The Gonds are a Dravidian tribe (very closely related to my own linguistic community, the Telugus) of Central India. Both belong to the South Central branch. The word tribe can mislead readers. For it may sound as if the Telugus have a state (two states in fact – Telangana and Andhra Pradesh) and a history of their own while the Gonds are no more than a ‘primitive’ group. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The lopsided focus of historians and nation states on the written word and classical languages obscures the achievements of ethnic groups whose past and culture are preserved in marginal oral traditions.
The Gonds are one of the largest tribes of South Asia. There might be as many 10 million Gonds in India. Their language, Gondi, along with Telugu, Konda, Kuvi, Kui, Manda and Pengo forms a distinct group within Dravidian. Some linguists hold that Gondi subsumes multiple languages within its fold. During the 13th and 14th centuries CE, Gonds emerged as a major force in the region known as Gondwana (covering most of present day Central India). They cleared forests, established kingdoms, and built great cities, forts and shrines. Gond principalities like Garha-Mandla, Chanda, Deogarh, Kherla and Nagpur were prosperous enough to attract the attention of medieval historians and adventurers.
The Sultanates of Delhi, Malwa and Deccan were the first to cast an envious glance on their fortunes. The biggest challenge would come in the form of the Mughals who made deep inroads into Gond territory. Their armies made light work of Gond resistance, using a combination of firepower and tactical ability that saw them conquer the rest of South Asia without much ado. It was the Maratha commanders (once loyal to the Mughal Emperors) who dealt the final, fatal blow. They devastated Gond kingdoms, extinguishing them by the 18th century. By the time India freed itself of British rule, the glories of Gondwana had been all but forgotten. It was no more than a vast wilderness inhabited by exotic tribes.
The reason for Gonds being in the news are the results of a study carried out by Estonian (of the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu) and Indian geneticists (of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and Osmania University, both in Hyderabad), and published in the European Journal of Human Genetics. It found their genetic ancestry to be closer to that of neighbouring Munda speakers than other Dravidian populations. This has interesting implications:
- Like the North Dravidian Kurukh (Oraon) and Malto (Paharia), the South Central Dravidian communities have a history of substantial inter-mixture with Austroasiatic groups.
- Parts of Central and South India that are now dominated by Dravidian speakers were once inhabited by Munda tribes (that switched to Dravidian speech).
- The process of language shift that drove the expansion of Indo-Aryan in the North also benefited Dravidian in the South. Munda tribes picked up Dravidian speech, customs and beliefs (mixing them with their own) to give rise to a new ethnic groups.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Muria youngster in traditional attire. It was uploaded by Yves. The Muria are a tribe living in the Central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Closely related to the Gonds, their physical features resemble those of the Munda speakers.