chottanagpur, the land belonged to the clan as a whole. All members of the clan were regarded as descendants of the original settlers, who had first cleared the land. Therefore, all of them had rights on the land.

Very often some people within the clan acquired more power than others, some became chiefs and others followers. Powerful men often rented out their land instead of cultivating it themselves.

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