Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/Notes on Bhils, Burmese and Battaks



ABOUT a year ago the distinguished anthropologist of the University of Zürich, Dr. Rudolph Martin, presented the writer with a small but very valuable collection of photographs of certain peoples of India and the East Indies. Some of these are very rare, and, upon searching the ethnological works in the Government libraries in Washington, I have been unable to find examples of quite a number of them.

Fig. 1.—A Bhil Beauty, India.
Seen upon front view.

For instance, we have scarcely any literature upon the history of that truly interesting race of Indian peoples known as the Bhils. Two of my photographs (Figs. 1 and 2) are devoted to a Bhil beauty, the one giving her directly en face, and the other en profile. This is the true scientific method of photographing a subject of this kind, and it has been my experience among native races that it can usually be done. It practically very much enhances the value of either picture; for characters and objects of dress and ornament, seen upon front view, can often be only fully explained by the one taken upon lateral aspect, and vice versa.

In this Bhil woman, for example, the central fastening of the chain ornament at the fore end of the hair-parting is distinctly seen when we regard her from in front, whereas the very peculiar perforated, circular ornament of metal in the wing of the nose is but partly made out. Taken upon side view, these conditions are exactly reversed, and with a lens of moderate power one can easily study in detail the several interesting ornaments with which she has bedecked her head and neck. Upon profile, too, we can appreciate the nature of her headdress behind, which is quite out of the question when the subject, in this case, is seen from in front. This is likewise the only method by means of which we can properly study the features of the individual whom we have photographed, and learn something of the facial angle and similar characters. It will be noted that this Bhil beauty wears as many as half a dozen heavy metal bracelets

Fig. 2.—A Bhil Beauty, India. Photographed en profile. Same subject as shown in Fig. 1.

upon either wrist, and the collection of trinkets that hang over her ears is extremely curious. Her rather light attire permits us to form some opinion as to the physique of this woman, and it is not difficult to see that in such particulars she is remarkably well proportioned. She is evidently broad and deep-chested; has finely developed limbs, and a well-balanced head, upon rather square shoulders. The form of her face is nearly circular, with large mouth and nose, and the eyes are set far apart. Her complexion is dark, and she is somewhat small in stature. Bhils have the reputation of being very active and capable of enduring much fatigue with impunity. Twenty years ago, or less perhaps, this tribe occupied a British political agency—the Bhil agency, in central Asia—which covered an area of some eighty-one hundred and sixty square miles, and had a population of nearly a quarter of a million of people. This agency was established in 1825, at which time a Bhil corps was organized "with a view to utilizing the warlike instincts of the Bhil tribes. This brave body of men have done good service, and gradually put down the predatory habits of their countrymen. The Bhil tribes chiefly inhabit the rocky ranges of the Vindhya and Sátpurá Mountains, and the banks of the Narbadá and the Tapti. In common with other hill tribes, the Bhils are supposed to have been aborigines of India, and to have been driven to their present fastnesses at the time of the Hindu invasion."

I understand that numerous efforts have been made to break up their plundering ways by the home Government, and that the official reports stated in 1869-'70 that "the Bhils of Mánpur are becoming reconciled to the life of cultivators, though not yet willing to take out leases." How this may be at the present date the writer is not informed.

Dr. Hunter, when Director-General of Statistics to the Government of India, wrote, in reference to the Scythic and non-Aryan influence in that country, that "proceeding inward to the North-western Provinces, we find traces of an early Buddhist civilization having been overturned by rude non-Aryan races. In Bareilly district, for example, the wild Ahírs from the north, the Bhils from the south, and the Bhars from the west seem to have expelled highly developed Aryan communities not long before 1000 a. d." Not a few works upon these Indian tribes have appeared in England, as well as elsewhere, and doubtless much more remains to be said about these wonderfully interesting people, that will prove to be of great importance to the science of ethnology.

A very different appearing people from the Bhils are the natives of Burmah, for in the Burmese we have the characteristics of the Mongoloid types, possessed in common with all the races of Indo-China, including those of the tribes of Tibet and the eastern extremities of the Himalayan range of mountains. As a rule,

Fig. 3.—A Burmese Mother and her Child. From a photograph.

