Bhil Religion

Analysis of the 1931 Census of India by Thomas Callan Hodson 
William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology 
Fellow, St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge 
Published by the Manager of Publications, Delhi 
Printed by the Manager, Government of India Press, New Delhi, 1937

Chapter 156. Bhil Religion

The Bhils cremate their dead. They bury young babies whose teeth have not yet appeared, lepers and persons dying of small-pox and suicides. All these are buried in the sleeping position. An ascetic is buried in the sitting position. The corpse is always carried so as to lie north and south, the feet pointing to the south. On coming to a ber tree the corpse is set down, and all the persons present take up stones with which a heap is made. A piece of cloth is then torn off the dead man’s garment and thrown over the tree. The earthen vessel with water to wash the corpse is broken under this tree on the heap of stones. The body is burnt together with the man’s bow, club, etc., and in the case of the woman some favourite ornament. The unconsumed bones are collected and placed in an earthen vessel and buried next the house. The deceased is provided with food and drink on the 3rd day, the provisions being placed under the ber tree where the corpse rested. The stones heaped up there are scattered. The Bhils have ideas about the future of the soul. The flour round the lamp is examined and by the shape of the marks it is determined what animal the spirit will next inhabit. If it is like a human footprint, a man is his next abode; if like a hoof, a horned animal: if like a bird’s foot, a bird; if like a scorpion or snake, one of those animals. Yama comes from the south and carried the soul to the north. On the way the soul passes over a thorn strewn plain. Hence shoes are given as gifts on the day of the funeral feast. He then passes between two heated pillars and encounters a bhatyari – keeper of a cook-shop – who offers him cooked food. He then reaches a river. A cow is given as a gift. It is supposed to appear providentially and by treading on its tail the departed gets across; otherwise he is nearly drowned. Yama then determines which of the three hells – kunds or tanks – he is to enter – one being full of nectar, the others of varying degrees of foulness, until he is born again. Those who die a violent death become inimical spirits – bhut –, so do Badwas – medicine men – while others become Khatris who cannot harni human beings but only animals, and others Deos who are beneficent spirits. A sinner is believed to be transformed into an insect. When a man is killed in a fight or by a wild animal away from his home, a stone monument is erected at the spot where he died. A man on horseback is generally carved on the stone. If stone is unavailable wooden monuments are erected. With some Bhils there is an upright stone monument about 3½ feet high with a carved figure of the dead person. In front of it are two wooden posts, 4½ feet high, with a bar across. Suspended from this bar is a small wooden swing. This is followed by two small wooden posts, 2 feet high and finally there is a small stone slab about 1 foot high and 9 inches broad. The soul of the departed perches on the swing and enjoys itself. On the smaller wooden posts a cross bar is placed on which food and offerings are left for the departed. In times of distress the spirit is involved and it is believed that a childless woman will be blessed with progeny by offering prayers at the monument. Brahmans are not as a rule employed for religious or ceremonial purposes. The Badwa, or medicine man, evokes spirits and tells them the result. On such occasions the Badwa is supposed to be possessed and goes through a performance consisting of various contortions of the body and rapid movements of the head, the eyes roll in their sockets, the nostrils are distended and in the excitement the few rags are thrown off. He then half incoherently blabbers out what the spirit has told him, calms down and for a time is as helpless as a child, doubtless owing to his exertions. A form of casting out an epidemic is to sling some baskets that have contained corn, and earthen water pots, on a bamboo pole carried by men who run along the main road shouting todka, todka. On hearing the shouts, the next village sends out men to take over the burden at the boundary. Eventually it is thrown into a stream or river or is deposited in the forest. The Bhils have great reverence for hilltops difficult of ascent as being the abode of spirits who must be propitiated during sickness or to obtain offspring. In such cases, after the usual offering the forest is often set alight. Belief in magic is universal. Should any one fall sick without clear cause, the Badwa is called in to discover the origin of the illness. With care he can usually discover some wretched old beldame who lives in the sick man’s village. The witch would be placed on one end of a yoke with cow-dung cakes on the other end in a pond; if she sank, she was a witch; if she swam, she was innocent. Red pepper would be put in her eyes; if no tears came she was a witch. Sometimes a few grains of jowar mixed with a copper coin are passed round the sick man’s body and sent to the Badwa, who places over them a leaf of the Butea frondosa and floats the collection on water. He then picks out the grains and slowly drops them into the water, saying bhut, dea dakini (witch) successively. When a grain floats, he is able to determine which of these evil influences is at work. Trial by ordeal is common. Some of the forms employed were the swallowing of live coals in the hand, piercing the palm of the hand with an arrow, eating poisonous herbs or fruits, etc. Certain oaths are inviolable. One is that of the dog. A Bhil swears with his hand on a dog’s head calling out that the curse of the dog should fall on him if he swears 67 / 82