What is Tribe? With Reference to Tribes in India


Tribal population or tribe is found in almost all parts of the world. India has the second largest tribal population in the world, the first being Africa. The tribal population lives in relative isolation in hilly forests or well demarcated areas marked with distinct culture, language, religion and strong ethic identity. Tribals are known to be autochthonous people of land who were the earliest settlers in the Indian Peninsula. In India tribals are often referred as adivasis (original inhabitants). In the contemporary world, they are considered to be socio-economically backward.


The term “tribe” originated around the time of the Greek city-states and the early formation of the Roman Empire. Though the word ‘tribe’ was derived from the Latin term “tribus”, it has since been transformed to mean “a group of persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word “tribe” is generally used for a “socially cohesive unit, associated with a territory, the members of which regard themselves as politically autonomous” (Mitchell, 1979). With the upsurge of nationalism in Europe, the term ‘tribe’ was used to denote a particular stage in the socio-political fruition of a community of people speaking a certain language within a specified territory. Clan, tribe and nation came to denote in European phraseology successive stages in the liberal march towards nationhood (Ray, Nihar Ranjan: 1972).

The Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1911, defines a tribe as a “collection of families bearing a common name, speaking a common dialect, occupying or professing to occupy a common territory and is not usually endogamous though originally it might have been so”. For Romans, the tribe was a political division. The Dictionary of Anthropology mentions tribe as a social group, usually with a definite area, dialect, cultural homogeneity and unifying social organization. The tribes in India differ from one another depending upon the region, language, customs, culture, religion, racial traits and so on. Often a tribe possesses a distinct dialect and distinct cultural traits. In the West, as also in India, the word tribe initially had a totally different connotation than what is prevalent now (Verma, R.C:1990).

Lewis H. Morgan in his book “Ancient Society” (1877) defines tribe as a completely organised society where all forms of social relation are dominated by kinship. For Morgan, tribal society is organised in such a way that their form of social organisation is capable of reproducing itself. A tribe, according to him, is a collection of a number of clans who have distinct nomenclature, separate language, distinct political organisation and a territory under their own possession (Lewis H. Morgan: 1877).

E.E. Evans-Pritchard in his work “African Political Systems” (1940) writes on Nuers of Southern Sudan. Nuers have a common name, common language, common culture and they are divided into distinct political units. To him Nuers have their specific political system which makes them different from other tribes. Evans-Pritchard is against using the idea of segmentary system to define tribes because the term “tribe” cannot be interchanged with segmentary system (E.E. Evans Pritchard and Meyer Fortes: 1940).

According to Marshall Shalins, a tribe is a segmental organisation which is composed of equivalent and unspecialized multi-family group, clan or band. A collection of bands has a chiefdom to coordinate its economic, social and religious activities. He makes distinction between state and non-state society. Non-state societies are divided into band, tribe and chiefdom (Marshal D. Sahlins: 1968).

Ralph Linton says, “In its simplest form the tribe is a group of people occupying a contiguous territory or territories and having a feeling of unity deriving from numerous similarities in culture, frequent contacts and a certain community of interests”. To Lucy Mair, “a tribe is an independent political division of a population with a common culture” (1972).

Features of Tribes

Tribes are relatively isolated from larger cultural influences, have a rela­tive cultural homogeneity and a simple technology. They believe in spirits, magic and witchcraft. They have their own taboos which prohibit certain actions that are punishable by the community, by the supernatu­ral, or by magical consequences. Large number of the tribes believe in animism, according to which all objects – both animate and inanimate – are permanently or temporarily inhabited by spirits or souls. Some major features of tribes are:

Rigid Kinship System: Each Tribe has a distinct name of its own through which it is distinguished from others. The believe themselves to be linked to a common ancestor.

Distinct Geographic Territory: Tribes generally occupy common geographical areas, which are isolated from other groups of the society.

Common Language: Members of one tribe speak the same language. Each tribe has its own language or dialect.

Unique Culture: Each tribe has prescribed patterns of behaviour and festivals and deities to worship.

