Vaghri - The search for an identity
Vaghri - The search for an identity
by Natasha C Acharya (copyright@natashacacharya2016)
Different Names and Origin Stories
Vaghri is the term used to identify wandering tribes originating from Gujarat. The Vaghri are said to have derived their name from the Sanskrit vaghurs or wagura or gogharas meaning a net; and Vaghri are said to have gotten this name because many Vaghri were professional hunters who were skilled at trapping birds and animals in nets. However, according to Enthoven (1922) the name Vaghri means tiger-like. Another school of thought also believes it is likely that the name is derived from “vagadas” meaning the sand hills of Rajputana desert.
All Vaghris have a native place, ancestral history, regional stories (which go back to the Treta Yug) and Kuldevi (Goddess) Temples. J M Malkan, a researcher and former bureaucrat in his study, 'Vagharis of Gujarat an ancient tribe: Facing crucial change and anti-historical process', says that the origins of the community can be traced back to the Vedic period where they are identified as Mrigaya or Vyadha, the hunters. Subsequently, they were not even considered as Sudra as they were categorized as Antyaja (last in the last category) and were generally given space outside the main town for residence.
Vaghri - also known as Bagri, Baori, Bella, Betigar, Datia, Malia, Murli, Salar, Salat, Vagher, Vaghri, Vavania, Vedu, Wadvi, Wagher, Waghri, Waghya, Wagri, Wather (as per Joshua Project) and Bavri, Salavta, Vaghri Koli (as per http://www.ethnologue.com/language/vgr)
Sometimes Bagri is used as a synonym for Waghri. The Bagri inhabit the Bagar country in the old United Provinces. Enthoven (1922) mentions that the Waghris of Gujarat probably belong to the Bagri tribe.
There are quite a few sub-groups of the Vaghri. One group is called the Kathiawad Vaghri or the Vedus who sell masala (spices) and gourd in the cities. The second group is Chunaries who are lime burner or cultivators. Third group is Dataniyas who sell twig toothbrushes. Then there are Vaghri the cultivators, and the Patani, and the Sovasiya and the Salaat, who are stonemasons, and the remaining clans being landless agriculture workers. Their minor sub-divisions include the Mori, Bajania, Kakodia, Bamcha and Pomla. Some of them have adopted the occupation of exchanging old clothes for steel utensils. All these are endogamous divisions and do not inter-marry, even though these sub-groups do not have any definite hierarchical order. They are endogamous, but maintain gotra exogamy. Their main clans are the Badgujar, Pawar, Solanki, and Godara. They are a landless community, although a few do hold small plots of land. In Gujarat, the Vaghri are found mainly in the districts of Sabarkantha, Banaskantha, Panchmahal, Kheda and Ahmedabad.
Again, Paradhis hailing from Gujarat who also fall under the criminal tribes act may be related in origin to the Vaghris. According to The Michael Kennedy in Criminal Classes in India - The Pardhis are an offshoot of the great Bauriah tribe. The sporting instinct of this tribe gave rise to the name Pardhi from “paradh” meaning hunting or fowling. Distinguishing the hunting methods, some were called Vaghri Pardhi (Vaghri derived from “vaghur” meaning net) or Phas Pardhi (Phas derived from “Phas” meaning a noose) who are also known as Meywarees in some parts of India. Again, there are also referred to as Langoti Pardhis (langoti meaning loincloth since they wear little else), or Pal Pardhis, because they live in pals meaning tents, or even Gai Pardhis because they hunt with trained cows. There is yet another branch of the tribe that is known as the Telvechanya Pardhis, who are vendors of a certain mineral oil commonly believed to restore lost vitality when rubbed onto the palm percolates through the hand and exudes at the back. Lastly there is a small number of the tribe known as the Cheetawalla Pardhis. In Tribal Communities and Social Change – Vilas A Sangave, describes them as a tribe who were experts in wandering through the forests and in the business of hunting and snaring birds, antelopes, and wild animals with the help of nets and hunting dogs. That is why in Maharashtra and Karnataka, the tribe of Pardhis is also known by the following names – Harana-shikari (hunters of antelope), Chigari Betegar (hunters of antelope), and Adavi-chanchar (wanderers in the forests). In the current day, however, a lot of them have adopted the profession of fretting mill stones, so they are also called Takaris or Takankars (derived from Takne meaning chiseling.)
According to People of India – Gujarat, Pardhi claim descent from Valmiki, the composer of the epic Ramayana, who according to them was a Pardhi. Enthoven (1922) describes them as a heterogeneous collection of people from Rajput, Koli, Vaghri, Dhangar, Kabbligar and Korchar. They live in Mundra, Anjar, Bhug and Abdasa talukas of Kutch district. Their population according to the 1981 census is 4416. They consider themselves above Harijan and Koli but below Brahman, Lohna and Ahir in the local social hierarchy. They place themselves in the Shudra varna.
Yet another school believes that the Pardhis belong to the Rajput stock and are the original inhabitants of the Vindhya and Satpura ranges of mountains which is why they are sometimes called “mevadis” meaning those belonging to Mewar in Rajputana. The raja-Pardhis remained in Mewar and the hunting Pardhis in search of game migrated in batches to the forest regions of Central India, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. In Maharashrta, they are found in the districts of Dhulia, Jalgaon, Nasik, Sholapur, and Kolhapur, and in Karnataka in the districts of Bijapur, Dharwar, and Belgaum. For more than 150 years, the Pardhis have been found in the Kolhapur region and they still maintain intimate relations in marital and religious matters with their sections in Karnataka region, especially with the Paradhis of Gadak, Dharwar, Hubli, Raibag and Katkol which were part of the former Kolhapur State. They originally came from the Gujarat region with whom they have now lost all connections. They however, maintain occasional contact with the Raj Pardhis of Central India.
The six divisions of Pardhis from Gujarat bearing the names of Khodiyar, Pipalajiya, Harakhatiya, Savandiya / Chavandiya, Korabiya and Vikhotiya settled in Kolhapur gradually accepted the Marathi names current in the area. The members of Khodiyar, Pipalajiya, and Harakhatiya divisions are known as Kales, those of Savandiya as Chavans, and those of Korabiya and Vikhotiya as Pavars.
