BHILS, or Bheels ("bowmen," from Dravidian bil, a bow), a Dravidian people of central India, probably aborigines of Marwar. They live scattered over a great part of India. They are found as far north as the Aravalli Hills, in Sind and Rajputana, as well as Khandesh and Ahmedabad. They are mentioned in Sanskrit works, and it is thought that Ptolemy (vii. I. 66) refers to them as ("leaf wearers"), though this word might equally apply to the Gonds. Expelled by the Aryans from the richer lowlands, they are found to-day in greatest numbers on the hills of central India. In many Rajput states the princes on succession have their foreheads marked with blood from the thumb or toe of a Bhil. The Rajputs declare this a mark of Bhil allegiance, but it is more probably a relic of days when the Bhils were a power in India. The Bhils eagerly keep the practice alive, and the right of giving the blood is hereditary in certain families. The popular legend of the Bhil origin assigns them a semi-divine birth, Mahadeva (Siva) having wedded an earth maiden who bore him children, the ugliest of whom killed his father's bull and was banished to the mountains. The Bhils of to-day claim to be his descendants. Under the Moguls the Bhils were submissive, but they rebelled against the Mahrattas, who, being unable to subdue them, treated them with the utmost cruelty. The race became outlaws, and they have lived their present wild life ever since. Their nomad habits and skill with their bows helped them to maintain successfully the fight with their oppressors. An unsuccessful attempt was made in 1818 by the British to conquer them. Milder measures were then tried, and the Bhil Agency was formed in 1825. The Bhil corps was then organized with a view to utilizing the excellent fighting qualities of the tribesmen. This corps has done good service in gradually reducing their more lawless countrymen to habits of order, and many Bhils are now settled in regular industries.
The pure Bhil is to-day much what he has always been, a savage forest dweller. The Bhils are a stunted race, but well built, active and strong, of a black colour, with high cheek-bones, wide nostrils, broad noses and coarse features. Like all Dravidians the hair is long and wavy. The lowland Bhils are not now easily distinguished from the low-caste Hindus. Surgeon-major T.H. Hendley writes: - "The Bhil is an excellent woodman, knows the shortest cuts over the hills; can walk the roughest paths and climb the steepest crags without slipping or feeling distressed. Though robbers, and timorous owing to ages of ill-treatment, the men are brave when trusted, and very faithful. History proves them always to have been faithful to their nominal Rajput sovereigns, especially in their adversity. The Bhil is a merry soul, loving a jest." The hill Bhils wear nothing but a loin-cloth, their women a coarse robe; lowland Bhils wear turban, coat and waist-cloth. The Bhils have oaths none of them will break. The most sacred is that sworn by a dog, the Bhil praying that the curse of a dog may fall on him if he breaks his word. Their chief divinity is Hanuman, the monkey-god. Offerings are made to the much-feared goddess of small-pox. Stone worship is found among them, and some lowland Bhils are Moslems, while many have adopted Hinduism.
The Bhils of pure blood number upwards of a million, and there are some 200,000 Bhils of mixed descent.
See Gustav Oppert, The Original Inhabitants of India (1893); T.H. Hendley, "Account of Marwar Bhils," in Bengal Asiatic Journal, vol. 44; W.I. Sinclair in Indian Antiquary, vol. iv. pp. 336-338; Col. W. Kincaid, "On the Bheel Tribes of the Vindhyan Range," Jour. Anthrop. Institute, vol. ix.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)