Introduction / History
Over thousands of years, India has become the home of a countless number of ethnic groups, many of which have maintained their own distinctive cultures. There are 14 major national languages in India, plus hundreds of other languages spoken throughout the country. The complex Hindu caste system has further divided the people into an endless number of social classes, occupational groups, and scheduled tribes.
The scheduled tribes account for more than 30 million Indians, and include large groups such as the Bhil, the Gond, and the Santal (all of which have been profiled separately). However, there are also many smaller scheduled tribes that can be distinguished by their social systems, marriage customs, languages, religions, and to some degree, their isolation. Unlike the surrounding peoples, each of the scheduled tribes forms its own socially distinct community. These tribes, which were also known as the "untouchables," form the lowest Hindu caste. Because they are very underdeveloped, the Indian government has attempted to bring them into the mainstream of political and economic life. In 1949, "untouchability" was outlawed and the tribes were "scheduled" for special treatment.
What are their lives like?
While many of the scheduled tribes live in specific regions of India, others are widespread throughout the nation. Many live in secluded areas. While most of them work as farmers, there are still a few tribes that survive by hunting and gathering. Generally, the scheduled tribes are engaged in one of the following areas: hunting and gathering food from the forests, crop rotation, settled agriculture, hired agricultural labor, livestock production, household industries, and miscellaneous occupations.
The tribes who practice crop rotation usually live near the plot of land they are cultivating. They clear the land by burning off its vegetation. Primitive tools are used to prepare the ground, then the crops are planted. After the crops have been harvested, a new plot is chosen for the next crop. Grains and fruit are the principal crops. When necessary, their diet is supplemented by forest produce. Others earn extra income by hiring themselves out as farm laborers. A few of the tribes are still semi-nomadic, migrating three or four times a year to hunt and trap small animals.
Most of the scheduled tribes live in small communities, often with a very weak structure of leadership. The basic unit of the tribal society is the family. One key aspect of their communities is the marriage customs. Most of these tribes are endogamous, which means that they only marry within their own social groups. The young people are free to choose their own marriage partners, although many still seek parental advice. A few of the tribes still require the payment of a bride price to the girl's family. Sometimes, it is very costly, involving a great amount of work and sacrifice on the part of the groom's family to accumulate enough funds.
The clan is next to the family in terms of importance. A clan is composed of several families who are the descendants of a common ancestor. When economic assistance is needed or when a death occurs, all of the members of the clan join together to help the family in need. Many clans often work together as a single unit to make the best use of their farm land and family property.
Many of the tribal societies have cultures that are rich in art, music, and dance. Their artistic tastes find expression in the way they decorate their homes, in the clothes they weave and wear, and in the simple ornaments they use to decorate their bodies. Tattooing is very popular, and many of the tribesmen wear few clothes so that the body designs may be seen. In their music, the notes tend to be of limited range. Their tribal dances have only a few movements that are repeated for hours at a time. There are no special singers or dancers; instead, every man, woman, and child participates in the singing and dancing.
What are their beliefs?
Many of the scheduled tribes have been heavily influenced by their more powerful Hindu neighbors. As a result, they have given up a number of their traditional customs and now imitate many Hindu customs, particularly those of the Brahmins (highest caste of Hindu priests and scholars). Although some remnants of their ethnic religions are evident, the tribes are primarily considered Hindu.
What are their needs?
A few of the smaller tribes have no Christian resources available in their languages. Some of the larger tribes are the focus of missions agencies; however, a determined effort needs to be made to reach those groups that remain isolated.
All of these tribal communities need practical help, especially in the areas of agriculture, education, and health care. Medical supplies and qualified doctors and nurses are severely lacking in the remote areas. Christian ministries that reach out to these tribes must be sensitive to their physical as well as spiritual needs. Perhaps Christian teachers and medical teams will have opportunities to show these precious people the love of Jesus in practical ways.
* Ask the Lord of the Harvest to thrust forth laborers into India to share the love of Jesus with each of the scheduled tribes.
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the spiritual soil of India through worship and intercession.
* Pray that the small number of tribal believers will begin to share the Gospel with their own people.
* Pray for the salvation of key tribal leaders who will boldly declare the Gospel.