However, in the current day, it appears that the Vaghris of Gujarat and Kathiawad are quite distinct from Vaghri Pardhis or Phans Pardhis.
It is really difficult to bring together all those who originally belonged to the Vaghri tribe, as people have migrated over generations, adopting different geographies, professions, and names.
For example, the Nari-kuravars in Tamil Nadu belong to the same original tribe, still worship the same goddess and follow the same rituals, and their language has remnants of the Kutchi spoken by the Vaghris in Gujarat. Since their culture and practices have been documented, we know about their link, but there are several such clans and tribes across the country that we have no way of connecting with. Once the word Vaghri became a taboo, many adopted surnames such as Chunara, Dataniya, Vadu, Gameti, Marvada, Patani, Pardhi and Vaghelia. They are today collectively known as Devipujak or worshippers of goddess.
The Kuravars, who are often called "gypsies" by people in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu, and who are also called Narikuravars and kuruvikkarans and Vaghrivalas, speak Vaghriboli, a language similar to Gujarati. The term kuravar occurs in Tamil mythology and Puranas referring vaguely to a community of hunter-gatherers, among whom Valli, the consort of Lord Murugan, was raised. Poet Nakkirar, who sang the Tirumurukarruppadai ("Guide to Lord Murugan") nearly two millennia ago, speaks of Kurava girls dancing on the hillsides, offering red oleander garlands, green leaves, incense smoke and cooked rice balls with goats' blood to Murugan, while the shaman is in a trance. Kamil Zvelibil in the dedicatory page of his The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India,(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973) cites the poet Arunakiri, in the Tiruppakal (5.71) tr. S. Kokilam.: "...your radiant smile, /O leader of men [Murugan] /With leaf-edged spear / Lover of Valli the gypsy /O Lord who resides on Tiruttani hills!"
However, such references are rare since Sanskrit literature is generally pervaded by upper caste values and non-tribal practices. It is the Brahmanic, Sanskritic, high culture tradition which is most represented in the West. But every once in a while one can find secondary references which validate the history of these people. Kurinji raga is said to be derived from a folk melody associated with the kurava people. And Kanakadas, a low caste bhakti singer-saint from a shepherd and hunter community, is echoed in the lyrics of some of Tyagaraja's songs. Also, Yakshaganas, song and dance dramas popular in South India, are thought to be rooted in old song and dance performances by people of the kuram community.
Anthropologically the Kurava hill tribe has been considered to be among the oldest inhabitants of the sub-continent. The historical background of the Narikuravars is a matter of speculation; it is unknown when they left Gujarat and when they arrived in Tamil Nadu. A discussion of theories of racial migration and tribal cultures which reveals the complexities of these issues is found in Surajit Sinha's Tribal Cultures of Peninsular India as a Dimension of Little Tradition in the Study of Indian Civilization: a preliminary statement in Milton Singer's Traditional India: Structure and Change, Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1959, pp. 298-312.
Literally, the Tamil word “Narikuravar” means "the fox or jackal hunters," comes from the practices of men in the community hunting and trapping with nets the jackal, and also from their customary selling of the skulls of jackals which have been filed to appear as if they have a horn. These are used as good luck charms. They also sell amulets, folk medicine and stuffed animals. The Tamil Kuruvikkaran, another name for these people, means "bird catcher," or "hunter of small fowl - referring to the reputation they have for hunting birds and sometimes keeping partridges to use as decoys when catching wild birds. In their own word for their spoken language, Vaghriboli, (they have no written language) Vaghri, an Indo-Aryan term, means "a birdcatcher," that is, a Narikuravar man making a living by ingeniously snaring birds and beasts in simple traps. They catch small birds, such as the parrot, but never eat the canary, which is sacred to the Goddess.
In The Criminal Classes in India author Michael Kennedy writes: Vaghris may well be described as wanderers with no fixed homes. The sphere of their criminal activities is, as a rule, not more than a radius of eight or ten miles from their encampment. These wandering tribes live in grass huts or tents and generally camp where the supply of water and grazing is good and plentiful and where they can snare game.
With the exception of those who have settled in villages, Vaghris of all kinds are chiefly distinguished by their scanty dress and general unkempt, dirty appearance. Their hair is neither cut nor combed nor, as a rule, is the beard shaved. Some females wear the saree like the Maratha women of the deccan, others a small petticoat. All wear the choli or bodice covering the chest. Both males and females wear a necklace of colored or onyx beads, which, with tin, copper-brass and brass bangles and earrings and chains are their adornment. The “dhotar” or cloth thrown over the shoulders or the shirt worn by the male is usually a dirty brown. The male’s head-dress varies between an old tattered rag which twisted into a rope barely encircles the head and the crown of the head is visible.
It is said that wandering devotees of certain goddesses will not wear garments of particular colours which is a custom also observed by Bauriahs who had similar restrictions regulated by the particular colour dedicated to the deity worshipped by them, a further evidence of the relationship between these two tribes. The more settled Vaghris dress much like poor Kunbis. They bear no resemblance to the wandering tribals. Their females mostly wear the lehenga / ghagra or skirt with odni like the poorer women of Gujarat, the fold over the head falling from right to left. Some dress like ordinary Kunbi women and wear sari and choli. Intermarriage amongst the various sub-divisions of the tribe is forbidden. All Vaghris are much addicted to drink and eat all fish and flesh except beef.
As a class, they vary in complexion between brown and dark, are of medium stature, very hardy, active, with great powers of endurance and keen senses. The male, with his long unkempt locks, his large metal earrings, the dirty rag serving as a turban, his scanty lion cloth, general wild squalid appearance, his sneaking gait and black wooden whistle hanging from his neck with which he imitates the call of the partridge, is unmistakable wherever he goes. The female is more elaborately attired than the male.
They move from place to place with their families in gangs of varying strength numbering even a hundred or more. The men with their snaring nets and nooses and baskets are followed by women and children carrying the pals and a variety of goods and chattels. Sometimes their paraphernalia are loaded on cows and buffaloes. Their encampments are squalid in the extreme, overrun by pariah dogs, fowls and miserable looking half-starved cattle.
