Echoes of Tradition: Unveiling Jhabua’s Tribal Tapestry

In the heart of Jhabua’s rugged terrain, where the echoes of ancient values linger, the Bhil community stands as a resilient guardian of traditions. Shri Mahesh Sharma’s enigmatic words beckon us to explore a realm untouched by invasion, a bastion where cultural continuity thrives. Journey through this tapestry of tribal wisdom, where traditions weave a story of resilience, adaptation, and profound interconnectedness. As we unravel the layers of Jhabua’s cultural landscape, we discover how seemingly simple rituals hold intricate, thoughtful, and enduring effects on society, inviting us into a spiritual expedition of awe and enlightenment.

Kumar Harsh
10 min readNov 15, 2023

Whispers from the Vindhya: Jhabua’s Resilient Landscape

“If you wish to see Bharat before the invasion and colonisation, visit Jhabua, see the youth and the community of Jhabua,” sharing his insights with college students, declared Shri Mahesh Sharma, a Padma Shri awardee, capturing the essence of a land where ancient values thrive in an intangible yet original form. As these words linger in the air, an intriguing question emerges: What is it about Jhabua that sustains the ancient principles of Parmartha, fostering youths adorned with natural and dauntless pride? How has this community, facing a thousand years of existential struggle, managed to keep the traditions of passing on experiential knowledge unbroken, akin to the very foundation of the Vedas?

Our journey into Jhabua, a tribal sub-urban district perched on the border of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, begins. With over 87% tribal population, the region is a cultural tapestry, simultaneously vibrant and grappling with the challenge of securing basic amenities. The hilly terrains of the Vindhya Range, once lush and green, now bear the scars of British-era exploitation, with barren, dusty hills struggling to capture the fleeting rain. However, in the rainy season, the transformation of Jhabua into a verdant haven near the Alirajpur-end paints a picture reminiscent of a serene hill station.

Left — A naturalscape from Jhabua, Right — An Ai generated imagination of Bhils in Ramayana period

This is the home of the Bhils, a community claiming an unbroken history dating back to the pre-Ramayana period, according to scholars like Vedveer Arya. With mentions in ancient texts like Ayodhyakanda, Aranyakanda, and Kishkindhakanda, the Bhils have been an integral part of the historical narrative, including the famous interaction between Rama and Shabari, an elderly Bhil woman.

The Bhils’ resilience extends beyond the pages of history, as they have fought valiantly against invading forces such as the Mughals and British.

Amidst the panoramic view of Bhil traditions, the lingering question remains: How has this community endured the test of time and countless human and non-human interventions? The answer, hidden in the folds of their traditions, unfolds a narrative that transcends centuries.

Traditions Unveiled: Bhil Culture in Vibrant Technicolor

In the heart of Jhabua’s tribal expanse, the Bhil community weaves a tapestry of traditions that extends far beyond the ordinary. These traditions, deeply rooted in responding to the multifaceted dimensions of individual and collective living, paint a vivid picture of a society intricately connected to its surroundings.

Let’s embark on a journey into the vibrant traditions of tribal Jhabua, where each custom is a response to the community’s intricate needs:

Halma: When individuals or families find themselves entangled in an insurmountable problem, they invoke Halma. A call that resonates through the hills, summoning community members to come to the rescue selflessly. This tradition isn’t confined to individual woes; it extends to resolving broader societal challenges like water crises and environmental degradation.

Halma tradition — Thousands of Bhils come together to serve mother earth.

Matavan: In every village of Jhabua, a sacred forest, known as Matavan, stands as a testament to the community’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Villagers safeguard, preserve, and enrich this forest, refraining from taking anything for personal use. Matavan holds more than ecological significance; it is integral to every ritual and auspicious occasion, home to the village deity Babi Mata or Baba Dev.


Nawayi: A beautiful expression of gratitude to mother nature, Nawayi involves offering the first crop of the season to the deities. During this time, not a single villager indulges in the fresh crops; a silent pledge upheld even by the youngest, guided by their elders. The timing of Nawayi, in September and October, is determined collectively based on the readiness of the crops.

Nawai festival

Jatar: The auspicious celebration of Jatar precedes Nawayi, a gathering of elders, the traditional village head (Badhawa), and respected community members to decide the celebratory date. Families cook outdoors, emptying their grain stores to welcome the new harvest, creating a festive atmosphere resonating with shared joy.

Salawani: At Gundara, a communal space in the village, the villagers convene for Salawani, a forum to discuss the pains and problems afflicting society. This assembly, held 2–3 times a year, addresses issues ranging from weather forecasts by the Badhwa to responding to emergencies like Covid-19. As the sun sets, folklores echo through the hills, recounting tales of Jahma Mata, Shiva-Parvati & Ganesh, Samudra-Manthan, and the great flood, seeking forgiveness from ancestors and deities for any transgressions.

As the night unfolds, a Kalash, touched by every villager, adorned with leaves symbolizing the discussed pains and problems, journeys to the village’s distant border. There it stands, an offering to the unseen forces, carrying the hopes and aspirations of a community deeply entwined with its traditions and environment.

Fading Echoes: The Struggle of Jhabua’s Tribal Traditions

In the face of the myriad disruptions that have swept through the Indian subcontinent, the Bhil community of Jhabua has stood as a resilient guardian of traditions. While much of the wider civilization witnessed the gradual erosion and extinction of its cultural heritage, the tribal traditions endured, remaining steadfast in their values and practices. However, as we delve into the cultural landscape of the Bhils, we also encounter the scars and challenges that have led to the fading away of traditions and the dilution of values over the course of a millennium.

