Magazine 2013
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
Children Of The Hills: Environmental  
Consciousness In The Folk-Literature  
Of The Dungari Bhils  
Rupalee Burke  
The environment is no mere environment, that is, no mere inanimate, encompassing  
thing, or backdrop. The essential nature of human beings in the world unites us with  
other beings.  
Martin Heidegger  
An attempt is made in this paper to examine, from the ecocritical perspective, the environmental  
consciousness of the Dungari Bhils of Khedbrahma taluka as reflected in their folk-literature which is in  
the Bhili dialect and comprises folk-epics, folk-narratives and folk-songs. Thus, the paper is located at  
the intersection of literature, culture and environment. The life and folk-literature of the Dungari Bhils  
makes for an interesting case of human ecology as Malik and Bhattacharya point out, “At the very basis  
of it man is a complex animal with culture. Hence, it is urgent to synthesize biology and culture, if any  
attempt is to be made to study human ecology.” (Malik, v) Environmental conservation is an intrinsic part  
of the socio-cultural ethos of the Dungari Bhils. As a corollary their natural habitat nestling among the  
foothills is held sacred by them because of their socio-religio-cultural beliefs.  
The paper is divided into two parts for convenience in discussion. The first part contains a discussion  
of the prehistoric as well as contemporary religious beliefs as well as cultural and economic practices of  
the Dungari Bhils which are responsible for their eco-centricism which amounts to deep ecology because  
they recognize the intrinsic value in nature. The first section also takes into consideration endangering  
forces in the present scenario resulting from the anthropocentric worldview which perceives nature in  
terms of its instrumental value (symbolized by the technosphere) which is anti-ecologically privileged  
over its intrinsic value (symbolized by the biosphere). The folk-literature of the Dungari Bhils discussed in  
the second part of the paper foregrounds their environmental consciousness as reflected in it.  
Keywords - Ecocritical Perspective, Folk-Literature, Culture, Natural Habitat.  
Bhils are one of the twenty-nine notified tribes of Gujarat also known as adivasi (aboriginals) or vanvasi  
forest dwellers). In Gujarat, they can be found in eleven districts, viz. Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Panchmahal,  
Dahod, Vadodara, Kheda, Bharuch, Surat, Navsari, Valsad and Dang. According to the 2001 census their  
population is 3.4 lakhs which constitutes 46% of the total Scheduled Tribes population of the State.  
The Dungari Bhils (Dungari in Gujarati means ‘living in hilly regions’), one of the thirteen clans (viz. Bhil,  
Bhil-Garasia, Dholi-Bhil, Dungari Bhil, Dungari Garasia, Mewasi Bhil, Rawal Bhil, Tadvi Bhil, Bhagalia, Bhil,  
Bhilala, Pawra, Vasava and Vasave), live in scattered settlements mainly at the foot-hills of the pre-historic  
Aravalli mountain ranges (more ancient than the Himalayas) in belts known as Poshina-patta, Lambadiya-patta,  
Delwada-patta and Khedva-patta prominently in Khedbrahma taluka of Sabarkantha district besides in areas of  
Danta taluka in Banaskantha district and Kotda-Chavni taluka of Udaipur district in Rajasthan.  
Dungari Bhils in (Khedva, Poshina, Chandrana, Bahediya, Digthali, Sebaliya, Sandhusi, Jhanjhava-Panai,  
Panchmahuda, Panthal, Navamota, Malvas villages) Khedbrahma taluka have lived for over centuries in the lap  
of the hills surrounded by valleys and rivers such as the Sabarmati, Sei, Aakal, Vikal, Kosambi and Harnav to  
sustain them. Mapping the trajectory of their religio-cultural, socio-economic life proves that they are deeply  
attached to their natural surroundings. Being environmentally sensitive their religious and socio-cultural practices  
stem from an ingrained ethics of care. We may say that the Dungari Bhils ‘live the environment’ and further still  
to play on Catherine’s words in Wuthering Heights, ‘they are the environment and the environment is them’.  
