Bonso Descent Category

The opposition between bai and bondu is a global, non-genealogicaP principle of classification that contrasts totemic descent categories to one another and in this way divides the social universe into self and other, agnates and affines.

Map 4: Gudapada Village Plan

Among the Gutob Gadaba, there are four bonso categories: cobra/snake (hantal), tiger (killo), monkey (golori), and sun (kora) (cf. Parkin 1992, 69 f; Pfeffer 1982,

77f; 1991; 1997a; 2000).[1] Other indigenous groups, such as the Dombo and the Ollar Gadaba, have four additional bonso, alongside the categories already mentioned: cattle (goru), hawk or falcon (pang, gid), fish (macho), and bear (kimdu). The Bondo and Didayi, in contrast, restrict themselves exclusively to the Tiger and Cobra categories (cf. Elwin 1950; Guha et al. 1970). The bonso categories cut across the kuda categories described above; in other words, every possible combination of bonso and kuda categories exists (cf. Furer-Haimendorf 1945, 330f; Pfeffer 1982, 95; 1991, 68f).[2]

The use of natural categories to designate the bonso raises the question of the “totemic” features of this system. In the wake of Levi-Strauss’s decisive intervention in the debate on “totemism,” we can begin, following this author, with the presumption that this phenomenon is a specific form of the general human capacity for classification and that the commonalities between nature (the series of natural categories) and culture (the series of social groups and categories) are to be found in the distinctions drawn. What this means is that the differences between the natural categories are used to express differences between social categories (cf. Levi-Strauss 1966, 224f).

Totemic categories are widespread throughout Central India and take a variety of forms. Pfeffer (2002a, 221) considers that in all these forms, the criteria of time and space are the distinguishing characteristics. On the one hand, according to Pfeffer, relative seniority or temporal sequence structures the bonso categories. This foundation is often laid in myths, in which the bonso’s order of origin is an indication of their relative status. On the other hand, the assignment of spatial traits differentiates the bonso categories from one another. Sky, earth, land, and water are the elements grouped in opposing pairs, with a higher status ascribed to water categories than to land ones (226). Pfeffer has discussed the to- temic classifications of a variety of tribes in detail (Pfeffer 1982, 78f; 1984b; 1993a), but has only made isolated remarks on the Gadaba order, describing it as likewise governed by the criteria just given: “Indigenous ideas assume that each clan has its own appropriate place to live, just as each of the mentioned animals is found at a specific ‘altitude’” (Pfeffer 1991, 68). In a myth recorded by Pfeffer and others, the primordial sibling pair is described as belonging to the Tiger bonso, and Pfeffer correspondingly ascribes senior status to this category (2000, 340; 2002a, 222). According to Parkin (1992, 69) as well, the Gadaba bonso are ordered by seniority. The Cobra category, he says, is senior to the Tiger bonso, and both are senior to the Sun and Monkey categories.

In my experience, the different bonso are not ordered according to the principle of seniority, in contrast to the “brother” tribal groups, such as the Gutob and the Ollar, and to the relative difference in seniority between pujari and randan. My informants view the bonso as equal in status. Likewise, there is no hierarchy established among the village clans that I will discuss shortly, although both topographical markers and animal categories are used for differentiation in that case as well. The Gutal are divided into “hill” Gutal and “valley” Gutal, and cats, pigs, and birds designate different village clans (see below). Although the Gadaba do not set up an explicit seniority ranking among the bonso categories, a myth given in full below does suggest an implicit hierarchy between the Gada- ba’s two most common bonso. First, the snake originates from the earth, and the landscape originates from its mouth and is initially soft (damp), as snakes prefer it, indicating that the snake has the senior status. Subsequently, the tiger appears, and the earth becomes hard, that is, becomes the type of landscape that this animal needs.[3]

