Thursday, July 14, 2011

Travellers Through Time

What was the vow? I asked Premanand, an elderly sage of the Karia tribe living in my town. Premanand had attended an ashram in his youth, at Badmer, run by a reverend Lohar woman called Mataji. Now all the Karias in this town were disciples of Mataji. Premanand had also recorded the legend of the Gadia Lohars in Hindi.
So what was the vow, and how did it come to be made? I repeated my question to the old man.
We, the Gadia Lohars (the name by which the Karias are known in India) originate from a notable high-caste Rajput clan of Mewar, began Premanand softly. Our tribe is broadly divided into groups called the Solanki, Parmars, Chohans, Borana and Bhagelas. When Allauddin Khilji attacked Chitorgarh to kidnap Rani Padmani, our people courageously defended the honour of the clan. It remained like that till 1567, when Maharana Partab Singh lost Chitor to Raja Man Singh, the commander of the Mughal forces.
Though Partab Singh was soundly defeated at the battle of Haldi_Ghat, he refused to give up, and took refuge in the jungle. All the chieftains of Mewar assembled before the Maharana, and made a vow that unless they were victorious in their efforts to take Chitor back from the Mughals, the tribe would not make houses, nor sleep on charpoys, nor eat in metal utensils; and neither would they wear gold or live in comfort. Since then our people have roamed in bullock carts from place to place, working as ironsmiths throughout north and west India for centuries and never breaking the vow, concluded Premanand.
how did you turn to ironsmithing, after being a fierce warrior clan? I asked him.
Well, some of our ancestors excelled in the art of weaponry. They made swords and shields for battle. Many in the clan knew the art. But after we left Chitor and began our new life as Tiyagis we didn’t want to beg, and so we adopted this new livelihood as a necessity for survival.
Premanand belongs to one of the many nomadic tribes which wander throughout the subcontinent. Known as Karias in Sind (which means black in Sindhi), they are called Gadia or Gadolia Lohars in the rest of the subcontinent. They originate from Mewar state of western Rajasthan, and still use a dialect of that area as their mother tongue. The legend of which Premanand spoke became the basis of a cult to which they have belonged for centuries, roaming in their bullock carts through Rajasthan, Gujrat, Sind, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and even further south and east. Earning their livelihood as ironsmiths (hence the name Lohar) they are highly conspicuous the men with their long moustaches and parted beards, and the women with their arms full of bangles, hammering the hot iron as they produce and repair sickles, axes, machos, ploughs and other agricultural equipment for the rural peasantry.
The wandering tribes of the subcontinent can be divided into two main categories gypsies and nomads. Their origins date back to the dawn of human history, before the development of agricultural civilisations, when man lived by hunting animals and gathering together food from the wild plants of the forest and plain.
It was probably in the river valleys that the first human settlements were made, where the women developed a primitive mode of agriculture along the water channels, while the men continued to hunt. But many continued with their nomadic ways and some still maintain the tradition till today.
The category of wanderers whom we call gypsies are those who never found their environment conducive to a settled life. They are the oldest people of this land, descendants of the pre-Aryan age the Dooms, the Meers, the Naths, the puppeteers, the Darawars, the Jogis, the Shikaris, the Shamis, the Sanyasis, the Kucharas, the Gurgalas, the Jindawaras, the Changars, the Kanjars. Their dark pigmentation and short stature support the conjecture that they belong to a Dravidian or pre-Dravidian race.
They have no sense of property or ownership, and live from day to day, the most peaceable of people, earning their living by some form of art or craft. So-called civilised society has never sought to accommodate them, and they for their part have never found the business-minded, greedy and self-destructive urban society worthy of notice or communication.
These tribes have no sense of property or ownership, and live from day to day, the most peaceful of people. Killing, rape and murder are unheard-of among them. They earn their living by some form of art or craft toy-making, reed crafts, puppet shows, snake-charming, acrobatic performances, fortune or story-telling, singing, dancing, begging for alms and in rare cases, cheating. So-called civilised society has never sought to accommodate them, and they, for their part, have never found the business-minded, greedy and self-destructive urban society worthy of notice or communication. The two have remained untouchable for each other for thousands of years.
Interestingly, most linguists and sociologists now believe that the European gypsies, scattered from Spain to Latin America, are of Indian origin. They are said to have migrated to the West around the 10th century. Their language, grammar, culture and skin colour speak for their Indian antecedents, and they continue to live by the same means arts and crafts and to worship a deity, often known as the Black Madonna, who may be a version of the Hindu goddess Mata.