Their psyche is imbued with sensitivity towards environment. They are environmentally sensitized to the extent  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
that it pains them to pluck even a leaf and when they do they apologize to the tree or recite a shloka to ask  
forgiveness of Mother Earth for causing her pain when they first strike her with a spade to collect virgin mud for  
religious rituals. The eco-centricism of the Dungari Bhils expands to become bio-centricism which sustains  
moral claims about the intrinsic value of the natural world’. This in turn affects their ‘attitudes and behavior  
towards nature’ as is discussed below:  
Religious Beliefs: Nature is sacred to the Dungari Bhils and this is amply displayed through their devotion  
towards the elements. The religious system of the Dungari Bhils is ‘shamanistic’ and ‘primal’ Their  
Pantheism coupled with native animism is combined with totemic worship. Their totems are mainly various  
trees like the banyan, peepal, tamarind and bili. Foremost among them is the Peepal-rakhi (Peepal rishi). Over  
the centuries the Dungari Bhils have awarded the status of a sage to the peepal tree. Holi is the chief festival of  
the Dungari Bhils and the celebration culminates in the worship of the peepal tree. Moreover, they believe that  
when one dies the departed soul first goes to the Peepal-rakhi. The banyan tree is the abode of superrnatural  
forces both good and evil. The Dungari Bhils believe that their nine lakh goddesses reside in the leaves of the  
banyan tree. Their bhuvas/bhopas (witch-doctors/shamans) imprison dakan (witches) in the trunk of the peepal  
tree. Jam (Lord Yama) resides in the tamarind tree. The bili tree is the abode of Mahadev and its leaves are  
offered to one of their deites named Devra no Thakore. Their shrines are mostly megalithic and are erected  
under trees in the fields, village outskirts, near hills and in forests. Dungari Bhils therefore do not venture to cut  
these trees for fear of inviting the wrath of good and evil supernatural entities or even other trees because they  
are sustained by them. For them it would mean killing the hen laying golden eggs. Wild flowers including akda  
and bili leaves along with seasonal agricultural produce such as maize, wheat and rice are commonly offered  
to deities. Among reptiles, animals and aquatic creatures held sacred by the Dungari Bhils are snakes, cows,  
antelopes, deer, fishes, turtles, etc. Snake worship and animal worship is at the centre of their nature worship.  
The roots of their veneration of animals lie in their religious myths which are discussed in Section II of this paper.  
On Holi they have the theriomorphic ceremony of veh in which they wear masks of various animals and perform  
in a natural amphitheatre at the foothill.  
The Dungari Bhils are a shamanistic society and most of their chief deities reside in the underworld  
Deviyawala (the abode of the gods) so their connection with the Earth is much deeper than the merely ecological  
level. Water is a sage and along with peepal rakhi originates from the underworld. The Earth is looked upon as  
mother’ and the mountains are looked upon as ‘father’. When they distill alcohol from mahuda flowers they  
offer the first drops to jameen mata (mother earth). Einder (Indra) symbolizes actual rain. Holi celebration  
involves fire worship. Certain spirits reside in stones. In an ‘idol digging’ ceremony to replace the broken idol of  
Devra na Thakore with a new one, a stone that is unearthed is installed as the idol. Natural stones are installed  
as idols of various deites such as Jogmai, Angasi and Dhapsa at the foot of trees near a hill. Their religious  
celebrations follow the cycle of seasons according to the Hindu calendar beginning in the month of Maha and  
ending in Posh. The first sighting of the moon is celebrated with the Ugman ceremony in the month of Aso. A  
tall, green bamboo is selected from the woods and used as nejo (dhaja) in Nortu (Navratri). Most noteworthy is  
their indigeneous ceremony of Lilvan (worship of vegetation) on the day of Diwaso in the month of Asadh. At  
the shrine of Khera ni Devi they offer rice cooked in milk to the deity and sprinkle milk on the surrounding  
vegetation. Then they collect, cook and eat wild leaves such as Kubo, Dhembro, Hati, Saragvo and Fang.  