Migration, a painful reality for a substantial population of India, casts a shadow over the tribal people of Jhabua. Faced with critical water and forest conditions, farmers find themselves constrained to cultivate only a single crop annually, an insufficient yield to cover even the interest on the debt burdening every family in Jhabua. The consequence is a devastating migration, with every tribal family compelled to seek employment as daily-wage laborers in the cities. Men, women, and even children as young as ten become part of this exodus. The youth, who should be the torchbearers of their community’s culture and traditions, find their formative years spent amidst the harsh realities of mines and construction sites.

This forced migration robs them of the crucial period when they should be imbibing the customs, culture, and history from their elders. Instead, the youth, trapped in the concrete jungles, grapple with blows to their self-esteem, fostering an inferiority complex towards their culture, village, and people. The slow death of alienation from their roots becomes their fate. Hundreds succumb to the perils of hazardous work environments, buried under stone slabs or subjected to fatal shocks. Families crumble, with young lives extinguished. The plight of girls and women, subjected to coercion, abduction, or murder, unfolds as an unspeakable tragedy, their disappearances leaving families in perpetual anguish.

Children, robbed of the innocence of playing in the dust of their villages, find their formative years tainted by the harsh realities of urban life. Rather than absorbing life values from their elders, they are exposed to abuses and cries amidst the concrete and sand. Dreams, hopes, and childish aspirations wither away, never to sparkle again.

The toll of migration extends beyond the psychological realm, manifesting in the gradual deterioration of the community’s health and the introduction of diseases previously unknown to the villagers. Living a substandard life on roadsides and drains, a generation grows malnourished. The combined effect is a gradual erosion of communities, traditions, festivals, virtues, life values, and fundamental knowledge. People lose their identity, and like a tree whose roots have been severed, their once-thriving culture begins to dry up.

Villages lose their identity, becoming mere shells devoid of soul, pride, or distinctive character. Migration is not just claiming lives; it is killing communities and their cultures, transforming vibrant villages into desolate entities with no sense of purpose or identity. It is a journey towards a future-less world, where aspirations and hope for life slowly wither away, leaving behind only the haunting echoes of what once was.

Roots of Resilience: Tribal Traditions as a Living Heritage

In contrast to mainstream society, which increasingly relies on formal institutions and educational systems for the transmission of societal values, tribal communities, particularly the Bhils of Jhabua, have taken a distinct path in preserving their cultural legacy. They don’t seek the immortality of their traditions in written words; instead, they find meaning and vitality in the active, living practice of these traditions within their communities. To them, the true essence of their customs lies not in static documentation but in dynamic engagement, responding and adapting to the evolving social context.

These tribal traditions serve as a resilient armor against adversities, whether natural or human-induced. What sets them apart is their ingenious integration with contemporary problem-solving approaches. As we delve deeper into these practices, it becomes evident that these traditions are not mere rituals; they are a wellspring of social capital, nurturing the essential human capital that underpins the successful execution of any plan, regardless of its urgency or importance.

Beyond their practical utility, the traditions within tribal cultures play a dual role. They not only provide a timeless connection to the past, fostering intergenerational continuity, but also act as a dynamic force that ensures the preservation and evolution of a unique way of life. The Bhils, in particular, have adeptly wielded their traditions as a guiding force in navigating the complexities of the modern world.

Construcution of reservoirs through Halma.

Amidst the shadows of fading traditions, the Bhil community’s cultural legacy in Jhabua emerges as a phoenix from the ashes. These traditions, seemingly on the brink of oblivion, persist in the passive psyche of the community. A subtle spark, a call to Halma, or a pilgrimage to Matavan, and the dormant traditions blaze to life. The resilience of these customs lies in their ability to withstand the tests of time, patiently waiting for the right moment to rekindle.

In this revival, the Bhils of Jhabua have not merely resurrected traditions; they have ignited a transformation. Today, the contours of Jhabua bear witness to a remarkable demonstration of Sanatan traditions in their most genuine essence. The Bhils, through the revitalization of practices like Halma and Matavan, have orchestrated the construction of over 100 reservoirs and 2.2 lakh+ contour trenches. This monumental effort conserves a staggering over 1000 crore liters of water annually. Simultaneously, the revival of Matavan in 150+ villages has facilitated the planting of over 5 lakh trees, breathing life back into the arid landscapes.

In the hands of the Bhil youths, abuzz with native wisdom, a social movement has taken root in Jhabua. Their leadership, deeply rooted in the cultural wisdom passed down through generations, has become a beacon of hope. The traditions, once brushed aside by the tide of modernity, now stand as the pillars of a sustainable future, offering not just a revival of the past but a blueprint for harmonizing tradition with contemporary challenges. The story of Jhabua is no longer one of fading echoes; it is a resounding testament to the enduring power of tribal traditions.

Journey Continues: the Spiritual Layers of Jhabua

As we continue our exploration into the cultural landscape of Jhabua, it becomes akin to a spiritual journey. Much like peeling back layers of an ancient manuscript, each revelation leaves us in awe. Simple-looking rituals and traditions, on closer inspection, reveal themselves as intricate, thoughtful, and possessing profound, long-term effects on society. The Bhils of Jhabua, through their customs and practices, invite us to unravel the depth of their cultural heritage and recognize the wisdom embedded in their seemingly modest rituals. There’s a promise of more profound insights as we venture further into this spiritual journey, discovering how the roots of tradition shape not only the present but also hold the potential to influence the future.

Bonus photos

Nautre, Art, Culture and Festivities.

[The photos are self-taken or borrowed from Jhabua Anchal facebook page]



Kumar Harsh

Mostly from experience - of tribal Jhabua, and the struggle of learning 'selfless passionate dedication for people'.