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BANJARAS, THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN OF INDIA

Dr. Tanaji Rathod

Manager (Infrastructure Projects), Karnataka State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (KSIIDC), #49, Khanija Bhavan, 4th Floor, Racecourse Road, BANGALORE – 560001. Phone: +91 80 22259371, Mob: 9845381805.  Email: tanajirathod@gmail.com 

1. INTRODUCTION

As far as the written history is concerned, banjaras have been visible on the Indian scene for more than seven hundred years. But there are several unheard and unwritten live stories of this community in the history. Many ethnographers and anthropologists are posing questions that who is the aborigines of this community? How come this culture, customs tradition and language are highly intergraded and remained in preserve in spite of scatted or dispersed across the India? When did this community of nomadic caravanners first appear in the historical accounts? What are the terms used by medieval chroniclers and early European travelers to describe the nomadic caravanners? How were those terms replaced with the modern term ‘Banjara’? etc. To find out the real stories behind this skepticism, this study has been conducted. After the ruins of Moghuls, British took over the India. Due to this, the banjaras lost their traditional trading activities in this regime. To curb the criminal activities, the criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was promulgated under which banjara community was notified as criminal tribes under the act. Till today it has not come out with this stigma. Anyhow, If we peep into the culture, tradition, customs of this ethnic community, it would be astonished to note that it has hidden treasure of Indian ethos, true Hinduism and how it is vulnerable to social and economic pressures for centuries. To address the problems and prospects of this downtrodden society, it has been studied and depicted in detail the future challenges, strategies for the development of this ethnic community.  

2. HISTORICAL TRANSITION OF BANJARAS:

As per "Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics", Vol.-II, Arthur-Bunyan, edited by James Hastings, the name 'Banjara' comes from Sanskrit Vanij, 'a merchant', Karaka, 'doing'. The tribes of wandering grain-carriers in India, As a result of their wandering habits, which have now much decreased since the carrying trade has fallen into the hands of railway authorities, they are a very mixed race. It is found that their origin is probably Dravidian, but they now all trace their descent from the Brahman or Rajput tribes of Northern India. It is in the Deccan and in the State of Hyderabad that they still retain more of their primitive beliefs and customs than in the scattered colonies in the more northern parts of the country, where they have largely fallen under Hindu or Muhammadan influence. In the legends of the Deccan branch of the tribe, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, figures as a worker of miracles and as their spiritual advisor.
 
There are very interesting historical footprints of this community.  Historically, Zia Barani’s account of Ala-ud-Din Khilji’s(c1296-1316) market price control measures provides the first description of such a community, using the term ‘Karwanis’(caravans) to describe them. The term Banjara first appears in Kabir’s allegorical verse (c 1500) as well as in Guru Nanak’s Badauni, who came to Akbar’s court in 1574, used the term as Banjaras, which means grain sellers hence this community originally caravan traders. It had been involved conspicuously in grain transportation in the north especially in fifteenth century. Then they moved into the south largely with Mohammad Tughluk’s army. And Aurangzeb employed a large Banjara horde in order to supply food grains to his army.  But the growth of market economy and transport system hampered the banjara’s caravan trading life over a period and subsequently respective states discouraged their nomadic ways which forced them to become agricultural laborers on wastelands and in forest tracts.  From the middle of the eighteenth century, the banjaras gradually renounced their nomadic life and started settling down on banjar land which was, in part, wasteland in the vicinity of the respective villages or in the forest tracts wherever available. 

They served in the Moghul army as porters and peddlers.  After the ruins of Moghul regime, British encroached India through East India Company. The railways were introduced in British India in 1853. The second half of the nineteenth century was a crucial period in the history of Banjaras. This colonial state forced the banjaras to abandon their long-standing occupation as food grain traders and cattle–raisers. Thereafter, their economic position was deteriorating. While orders have crumbled, these nomadic communities have demonstrated their versatility by surviving several onslaughts against their way of life. Primarily military transporters during the turbulent mediaeval age, they endured the effects of a peace that had pre-empted their livelihood. Attempts to resume their original profession as goods carriers failed in the face of technological improvements in transportation.   Thus they found all over the subcontinent without leaving their distinctive historical, cultural and social ethos. In course of time, they lost their traditional occupation. Because of the emergence of British rule in India they had to take up ways and meens of offences to lead their life. That is how the banjaras came to be identified as criminal tribes during the British regime. To curb the criminal activities, the criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was promulgated under which banjara community was notified as criminal tribes under the act.