Dhula no Pat is a ceremony to commemorate the creation of the Earth. In most of their religious ceremonies  
Prasad is eaten at sunrise, the auspicious moment. On Dhanteras, they worship their pashudhan (animal wealth)  
i.e. their cows and set them free to graze in the wild. The ceremony of Narvan (vartaro) entails predicting rain by  
observing grain sprouts and colour, size and direction of clouds. On Diwali they worship the Salor cow (myth  
discussed in Section II) for three days.  
Socio-cultural Ethos: ‘Earth care’ is the cornerstone of the life of Dungari Bhils based on ecological  
beliefs and value systems. They are deeply attached to their surroundings and have tremendous respect for it.  
To begin with, their kholras (huts) are made of locally available natural resources (stone, mud, wood,etc.) and  
they decorate their walls with motifs of animals, the sun, moon, hunting activity, etc painted with natural dyes.  
Handmade cane baskets are used to keep poultry, store grains, as cradles, etc. Majority of their utensils are  
made of wood or mud. Till late they used to produce fire by rubbing ikad or arni and bor wood together. Now  
they collect dry wood from the wild or use dungcakes. Their farming depends on rain fed irrigation and natural  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
water bodies. They carve the trunk of the date palm. Khazuras (date palm) and mahuda trees growing wild and  
in abundance are their ‘kamdhenu’.  
Every part of these trees is used in daily life. Their marriage and religious feasts take place under the  
canopies of trees. They adorn themselves with beautiful seasonal flowers for various celebrations. Bowers are  
places of rendezvous for the gothiya and gothiyan discussed in the second section. Local trees like vad,  
kanjo, umbro, shimlo, baheda, sal, palash, bor, ambo, jambu, vas, etc. provide food and fodder. Twigs of  
limdo, khakra, vankla and baval trees are used for brushing teeth. Maize, their staple food, is their annadevi  
goddess of food).Apart from pulses, wheat, and a couple of vegetables which grow wild in monsoon they eat  
wild grains like veru, kuri, sei, mal, athroti, khaharfedu, roots and tubers and leaves of wild shrubs and monsoon  
creepers like nad, hatti, lambru, bokandu, dhembro and vev to name a few. They eat fruits and fresh mahuda  
flowers and dry them to fry and eat them when food is scarce. The women still wear flowers like hajari, marvo,  
kesuda, parpala,etc. in their hair and ears. They are mainly vegetarian and hunt only when food is scarce or eat  
meat only when an animal sacrifice is offered to a deity particularly in the harsh winter months to provide  
nutrition to their bodies, for they are very poor and hardly have warm clothes. Their knowledge of medicinal  
plants and natural remedies is phenomenal. They still cure kidney stone by consuming a stone obtained from  
the head of a fish called dok. Their indigenous wisdom entails use of natural resources and means for sustenance  
within their own cultural cosmos.  
Economic Behaviour: The Dungari Bhil economy is ‘need based’ and not ‘greed based’. Barter system  
was in place until recently. Even today, it is only matchsticks, tea, clothes, etc. that they need to buy. Initially  
food gatherers, they still procure many of their necessities naturally as discussed earlier. Most of their agricultural  
produce is for their own use. Community living is a striking feature of the Dungari Bhils. Much like Gandhiji’s  
idea of trusteeship fields are owned collectively by the joint family and males live with their family in separate  
houses built in the family owned field. Community rules prevent them from selling ancestral land. To a great  
extent they still do not have the profit motive in mind. In fact, they have a sense of belongingness for the entire  
landscape including the hills, valleys, rivers, forests, etc. Their life style is such that they do not need to hoard  
except grains from their fields. Their method of irrigation called haran is marvellous. They collectively dig a  
canal, sometimes upto seven kms long, from the water body at a height in a way that it reaches everyone’s  
field. A day is fixed for all the fields to be irrigated turn by turn. Even when they fish they use a ‘jhoko’, a cane  
basket and catch only as many fish as they need or better still they catch only the required fish with spears.  