Generally they move from place to place in large groups sometimes consisting of 100 persons, and they camp in their tents or huts pitched at a considerable distance from a village. Even though efforts have been made to settle them in one place, they like to retain their nomadic lifestyle.
There have been a few attempts at rehabilitation. Some Vaghris have adopted varied professions like agriculture, metal breaking and stone quarrying, dairying, poultry keeping, pipeline laying, spinning and weaving, furniture making and masonary. Educationally, they are backward and being nomadic, they have not developed the desire for learning and have not taken advantage of various government schemes to promote free education for the backward classes.
Statistics (Source: The Joshua Project)
People Name Vaghri (Hindu traditions)
Population in Pakistan 6,800
Population in India 5,84,800
Total Countries 2
Indigenous - Yes
People ID - 18290
Ethnicity Affinity Bloc - South Asian Peoples
People Cluster – Gujarati
People Group - Vaghri (Hindu traditions)
Ethnic Code - CNN25p
Primary Language - Vaghri (4,500 speakers)
Language Code - vgr Ethnologue Listing
Lexical similarity - 78% with Wadiyari Koli [kxp].
Secondary Languages: Sindhi, Koli, Kachi, Saraiki, Kacchi
In Rituals of a "Gypsy" Tribe: The Vaghri or Narikuravar - William J. Jackson writes: Their exotic beauty and their proud, almost insolent bearing made them fascinating, even if they lived in the dust, surviving in the poorest of conditions. They caught my eye and sympathy, and held my fascination, despite my Brahman culture guide's constant attempts to discourage my interest. It is usual in India for the high caste to screen from their awareness much of the untouchable's presence. I, however, could not help but see and marvel at these colourful nomads: women with babies slung over one hip, sharp stick in hand to gather scraps of paper in a burlap bag; mustached men in turbans, sometimes walking with a long-barrelled antique muzzle-loading rifle slanting over a shoulder, or selling freshly plucked wild fowl in busy side street bazaars near the Eros Theatre. Children might be seen begging and rummaging through marriage-hall feast leftovers, competing with cows and crows for the banana-leaf plates with rice on them.
In both cities and rural areas of Tamil Nadu entire families of Narikuravars live together in small tents, or huts, which are sometimes made of elephant grass stems. There they continue to trap and hunt birds, rabbits, (and, it is sometimes rumoured, the occasional household cat). The women make and sell beaded necklaces. Both men and women are known to wear jewellery made of beads, shells and coins. The women often wear colourful pleated skirts (ghagro)which are not as long as saris. They are a peripatetic people often known to outsiders for their passionate nature, independent spirit and unwillingness to work for others, and for a volatility quick to flare up in quarrels and equally quick to forgive and forget. Unlike many caste Hindus most Narikuravars consume toddy or arrack (country liquor), especially during pujas and festivities.
The Narikuravar skillful art of wielding the bamboo stick is another art associated with the Narikuravar people. Nillaikalakki Silambam is a martial art which is said to have been developed in ancient times in India by mountain people of the South. The practitioner uses a stick that is supposed to be 1.68meters long, known as a “Silam-bamboo.” The use of this stick is said to have been developed and transmitted for many generations in the South Indian mountains. Narikuravar men used this staff as a weapon to protect themselves against the teeth and tusks, and talons and claws of wild animals. They also used the stick to display their graceful dance-like moves during religious festivals. According to some, South Indian yogis meditating in the Kurinji mountains learned the art of using this stick from the tribals long ago. (There are pink kurinji flowers in the mountains of the South, growing especially in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In ancient Tamil Sangam literature there are said to be five different kinds of landscape. Mountainous land was known as Kurinji, named after this flower.) The yogis were intrigued by the spinning Silam bamboo gracefully wielded by the muscular Narikuravar experts. The yogis learned from the tribals how to perform the stick exercises and used it as a discipline. Thus, the martial art now known as Nillaikalakki Silambam is said to have first become a part of the training which Hindu yogis of the South underwent. The yogis are said to have spread this martial art to the courts of regional kings during the Cheran, Cholan and Pandian dynasties. Silambam has thus for many generations been famous as an admired physical exercise and athletic demonstration performed for audiences, as well as a spiritual discipline practiced by traditional Hindus. Competitions were conducted under the auspices of regional courts to celebrate and promote Silambam on royal birthdays, and the champions of Silambam who demonstrated the greatest skill and proved their expertise became renowned and won prestigious prizes from the rulers. The Silambam winners showing the greatest balance, coordination and the ability to agilely respond with split second precision with the stick were given the honour of serving in the king’s personal guard.
In Development of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India, Jagan Karade writes: Traditional occupations include folk-arts, folk-dancing entertainment, animal acts, hunting, sale of herbal medicines, acrobatic, fortune telling, beggary, genealogy recording, quilt stitching, cow and sheep breeding and herding, exchange of household utensils for old clothes, idol making, wood-working, gold and copper smithy and tattooing.
Vaghri are also cattle breeders and cattle traders, and sell their cattle at the famous Pushkar cattle fair. The Vaghri are landless, and depend on agricultural labour. They are also involved in the raising poultry, sheep, goat, and cattle, as well as selling vegetables. The adopted occupations include scrap collecting, construction and market labour, shaving buffalos, trading in old clothes etc. A majority of the families live below the poverty line and are mired in poverty, hunger, ill-health, unemployment, family strife, ignorance and superstition, with youngsters and elders alike ultimately leading themselves into addiction.
Majority of the children are deprived of primary education either because they are constantly shifting base, or they are pulled away from schools to help with the family’s income earning activity. Another reason for the negative attitude towards education is that the educated youth fail to secure gainful employment. Neglect and mistrustful treatment given by government officials are not conducive to these tribes obtaining the benefits of the Welfare Schemes.
They have an effective caste council, which acts as quasi-judicial body and deals with intra-community disputes. It is headed by an heredity office holder, known as a Patel. The Panchayat is a very powerful organization and controls all activities of its members. The defaulters are severely punished. The punishments can range from whipping, fines, or mutilation of nose, ears or lips, or they can prescribe ordeals like holding the red hot blade of an axe, dipping ones hand in boiling oil and the people concerned willingly submit to these punishments. The authority of the Panchayat is held supreme by all and for all intents and purposes, the Patil is like a king to them.
