Halbi is the lingua franca of Bastar District in Madhya Pradesh, India, and the mother tongue of approximately 600,000 people. It has been classified as Indo-Aryan, closely related to Oriya, Hindi, and Marathi, but has features from Dravidian and Munda which may indicate it more properly to be a creole with Indo-Aryan influence being the strongest.
Halbi is the mother tongue of a number of tribal groupings and castes that include Raj Mureas, Halbas, Mahras, Lohras, some Bhatras, Parjas, and others. Halbi is also the language of the market place in Bastar District and, as such, is used by most of the other tribal groups of the area.
Information concerning the origins of the Raj Mureas is limited and somewhat contradictory. R. V. Russell suggests they migrated to Bastar with the Bastar rajas over 500 years ago. He quotes a doggerel rhyme “believed to recall the circumstances of the immigration of the Bastar Rajas” (Russell 1916:184):
Chalkibans Raja Dibdibi baja
Kosaria Rawat Pita Bhatra
Peng Parja Raja Muria
Tendu khuti Pania lava
The Raja was of the Chalki race. The drum was called Dibdibi. Kosaria Rawat, Pita Bhatra, Peng Parja and Raja Muria, these four castes came with the Raja. The tribute paid (to the Raja) was a comb of tendu wood and a lava quail.
The family of the Bastar rajas came to Bastar originally from Delhi by way of Jeypore (Orissa) and Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) (de Brett 1909:36-8). B. K. Dube and F. Bahadur (1966:57), on the other hand, describe the Raj Mureas as members of one of three sections that make up the Muria tribe. They live around Jagdalpur, the district capital, and have been greatly influenced by culture contact with the national culture. The other sections of the tribe are the Jhoria Murias (who are probably a mixture of Murias and Hill Marias), and the Ghotul Murias. Several sources suggest that the name ‘Muria’ is etymologically derived from mur ‘the palas tree’ (Dube and Bahadur 1966:57, Fuchs 1977:177) or from mur ‘a root’ (Dube and Bahadur 1966:57). Stephen Fuchs (1977) suggests that ‘Muria’ more probably means ‘aboriginal’. This is perhaps more realistic. In Halbi, mureauk means ‘to begin’ while mur and mure have the sense of ‘first’, ‘initial’, or ‘original’, suggesting that the Mureas consider themselves as the ‘original’ or ‘first people’. The ‘raj’ of Raj Murea suggests their elevated status among the tribal groups of the district.
It seems probable that the Raj Mureas were originally a part of the Muria tribal group that partially acculturated into the Hindu system, rejected its own original language, and came to speak other languages—some speaking Bhatri, others speaking Halbi. Differences in language, however, have not affected the cultural unity that exists between Halbi and Bhatri speakers. Intermarriage, while hastening language change in Halbi-speaking villages that bring Raj Mureas wives from Bhatri-speaking villages, has continued to hold the group together.