The foregoing has shown that the life-pattern of the Dungari Bhils is nothing but the ‘return to nature’  
approach that ecologists and environmentalists are fiercely advocating these days. Doesn’t the stereotype of  
the ecological native reinforce the notion that he espouses balance and harmony between beings and their  
ecosphere? Deep ecology is a modern version of the prehistoric beliefs of the Dungari Bhils and the beliefs of  
all indigenous tribes across the globe. As Sessions observes:  
Deep ecology is concerned with encouraging an egalitarian attitude on the part of humans not  
only toward all members of the ecosphere, but even toward all identifiable entities or forms in the  
ecosphere. Thus, this attitude is intended to extend, for example, to such entities (or forms) as  
rivers, landscapes, and even species and social systems considered in their own right. (Garrard,  
Whereas the eco-centric belief system of the Dungari Bhils shares with deep ecology its ethical and  
spiritual orientation; a sense of oneness with it, modern man divorced from the ecosphere lords over it and  
exploits it. It is here that 21 century technologically and economically driven anthropocentric advancements  
are at odds with the former. It is the former which is the more desirable in the face of the present age of  
environmental concerns.  
However, the situation is reversing and the life of the Dungari Bhils is changing fast and in many  
respects for the worse. The invasion of ‘civilization’ on the ‘primitive’ is leading to the dualistic separation of  
humans from nature and has begun paving the way for environmental crisis. Technology has invaded their lives  
in the form of television sets installed in villages by the government as part of their tribal development projects.  
Their traditional songs and dances are increasingly being replaced by film songs. They have started eating in  
lodges while travelling. Denudation of forest cover, disappearance of wildlife, construction of roads, migration  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
for labour and education is bringing them in contact of the outer world and they are being influenced by non-  
tribal way of life not to mention the social and environmental injustices meted out to them either in the name of  
reform or oppression. Their indigenous way of life is fast vanishing. Their traditional wisdom and folk-literature  
is in danger of being eroded as the new generation isn’t interested in carrying the tradition further. The educated  
ones feel ashamed of their cultural practices. Their money mindedness is resulting in the commodification of  
their folk-literature. The harm is not complete but the rot has set in as Bhagvandas Patel notes:  
This is a faint picture of the changing cultural life of the vanvasis in a fast changing  
world. However, this is not the case in all areas. The difference now is that one had to  
go only 10 to 15 kms from Khedbrahma and spend one night to be able to record  
two cassettes of gothiya’s songs. Now, one has to travel 45 to 50 kms and spend  
four days to get the work done. (Patel 2004, 24)(Translation mine)  
The above discussion foregrounds the dangers that rising capitalism in human society is posing to  
mankind in the present century. Divorced from a lifestyle which promotes an organic co-existence with Nature,  
natural resources are being exploited in the name of development and may result in ecocide. Explaining  
‘instrumental value’ of nature through Heidegger’s eco-philosophy Greg Garrard says:  
. . Worse still, things may emerge as mere resources on call for our use when required, so that a living forest  
may show up merely a ‘standing reserve’ of timber (Bestand), no longer trees even but lumber-in-waiting, and  
even the mighty Rhine may be disclosed as just a source of hydroelectric power. . . (Garrard, 31)  
The above discussion clearly indicates that the need of the hour is to be influenced by the adivasis and  
to adopt their way of life rather than the other way round. Their way of life is ‘supposed to provide the impetus  
or the example by which individuals come to an authentic selfhood oriented toward right environmental action’.  
The questions that arise in this context are ‘What would the outcome be if the Dungari Bhils were to turn away  
from their ‘earth-caring’ way of life to a life of progress and development in the urban sense? Is it desirable or  
healthy from society at large?  
We now turn to the folk literature of the Dungari Bhils which postulates the environmental consciousness  
that pervades their being. As Padgett explains, “Much oral storytelling conveys a religious sensibility that  
stresses ideals of reciprocity, wholeness and beauty and so expresses a deep sense of attachment between a  
people and the land they inhabit.” (Garrard, 126) The songs of the Dungari Bhils quoted later are concrete  
evidence of how they identify with their natural surroundings and vice versa; the Rohida bursts into flowers when  
the lovers sit under it, the boulders and trees mourn when they part. The ‘orature’ of the Dungari Bhils displays  
their environmental consciousness as is discussed in this section. It may be useful at this juncture to quote the  
following explanation about the folk-literature of the Dungari Bhils by Nila Shah and Persis Shah:  
. . most of these tales are recited or narrated during their religious occasions, which  
clearly indicate the Bhil’s inseparable association with the forests, rivers and oceans.  
