Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:4 June-July-Aug 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


G.V. Natarajan, Ph.D.


Once upon a time, Bastar was a feudatory state in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Geographically speaking, it is the third largest district in India. Ethnically and linguistically, the district of Bastar is one of the most interesting and most complex areas of India. It is a junction of two of the largest linguistic families of India, Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. The so-called tribal languages of Gondi, Parji, Dorli, Dandami Maria, Abujh Maria, Jhoria, Muria, Raj Gondi, Batri, and Halbi are spoken within this district, and all these languages play a very significant role in the communication patterns within the district. 53 percent of the Bastar population speaks Indo-Aryan and the rest ( nearly 47%) speaks Dravidian. There is also a language from the Munda family, Gadaba, spoken in the district. A wonderful balance, and a unique experiment and opportunity to study cross-linguistic communication patterns!


The tribal languages of Bastar may be divided into three basic groups: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, and Munda. Gadaba, the only Munda language spoken in the district, forms a group by itself. The second and the most important group includes the various dialects of Gondi and Parji (Dravidian languages). The third group consists of the Indo-Aryan languages, namely, Halbi and Bhatri. Gadaba is, unfortunately, in the process of extinction. The younger generation among the speakers of Gadaba have switched over to Hindi or Halbi for their day-to-day communication among themselves and for communication with people belonging to other ethnic groups in the district.

Gadaba is subjected to the growing influence and pressures from both the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages spoken in the district. The influence is felt not only in the lexicon of Gadaba, but also in its grammar.

The Dravidian languages of Bastar may be divided into two basic groups: Gondi group consisting of the languages/dialects of Dorli, Dandami, Maria, Abujh Maria, Muria, Jhoria, and Raj Gondi. The second group consists of Parji and its dialects.


Over two million people speak the dialects/languages of the Gondi group. Generally speaking, the dialects of this group are mutually intelligbible, although at least two contiguous dialects are mutually unintelligble.

The Gonds are not the sole inhabitants of the large area in which they are found now. They live in close symbiosis with the communities speaking Indo-Aryan, Munda, and other Dravidian languages. Some of the Gondi speakers live in easily accessible areas of the district, while others live in remote areas, very difficut to reach.

Gonds prefer to call themselves koitor.koi and koya are local variants. There are phonetic variations and changes and marked differences in pronunciation, accent, and inflection between the dialects/languages of Gondi group. Note, however, that these speech varieties exhibit a great unity and similarity in all the linguistic levels.

The Gondi linguistic train offers a fascinating journey! If one gets into the linguistic train in Dewas and moves through Nemar, then to Betul in the north of Madhya Pradesh through the Gond tracts of Nagpur and Wardha districts into Yeotmal, and Adilabad, and from there across into Chanda, and from Chanda tehsil into the Abhujmar Hills and down to the land of the Dandami or Bison-horn Maria, one feels the vibrant, subtle and continous smooth changes taking place in the speech varieties used. Dialects merge so subtly that it is almost not perceptible. I have felt a chill down my spine, a wonderful experience, and a great challenge when trying to specify where and when one dialect ended and the other began! An experience worth pursuing and enjoying! A wonder that matches the beauty of nature! It always raised the question in my heart why politicians are so concerned or pre-occupied with maintaining linguistic identities when the people themselves have worked out the beautiful processes of merger while retaining their distinctives!

Schiffman's comment (Schiffman 1981:105) that Gondi seems to be a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects, decreasing in mutual intelligibility with distance is indeed very apt. There are many such instances of linguistic communication patterns all over India: the Nilgiris, Manipur Hills, Naga Hills, Mizo Hills, Himachali areas, tracts in Gujarat, the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh-Tamilnadu-Kerala borders, etc. Unfortunately, our focus has been more on the distinctive identities of languages or dialects, and not on the wonderful mix of dialects and languages. Human ingenuity to overcome communication barriers should have been a major focus of Indian linguistics, but, instead, we have simply failed to study these unique and successful human experiments in the Indian subcontinent.


The dialects of Gondi spoken in Bastar district may be divided into two sub-branches:

  1. Southern Gondi: Dorli, Dandami Maria
  2. Northern Gondi: Abujhmaria, Muria, Raj Gondi.



The language spoken by the Dorla tribe is called Dorli. The Census of India 1961 estimated that the Dorlis formed 3.03% of the total population of Bastar. The Dorli speakers are multilingual. They know Halbi and Telugu as their second and third languages. What an interesting opportunity we have to study the internalization processes of two languages that belong to different language families with distinct phonology and grammar, etc. How do Dorlis deal with Telugu pronominal system, how do they manage the Indo-Aryan specific features of Halbi?

