Love and elopement in the heart of tribal Madhya Pradesh

March 17th, 2011 - 10:57 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party Jhabua, March 17 (IANS) Holi, the festival of colour and abandon, takes on a different hue in Madhya Pradesh’s tribal area of Jhabua. The annual festival, held in the week preceding Holi, involves tribal youngsters exchanging sweet glances during community dances and deciding to do ‘bhagoria’, leaving their parents to work out the marriage details!

Bhagoria literally means to run away. And that’s what young tribal men and women do in Jhabua district, some 300 km from state capital Bhopal.

If a boy finds a girl attractive during the traditional dances or at the carnival or market place, he approaches her and applies ‘gulaal’ (coloured powder) on her face.

If the girl consents, they agree to a ritual elopement - essentially a signal to their parents to start negotiating their marriage.

The boy presents an arrow (signifying enmity) and a blouse (signifying marriage) to the girl’s family. If the blouse is returned, the families meet to finalise the wedding.

But this is the tamer version of the festival. Earlier, the couple would actually elope and stay together for several days, before returning home.

“The ritual is several thousand years old, since the existence of Bhil tribals. These days the boys and girls don’t actually elope, but the festival is nevertheless celebrated with great enthusiasm,” Bhopal-based historian Dhruv Shukal told IANS.

This year’s festival began March 13 and will go on till Holi eve March 19.

In view of the cultural significance of the tribal festival, the state government has supported Bhagoria fairs since 2008.

“During the festival, we do not interfere as it may spoil their tradition. But after the festival, we hold mass marriages under the Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Scheme for the couples,” District Collector Shobhit Jain told IANS.

“The one thing we do during the festival is to hold dance competitions. Tribals are very good dancers and to encourage them, we distribute awards among the top performers,” he said.

Another state government official said: “In olden days, the Bhagoria festival was also the place for settling old disputes. Open invitations were sent to enemies to fight in the fair. These fights were quite common, but now police and administration do not allow people to go to the festival armed.”

Hindu right-wing groups, known for assuming the role of a moral police throughout the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Madhya Pradesh, too do not interfere with the tribal ritual.

Outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch are instead busy distributing their literature at the festival among Bhil, Bhilala and Patiliya tribals who form the bulk of Jhabuas’s 1.45 million-strong population.

RSS leaders, including spokesman Ram Madhav, frequently visit the district and claim that Vanvasis (forest dwellers) are very much part of the “Hindu cultural canopy”.

Whether non-tribal men and women who fall in love too form a part of the “canopy” is, of course, a different question.

(Shahnawaz Akhtar can be contacted at

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