They belong to the idolatrous section of Hindu religion. Their principal deities like Paradhan Devi, Pipala Devi, and Ajmer Khandavi and Jabner mata, Galta mata, Sambher mata and Shile mata, Vihat, Narsingabir, Kalika and Meldi mata. Their sacred places like Pavagadha are from Gujarat. In recent times, they have also adopted locally prominent deities such as Mahalakshmi, Tulahabhavani, Hanuman, Vithoba, and Yellamma. The images of the deities are kept tied in a cloth and taken out for worship once a year on their main festival day. They offer animal sacrifices to their deities.
The identity of a Vaghri, his or her place in the group is based on his or her relationship to a clan Goddess. A Vaghri defines himself, and is different from non-Vaghris in his right to claim relationship to a clan Goddess. The community is divided into four exogamous groups: The Gujarato worship with a buffalo sacrifice Goddess Parvati or Vexli ("twenty-armed Goddess").The Mevado (from Mevar, Southern Rajasthan) worship Goddess Minaksi or Novkod with a goat sacrifice. The Dhabi worship Goddess Kali or Durga; and the Seliya worship Goddess Selor Kanniamma. Generally, male buffalows, or goats are sacrificed and they drink the blood of the sacrificed animal. Sometimes they offer their blood as a special offering to please their deities. They venerate the cow and never indulge in cow sacrifice or in beef eating. Tree worship is also common amongst them, for example, some of them worship the Pipal (Ficus Religiosa), some worship the Vad (Ficus bengalensis), and some worship the Tulsi (Ocimim sanctum).
The main male deity of the Vaghri is Dadaji, who is associated with the sun. Dadaji is the first God, responsible for creation and the foundation of culture; the Goddesses care for the particulars of culture. Dadaji accomplishes his actions with the help of Goddess Vexli. Dadaji created humans out of clay. After several interferences by a troublesome flying horse who trampled the clay beings, Dadaji gave humans enduring life. Dadaji also created the buffalo, who, after being desired for food by the gods is given defences by Dadaji, so that he becomes a menace to all. Vexli seductively tricks the buffalo, and after throwing him down, cuts his throat, and Dadaji drinks the blood and the gods eat the liver and kidneys which are apportioned on nineskewers. Vexli taught the Vaghri how to sacrifice buffalo, and they have performed the ritual. Vaghri Buffalo Sacrifice Among the Vaghri ritual sacrifices may be held for the expiration of sin, at the request of the Goddess in a dream, or for other reasons. Sometimes the movements of the animal to be sacrificed are interpreted as an oracle, revealing the guilt or innocence of an accused person, for example. During the sacrifice the worshipper is often possessed by the Goddess, but never by Dadaji. A sacrifice is held every few years; sacrificers may not know the years in which the sacrifices were held, but they usually do remember how many animals' blood they have drunk. Goat sacrifices, some of which are held in conjunction with buffalo sacrifices, are held more often.
According to an origin myth about their people still current among the Narikuravars, their first ancestor was named Kaliaraja. This king went into the forest to hunt, and lost his way, and the goddess Kali appeared to him as a bat when he prayed. The destiny of the tribe was hinted in the promise Kali made to Kaliaraja: "I will protect you. Have children in the forest and I will bring them up in the plateaus." It has been the fate of many Narikuravars to identify with a wilderness hilltop origin, while living as wanderers in the populated valleys and plains.
The members of each family carry with them on their wanderings a cloth bundle (called a sami mootai in Tamil; it is called atharangduin Vaghriboli), which functions as a portable shrine. In this bundle they carry silver-plated plaques (putli), images of deities, inside a sack (mhoro). These pentagonal plaques about the size of a hand are relief figures of the four different clan Goddesses; two have prominent breasts, and all wear skirts slung low on their hips below the belly, much as Narikuravar women usually wear theirs. A Vaghri may possess more than one putli, if he can afford to, but there must be a minimum of one for each son, to be divided among them when the father dies. The bundle is said to be worshipped one day every three years. Outsiders, generally viewed by the Vaghri with suspicion anyway, are normally not shown these sacred objects, and public displays of devotion to them are not normally seen. Inside the bundle is also kept a blood-soaked skirt from buffalo or goat sacrifices of the past. Sometimes these cloths are several generations old. These blood-soaked sheets of cloth, folded triangularly, called molyus, are sacred representations emblematic of the Goddess; they become blood-soaked during specific parts of the sacrifice. Normally the sacrifice rituals last three nights and two days, with two or more families sacrificing together, one offering a goat, one a buffalo. During this ritual time no sexual intercourse is allowed in the settlement. A sacrificial area away from the living grounds is cleaned, and a tent for Vexli is put up. The tharangdu are brought, containing putlis, molyus, trident, knife, etc. First a goat is sacrificed and the blood is offered to Dadaji, represented by uncooked rice on the tent floor, then meat is cooked and eaten by the men. In the sacrifice to the Goddess, it is usual for the Goddess to possess the sacrificer in a kind of trance, and to drink the blood (sometimes mixed with alcohol) through him, in front of the tent. After the putli and molyu have been bathed in blood the sacrificer hyperventilates, loosens his hair and the Goddess "goes to his head" and he enters a trance. The favourite time for sacrifice is Citra month (mid-April to mid-May). The ritual sacrifice re-enacts the Vaghri cosmology. The relationships between masculine and feminine deities and relationships among Goddesses are depicted in the myth of the buffalo and are re-enacted in the sacrifice. The Goddesses' stories and activities are the basis for Vaghri social organization. Part of the father's sacred bundle is given to his son when he is married. At that time the oldest cloth is transferred temporarily to the son's bundle; later it is returned to the father's. The eldest son inherits his father's bundle at the time of his death. Sometimes these sacred objects are the source of contention and bitter arguments among relatives. Other ritual paraphernalia are also kept in the bundle, including items used in the odhamo oracle. The bundle is carried on amaci, a square wooden frame with four detachable legs.