they possess a fine physique, and, as in the case of the Bhils, they, too, are notoriously active and hardy. In complexion they are usually dark, I but never very decidedly so, the common shade of the skin being of a warm, rich brown. Burmans of the typical stock have black hair, that is rather coarse and very abundant, being straight as in the case of the Chinese. Some of the men are pretty well bearded, more distinctly so, indeed, than are their not distant neighbors the natives of Siam. The word "Burma" or "Burmah" is derived from their own name of their race, which is Mran-má, being pronounced Ba-ma, in distinct monosyllabic tone, as their language usually is. In this respect it resembles the dialects of southern China, while in other particulars it exhibits evident Tibetan relations. Soft and flexible almost to a fault, the language of these people is written in letters of a sub-circular form in most cases, and for nearly seven centuries it has been the medium of recording their very interesting literature. Its alphabet is said to be of Indian origin, and was ushered in with the religion of Buddha. Burmese are not behindhand in the matter of some manufactures, though they are by no means up to the better races of India in these particulars. Upon crudely constructed looms, their women make a cloth of a very

Fig. 4.—A Young Burmese Beauty.
From a photograph.

good quality, such as is worn by the child and its mother shown in Fig. 3. Gorgeous silk cloths, made from Chinese silk, are woven in other localities, and patterns of flowers are frequently embroidered (see Fig. 3). They also use numerous fabrics which they obtain through the medium of trade with the British, who have already conquered a considerable part of the Empire of Burma. As is the case with so many other peoples of the East, the women are fond of personal adornment. They wear from five to six bracelets around their wrists, a multiplicity of necklaces, and very frequently circular, worked ear ornaments of silver or gold on the lobes of the ears. In Fig. 3 the woman is smoking a large cigar. An authority at my hand says the Burmese are passionately fond of the drama, "which appears under the various forms of masquerades, puppet shows, ballet opera, and farces, as well as in the more dignified character of the regular tragedy. The moral character of the plays is often of the lowest kind, the utmost license both of speech and action being allowed on the stage. The scenery is of a very simple and purely suggestive kind, a single branch of a tree standing for a forest, and frequently the filling up of the dialogue is largely left to the ingenuity of the actors, little more than hints of the plot being contained in many of the librettos. The popular interest in the dramatic exhibitions is intense, and, as in Siam, the same piece often drags its slow length along for days together." Some of the young Burmese women have very intelligent features, and are far from being unprepossessing. The young girl shown in Fig. 4 is of this class, and it is seen that she is endowed with a style of Oriental beauty by no means unattractive or to be despised. Their despotic king never allows any of his subjects to quit the country without his permission, and least of all, women. The British and others living in Burmah have not always had their eyes closed to the charms of the Burmese girls, and when they have had children by them they have experienced difficulties of the most extraordinary nature upon leaving the land in their attempts to take these and their mothers with them. Often fabulous fees have had to be paid to effect their removal. They are remarkably faithful to their masters, being affectionate, industrious, and extremely domestic. Those having these habits despise prostitution, for a prostitute among them is an outcast, while they in their own calling are not dishonored. In contrast with other parts of the East, the women of Burmah go about openly, and are not excluded from the sight of the men. They also have not a little to say in the community, even being able, with the proof of cruel treatment, to plead in court for a divorce, and this last, under such circumstances, is usually obtained without difficulty.

Leaving India now, and passing to the island of Sumatra, I desire to introduce an entirely different race of people; these are the Battaks[1] and they are of great interest to the anthropologist from any point he may choose to consider them. Many books and descriptions have appeared about the Battaks, dating back before the middle of the present century. One writer tells us that it "is not known whether they were settled in Sumatra before the Hindu period. Their language contains words of Sanskrit origin, and others most readily referred to Javanese, Malay, Menangkabau, Macassar, Sundanese, Niasese, and Tagal influence." In 1866, when Prof. Albert S. Bickmore was traveling in Sumatra, he saw not a little of these people, and he believed then that the place where their aboriginal civilization sprang up was very likely on the shores of that famous Sumatran lake, Lake Toba, and upon the neighboring plateau of Silindong. From this locality they gradually occupied an extensive domain in the interior, which was extended upon either side to the seacoast. Eventually, however, the Malays spread along the coast line, and thus confined the Battaks once more to the interior.

Nearly twenty years later, Webster wrote that they occupied the country only to the southeast of Achin, the territory in the middle of which Lake Toba is situated. From all that I can gather upon the subject at the present time, it would appear that this curious race, although they are distinctly different from the typical Malay, these last-named people, together with the Achin population, are rapidly absorbing them. Webster, in describing the Battaks, says: "The average stature of the men is about five feet four inches; of the women, four feet eight inches. In general build they are rather thickset, with broad shoulders and fairly muscular limbs. The color of the skin ranges from dark brown to a yellowish tint, the darkness apparently quite independent of climatic influences or distinction of race. The skull is rather oval than round. In marked contrast to the Malay type are the large, black, long-shaped eyes, beneath heavy black or

Fig. 5.—A Group of Battaks.

dark-brown eyebrows. The cheek bones are somewhat prominent, but less so than among the Malays."