Rigid Marriage Rules: Each tribe has the practice of marrying members within their own tribe. However, there are subgroups within a tribe and each tribe has fixed rules regarding in which groups one should marry and which ones are forbidden.

Political Organisation: All tribes have their own political organisation. They have councils of elders which control members.

Tribes in India

In India tribes constitute a significant proportion of its population. Ancient Indian literature like Veda, Purana, Ramayana and Mahabharata highlight nature and features of tribal social formation in India. According to such mythological texts, in ancient India tribes were given names such as Nishada, Kirata, Dasyu and Dasa. Ramayan mentions that non-Aryans or aboriginal tribes were mainly inhabitants of Deccan region of India. They are called Rakshasa, Yaksa, Vanara, Nishada and Grdhraj (Prakash Chandra Mehta. 2006).

In ancient India during the rule of Hindu kings, tribes were isolated from the mainland. They were not in contact with the mainstream society. Rulers hardly felt the necessity to contact tribes living in forests and hills. However some tribes accepted Hinduism. In medieval India during the rule of Mughals and Pathans, there was little done to understand and accommodate tribes. There was little contact between tribes and non-tribes during the medieval period, let alone evolve a policy towards them. But that period witnessed growth of Gonds and Rajputs in central India who flourished as martial races and occupied position of warriors in caste hierarchy. The Mughal and other Muslim rulers used to patronize warrior castes and employed their chieftains in high positions in civil and military administration (K.N. Dash: 2004).

In India the concept of tribe is complex. Every tribe upholds its distinct culture, dialect and economic pursuits in their own ecological setting. A few tribes still remain unknown, isolated and alienated, while some others have undergone mobility and change. Tribes in various parts of India, including tribes in Northeast, until recently remained isolated from the mainland (Sukant K. Chaudhury and Saumendra Mohan Patnaik: 2008). During the British period, Indian tribes became an object of study of the colonial administrator, missionary and anthropologist. Hutton, Risley, Elwin, and others studied tribes to understand social structure and culture of Indian society in general and of tribes in particular. F.G Bailey and W.H.R. Rivers too became interested to study tribes in India (Andre Beteille: 2008). From 1930 to 1950 British scholars and administrators undertook studies in order to know the tribal people of India whom they wanted to bring under their control.

After independence, from 1950 to early 1970 many Indian academicians contributed to the field of tribal study in India. Tribes such as Gond, Bhil, Munda, Oraon, Ho, Naga, Khasi, Mizo and Andaman Islanders became well known subjects of tribal study. A colourful mosaic of tribal culture with exotic custom and ritual, magic and religion, apparel and adornment, song and dance continuously attracts scholars of various disciplines (Vidyarthi, L.P. and B.K. Rai: 1976). In this context we can put the names of several eminent Indian scholars like S.C. Roy, Nirmanl Kumar Bose, D.N. Majumdar, Surajit Sinha, T.C. Das, P.K. Chattopadyay, B.K. Roy-Burman, P.N. Mishra, L.K.A. Iyer, G.S. Ghurye, S.C. Dube, L. P. Vidyarthi, Aiyappan, M.N. Srinivas, A.R. Desai and Andre Beteille, who studied Indian tribes with immense interest (Vidyarthi, L.P: 1978).

D. N. Majumdar conducted a comprehensive study among Khasa and brought out characteristics of tribal-Hindu continuum. He says the tribe looks upon Hindu rituals as foreign and extra-religious even though indulging in them and worshipping gods and goddesses where as among caste individuals these are necessary part of religion. Caste individuals generally pursue their own specific occupation because socio-economic functions are divided and assigned to various castes under the caste system. According to Majumdar, a tribe is a social group with territorial affiliation, endogamous, with no specialization of functions, ruled by tribal officers, hereditary or otherwise, united in language or dialect, recognizing social distance with other tribes or castes without attaching any social obloquy to them (unlike in the caste structure), following tribal traditions, beliefs and customs, illiberal of naturalization of ideas from alien sources, above all conscious of homogeneity of ethnic and territorial integration (Majumdar, D. N :1937).