Deeply embedded in the Narikuravar culture, the oracle ritual involves odhamo, small redseeds, called "crab's eyes."The process of chance selection, the basis of the oracle, is similar to various sorts of "lot oracles" used around the world. The oracle ritual begins with the presupposition that a diviner can receive an inspired answer to a query through selecting, counting out and separating in portions a significant number of an item. It is believed that the overall process "either expresses the will of the gods or occasions insight into the course of events by providing a clue to an aspect of that interrelated chain of events that constitutes the cosmic harmony." Usually the lots indicate by an understood correspondence signs for interpretation, answers in the positive or negative. The procedure for the oracle is as follows. First the maci is brought from the Eastern side of the hut. It is then set up so that the mhoro, or "sack of the gods" may be opened toward the East. The head of the household and other participants, including the women, sit down in front of the bundle. In front of the bundle an empty sack called cai is placed on the ground, then the man performing the rite opens the sack of ritual utensils and takes out a metal stand for incense and camphor, a bell, the red seeds, and a conch shell used for holding incense sticks. Two bottles of kalar are placed nearby. The incense sticks are lit and glowing charcoal is put on the metal stand. Then another kind of incense, gugal, is added. Camphor is also lit. The incense is taken in the right hand and moved in a circle by the head of the household, while the bell in his left hand is rung. The name of the foremost male deity of the Vaghri is invoked first: "Dadaji, Dadaji, Dadaji..." is repeated again and again. "In your name I pour the flowing incense smoke...Dadaji..." Five handfuls of red seeds, odhamo, for Dadaji are piled on the cai next to each other. First, three little piles. Each of which should have an uneven number. Then two little piles, each of which should have an even number. If it happens that the three piles are all made of odd numbers of seeds and the two are of even, the interpretation is that the answer to the question is positive. The correct number being measured out decides the answer to the question. The Vaghri oracle, like oracles used elsewhere, is a way to ask for guidance in making decisions, a way to focus attention and dissolve anxieties, a way to make peace with the forces of the universe and fortune, and a way to seek blessings and reduce risks. Possession by the Goddess is very common during the odhamo oracle. The trance state comes especially when the correct number—odd and even numbers—are hit on the first try. The questions presented for answers may involve such matters as the cause of strife in a particular household, the proper time to sacrifice a goat, and if should the performer of the ritual should continue on, and will he be helped by the deities, and other questions regarding the family's welfare. The answers are received as if getting a direction directly from the deity, hence a sense of acting in accordance with the decree of the deity is part of the experience, engendering a belief that one can know secrets about the future, and one can avoid danger and do the correct or advantageous thing. When at least one of the questions is answered, the performer of the oracle proceeds to the next type of oracle. If no answer is forthcoming, then the two bottles of kalar (which is cola or lemonade) may not be drunk by the ritual performer, but instead are poured on the legs of the maci frame, as an offering.
By interpreting the lots as the answer of their deity, they feel involved in an exchange with the mysterious invisible world which has an overriding power in this realm. some tribes associated with the Kuravars are associated with extensive omen lore. These rituals are occasions for ecstatic trance states among the Narikuravars, with experiences of possession by the Goddess, and the frenzy of divine intoxication. In them the Narikuravars believe themselves to be in contact with their deities, and the experience of a blissful transcendence of usual consciousness must be a significant incentive to the celebrants. Just as bliss plays a motivating part in the recital of and immersing of one's attention in religious texts, these oral and visual symbol systems provide another world to inhabit. A feeling of painless, expansive, free-floating ease reported during trance invites the practitioner to repeat the actions which lead to those states. Such experiences have long been important to people in India—shamans, yogis, meditators, mystics, wisdom seekers and ecstatic bhaktas—although they are attained in a variety of ways. Such religious experiences of contacting the sacred have been a driving force behind religion and culture in India. To find certitude, orientation and meaning through such practices would seem to be the reason for their continuing popularity. Because of access to transcendence, even the poor have something in which they can feel rich, filled with self-worth, and able to call themselves "kings of the forest."Others may see them as poor, but they can see themselves as having their own kinds of wealth. While modern people can seldom say the names of their ancestors going back more than three generations, Narikuravars can often recite the names of their ancestors going back six generations of more.
The most religious festival is celebrated every year on the Dussehra day (the 10th day in the month of Ashvin) by the entire tribe. The special part of the function is the sacrifice of a goat by piercing an iron nail into its throat. They suck the blood and sprinkle it on the ground. The ceremony continues for hours together in the midst of dancing and drum beating. Drinking is permitted on the occasion.
The other common festivals are observed in the months of Chaitra and Ashadha but without the special procedure of sacrifice and drinking of blood. No Brahmin priest or sage or ascetic is called to officiate at any religious ceremony. However, all religious restrictions are scrupulously observed by the tribe members.
The beliefs in witchcraft, sooth saying, and superstitions are widespread. Special functionaries specialize in Shaman craft. Women are allowed to work as shamans. The shamans have long and twisted hair and are respected by all tribe members.
The community is non-vegetarian in its food habits and takes the meat of sheep, goat, and buffalo. Both males and females take alcoholic drinks.
Special practices are observed at the time of birth, marriage, and death.
Marriages are performed as per Hindu traditions. Child marriages were prevalent but now adult marriages have taken its place. Child marriages were given up as they sometimes would result in conflicts if the boy or girl was affected by seethala (small pox). Marital alliances are negotiated by their respective parents. Mother’s brother’s daughter is a probable match in marriage negotiation. In Tamil Nadu a Vaghri marriage is usually between one from a family which sacrifices a goat and one from a family which sacrifices a buffalo. In marriage the woman always marries a man whose Goddess is different from that of her father. A sum of money is paid towards the bride price by the boy’s parents to enable the girl’s father to purchase naknigri (nose ring) and tansori of copper. After all the formalities are completed to the satisfaction of both parties, a formal betrothal ceremony called sagpan is performed by presenting at least a pair of clothes to the girl.
Marriage is usually solemnized within a year. The marriage ceremony is officiated by the Patil, the headman of the hereditary Panchyat or council, and his previous sanction is required for every marriage. Marriage is solemnized by making four rounds – first three led by the groom and the last round by the bride – of the sacred fire. The nuptial ceremony is arranged at the groom’s house. They follow patrilocal residence after the marriage. Monogamy is the norm. Polygyny is allowed in case there is no child from the first wife. Chutta-chedha (divorce) is allowed mainly on the grounds of maladjustment between spouses. Ghargenu (widow remarriage) is allowed. A widow is married outside the deceased husband’s family. Junior levirate was abolished by the samaj gnathi.
