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The BHEELS, COOLIES, and RAMOOSEES.
The Bheels inhabit the northern part of the chain of Ghauts running inland parallel with the coast of Malabar. On one side they are bordered by the Coolies, and on another by the Goands of Goandwana. They are considered to have been the aborigines of Central India; and with the Coolies, Goands, and Ramoosees, are bold, daring, and predatory marauders; occasionally mercenaries, but invariably plunderers. There are, however, many shades of difference in the extent of the depredations of these several people, in which the balance of enormity is said to be considerably on the side of the Bheels. They are, nevertheless, described as faithful, when employed and trusted; and Major Seely, in his interesting work on the wonders of Elora, has stated, that the travellers who pay them their choute, or tribute, may leave untold treasure in their hands, and may consider themselves as safe with them as in the streets of London. "Their word (says that gentleman) is sacred, their promise unimpeachable."
I will make no apology for some lengthened extracts respecting this extraordinary race. They are little known; and I feel assured that as full a description of them as can be collected will not fail to be acceptable. For these extracts I am indebted to the Asiatic Journal, the Madras Courier, the gentleman just mentioned, and finally to Sir John Malcolm.
To enable the reader to understand the people in question properly, it will be necessary, in the first instance, to shew the nature of the country which they inhabit.
Describing, in his official report to the late Marquess of Hastings, the western side of the hither peninsular of India, the Hon. Mounstuart Elphinstone has stated: "The grand geographical feature of this tract is the chain of ghauts which run along the western boundary its whole length. Between this range and the sea lies the Concan, now under Bombay. It extends from forty to fifty miles in breadth, includes many fertile places ** producing abundance of rice, but in genearl is very rough, and much crossed by steep and rocky hills. Towards the ghauts the country is in
most places extremely strong, divided by hills, intersected by ravines, and covered with thick forests. The range itself is from two to four thousand feet high, extremely abrupt, and inaccessible on the west. The passes are numerous but steep, and very seldom passable for carriages. The table-land on the east is nearly as high as many parts of the ridge of the ghauts, but in general the hills rise above it, to the height of from a thousand to fifteen hundred feet. The table-land is for a considerable distance rendered very strong by numerous spurs issuing from the range, among which are deep winding rugged vallies, often filled with thick jungle. Further east, the branches from the ghauts become less frequent, and the country becomes more level till the neighbourhood of the Nizam's frontier, where it is an open plain.
"The northern part of the chain of ghauts and the country at its base is inhabited by Bheels; that part to the south of Baugland and the country at its base, as far south as Bassein, is inhabited by Coolies, a tribe somewhat resembling the former, but more civilized and less predatory. The Bheels possess the eastern part of the range, and all the branches that run out from it towards the east, as far south as Poona; they even spread over the plains to the east, especially north of the Godavery, and to the neighbourhood of the Wurda. On the north they extend beyond the Taptee and Nerbudda. Both the Bheels and the Coolies are numerous in Guzerat. South of Poona the Bheels are succeeded by the Ramoosees, a more civilized and subdued tribe, but with the same thievish habits as the Bheels. They have no language of their own, are more mixed with the people, and resemble the Mahrattas in dress and manners; whereas the Bheels differ from the rest of the people in language, manners and appearance. Of the latter Mr. Elphinstone remarks, that although they live quietly in the open country, they resume their wild and predatory character whenever they are settled in a part that is strong, either from hills or jungle. The Ramoosees do not extend farther south than Colapore, or further east than the line of Bejapoor."
"The Bheels, the Coolies of Guzerat, and the Goands of the eastern parts of the peninsula or Goandwanah, are considered to be the remains of the aborigines of India. The two latter classes, here alluded to, have maintained more of their original character than the Bheels: they have probably been less disturbed. The Bheels, however, have constant accessions to their numbers from the plains; and wretches of desperate fortune, such as have by crime and misfortune been ejected from their caste or profession, flock to their standard. Hence a variety of feature is observed: Hindus of all descriptions, Mahomedans of every sect, are here mingled together, and engaged in the same pursuits.
"They all indiscriminately eat beef and pork, and drink toddy and arrack; in fact, there is nothing in their ideas either of morality or religion, and, at a distance, they have scarcely the appearance of human beings. When pursued they evince uncommon dexterity, and a Bheel with a child on each shoulder will spring from rock to rock, and from bush to bush, with as much dexterity as a wild goat; and when pushed, will coil himself up in a bush so snugly, that his pursuer will, ten to one, pass by without noticing him. Although they are generally armed with bows and arrows, when they expect much opposition they take a few matchlocks with them; they never poison their arrows, and generally fire from ambush. They frequently shift their quarters, and a Hathy or Bheel village is soon formed. Like savages and barbarians, they are extremely improvident, seldom have a week's provision for their families: hence death from famine is no uncommon occurrence, particularly in the monsoon. Disease appears to have made dreadful ravages amongst them, and few of the males live to an old age.