It is said that in the 18th century a chain of mobile traders connected India to the outside world. Central Asian traders brought goods to India and the Banjaras and other traders carried these to local markets. They bought and sold these goods as they moved from one place to another, transporting them on their animals. They moved over long distances with their animals. They lived on milk and other pastoral products. They also exchanged wool, ghee etc., with settled agriculturists for grain, cloth, utensils and other products. The Banjaras were the most important trader-nomads. Their caravan was called tanda. Sultan Alauddin Khalji used the Banjaras to transport grain to the city markets. Emperor Jahangir wrote in his memoirs that the Banjaras carried grain on their bullocks from different areas and sold it in towns. They transported food grain for the Mughal army during military campaigns. With a large army there could be 100,000 bullocks carrying grain.

Soon after Independence, these communities notified as criminal tribals were denotified by the Government. This was followed by the substitution of a series of acts, generally entitled 'Habitual Offenders Act'. This preserved most of the provisions of the former CT Act, except the premise that an entire community can be 'born' criminal. The denotification and the passing of the HOAs should have ended the misery of the communities penalised under the CT Act. But, that has not happened. After independence, various state governments have done little to restore land to the DNTs. Schemes for economic upliftment does not seem to have benefited them. The rate of illiteracy among the DNTs is higher than among Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, malnutrition more frequent and provisions for education and health care almost negligible since most of them have remained nomadic. Above all, there is no limit to the atrocities that the DNTs have to face. However, in some States like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, Bihar, Punjab and Orissa they have been included in SC/ST List. In India, as described above, it was the colonial revenue policies which destroyed the itinerant/nomadic communities' earlier trading practices. Till 19th century the local people must find the nomads quite useful for the unusual wares they bring periodically. Their various skills of weaving mats or making baskets or playing musical instruments and more dramatically in the case of acrobats and dancers make them a colourful and interesting presence, in all probability providing relief and diversion from the tedium of daily routine.

3. CUSTOMS AND CULTURE OF BANJARAS

Some historians says that the Banjaras are a nomadic people, who 2300 years ago descended from Roma gypsies of Europe who migrated through the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and finally settled down in the deserts of Rajasthan in India. The colourful stream of the Banjaras began to travel down to the South in the 14th  century. In the early 1800s, following the invasion of the armies of Aurangzeb, and thanks to the number of cattle they owned, the Banjaras worked for the Moghuls as commissariat carriers transporting provisions and arms, setting up camps on the outskirts of army encampments. When the Southern campaigns ended, the Banjaras forgot their desert homes in Rajasthan and settled down in the Deccan, the plateau of central peninsular India. In several States there are Banjaras Muslims, who were Hindu nomads and traders from Rajasthan. They claimed to have been forcibly converted to Islam by the ruler Aurangzeb. In Uttar Pradesh they are now cattle traders speaking Banjari and Hindi. Unlike Hindu Banjaras these Muslims have their own food habit. There are 114,000 Muslim Banjaras in Uttar Pradesh and no more work among them. Those were hard time for the Banjaras. “There were no navigable rivers and no roads to wheel their belongings. Thousands of laden bullocks and carts had to travel on mere dust tracks. A single tribe owned as many as 50000 to 60000 cattle” says Capt. Briggs (1813). And so, thanks to the number of cattle they owned, the Banjaras worked for the Moghuls as commissariat carriers transporting provisions and arms, setting up camps on the outskirts of army encampments. When the Southern campaigns ended, the Banjaras forgot their desert homes in Rajasthan and settled down in the Deccan. Due to their strong physique, cleverness, swiftness, the Banjaras were preferred for services in places like Pune, Satara in Maharashtra, Hyderabad and Mysore. They sold grain to the armies of Lord Cornwallis besides helping Comte de Bussy with stores and cattle. They even acted as spies for the British later switching over to help Tipu Sultan.

For last few decades due to the spread of communications the Banjara lifestyle has naturally altered and the tribals have had to abandon their packs of animals and take to working as labourers on building and construction projects. Despite all this, their traditional customs, manners and ceremonies have undergone little change and their migratory instinct is still intact.
Amongst innumerable tribes who have thronged various places of eastern India, Banjara is significant. They are the typical nomads who wonder from one place to another thus leading a life in its own terms and condition. Thus their way of living is quite thrilling and full of adventures. What are equally colorful are their costumes. In fact, a Banjara women`s mode of dressing is regarded to be the most colorful as well as elaborate amongst all other tribal communities that are present at the moment in India. A woman of Banjara tribe is quite accustomed to the costume "ghaghra" and `choli` (a blouse). Ghagra is a whirling skirt made of red, black and white cotton, embellished with pieces of mirrored glass that are embroidered on it. There is a band of material around the waist that strengthens a skirt or trousers and this too is fastened with traditional stitches. The odhni (mantle), which covers the head, is quite long enough thus draping down their `backs` almost going as long as its feet. She rarely takes off all her bone bangles and anklets. Their love of ornaments from time to time adopts quite absurd proportions and the jewels become an integral part of the body. The women decked up with beautiful silver anklets, which always `clink` as they go on barefoot. Long silver earrings are very common things to wear and also `patterned cowries` adorn the hairs plaits of a Banjara woman.