The emblems of the bonso categories do not receive any particular veneration or ritual recognition as such, and there are no rituals directed toward increasing the species. The sun is a divine being for all Gadaba, and similarly, no Gadaba intentionally kills cobras, tigers, or bears, unless in a case of necessity, when these animals have invaded their villages or houses or they encounter them in the forest. Tigers and cobras are generally not eaten (although this is not true of all snakes), and as far as I know, the same is true of monkeys. A myth (katani) that I will give in full later, explaining the origin of a moitr relationship, vaguely indicates that the Sisa in Gudapada (of the Cobra bonso) were snakes once upon a time, and their moitr from Tukum (of the Tiger bonso) were tigers. However, there are no myths recounting how they became human beings; the chain of descent is passed over in silence, and only the opposition is emphasized. In Gadaba myths about the origin of human beings, a snake and a tiger do appear, but they are again not the “ancestors” of the primordial sibling pair. In the village of Tukum, the shrine called the Great House is located in a hollow associated with tigers and with the inhabitants of the village. The tigers who live there have the ability to turn into human beings for brief periods, according to local stories, and “in the past” they gave their moitr in Gudapada a leg of each prey animal they caught. When the Sisa on one occasion received a human leg, they did not actually refuse it, which would be impossible in a moitr relationship, but they threw it away, and they never received anything from the tigers’ prey again. These narratives demonstrate a certain correlation between the animals of the bonso categories and the human beings, but no explicit veneration or particular prescriptions or prohibitions.[4]

The bonso categories are particularly relevant at the level of the village, as I will discuss in detail in the next section. A village of the Tiger bonso views all villages of other descent categories, whatever their tribal group, as bondu. This term signifies that affinal relationships are possible in principle, but does not designate actual marriage alliances, which are called somdi. From a ritual perspective, tribal status is secondary to membership in a village and hence in a descent category. A Bondo, Dombo, or Parenga thus counts as bai as long as he belongs to the same bonso and is considered bondu if his bonso is different. If a Gadaba marries a Dombo woman from a different bonso, as occasionally happens, he loses his status as Gadaba, since the Dombo have a lower status and are “junior” (sano). If a Gadaba marries a Gadaba woman from the same bonso, that is, a “sister,” no case of which is known to me, he is certain to suffer misfortune (bipod), because he has violated the proper order (niam) in the most serious of ways.

  • [1] The bonso categories are also designated using other names for the sun and the animals: forexample, suryo (sun); bag, druka (tiger); nang, nag (cobra/snake); mankor, onu (from “Hanu-man”), gusa (monkey). The terms “Gili” (for sun) and “Bulebu” given by Parkin (1992, 69) areunknown to me in this context. Gili’ is the hare, and “Bulebu,” used as a synonym for “Onthal(snake)” according to Parkin, is presumably burubui*, the snake. However, the titles listed aboveare those most often used.
  • [2] In his critique of Elwin’s Bondo Highlander, Fernandez (1969) reanalyzes the relationshipbetween bonso and kuda among the Bondo and interprets kuda as a kind of sub-clan: “Our dataindicate a definite, if vague, tie-in between certain kuda and certain bonso, with no kudabelonging to more than one bonso” (36). This interpretation is in harmony with his attempt toredefine the Bondo “moieties” as “phratries,” in which, according to Murdock’s postulates(which the author follows strictly), there must be a unilineal relationship between “sibs,” andthey may be present in only one “phratry.” For support in this endeavor, Fernandez looks toFurer-Haimendorf, who in one article (Furer-Haimendorf 1943a) refers to the bonso as “phratries,” although without stating anything about their correlation. Elsewhere, the same author ismore explicit in this regard and counters Fernandez’s thesis: “The kuda cut across the bonsosystem,” and “branches of the same kuda may belong to different bonso and the two units ofbonso and kuda can thus be compared to intersecting circles” (Furer-Haimendorf 1945, 331, 330).It is astonishing that Fernandez in his own research apparently found the same nine kuda listedby Elwin, although the “Jigri” and “Dora” groups had only a handful of representatives inElwin’s survey (see above). Fernandez neither comments on the sharp numerical difference norgives other figures from his own data. Pfeffer (1997a, 17) and Parkin (1992, 68) are likewisecritical of Fernandez’s theses and his use of Murdock’s theory.
  • [3] I was unable to confirm that the village clans occupy particular geographical elevations inaccordance with the topographical orientation of their bonso categories - Cobras in the lowlands, Suns in the hills - as Pfeffer (1982,78 f) suggests as a hypothesis, including in the passagequoted above.
  • [4] Elwin (1950, 29f) mentions a ban on killing one’s “totem animal”; members of the Cobrabonso could not even look at such an animal, let alone kill it, “‘for it is our brother’” (30). Healso reports two myths that treat the origin of the Tiger and Cobra bonso (cf. also Parkin 1992,72f).
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