The Bhils, India’s second largest tribal community, live in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Here, we look at the Bhils of Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh and Choti Undri and Badi Undri near Udaipur in Rajasthan, focusing on the Bhil artists who tell their story through paintings.
Some of the Bhils trace their ancestry to Eklavya, who was more skilled as an archer than Arjuna, the hero of Mahabharata. Some scholars have said that Valmiki, who chronicled the Ramayana was actually a Bhil, Valia.
About the term Bhil, there is much speculation. While some scholars think it is the Dravidian word for “bow”, others say it is derived from the Tamil word bhilawar or “bowman”. Since “bow” was used by other tribal communities, “Bhil” was adopted as a generic term, which failed to take note of the subtle differences between each tribal community and the beauty of their plural world. Even between the Bhils of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, there are differences in their deities, songs, dances and stories. Both communities erect pillars in memory of their ancestors, but have different names for them. Where in Madhya Pradesh, the memory pillars are called gatlas – in Rajasthan pillars honouring men are cheera and those of the women are known as matlok.