The Bheels and Bhilalas of Madhya Pradesh love Eklavya, the archer prodigy who had cut off his right hand’s thumb as ‘guru dakshina’ to Dronacharya in Mahabharata. In tribal-dominated Alirajpur district, archers belonging to the Bheel and Bhilala community never use their thumbs while shooting a bow and arrow. This tradition has been followed here as mark of respect towards their ancestor Eklavya and 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,” he added. Hindustan Times quoted Bhilala leader Nihal Patel, “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.”
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 per cent of the tribal population in the district. For Bhilalas, the major tribe in Alirajpur, the 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,” Mahesh added.