It seems that the Dorla region of Bastar is a cultural extension of Bison-horn Maria region. We find some common cultural features between the Dorlas and Bison-horn Marias. The use of Bison-horn head-dress by by the Dorla males during a dance is common among the Dorlas, Maria and also among the Koyas of adjoining parts of Andhra and Orissa. Dorlas also have long drums that are used by Bison-horn Marias. Both have the same system of dividing themselves into the same number of phratries and many clan names of the Bison-horn Marias under their respective phratries correspond to those of the Dorlas. The names of the clan gods of both the groups might have belonged originally to one socio-ethnic group. Elderly Dorlas call themselves Koyas and their speech as Koya ma:Ta.


The Maria tribe of Bastar falls into two main divisions, distinguished by many details of culture and tradition. These are the Hill Maria of the Abujhmar mountains and the Dandami Maria living to the south of the Indravati river. The Dandami Marias are distinguished from other triabal communities of Bastar by the splendid head dress they use for the community dances. They are also known as Bison-horn Marias, Kalpati Marias, Singh Marias, and TalaguDDa Marias. In the neighborhood of Jagdalpur, the Marias gradually lose their distinctiveness as they approach the town and merge with the southern Marias, who speak Halbi.


Abujhmarias live in Abujhmar hills that form a natural division in the district. "Abujh" means "unknown" and "ma:r" means "hills." "Abujhmaria" means, then, "people of unknown or little known hills." Some may speculate that it also means "people with no name from the hills."

There are marked differences between the tongues of Abujhmarias and Dandami Marias. These tongues are mutually unintelligbible. People use Halbi to communicate with the members of the other community. The speech inflections of the Abujhmarias are more similar to those of Muria, and Dandami Mzaria speech inflections are closer to those of Dorli speech.


The terms muria and maria are not Gondi words. Muria is formed from the word mur meaning "root." "Maria" means "man of wood."

The Murias of Bastar fall into three main groups: Jagdalpur Muria, Jhoria Muria, and Gotul Muria.

The Jagdalpur group is no more a "tribal" group. Through their contacts with the Halbi speakers both in Bastar and Oriya speakers in the district of Jeypore in Orissa. The members of the Jhoria group are probably the Hill Marias who are settled in the plains. The Gotul Murias have traditions that speak of their migration from Raipur.

The government officials in the Bastar district apply the term "Muria" not only to the three sections of Murias, but also to the Koyas, some sections of the Dorla Koyas, and to the more advanced Bison-horn Marias.


Raj Gondi is the speech of Raj Gond people group. This speech is influenced more by Chhatisgarhi than other Dravidian dialects of the dialects of the district. Almost every other Dravidian dialect of the district is influenced by Halbi. The areas occupied by the Raj Gonds were under the control of the rulers of Chhatisgarh before Indian became a free nation. There were 12,713 speakers in Bastar according to 1961 Census of India.


This group is spread out in three different states. Parji is spoken in Bastar region (31,700 speakers), Gada-Ollari is spoken in south-western Orissa (67,000 speakers), and Kolami-Naiki is used in the extreme south of Andhra (together about 68,000 speakers). Parjas call themselves Dhurwa and resent being called Parja. So, it is important for us to switch over to the namd they prefer to use. The Dhurwa speech ("Parji") is considerably mixed with Hindi forms. Yet it is unintelligible to Bison-horn Marias and Muria neighbors. People around Dhurwas consider the Dhurwa dialect a corrupt variaation of Gondi.


Bhatri and Halbi are the two tribal languages belonging to the Indo-Aryan family spoken in Bastar district.


Bhatri is confined to the northeast corner of Jagdalpur (the district headquarters of Bastar), Jeypore and Kalahandi in Orissa. Traditionally a section of Bhatri people believe that they came with the first Raja of the area from Warangal. However, the Bhatri living in Jeypore area claim that they came from Bastar and their Oriya dialect is called Bastari.


Halbi is the language of the tribe called Halaba who are found in large numbers in South Raipur and Bastar. Halabi is understood everywhere except in sparsely populated Abujhmar Hills, the river tracts of Godavari and Indravati rivers where Telugu is spoken.


