Gulal, paan, elopment: The tribal way to Tinder in Madhya Pradesh

Among Madhya Pradesh’s Bhil and Bhilala communities, the eight days leading up to Holi has weekly haats transforming into match-making fairs called Bhagoria where men and women pick prospective partners.

Tribals perform to traditional songs during Bhagoria celebrations, in Jhabua Madhya Pradesh.
The Bhil and Bhilala communities in the predominantly tribal districts of Jhabua, Dhar and west Nimar in Madhya Pradesh use a traditional version of Tinder, arguably the world’s most popular app for meeting new people, during the eight days leading up to Holi.
Weekly haats, or rural markets, transform into match-making fairs called Bhagoria in the run-up to Holi, when men choose a prospective partner by applying gulal, or red powder, on her face. If the woman likes him, she smears his face red too; if she doesn’t, she wipes off the colour and both move on.
Partnerships are sealed with the couple eating paan, after which they elope for a few days. When the families find them missing, they go to the tribal (jati) panchayats, or village councils, which traditionally have the final say in marriage, land and criminal disputes. The panchayats fix a price for the bride, and the man and the woman wed.
With a population of 4,618,068 according to Census 2011, the Bhils and Bilalas are Madhya Pradesh’s largest tribe, closely followed by Gonds, with a population of 4,357,918.
The excitement at the Bhagoria fair in Thandla town in Jhabua district on Tuesday (February 27) was palpable. Vasha Wasunia and Medha Nayak, both 18, are part of a group of six young women who, dressed in identical skirts, stoles, plastic hair-clips and silver jewellery, are being trailed by groups of young men in identical fake aviator glasses.
“We dress alike so people know which village we’re from. My sister got married at Bhagoria two years ago, I may meet someone I like this year,” said Wasunia, whose Class 9 exams begin next week.
“If we don’t, there’s always next year,” said Nayak.
“Holi is the biggest festival among the Bhils and Bhilalas, who for generations have celebrated the end of the harvest with their extended family and friends from other villages at the haat, which became an opportunity to choose a partner from the larger community,” said Soubhagya Ranjan Padhi, professor and head of tribal studies at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in Amarkantak town in the Anuppur district in Madhya Pradesh.
“Many of the marriages are pre-fixed now, but some people still follow the tradition and do the gulal ceremony at Bhagoria,” he said.
Women and women in the Bhil and Bhilala communities share equal status and women traditionally have a say in who they marry, said Gayatri Parihar, director, Vasudha Vikas Sansthan, a Dhar-based non-government organization that works on child health, education and natural-resource management in the region.
“Men still pay a bride price (bapa) for their wife, which can run into a few lakhs now,” Parihar added.
The BJP legislator for the Thanda constituency, bordering Gujarat and Rajasthan, insists the elopement part of the ceremony is a myth.
“The festival takes its name from Bhagor village in Jhabua and has nothing to do with elopement. People just come here to meet, to shop for holi,” said Kal Singh Bhabar, the BJP MLA from Thandla, who got tribal dancers and a deejay to lead the Bhagoria celebrations in his constituency.
Weekly haats draw a few hundred people, and the crowd may go up to 20,000 during Bhagoria ceremonies, said a policeman in Thandla, who did not want to be named.
“Everyone is out to celebrate and there’s never any trouble, not even pick-pocketing. We are here just to ensure no one gets hurt in the drinking and dancing,” said the policeman.
Resources : Hindustan Times


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