"The Bheels are by no means deficient of intelligence; they are lively, patient of fatigue, and vigilant. They are attached to their offspring, and when pursued make a desperate resistance at a particular point, until their wives and children have had time to escape in an opposite direction, when they take to their heels!"
"The Bheels (says Major Seely), are generally of short stature, sometimes with short curly hair, and a thickness of the lower lip; of very dark complexion, and more masculine in form than the Hindus. Their habits are migratory; but wherever extensive forests or mountainous woody tracts are found, parties of Bheels reside, and only quit their strongholds for plunder, or to engage as auxiliaries in a foray, to devastate and destroy that which contending chiefs cannot themselves accomplish. A refinement in the vengeance of sanguinary warfare was always had recourse to in the employment of Bheels; and of late years, likewise, in those desultory vindictive inroads of petty chiefs, the Bheel became a willing and useful ally; and the work of destruction was incomplete without his demoniacal aid, in poisoning the wells, burning the villages, murdering the inhabitants, destroying the crops, and driving off the cattle. Fifty Bheels could be more useful than five hundred troops, approaching by paths through the deep forest known only to themselves. Their appearance was as sudden as unexpected, and the visit fatal to the devoted spot. To find treasure, the most horrid and refined cruelties were practised, the like of which we have not in history. Their retreats were unknown; the jungle and mountains were impenetrable to all but themselves, and woe to the individual who opposed a Bheel, or was marked out by them for vengeance. A journey of three hundred miles would be a mere walk to a Bheel. Wily, hardy, and bold, no danger could arrest his progress, and no security protect his victim, though years might elapse of unavailing pursuit; and if the Bheel did not succeed, at last he would destroy himself.
"An officer, a Captain B d, had, by interrupting and wounding a
Bheel while labouring in his vocation, been marked. In consequence of this he had a sentry to his house; but from the neighbouring bank of the river they had worked a subterraneous passage for a considerable distance, large enough for one man to crawl along, and had begun to perforate the floor of his bed-chamber when he was discovered. We had at the city where this took place nearly two thousand troops, yet it was necessary, for the officer's safety, to remove him to Bombay. A Parsee messman, who had refused to pay the usual tribute to the Bheels, was found dead in the morning in the mess-room. It was his custom to put his mat on a large winechest where he slept: in the morning he was found with his head placed on the mess-table, the headless body lying on the chest. In neither of the above instances was plunder their object; but the choute (tribute), which they consider to be their unquestionable right, by established and immemorial custom, had not been paid. At the mess-room there were two sentries stationed, whom they had eluded, a matter of no difficulty to a Bheel on a dark night, as will be duly shown.
"In some parts of Guzerat the Bheels are not only numerous but formidable. Neither their interest nor inclination induces them to attack an armed force, though probably a large booty would prevail on them to incur danger; but if revenge was to be gained, they would risk the chance of an encounter. To follow them into their wilds is impracticable, for if driven from one spot they would retire to another. A herdsman by necessity, a freebooter by profession, and a hunter by choice, the Bheel cares for no one, but makes mankind and the soil subservient to his wants and caprices.
"Travelling with my wife (adds Major Seely) in a palanquin carriage, or shigrumpo, towards Baroda, the capital city of Guzerat, at which place we had a subsidized force stationed, amounting to about two thousand men, when within a few.miles of the city we were stopped by two Bheels, who demanded tribute. I had a pair of pistols, and instantly cocked one. It appeared to me, at the moment, an insult to the British flag, flying but a few miles off, to submit to the impost. Remonstrances were unavailing; and having a lady with me whose fears were excited, I paid the required amount; and, singular as it must appear, although I had a dozen rupees in my hand, the Bheels only levied one out of that number.
"At one time, passing through a Bheel district between the villages of Ittola and Meagaum, to avoid any alarm at night, or the probability of being plundered, I hired a Bhaut and two Bheels as a night-guard. As it got towards the evening, the Bhaut and one Bheel only arrived, the remaining one was shortly to follow them. At the usual hour I retired to my couch, perfectly secure from insult or depredation; nor had I taken any precaution to repel the one or protect me from the other; the security of the Bheels being a sufficient guard against attack.
"It being a hot night, I got up about one o'clock to enjoy the cool air outside of my tent. I had not stepped a few yards out when the Bheel on