Only sons inherit ancestral property. The eldest son succeeds on the death of his father. The help of clan elders is sought in resolving the disputes among the community members. The women have a lower status in almost all spheres of life. She has no right of inheritance. She earns by working as a labourer and thereby contributes to the family income. Collection of fuel and fodder is done by her. She has a vital role in social and ritual activities but has little role to play in local politics or social control of the community.
Amongst people who live in settled households, a pregnant woman is brought to her parents house for the first delivery during her seventh or eighth month of pregnancy after performing a ritual called kholobharvo in her in law’s house. Delivery is attended by any local midwife, or in case of complications moved to a hospital. The mother is treated as unclean for forty days. Fui (father’s sister) gives name to her nephew or nice on the sixth day, in a ceremony called chhatti. Mundan is performed at the shrine of the clan deity when the boy is between 2 and 5 years of age.
Amongst nomads, a woman is never permitted to have her delivery in the house. At the time of delivery, she is removed to a tent away from the camp and is made to remain there alone for a period of five weeks. Nobody touches her during that period and she must arrange everything for herself. The child is shaved on the third day. The tent, clothes and vessels used by the delivering woman are discarded when she is admitted back into the house.
The funeral rites are simple. Those who can afford to, burn the dead, the rest bury them. The dead body is not shown to anyone and mourning is observed for 10 days. The dead are buried after a symbolic touch of the fire to the right toe. All the male patrilineal relatives of the deceased undergo head and moustache shaving on the tenth day after death. The death rites are concluded with leaving of the ghadadena (water pots) on the twelfth day in a ceremony called barmo.
A Bias that is deeply ingrained (Narikuravar Proverbs)
In India there are colourful proverbs associated with the Narikuravars, some by insiders, and some by outsiders. For example: "We are kings of the forest, let those who dare try to subdue us." (Used by the Kuravars.) "Give an elephant to a pundit, give a cat to a Kuravar." (Used among non-Kuravars.)"Blinking like a Kuravar." (When questioned, confused, flinching and cringing, the Kuravar appears to be wondering how to escape. Used among non-Kuravars.) "You cheat just like a Kuravar." (Used among non-Kuravars.) "The quarrels of a Kuravar are endless." (Used among non-Kuravars.) "When a Kuravar woman bears a child the husband takes the medicine (or goes on a diet)." Referring to couvade, when a husband goes through labour pains in sympathy with his wife, reported in some cultures; Hatch notes he found no evidence of this during his research. Used among non-Kuravars. "Kuravar justice ends in the ruin of the home." (This probably refers to the way Narikuravar disputes are often settled. There is an assembly of the community presided over by the peria manusam, “elder of the tribe” to decide serious disputes. Ordeals are used to test the accused. For example, a woman not returning home at night must carry a red hot sickle 16 steps without dropping it. Another ordeal entails fishing a coin from a pot of boiling water with cow dung.) "No one has seen a dead monkey or a Narikuravar burning ground." (Used among non-Kuravars.) "Every Kuravar woman ends up a widow (outliving her husband)." (Used among non-Kuravars.) "Having stolen the fowl, the Kuravar woman weeps with the owner over its loss." (Used by non-Kuravars.) "A Kuravar thief eats the fowl then walks around looking for it with the owner trying to find it." (Used among non-Kuravars.)
Some of these proverbs stereotype Vaghri people, including the unjust charge that they kidnap children, and train monkeys to steal. Some Vaghri have a knowledge of herbs and have finely-honed skills of survival. In recent years, more Narikuravars are said to live in more permanent homes. They constitute not a large number of people, but they are worthy of respect.
The Journey / Legal Status
Vaghris have been a depressed community of itinerant traders and nomads who hail from Gujarat and engage in various forms of trade all over India and have been subject to social marginalisation from the 1700s because of their ambiguous identity. As forest hunters and traders who worshipped goddesses and hold origin myths connecting them to the Middle East, the Vaghri did not fit easily into the category of caste or tribe as these categories became more rigidly codified during the colonial era. At the same time, their marginalisation gave rise to some amount of occult criminality in the nineteenth century which resulted in the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) (1871) through which the social marginalisation of the Vaghri was greatly extended and a stigma attached that persists into the present day.
Their departure from Gujarat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the nature of their migration, their emergence as hawkers and petty traders on the streets of Mumbai and their continuing connections with their original villages in Gujarat created adaptive responses of the Vaghri to this history of constant alteration, stigma and persecution. At the same time, the stigma travelled where the Vaghri travelled and they were increasingly identified as petty thieves who use trade as a cover for theft.
Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) (1871) – declares Vaghris as being a tribe "addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences." In 1949, the Gov of India appointed a committee to review the working of the Criminal Tribes Act. The committee recommended the repeal of the Act and its replacement by a habitual Offender’s Act applicable to all persons irrespective of caste or tribe. Central Government includes Vaghris in the first list of Scheduled Castes and Tribes which was issued in 1951.
The Criminal Tribes Act is repealed and De-notification of the criminal tribes occurs in 1952, and they are then referred to as “Vimukta Jati”. Accordingly, the Government of India begins to take steps for the proper resettlement of ex-criminal tribes. Mahasweta Devy says,” There are two birth year for a child born to any DNT family.” One is the real birth year and the other one is 1871, in which the Criminal Tribes Act was passed to ‘Rehabilitate’ tribes like Sansi (Also known as chhara, aadodiya, kanjar, kanjarbhat, manesh and bhedkut), Daffer, Vaghri, Bhamta (Also known as kaikadii) etc. There were around 191 such tribes that were forced to live with this fate. Currently their population is close to 8 crores.
The removal of the Act also sees the Vaghri return to forms of mobility and trade not seen since the beginning of the century. With this an earlier Vaghri pattern of itinerant trade and a fairly strong sense of community is brought back. Trade in embroidered Gujarati textiles and antiques emerges in the 1970s as a response to the presence of a new and comparatively wealthy client base in the form of international tourists whom Vaghris call "the Hippies". Bolstered by the careful arrangement of marriages within the caste and the role of the Vaghri Samaj as a trade guild, extensive familial and caste-based trade networks continue to develop and by the 1980s an increasing number of families are moving into handicrafts and travelling to tourist centres throughout India.