Artwork of Banjara tribes has got a great demand in the market of not only in various states of India and abroad as well. Quite a handful of materials including variety of materials like silver, brass, gold, cowries, ivory, animal bone and even plastic décor the wardrobes of any fashionable urbanites. Culture of Banjara tribe is quite enriched. The main languages spoken are Urdu, Telugu. A local dialect namely, Kutni too is popular amongst a section of Banjara tribe. The origin of the Banjara tribe is quite interesting. According to many anthropologists, The Banjaras came to the Deccan following the invasion by the armies of Aurangzeb. According to some authorities, the actual Banjara lineage goes back to some 2000 years. After setting down in Rajasthan, Banjaras began to travel down to the South in the 14th century. Few even claims about their link with Moghuls whom Banjara supplied stock of animals and food. Besides its close trading association with East India Company rulers and great Maratha Tipu Sultan are praiseworthy. Festivals are part and parcel of Banjara tribal community. Apart from celebrating few popular festivals of India like Holi, Dussehra, they too fete some of their folk festivals in great enthusiasm and vigor. Ugadi is one such local festival, highly popular amongst the Banjara tribe. For these pious Banjara, religious festivals too are very popular. Family deities are revered to a great extent. They have considered Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati as their family deity. Even most of the Banjara tribe used to save quite a lot of money so that they can go for pilgrimage to the temple of the Lord of the Seven Hills popularly known as Balaji. Since majority of Banjara tribe are Hindus, they diligently perform all the rites and rituals of the Hindus. Just like any other Indian tribal community, it is only natural that dance, music are an integral part of their celebration during festivals and also during joyful functions like marriage, new year celebration etc. In the earlier period, these joyful fetes went for days together. However, these days the time period has been curtailed down to mere two or three days. A Banjara marriage has been celebrated adding their social rituals in their own fervor. Liquor is dispersed freely on the first day of the wedding when the bridegroom and his relatives are welcomed at the `tanda` of the bride. The groom`s family is cordially being welcomed by offering betel leaves and nut. At the time of marriage also special customs and norms are being followed. Square silver ornament or bottu is tied round the neck of the bride. The boy and girl exchange seven round balls made of rice, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar. The couple then holds hands and does seven rounds of grain pounding with pestles.

The Banjara women, however, are holding steadfast to their ancient mode of dress which is perhaps the most colorful and elaborate of any tribal group in India. Undoubtedly, their dress and jewelry sets them apart from all others. Their full length skirt, is blazing red with borders embroidered in mustard and green thread. The odhni (mantle) which covers the head is long enough to drape down their backs almost touching the feet. This also elaborately embroidered and studded with little mirrors which embellish their cholis (blouses). A variety of materials - silver, brass, some gold, cowries, animal bone and even plastic - are used in the making of a Banjara wardrobe. The women wear pretty silver anklets which clink as they walk barefoot. Long silver earrings are conspicuous, and patterned cowrie shells decorate their hair, and are worn on their wrists and ankles. The hundreds of cowries that the Banjara tribal women wear are very auspicious as they represent Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity. These women are mainly laborers but wear all their jewelry and embroidered clothing to do heavy work, which could consist of road construction or brick carrying. In the lower picture you can see the costumes of the Banjara that they wear every day.

The Lambani is an Indian tribe generally found living in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and northern Karnataka. The language spoken by the Lambanis resemble to be originated from Rajasthan. The Lambanis lead a gypsy life. In the earlier ages they lived in forests but migrate from place to place. When there were few or no roads they carried grain and salt on oxen, as also bamboos and firewood on their own heads. The Lambani people were formerly considered as suppliers of grain to armies. The Lambani women are peculiarly clad and decorated. The hand and finger rings, bangles and bracelets worn by them, are made of bone. The women also have rows of flowers and balls suspended from their hair. Their dirty dress is chiefly composed of thick aprons, interwoven with black and red coarse cotton thread, and rude needle work, suspended from the waist downwards, and also a bodice made of the same material. The Lambani men wear tight breeches coming a little below the knees, and cover their heads with coarse turbans. The women of the Lambani tribe stitch bright rainbow-coloured fabrics covered with a mosaic of patchwork mirrors. They are great travellers and can be found in groups selling their cloth at markets and on beaches. Their work contributes considerably to the income of their families. The Lambanies are said to represent bee hives, as they were once known as a bee-keeping caste when they lived in the southern jungles.

