All tribals love jewellery which is fashioned from glass beads and
cowry sea shells. They wear silver
bangles and thick silver anklets.
Some people think of Adivasis as “janglees”, wild and primitive people from the jungles. Others picture them as leading an idyllic existence away from the cares of civilisation. They can be resented as uneducated people who take opportunities away from educated people. They appear in the news when they resist the building of dams or mining projects; but what are they really like? What does it mean to be an Adivasi? Literally meaning ‘original inhabitant’.
First of all there are all sorts of different kinds of Adivasis, belonging to a wide range of communities in far-flung parts of India and away from the mainland too. To give a suitable reply would involve understanding how each type of community functions, how they think of themselves and how their ways of life are suited to their territories. It would mean looking at their beliefs, at what matters to them, how they survive and how they pass on their knowledge; also at the ways different communities interact and the sorts of contact they have with others, both now and in the past. Many interact regularly with outsiders in order to trade with them or to earn wages but at the opposite extreme are the Jarawas in the Andaman Islands who until recently were totally isolated and self-sufficient, though they are now in danger of disease and disruption through contact with settlers; another tribe, the Great Andamanese, having already been almost completely wiped out by disease.
Adivasis are groups of people who have maintained ancient ways of life, often living in remote areas where they were protected from outside influences, by mountains or forests, or by both of these. Their ancestors withstood the ideas and customs of more powerful communities, including Hindu beliefs, by retreating into these inaccessible areas.