Their oral narratives . . . reflect their close links with Nature. Evidently, the ancestors of  
the Bhils were keen observers of natural phenomenon and their world view is based  
on their experience of and encounter with Nature. And that explains why the elements  
of nature not only appear as characters in their oral narratives, but also behave as  
human beings and speak in the tongue of humans. The elements of nature, birds and  
animals as well as the homosapiens coexist peacefully and in harmony. (Patel 2009,  
Dharan na Mankhavtar (Myth of Creation) is the central myth of the Dungari Bhils. It describes the  
creation of the Earth in a painstaking way:  
There were no stones, no mountains, no sky, no moon, no sun, nor nine lakh  
stars. There was water as far as one could see. It was nine yojan deep. Only fishes,  
crocodiles and serpents resided in the water. Vasuki Nag reigned in the underworld.  
God was in the avatar of a worm in the seventh underworld. After twenty ages an  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
egg emerged from the seventh underworld and started circling on the surface of  
the water. For twenty ages there was a fierce competition between the wind and  
the water. After twenty ages the egg hatched and Jalukar Bhagwan was born out  
of it . . . Nectar spurted from Bhagwan’s mouth and Umiyadevi was born . . .  
Bhagwan said, “Beta go to the underworld and get the seeds of the Earth”. Umiya  
turned into a she-tortoise and went under water. . . .(Patel 1992, 1-2)(Translation  
The myth goes on to graphically describe how the trees and vegetation were created, how the cow was  
created, how the pillar of the Earth was made from the cow’s milk, how the earth was baked in fire into stones  
and mud, how god created the sun from his right eye and the moon from his left eye, how the tiger, etc. were  
In the myth of the Salor cow, Salor is the chief cow who resides in the underworld with nine lakh cows  
and Pareva ox. They began to face many difficulties so with the permission of Khamad (God) she came to the  
Earth. The Dungari Bhils believe that she came to the Earth on Diwali. God sent the sun and moon with her.  
Later we are told that the herd was given refuge by a Bhil and some of the cows were left out of the shed and  
they turned into antelope and deer and went into the forest. That is why the Bhils are fiercely protective about  
various species of deer and don’t hunt them or allow others either. The Bishnois of Rajasthan protect deer  
because of this myth.  
In Motichara ni Varta, the sun is angered and unleashes its fury in the form of a crore diseases in  
kaliyuga much to mankind’s distress. Is it global warming which is being hinted at we ask? The two passages,  
quoted in juxtaposition below, depicting contrasting apocalyptic situations of flood and drought appear in  
Rom-Sitma ni Varta (Pauranic Bhil Lokmahakavyo) are as if a premonition of climate change:  
Indra is absent for twelve years and there is a drought on the Earth. The waters  
recede to the underworld. There’s neither a stream by the hedge nor a trickle  
along the path. The granaries are empty. Women have forsaken their children.  
Calves have begun to die. The akda bears no fruit. The Earth has lost its fertility.  
Men have begun to die for want of food and water. (Patel  
Translation mine)  
Bhagwan and Shiv are on a round of the Earth. They see that the farmer’s daughter has sown grains in the field.  
The gardens of the Earth are emerald green. They stroll in kadlivan. The black cuckoo sings. The kurva trees  
have blossomed. Bees hover over the flowers. Crickets are heralding the monsoon. The Earth is at her beautiful  
best. Bhagwan tells Shiv, “Indra’s mouth is full of nectar. He greens the entire globe.” (Patel 2009, 47) (Translation  
and emphasis mine)  
Their songs of gothiya-gothiyan (lover-lass; adivasi communities permit pre-nuptial love) celebrate the beauty  
of nature and are expressive of their at-oneness with them:  
Roira nu sogu lalela kala mar jota jaiye la!  
