The large tribes of India are the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; the Bhills of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and the Santhals of Jharkhand Orissa and West Bengal. The Gonds and the Bhils are more than four million each. The Santhals are more than three million.
Roy Burman divides tribal communities into five territorial groupings, taking into account their historical ethnic and socio-cultural relations. These are :
- North-east India, comprising Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura;
- The sub-Himalayan region of north and north-west India, comprising hill districts of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh;
- Central and East India, Madhya Pradesh (Chhattisgarh),and Andhra Pradesh;
- South India comprising Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka; and
- Western India, comprising Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
L.P. Vidyarthi divided the tribal people into four major zones :
- The Himalayan Region, comprising, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh (Bhot, Gujjar, Gaddi), Terai area of Uttar Pradesh (Tharus), Assam (Mizo, Garo, Khasi), Meghalaya, Nagaland (Nagas), Manipur (Mao) and Tripura (Tripuri) and having 11 per cent of the total tribal population of the country;
- Middle India, comprising West Bengal Bihar (Santhal Munda, Oraon and Ho), Orissa (Khonds, Gond) and having about 57 per cent of Indian tribal population;
- Western India, comprising Rajasthan (Bhil Meena, Garasia), Madhya Pradesh (Bhil etc.), Gujarat (Bhil Dubla, Dhodia), and Maharashtra (Bhil Koli, Kokna) and containing about 25 per cent of the Indian tribal population; and
- Southern India, comprising Andhra Pradesh (Gond, Koya, Konda, Dova), Karnataka (Naikada, Marati), Tamil Nadu (Irula, Toda), Kerala (Pulayan, Paniayan) and Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Andamanese, Nicobari) and containing about 7 per cent of the Indian tribal population.
The tribals living in different states belong to various
- Racial groups (e.g., proto-australoid, which include Santhals, Munda, Oraon and Bhumij, and Mangoloid which include Garo, etc.),
- Linguistic groups (Austric like Santhals, Munda, Bhumij, Dravidian like Oraon, and Tibeto-Chinese like Garo, Bhutia, etc.)
- Economic categories (food-gatherers, cultivators, labourers),
- Social and religious categories.
There is also a wide range of variation in their level of development and their level of socio-cultural integration. Though the majority of the tribals follow patrilineal system of social organization, yet there are quite a few who have matrilineal systems (like Garo, etc.). A sizeable proportion of Nagas, Mizos, Santhals, Oraon and Munda, etc., have embraced Christianity. Some (like Bhutia, Lepcha) are largely identified with Buddhism. Some tribes have been assimilated into the Hindu fold like the Bhumij and the Bhills. The dominant racial type among tribes is the proto-Australoid In the sub-Himalayan belt, the Mangoloid type is preponderant. The Mediterranean and the Negrito are found in other regions. Tribal languages belong to all the types: the Austric, Dravidian and the Tibeto-Chinese. Tribal people are generally found to be bilingual. The main occupations of the tribes are forestry and food-gathering, shifting cultivation, settled agriculture, agricultural labour, animal husbandry and household industry. Despite many variations, there are also certain similarities also. The tribals as whole are technologically and educationally backward.