While studying ‘Kondh’ and ‘Oriya’ political system, F.G Bailey saw tribe and caste as continuum. He seeks to make distinction not in terms of totality of behaviour but in a more limited way in relation to political economic system. He suggested, “We view caste and tribe as the opposite ends of a single line. At different points along the line particular societies may be located according to their proximity to either the organic caste model or segmentary tribal model.”

Demographic Distribution of Tribes in India

Tribes are found in all parts of India, except the states of Punjab and Haryana and the Union Territory of Chandigarh, Delhi and Puducherry. The Anthropological Survey of India under the ‘People of India Project’ identified 4,635 communities in India, of which 461 communities were of the scheduled tribes. The Government of India, in its Draft of the National Tribal Policy for Scheduled Tribes, which came for the first time in February 2004, identified 698 tribal communities in India. The second version of the Draft was circulated in July Concept of Tribe 2006 which noted that there were more than 700 tribes in India.

The Census of India held in 2011 counted the number of scheduled tribes (both ‘major tribes’ and their ‘sub-tribes’) to be 705. As can be noted from the increasing number of tribal communities, with the passage of time more and more communities are being added to the list of the scheduled tribes. According to the Census of 2011 the population of scheduled tribes in India was 10,42,81,034 persons, constituting 8.6 per cent of the population of the country. From 2001 to 2011, as per census of the respective years, their population has increased from 8.2 per cent to 8.6 per cent of India’s population (Srivastava V. K: 2015). The decadal population growth of the tribals from Census 2001 to 2011 has been 23.66 per cent against the 17.69 per cent population growth of the entire population. The sex ratio for the overall population is 940 females per 1,000 males and that of scheduled tribes is 990 females per 1,000 males. The population of scheduled tribes has seen an increasing trend since Census 1961. In the 1961 census the number of scheduled tribe communities increased to 427, twice the number from the previous census. This increased to 432 by the 1971 census.

In India, the geographical distribution of tribal population is not uniform. Everywhere they have adapted to the local ways of living, thus cultural differences are quite visible within the same community. Bhils form the largest tribal group in India, followed by Gonds, Santhals, and Meenas.

Major Tribes in India

Considering the widespread distribution of tribes all over the country it is necessary to group them into broad geographical regions. On the basis of ecology, it is possible to group them into five distinct regions namely, Himalayan region (with tribes like the Gaddi, the Jaunsari, the Naga etc.), Middle India (with tribes like the Munda, the Santal etc.), Western India (with tribes like the Bhil, the Grasia), South Indian Region (with tribes like the Toda, the Chenchu etc,) and the Islands Region (with tribes like the Onge in Bay of Bengal, the Minicoyans in Arabian Sea).

The largest concentrations of scheduled tribe population are found in the eastern, central and western belt covering the following nine states: Madhya Pradesh (14.69%), Maharashtra (10.08%), Orissa (9.2%), Rajasthan (8.86%), Gujarat (8.55%) Jharkhand (8.29%), Chhattisgarh (7.5%) Andhra Pradesh (5.7%) and West Bengal.

About 12% inhabit the North-eastern region, 5% the Southern region and 3% the Northern states. The state with the highest proportion of scheduled tribes is Mizoram (94.5 per cent) and the union territory with the highest proportion of scheduled tribes is Lakshadweep (94.8 per cent). Except the states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, and the union territories of Chandigarh and Puducherry, tribals inhabit all parts of the county. In India their number and other demographic features vary from one state to another. The largest number of tribal communities (62) is in the state of Orissa (Census 2011).

Most indigenous tribes in India are found in geographically isolated locations in forests, plateaus or hills and very few of them live in plains. Most of them still live by hunting, gathering, fishing, performing shifting cultivation or settled cultivation, and are pastoralists, artisans and labourers etc. They speak mostly Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Mongoloid languages and marry within their restricted local groups. They are guided by their tribal leaders or chieftains. They have socio-cultural institutions and try their best to retain their own beliefs and customs. Belief in supernatural power, magic, sorcery and witchcraft are an integral part of tribal socio-cultural life (Ramesh Thapar: 1996).


  1. https://tribal.nic.in/ST/LatestListofScheduledtribes.pdf
  2. More on Sociology

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top