Apu betha etan tu rohiro fuleno re!  
(Jani, 510)  
Beloved! Look how the Rohida bursts into flowers when we sit under it,  
How the blossom laden branch of the Rohida tree sways in the breeze,  
Oh! How the breeze teases it as we watch. (Translation mine)  
Boulders and trees mourn the parting of the lovers in another song:  
Dogra rohe, jala rohe,  
Mota mota rovraviya gothiya horo rejela.  
Our love blossomed amidst the boulders and trees,  
They too mourn as we part!  
(Jani, 510)  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
May you fare well gothiya!  
(Translation mine)  
Their Holi songs also celebrate Nature dressed in her best during Spring-time:  
Phuliya jhasi-jhavli re dolmani,  
Bhami ras leu re dolman  
(Patel 1999, 15)  
Flowers on plants are in full bloom,  
O let me wander and drink the nectar!  
(Translation mine)  
Scores of their other folk-stories and songs reflect the abundance of their love and reverence for Nature  
as well their attachment to it. However, for reasons endangering their indigenous ecological lifestyle listed  
earlier in the paper, ‘nature’ that we want to return to may cease to exist except in little of the folk-literature  
which gets documented to save it from getting lost. If we are aiming at environment conservation we will have  
to preserve and conserve the indigenousness of tribes like the Dungari Bhils around the world and their indigenous  
ecological wisdom as well. While it may not be possible for all to become environmental activists, small  
beginnings may be made at the personal level. Awareness mobilization plays an extremely crucial part in such  
endeavours. Apart from our moral responsibility towards environment as earth dwellers, we as academicians/  
scholars can make a valuable contribution as Oppermann et al. optimistically suggest, “It seems that as more  
literary scholars take up the moral defense of nature, the ecocritical field will catch fire and spread to all corners  
of the globe; the rising numbers of international scholars in the field – mastering its various methodologies and  
inhaling its spirit of activism – will contribute to new legislation and help launch a global conservation movement.”  
Oppermann, 7). While this may sound like a juggernaut task, it is equally true that we have no choice but take  
up the challenge and take it up before it is too late.  
We may derive by way of conclusion that (a) Nature holds a central place in the cultural imagination of  
the Dungari Bhils (b) There is an earth-centredness in their way of life (c) Their age-old environmental culture  
offers hope in an age of environmental degradation (d) Their strong will for authentic co-existence with Nature  
is worth emulating (e) Their environment friendliness is at the level of praxis i.e. their ways are tried and tested  
and not hypothetical (unlike deliberations/policies on environment which take place behind closed doors  
yielding little or no results) (f) It is up to each one of us to shake off our complacency or how-do-I-care attitude,  
take inspiration from communities like the Dungari Bhils and do our bit for Mother Earth.  
Garrard, Greg, Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.  
Jani, Balwant. Vanaswar. Gandhinagar, Sahitya Akademi, 2004. Print.  
Malik, S.L. and D.R. Bhattacharya, Aspects of Human Ecology. New Delhi: Northern Book Centre, 1986.  
Oppermann, Serpil, et al. The Future of Ecocriticism; New Horizons. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing,  
Patel, Bhagvandas. Dungari Bhil Adivasi. Himmatnagar, Taramati Patel, 1992. Print.  
Patel, Bhagvandas. Bhilo na Holi Geeto. Khedbrahma: Bhagvandas Patel, 1999. Print.  
Patel, Bhagvandas. Shodhsampada. Ahmedabad: Bhagvandas Patel, 2004. Print.  
Patel, Bhagvandas. Motichara ni Varta. Ahmedabad: Bhagvandas Patel, 2007. Print  
Patel, Bhagvandas. Bhil Lokakhyano. Mumbai: Nayan Suryanand Lok-Pratishthan, 2009. Print.  
Patel, Bhagvandas. Pauranic Bhil Lokmahakavyo. Ahmedabad: Bhagvandas Patel, 2009. Print.