When I received an invite to attend the Bhagoria Festival, I had no clue what this festival is and where Jhabua is. Thanks to Google, I could quickly find out the details. I grabbed the opportunity to attend this tribal festival with both hands. The literature mentioned it as a festival where young Bhil Tribal boys express their love to the girl of their choice. If she accepts it, they elope away. They stay in hiding until their families negotiate and agree to get them married once they come back. Now, would you not be excited to see how these boys propose in the most public place in rural areas of western Madhya Pradesh? How girls react and how it is accepted as a ritual sounded fascinating.
Of course, the festival of Bhil Tribes just before the festival of Holi was the added attraction. The photographs added to the weight of the invitation. Soon, I was adjusting all my schedules, working late night to meet deadlines so that I can spend 4 days in Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh.
Next day we landed in Indore. We made a pit stop at Ujjain and paid a visit to the reigning deity of the city – Mahakaal. We drove through dusty roads, dry arid hillocks to reach Jhabua by the end of the day. MP Tourism organized a film show to tell us about the Bhagoria festival that has been filmed over many years during the festival by an independent photographer. Let me share what I learned from the film and the literature first.
Legend of Bhagoria Haat or Festival
In the popular parlance, the name Bhagoria refers to Bhag. This literally means to run away or elope, basically a time when boys run away with the girls they like.
Another legend is that the first hero and heroine of this festival were Bhav and Gauri. That is another name for Shiva and Parvati, this is how the festival gets its name.
A third legend is that king of Bhagore conquered this area. He allowed men in his army to elope with the girls they fell in love at the Haat or market that takes place before the Holi festival. Since then over a period of time, it became a tradition that continues in some ways to date.
The timing of the Bhagoria Haat just before the Holi is not just coincidental, of course, Holi is a big festival for the region. This is also the time when most people get money for their work and have extra cash to spend at the market. It is the time when everyone comes back home from wherever they are in the world. So it makes great sense to get married or get your children married at this point in time. Now, how much of this tradition still remains is anyone’s guess.
We did see boys and girls all dressed up in the fair. Saw boys putting color on the girls as a gesture of proposal. We did see girls taking Paan or betel leaf from boys as a gesture of accepting the proposal. Now, how much of this is accepted in society is something very difficult to find out. We spoke to a lot of people and we got different versions of the truth about the tradition of marrying at the Bhagoria festival.
My analysis based on what I read, heard and saw is that at some point in time this may have been one of the few opportunities that boys and girls got to meet and express themselves. Some of them may have used this as an opportunity to elope. Over a period of time, this became an accepted norm or a ritual.
Bhagoria Festival of Bhil Tribe in Jhabua
Bhagoria Haat or market as it is locally known has no fixed venue. For seven days prior to Holi, different villages play venue to the Haat. You can check the local newspapers for the information on this.
The first village that we visited was Vaalpur, located almost at the Gujarat border. As we reached the village around noon, it was already full of colorful young people. The first thing that struck us was the groups of young women who were all dressed in the same color, style and wore identical silver jewelry. Each group has its own color – black, blue, red, green, violet, orange sometimes a combination of two colors. Most of them wore the same jewelry – heavy, solid silverware. Wore their dupattas the same way and seem to carry the same expression as well.
Bhagoria Festival Market at Vaalpur
It took us some time and effort to search for the group of boys or potential grooms who should be out to woo the girls. There were not many groups, but there were those who came in style, all dressed up in dhotis and designer flutes. They flaunted their flutes with exquisite designs on them. It was probably a sign to announce their single and available status. It was fun to interact with them, as they wanted to speak but were shy at the same time. For a long time, we just saw these groups roaming around in bunches, looking at each other, but we did not see any action. After we sat back as sheer observers, we saw some color exchange happening. Some boys did apply color to the girls while the girl tried to run away or avoid the color.
One of us also saw a girl accepting a Paan from a boy, which as per the local ritual means, that girl accepts the boy’s proposal. What happened after that is impossible to know unless we parked ourselves there for a few days?
Festivities at Vaalpur
The atmosphere was a typical village Haat with Halwai’s ruling the roost. There were all kinds of shops from clay pots to silverware, tattoo artists to toys, fruits to vegetables. But it was the sweet and savory shops that were the busiest.
There was a small area with giant wheels. They were old fashioned wooden ones that are pushed manually along with other swings and games. The colorful sharbat were being sold, as were Kulfis and Ice creams. People were purchasing usual home stuff and enjoying the rides and the crowds. For women, it seemed it was one of those few rare occasions when they can get dressed up. Come out and enjoy themselves, as we saw most of them in women-only groups.
On the day we were there, the MP of the region landed there too along with his wife on a helicopter. And there was a beeline to see the helicopter land and take off. Helipad became the biggest attraction while the helicopter was there. The people were lined all around it. The MP came, played the Dhol, danced a little bit with the locals, met us over light snacks. He told us all about the progress the tribal area is making especially in girl education. We were told about a major residential school that is coming up soon.
Overall it was the festivity in the air along with a whole lot of dust that defined the day. How many people actually lost their single status that day will never be known as most people deny the ritual now.
Bhagoria Festival at Ranapur
It was our second day at the Haat or festival and the venue was village Ranapur. This one was a bit closer to Jhabua where we were staying. At Ranapur, the fair was far more crowded. The format was more or less the same but the style of dressing up entirely different.
Girls here wore printed or to be specific Bandhini print clothes. In Vaalpur, plainclothes was almost a rule. The silver jewelry here was absolutely different, though still as heavy. There was no trace of anything like Vaalpur either of people or at the shops. Girls wore fancy clips in their hair and kept the clip part of their hair open. While the rest of the head was covered and reminded me of an old Punjabi Boli ’Khulla Rakhdi Clip wala paasa’.
The giant wheels were bigger and motorized. There were far more paan shops here and business brisker. It was a sight to see people coming in overloaded vehicles, in trucks and bullock carts. There were dances happening in some corners. Processions were taken out with song and dance. The same MP came visiting again, but this time helicopter was not visible. At one place there was a male dancer with turmeric all over his body. A red cloth wrapped around his upper body and a decorated coconut in his hand and there were many drums being beaten all around him.
Shops at the Haat
I found the little shops amusing. We went looking for silver jewelry only to find that it is way too heavy for my urban consumption. I discovered clay Tawas that is baked in a way that they need to be broken before being used. I saw some rural innovations, as the old rubber tires recycled to make chappals and buckets. We saw some smart tailors making instant dresses for foreigners with the handwoven clothes that they weave in their homes.
We spoke to some villagers and all of them had their own version and interpretation of the festival. I spoke to a young couple and asked them their views. They were too shy to speak or pose for the camera. They said they had an arranged marriage that was arranged by the families. One common fact was that they all look forward to the festival, as this is the time for business as well as spending.
It was a revelation that the same festival can be celebrated in villages few KMs apart can show us hues of the culture here, of having a strong individuality within the common ethos.
Bhil Tribe Adivasi Dance Video, Bhagoria Haat
This dance is performed by the young Bhil girls and boys, called Lahari as they move the way waves move during the festival. Notice the boys are performing with Bows and Arrows in their hands and girls with a musical instrument.
Hand Made Dolls from Jhabua
You may also like to watch the following video on Handmade Dolls from Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. Made of cotton and Cloth, these dolls represent the Adivasis or tribals of Jhabua district in West Madhya Pradesh. This award-winning artist talks about his art form during my visit to the festival.
You can read more about this doll making at – Micro Bead Jewelry Of Jhanbua
India is a land of fascinating festivals, wherever you go, you discover so many of them.