The Lambani people worship Shakti, manifestation of Goddess Durga. The Banjaras are the largest and historic formed group in India and also known as Lambadi or Lambani. The Banjara people are a people who speak lambadi or Lambani. All gypsy languages are linked linguistically, stemming from ancient Sanskrit and belonging to the North Indo-Aryan language family. Lambadi is the heart language of the Banjara, but it has no written script. The Banjara speak a second language of the state they live in and adopt that script.

4. LIFSTYLES

The Lambani is an Indian tribe generally found living in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and northern Karnataka. The language spoken by the Lambanis resemble to be originated from Rajasthan. The Lambanis lead a gypsy life. In the earlier ages they lived in forests but migrate from place to place. When there were few or no roads they carried grain and salt on oxen, as also bamboos and firewood on their own heads. The Lambani people were formerly considered as suppliers of grain to armies. The Lambani women are peculiarly clad and decorated. The hand and finger rings, bangles and bracelets worn by them, are made of bone. The women also have rows of flowers and balls suspended from their hair. Their dirty dress is chiefly composed of thick aprons, interwoven with black and red coarse cotton thread, and rude needle work, suspended from the waist downwards, and also a bodice made of the same material. The Lambani men wear tight breeches coming a little below the knees, and cover their heads with coarse turbans. The women of the Lambani tribe stitch bright rainbow-coloured fabrics covered with a mosaic of patchwork mirrors. They are great travellers and can be found in groups selling their cloth at markets and on beaches. Their work contributes considerably to the income of their families. The Lambanies are said to represent bee hives, as they were once known as a bee-keeping caste when they lived in the southern jungles. The Lambani people worship Shakti, manifestation of Goddess Durga. This article is a stub. You can enrich by adding more information to it.

The lovely, colourful mirror work embroidery of the tribal Lambanis of Rajasthan and Gujarat is in striking contrast to their barren, desert homeland. Karnataka also has this form of art. Sandur taluk of Bellary district is famous for ravishing mirror work articles and clothes which are popularly called 'Lambani Art'. These Lambanis, originally from Gujarat and Rajasthan, create mirror work wonders with their nimble fingers. Cushion covers, bags, dresses, kurtas, veils, skirts, tops, decoration pieces, table cloths, mats, etc., are available in lovely, rich and vibrant colours at Sushilanagar village of Sandur taluk. 'Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra', an organisation at Sandur, employs people of the village to work for them and also provides them with the raw materials. The finished product is then marketed in cities. Cushion covers range from Rs 400-500 depending on the fineness of the work. The finer the work, the more expensive the piece.

This dusky desert lass is dressed in a traditional Lambani outfit. The whole outfit along with the jewellery would cost around Rs 8,000, whereas the dress alone would cost around Rs 5,000. The whole outfit consists of the following items: Kurta - the top, Phetia - the skirt, Kachadi - the blouse, Chantiya - the veil, Baliyan and Bangadi - bangles, Kasautiya - armlet, Sadak - the skirt's decorated draw string, Gagri / Topli - clips or pins to be worn only by married women and serves as the mangalasutra, Aadi Kaatey - a pearl, gold or silver string connecting the earring and hair, Paawlar Haar / Haasli - the necklace, Korada - the anklet, Buriya - the nose ring and Khavya - the armlet to be worn only on the left arm. Gurjari, an emporium on Residency Road, stocks Lambani outfits. Check it out and go for that cultural ethnicity of whole of Manipur in northeastern India.

Lambanis lead a gypsy life and mainly inhabit the western Indian states including Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. A part of this tribal community is also found in the northern region of Karnataka. The Lambani tribe of India speak a language which is believed to have been originated in the state of Rajasthan. Earlier, Lambanis used to supply grains to armies. In the olden days, the Lambani people carried grain, salt, bamboos and firewood. The tribal community used oxen to carry heavier commodities.  Women of Lambani tribes wear decorated clothes or fabrics. Jewellery is also an essential part of these tribal women's lifestyle. Women wear bone-made finger rings, bangles and bracelets. In addition, they adorn their hair with flowers and balls. These tribal women mostly wear thick aprons which are interwoven with cotton thread through needle work. The thick apron remains suspended from the west (downwards) while bodice makes up for the upper. A coarse turban forms the headgear of a Lamabani tribal man. Men of the Lambani tribes are mostly seen dressed up in tight breeches, which extend a few inches below the knee.  People of Lambani tribes keep moving from place to place.
(Posted on June 21, 2010)
(Continued... Please go to the Page "Dr. Tanaji Rathod (2)" for next part of this article.)

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