Bastar is a junction of languages belonging to distinct language families. Telugu, Oriya, and Hindi come into contact with one another through their surrogates. Along the northern border of Bastar, Chhatisgarhi is spoken. The greater part of the district marks the western boundary of Oriya. Telugu is widely spoken inn south and south-west. In the western border there are communities who speak Marathi. Various Gondi dialects are spoken in the interior of the district. East of Jagadalpur, we also find a few Gadaba villages, where the Munda language, Gadaba, is spoken. Halbi, however, is the dominant means of communication. Halbi is an Ind-Aryan language.

There are strong historical reasons that helped Halbi become the dominant language of communication in the district. Halabas at one time were the body guards of Bastar kings. They were given special land grants in 1213 A.D. (Shukla 1982:79). The tribe was virtually ruling the Bastar kingdom for some years. They also served as soldiers in the armies of Bastar kings and their position was considerably more prestigious than that of other people groups of the region. Halabi-speaking population has steadily increased over the decades and this is attested by the census reports for a century.

The future of Halabi as a distinct written and even spoken language is irretrievably linked with the spread of standard Hindi. With literacy rates picking up, Halabi is bound to be given only the status of a local dialect, spoken but not written. It is possible that in the next hundred years Halabi may lose its ground to standard Hindi, and will become only an ethnic identity marker. The speed with which it spread among the speakers of other dialects in the district is rather arrested now.

There are four major ethnic groups in Bastar, namely, the so-called tribals, the Oriya speakers, the Marathi speakers and the Hindi (Chhatisgarhi) speakers. Within their own families and with the members of their own ethnic groups, members of each ethnic group use their own vernaculars. But it is important to recognize that the speakers of any one dialect may be able to speak several (at least three, sometimes four) languages at any given time! They switch from one dialect or language as the need arises. It is the need factor that determines what dialect is chosen to be used in the particular context. The "need" needs to be investigated in depth. The question to be raised is why people do not care to maintain their identity mainly through the use of their own dialects. Communicative convenience is accepted as the prime factor. We need to investigate the role of power/status/solidarity, etc., in the choice and use of dialects in communication contexts. I have noticed that between Hindi and Halbi, people tend to use Halbi when they are not sure of the identity of the business man.

Halbi, the dominant language of communication in Bastar, is viewed differently by different scholars. For some, it is a dialect of Chhatisgarhi (Glueford 1863); for Grierson (1905) it is a dialect of Marathi; Guide and Zograph (1982:71) considered it a transitional form between Marathi and Chhatisgarhi. To whatever language it may belong to, Halbi is an Indo-Aryan language, by all means. It is the principal agent of communication for various ethnic groups of Bastar. It will continue to be so among the less educated and illieterates of the region even when Hindi takes over its place.


What do we learn, or what do we refuse to learn from Bastar? One of the poorest and most exploited regions of India, does Bastar have anything to teach us? Linguistic and ethnic identities can take a back seat in certain circumstances. There is a battle being waged by certain types of languages or dialects for their very existence. But people are not aware of it, or they are aware of it and let things go as they are. They have the sensitivity to adjust themselves to the new situations. For them, linguistic identity is not an important issue, because their privileges enshrined in the Constitution of India are dependent mostly upon ethnic or caste identities. If language were to be the basis for the privileges, then linguistic identity will be considered as a serious issue. It is possible that the electoral politics may give some lease of life to the role of linguistic identities in due course.

The brightest part of Bastar is the ease with which the integration of speech forms has been accomplished. However, we have failed to study in depth these processes of communication. I believe that the processes now found in Bastar mirror the processes that helped the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages to evolve a more or less common over-all syntactic structures. The dominant subject-object-verb and various other common syntactic structures we find in both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian, and to some extent in Munda languages, were all achieved through processes similar to the ones we find in Bastar. There is a lot we need to learn from Bastar.


  1. Dube, B.K. and Bahadur F. 1967. A Study of Tribal People and Tribal Areas of M.P.. Bhopal: Tribal Research Institute.
  2. Glusford, C.L.R. 1863. Papers Relating to the Dependency of Bastar. Calcutta.
  3. Grierson, 1906. Linguistics Survey of India, Vol. VII. Calcutta.
  4. Grigson, W.V. 1938. The Muria Gonds of Bastar. London: Oxford University Press.
  5. Guide, A., and Zograph, G.A. 1982. Languages of South Asia. London.
  6. Natarajan, G.V. 1985. Abujhmaria Grammar. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages.
  7. Shukla, Hiralal. 1982. Janabhasha and Sahitya, (Tribal Languages and Culture). Delhi.
  8. Shapiro, Michael C., and Schiffman, H.F. 1981. Language and Society in South Asia, Vol. I.Columbia: South Asia Books.

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