When the Mughals conquered the fort of Chitor, our tribe made a vow that until we were victorious in our efforts to take it back, we would not make houses, nor sleep on charpoys, nor eat in metal utensils; and neither would we wear gold or live in comfort. Since then we have roamed in our bullock carts, working as ironsmiths for centuries, and never breaking the vow.
The other category of wanderers the nomadic or semi-nomadic people has perhaps arisen through force of circumstances. For instance, once the prosperous agrarian civilisations developed in the river valleys, they attracted the poorer hill people and steppe tribes from the north-west, the Aryans, who poured in like locusts and pushed out the old, simpler folk. Having been pushed out of their natural home, these people roamed the wilderness, trying to regroup in order to recover their lands.
But the continuing invasions from the north-west did not allow them time for this. There was always a fresh Ghauri hard at the heels of a weary Ghazni. So, forced to flee and roam, they show signs of the bitterness of their wandering. Quick to anger, and often hostile, they are usually branded as criminal tribes. They have seen settled life in their past, and some of them were ruling tribes. They maintain a strong sense of historical identity, through their traditions, folklore and legends. They neither forget their past, nor do they forget the racial discrimination they have faced through centuries of caste oppression. These people, unlike true gypsies, have a strong sense of property, and are not always peaceable.
The Ahirs, Minas, Odes, Bhils, Kohlis, Ganwarias, Banjaras, Bagris, Rahbaris and the Gadia Lohars belong to this category. They, too are dark in pigmentation, and do not seem to differ much from the gypsies in culture. Most of the Minas and Ahirs, renowned for their prowess in cattle and grain-lifting, remained in India. The Ganwaria women, however, are often seen in Pakistan, as roadside hawkers. They carry their shops on their heads, and speak a Marwari dialect. The Kohlis, Bheels, and Meghwars now work as agricultural labourers, and are keen to settle down. The Meghwars, who also do leatherwork, are already settled in towns. Honest, strong and hard-working, they are now in popular demand as peasants in Sind.
Many Muslim Odes migrated to Pakistan during Partition. Their main skill was shepherding, in contrast to the Sindhi Odes, who build mud walls and houses. The Indian Odes wanted to settle down, and chose the fringes of the Cholistan desert in Bahawalpur state as their new homeland. They claimed and occupied 12 acres of land per family. But the bureaucratic feudal government of the early 50s, following the British colonial administrations guidelines as if they were sacred scriptures, maintained their old status as a criminal tribe, and ejected them from their land. The Odes turned to manual labour, working on building sites, in order to survive. Their hard-working, colourfully-dressed and robust women, with huge golden loongs and balis in their noses and ears, can often bee seen climbing a ladder with half a maund of bricks loaded on their heads. If that is the fate of a Muslim nomadic people, what happened to the majority of these tribes, who belong to the pre-Islamic, pre-Brahmanic tradition, is anyone’s guess.
The Karias, the tribe to which Premanand belongs, are no longer nomadic. Soon after Partition, the Gadia Lohars started settling down, breaking their ancient vow. Why? I asked Premanand. Has the vow been fulfilled?
He smiled gently, and his old eyes glinted. Yes, the vow has been fulfilled, he said. It happened in the early 50s. Nehruji, then Prime Minister of India, called a big sammelan of all the Gadia Lohars of India, and told them that the Mughal rule over Chitor finished a long time ago, and thus the vow has officially been fulfilled. Pandit Nehru paid a great tribute to the sacrifices made by the Gadia Lohars for the cause of liberation of their homeland by offering them free land and house-building loans for their settlements. But the Gadia Lohars insisted that unless they entered the fort of Chitor as conquerors they would not break the vow. And so a mock battle took place. A huge procession of Gadia Lohars, arrayed in battle dress, mounted on thousands of bullock carts, waving swords, and shields, charged and entered the fort like victors. And that was the end of nearly 40years of wandering.
We who happened to be on this side of the border, hearing the call of our chieftains, also started settling down at one of our favourite deserted camping sites, on the outskirts of towns. As the towns gradually spread we became part of them.
Are your people happy now with this settled life? I asked the others who had gathered around us. Old habits die hard, said Bhaggu, a Lohar who had been to Chitor some years ago. The general pattern of life remains unchanged, except that were not on the run any more. We still live in shanty huts, and even those who had the fortune to acquire a pucca house abandon it at night to sleep out in the open.
Meanwhile, Kewal, Krishan, Narayan and Prem, a group of dark, handsome youths, had entered the house very respectfully. Some of them were school and college-going students. Prem wanted to become an engineer. Most of them were interested in the history of Mewar, and I promised to bring them the Annals of Mewar from Todds Rajasthan. I left them sitting on charpoys, eating from copper utensils, golden rings dangling from their ears.

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