Dronacharya and Arjun, the ‘guru-shishya’ duo from Indian epic Mahabharata, occupy a special place in the hearts of masses. But not for Bheels and Bhilalas in Madhya Pradesh who revere Eklavya – the archer prodigy immortalised for cutting off his right hand’s thumb as ‘guru dakshina’ to Dronacharya.
In tribal dominated Alirajpur district, Bheel and Bhilala archers never use their thumbs while shooting a bow and arrow as a mark of respect towards their ancestor Eklavya and as a symbolic protest against Dronacharya and Arjun.
“The use of thumb, index and middle fingers is integral for every archer. But for Bheels and Bhilalas, the use of both thumbs are forbidden from birth to death,” said Bhilala community leader of Alirajpur development block Mahesh Patel.
“The tradition has passed on to successive generations. As soon as we pick up a ‘Teer-Kamthi’ (bow and arrow), we stop using our thumbs.”
“We respect Eklavya and hate Dronacharya-Arjun, which is symbolically revealed by our ‘no-thumbs’ tradition in archery. We’ve never faced difficulty in archery and cannot even dream of overlooking this tradition,” averred Bhilala leader Nihal Patel in Sorwan block.
Alirajpur is predominantly a tribal district with more than 91 per cent of the 7.28-plus lakh population (as per the 2011 Census) comprising tribals. Bhilalas and Bheels add up to around 95% of the tribal population in the district.
For Bhilalas, the major tribe in Alirajpur, bow and arrow accompany them since birth and even after death. “Every Bhilala is a born archer who starts wielding bow and arrows at a tender age of 6-7 to guard flocks of goats from predators,” said Mahesh, also the officiating district Congress party chief of Alirajpur.
“Even on a funeral pyre, ‘Teer-Kamthi’ accompanies every Bhilala. The ‘Bilki’ (burnt metallic edge of the arrows) is kept in the house as a good omen.”
Weapons of trouble?
Alirajpur district, also the birthplace of revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad, is bordered by Dhar and Barwani districts - the hotbeds of Sikligar community known for their skill of making firearms.
Traditional weapons and not firearms have been used in the district for violent crimes, ranging from murder and attempt to murder to loot, Alirajpur superintendent of police Kumar Sourabh said.
“Of the 58 murder cases reported in the district in 2015-16, 43 were committed by using traditional weapons like ‘faliya’ (sickle), stone and sticks and bow-arrow.”
Of the 34 attempt to murder cases reported during the same period, traditional weapons, including bow-arrows, were used in 12 cases.
“With bows and arrows not coming under the purview of the Arms Act and their possession being prized among tribals, it is difficult to curb its use by force,” Sourabh said.