There are estimated to be more than 14 million Gondi people in India. They call themselves “Koitur”, or “the ones who come from the green mountains”. “Gond” and “Koitur” or “Koya” are used interchangeably. Their traditional homeland, known as Gondwana, spreads across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and parts of Maharashtra and Odisha. They refer to themselves by different names, such as Raj-Gonds, Madia-Gonds, Khatola-Gonds and Koyas, depending on where the tribes are located, although these names are, in fact, not strictly state-specific. The Gondi language is said to be derived from the Dravidian language group, a family of some 70 languages spoken mainly in the south of India. However, these people are believed to be genetically Proto-Australoids – related to Australian Aboriginal people.
The Gondi people follow a pantheistic religion and their supreme deity is Parsapen, the child of supreme beings Salla and Gandra. Gondi legend has it that when Parsapen was born, so were the Gondi people, along with the universe. Each of the 750 Gond clans has its own deities, to whom shrines are built inside homes. In the Gond religion, there is no concept of heaven and hell, but a belief that dying people join their ancestors’ spirits. Outside each village is a sacred ground where memorials to the dead are erected. Offerings of food, maize and grains are made at these memorial sites to appease the spirits of the dead. There are no temples or statues to represent Gods. In their culture, the hill itself is holy ground.
Medieval texts mention the rise of Gond kingdoms in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and parts of Maharashtra and Odisha. Despite the eventual fall of the Gond kingdoms, many Gondis in the interior region remained free of the influence of new rulers. With time, however, Hinduism and modernism have had a significant influence on their culture and religious practices. Tattoos, however, still form part of the Gondi identity. They are usually done at specific stages of life, such as coming of age, marriage or having a baby, and are believed to keep people safe from evil forces.