Neuman, in 1886, reckoned the population of the entire river basin occupied by the Battaks at fifty thousand, and Van der Tunk has given us a very good account of their language, and of the Toba dialect in particular. Battak poetry has been treated by Mr. C. A. Ophnijen in a very entertaining volume, and in it he describes "a curious leaf language used by Battak lovers, in which the name of some leaf or plant is substituted for the word with which it has greatest phonetic similarity."

The Battaks have invented an alphabetic language of their own, and the various shaped letters are sometimes quite intricate and difficult to decipher. Often they write it on narrow strips of tender bamboo about half a foot long, using for the purpose the point of a blunt needle. Their dialects differ but little in degree, and consequently the unification of their language is quite complete. Many of their superstitions, their myths, and their beliefs are most interesting, and when one comes to consider their advancement in certain directions it is certainly very remarkable, as Bickmore remarks, that "all of them, beyond the territory under the Dutch Government, are cannibals. Those living on this plain also feasted on human flesh until the Dutch conquered

Fig. 6.—Battak Girls. From a photograph.

them, and obliged them to give up such fiendish custom. The Rajah of Sipirok assured the Governor of Padang that he had eaten human flesh between thirty and forty times, and that he had never in all his life tasted anything that he relished half as well. This custom has prevailed among the Battas from time immemorial."

Marco Polo claims that the Battaks have been cannibals for a time extending at least as far back as the year 1290; and Sir Stamford Raffles, who was among them in 1820, found some of their laws to be very severe. For crimes for which we give but light penalties, or a few years in jail, the Battaks cut up their perpetrators alive, and I dare say ate them afterward; indeed, cases are on record where a Battak has been convicted of adultery, and his discoverers, members of his own tribe, have cut him up alive and then feasted upon his remains. A missionary once told Prof. Bickmore that he knew of a Battak who "had been guilty of stealing an article of only very little value according to their ideas of wealth, yet he was seized, his arms extended at full length and fastened to a bamboo, a sharpened prop placed under his chin, so that he could not move his head, and in this condition he was bound fast to a tree. The knife was then handed to the native who had lost the article, and he was ordered to step forward and cut out of the living man what piece he preferred. This he did promptly; the rajah took the second choice, and then the people finished the cold-blooded butchery, and thus their victim died.

"The parts that are esteemed the greatest delicacies are the palms of the hands, and after them the eyes. As soon as a piece is cut out it is dipped, still warm and steaming, in sambal, a common condiment, composed of red or Chili peppers and a few grains of coarse salt, ground up between two flat stones. Formerly it appears to have been the custom to broil the human flesh, for Mr. Marsden states that in December, 1780, a native of Nias, who stabbed a Batta at Batang Taroh, the river I crossed on the suspension bridge, was seized at six one morning, and, without any judicial process, was tied to a stake, cut in pieces with the utmost eagerness while yet alive, and eaten upon the spot, partly broiled, but mostly raw."

Such are some of the characters and habits of the people shown in Figs. 5 and 6 accompanying the present article. It will be seen that the members composing the group shown in Fig. 5 are but scantily clad, and they are each and all almost completely devoid of any ornament. The three elder boys wear turbanlike affairs upon their heads, while the old woman at the right-hand end of the line in the rear row has a peculiar kind of a headdress on. I have very carefully studied the faces of these individuals, and I am free to confess that, judging from their features, they seem to be capable of committing almost any species of barbarity.

The two girls shown in Fig. 6 are particularly interesting, especially the one sitting down, whom I understand the Battaks consider to be a great beauty. The one standing up, with the big earrings in her ears, has as veritable a face of a savage as I ever remember having seen anywhere. As in the case with the boys shown in Fig. 5, these girls likewise wear headdresses, but of somewhat though not a very different style. They, too, are but lightly attired, and possess the same set and wicked expression in their eyes. Yet, and notwithstanding this, and taking into consideration what I know of these two Battak girls, I must say I have not infrequently met with types of negroes, both in the South as well as in Washington, that possessed features nearly the counterpart of these Battaks. In this connection we must remember, however, that the negroes in this country need not trace back so very far before their arrival at an ancestral stock that can hardly be considered above suspicion in the matter of cannibalism, and that, too, without having been the inventors of an alphabet and a written language to redeem the fact.

  1. This word is also spelled "Batah" and "Batta."