However, the BJP-led NDA Government delists them in 2002. The BJP Government in the state issued a notification in this regard after passing a resolution on September 5, 2002. The communities were not even given a hearing.
The Gujarat High court issued a notice to the Union government over a 2002 legislation which removed three communities from the list of scheduled tribes (ST) and scheduled castes (SC). The division bench of Justice Akil Kureshi and Justice JB Pardiwala directed the Centre to file reply, explaining the deletion of Koli, Pardhi and Devipujak (Vaghri) communities.
Bakul Thakor has challenged the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) Order (Amendment) Act of 2002. The amendment shifted these three Kutch-based communities to 'Socially and Economically Backward Classes (SEBC)'. Petition says that no reason was given for this move. Advocate Vidita Jayaswal, Thakor's lawyer, argued that the change in status has deprived these communities of various benefits.
In 2007, looking to make their way back into the list of Scheduled Tribes, leaders of three communities from Kutch—Koli, Vaghri and Pardhi, along with new Congress district party president Shankar Sachade, asked AICC chief Sonia Gandhi to raise the issue with the state Government. No further action or development has happened since.
The preamble of the Constitution of India upholds: “Justice, social, economic and political, liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship, equality of status and of opportunity, and promote among them all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and unity of Nation”. Towards the same, Articles – 16(1), 25, 29 (2) and 38 focus on welfare of both scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, but there are no special provisions in the constitution for the welfare and development of the Nomadic Tribes. There is only Article 46 that says the State shall promote with special care, social, economic and educational development of the weaker sections.
With a long history of poverty and exclusion, the story of the Vaghri is one of struggle, prejudice and victimisation. It is also a story of adaptation and resilience that provides an ethnographic account of the history and contemporary practices of a depressed community.
Community Development and Support Groups
Development agendas were created largely by the Cristian community, which the Vaghri rejected because worshipping the goddess is a very integral part of their identity and belief system. Their response was to create the Vaghri Sarvodaya Samaj a moralistic and welfare-oriented control apparatus through which a new Vaghri identity was articulated.
Mittal Patel has founded an organisation called Vicharta Samudaya Samarthan Manch (VSSM). Through her organisation she has worked tirelessly since 2006 for nomadic and denotified tribes to get their fundamental rights. She has been instrumental in helping 30,000 people to get their addresses and providing access to Vote ID Cards, Houses, Residential Plots, Ration Cards, Bank Accounts and various government welfare schemes. VSSM runs 26 alternate schools in 9 Districts of Gujarat State currently 22000 families are connected with them. They have 1040 students enrolled and out of which 1000 students have been mainstreamed.
In1998, the youth of Chharanagar, decided to stand up against the centuries old injustice. They started the Budhan Theatre. The name Budhan belongs to that of a innocent young man of the tribe who was mercilessly killed in police custody. The Budhan Theatre Group has influenced their life to a great extent. Daxin Chhara, who leads the Theatre Group, believes that development has many forms. It is different for a village, a city or a community like theirs. He strongly believes that education can’t be taken as a form of development for their community. Transformation of people is the best measure of the development of the Chhara community. Their theatre is a way of exploding all the pent up emotions they have against the state. It's not a prop stage theatre, it's a theatre in which the audience are a part of the show. They were dependent on the state for their well being, now they are transforming themselves through art. Dakshin Bhai, a member of the tribe and the main playwright of the Budhan Theatre group, is also a documentary maker. He has produced two documentaries called Bulldozer and The Lost Salt. Kerim Friedman , a noted anthropologist has also made a documentary on their life.
Multiple Identity Crisis - The Vaghri Plea:
The Nomadic Tribes and De-notified Tribes also known as ‘vimukta jatis’ or ‘ex-criminal castes’ consist of about 60 million in India, 315 Nomadic Tribes and 198 De-notified Tribes.
At the time of Indian independence in 1947, there were thirteen million people in 127 communities who faced constant surveillance, search and arrest without warrant if any member of the group was found outside the prescribed area. After independence of India, this act was repealed by Government of India in August 1949 and former "criminal tribes" were de-notified 1952. This act, however, was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts that asked police to investigate a suspect’s criminal tendencies and whether his occupation is "conducive to settled way of life." The de-notified tribes were reclassified as habitual offenders in 1959 and in 1961 state governments started releasing lists of such tribes.
Tamil Nadu, Kerala
Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh
Tamil Nadu and Karnataka
Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh
The nomads have roamed the subcontinent for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Anthropologists have identified about 500 nomadic groups in India, numbering perhaps 80 million people—around 7 percent of the country's billion-plus population. These wanderers were once part of India's mainstream. They meshed comfortably with the villagers who lived along their annual migration routes.
In British times, Vaghris were listed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1952, the stigma of which is still attached to the tribes' name. No documentary proof or data of the tribe has been collected to refute this history. In Gujarat due to the negative implications of this, the tribe is still facing social problems like, dishonour, discrimination, and caste racism attached with the name: Vaghra , Vaghro, etc.
Fragmented by caste, language, and region, the nomads are ignored by politicians and, in contrast to other downtrodden groups who have reaped at least some benefits from social welfare schemes. The lack of common identification has perpetrated social and economic backwardness along with lack of unity and political leadership. They have suffered continually from the stigma of criminality attached with them. Extreme poverty, ignorance of the world outside, early age marriage, homeless and migratory life, illiteracy, superstitions and unemployment over the years have not helped the cause. No permanent occupation, roof and address prevents them from getting basic identification from legal authorities, and they are thus excluded from any welfare benefits.
Today, Vaghris are facing a multiple identity crisis. All Vaghris in South Asia are natives of the state of Gujarat, but due to the absence of socio-economic support, they have been forced to move to different states, cities and districts to improve their livelihoods. This migration has caused a great loss of their identity and ancient culture over time. Although many clusters of the tribal community have migrated to urban centres decades ago, they maintain strong connections to their roots and visit their ancestral lands twice a year for cultural and religious activities.
In India 60% of people are living this same identity crisis. One identity belongs to the place of origin and the second identity has been acquired through migration for economical sourcing. Due to this, the Vaghri community lacks socio-economic support from the State and Central Government and there is no platform where the fundamental rights of the tribe can be taken up or addressed.
In absence of any means of livelihood and lack of education to fit into the settled society they are forced to continue the nomadic wandering tradition for survival in the most degrading and sub human conditions. In cities the tribes are working as hawkers, in the second-hand clothing business, and farming for landlords. Thousands of families belonging to these tribes wander from place to place and stay in temporary structures rarely fit for humans being to stay. Unless they settle at one place or another, unless they provided with opportunities of education and employment they will never be in position to integrate themselves in the society and avail of the benefits of modern educated civil life.
The children are deprived of education. They cannot get education through regular school systems in a settled society due to an unstable lifestyle. They are excluded from the mainstream social life and their life is fossilized in poverty and ignorance. Under the circumstances, they will continue to be economically and socially backward.
Today, Vaghris do not have any documentation identifying their native place as showing they are from Gujarat and from a particular village. As livelihoods led them to different cities, some of them have the nationality proof, but they do not have an identity in terms of which tribe they belong to like a Caste, Tribe Certificate from Central or State Govt.
The ground reality is that the Tribes or Caste list in Central is different from the list issued by the state, the state list is different from the ones issued by the districts. The system has not been updated for a long time, and is therefore completely ineffective and in many cases leads to misinformation.
Through half a century there has been no substantial effort by any government towards their welfare and upliftment. They have been neglected by people and political class across ideologies and parties. There has never been any effort made to make them part of the main stream society. We would like the Government to focus its attention on Tribal communities and Nomadic tribes and provide them with proof of their original identity so that the correct data can be acquired for the betterment of the communities and their livelihoods.
The mandate of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is “to issue every resident a unique identification number linked to the resident’s demographic and biometric information, which they can use to identify themselves anywhere in India, and to access a host of benefits and services”. The meaning of resident is “one who resides in a particular place permanently or for an extended period”. Which means for all those residents of India, who do not have a permanent residence, are not the residents and, therefore, they may never be able to get any of the identity, or Aadhaar card. The UIDAI should therefore address the issue of the country’s nomadic and denotified tribes and arrive at a solution towards the same.
Also, repealing the Habitual Offenders Act and reinstating their tribal identity as a socially and economically marginalised community will go a long way towards enabling an inclusive policy whereby the tribal communities can benefit from welfare schemes and programmes. The government and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment should therefore address this issue and help this tribe to move towards a future which gives them what the constitution of India promises - Equality of status and of opportunity, assuring the dignity of the individual and unity of Nation.
Books and References:
1. Darlene Ann McNaughton (BA Hons) - James Cook University - In November 2003 – request for thesis paper on Subalternity, itinerant trade and criminality : an ethnographic study of members of the Kathiawad Vaghri. PhD thesis,
2. The Tribes and Castes of Bombay (1922), by R. E. Enthoven.
3. People of India: Maharashtra, Part3 - Published by Anthopological Survey of India
4. People of India: Gujarat, Part 3 – Published by Anthopological Survey of India
5. Tribal Communities and Social Change – Vilas A Sangave - edited by Pariyaram M Chacko
6. The Criminal Classes in India - Michael Kennedy
7. Development of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India, Jagan Karade
8. 'Vagharis of Gujarat an ancient tribe: Facing crucial change and anti-historical process' by J M Malkan, a researcher and former bureaucrat
9. The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, Volume 3 by R. V. Russell
10. Edgar Thurston and W. J. Hatch
11. Murray Emmaneau, Kamil Zvelebil, and Dieter Kapp,
12. Thomas Malten in Germany
13. Lukas Werth.
14. copy of G. Srinivasa Varma's book on Vagriboli, 7 the Narikuravar language,
15. studies on the Narikuravars done by the Department of Statistics at Madras Christian College at Tambaram
16. Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Madras: Government Press, 1909.
17. Thomas Malten "Of Jackal Hunters, Acrobats and Travelling Merchants: The Life of the Wandering Tribes of Southern India"
18. Thurston, Tribes and Castes of Southern India. W.J. Hatch, The Land Pirates of India: An account of the Kuravars, a remarkable tribe of hereditary criminals, their extraordinary skill as thieves, cattle-lifters and highwaymen and their manners and customs, London: Seeley, Service, and Co., 1928.
19. Vijayathilakan, Studies on Vaagrivala: A collection of papers on the Narikorava People of Tamil Nadu,
20. Tambaram: Madras Christian College Dept. of Statistics, 1977. Scientific Report No. 27.9G.
21. Srinivasa Varma, Vaagri Boli. J.P. Vijayathilakan, Studies...Madras: Madras Christian College.
22. Theodore S. Bhaskaran, "The Jackal People: Narikuravas, gypsies of the South," India Magazine, vol. 5/9 Aug.1985, p. 40-47.13G.
23. Lukas Werth's important forthcoming article "Myth and Ritual of the Goddess and the Buffalo among the Vagri of Tamil Nadu,"
24. C. Jasmine, Narikkoravas, M.A. thesis, Dept. of Social Work, Bishop Heber College, Tiruchirappalli, 1984.
25. V.S. Deep Kumar, Gypsies in India, Ph.D. thesis. Sri Venkatesvara University, Tirupati, 1984.
26. Thomas Wilson, A Study of the customs and habits of the Kuru vikkarana, M.A. (Social Work) thesis University of Madras, Loyola College, Madras, 1975.
27. Michael Moffat, An Untouchable Community in South India, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979.
28. Aparna Rao, ed. The Other Nomads: Paripatetic minorities in cross-cultural perspective, Kolner ethnologische Mitteilungen Bd 8, 1987. R.S.
29. Hakkipikki Mann, "Trapper and Seller," Anthropological Survey of India Memoir no. 51. Calcutta 1980.
30. David Shulman, "The Murderous Bride: TamilVersions of the Myth of Devi and the Buffalo Demon," History of Religions1976, vol. 16, pp. 120-146.
31. Brenda Beck "The Goddess and the Demon: a local South Indian festival in its wider context" in Madelaine Biardeau, ed. Autour de la deese hindoue. Purusartha Nr. 5, 1981, pp. 83-136.
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