'Banjara, (also known as Gor, Nayak, Lambadi) - are a historically nomadic trading tribe who may have origins in the Mewar region of what is now Rajasthan. They are now found throughout Northwestern, Western and Southern India.
The Banjaras usually refer to themselves as Gor and outsiders as Kor but this usage does not extend outside their own community. A related usage is Gor Mati or Gormati, meaning cattle grazers or Own People. Motiraj Rathod believes that the community became known as banjara from around the fourteenth century CE and but previously had some association with the Laman, who claim a 3000-year history.
According to B. G. Halbar, the word Banjara is derived from the Sanskrit word vana chara (wanderers in jungle).[a] However, Irfan Habib believes the origin of banjara to lie in the Sanskrit word variously rendered as vanij, vanik and banik, as does the name of the Bania caste, which historically was India's "pre-eminent" trading community.
Despite the community adopting a multitude of languages, Banjara is used throughout India, although in Karnataka the name is altered to Banijagaru. A survey conducted in 1968 by the All India Banjara Seva Sangh, a caste association, recorded 27 synonyms and 17 sub-groups. Recorded groups include Charan, Dharia, Labana, Mathuria, Kolhati, Mukeri, Kainjar, Multani and Sugali. Synonyms include
Lamani, Lambada and Labhan, the last three of which are derived from the Sanskrit word lavana (salt), which was a principal product that they transported across the country.
The indigenous tribes draw India closer to an obscure and indifferent picture far from the contemporary trend and economic development. As such the Gor Banjara is one of the tribes ethnically identified by isolation, their own language, culture and traditions, festivals, cuisine, dance and music. This tribe significantly holds such an enigmatic culture and hospitality and contrasting patriarchal and matriarchal society. It is an indigenous and popular ethnic tribe, which is also known by different names in various parts of the country namely, ‘Gor, Gor Banjara, Laman, Lambani, Lambadi, Sugali, Labhan, Gavaria, Baldiya, Shiklijar, Vanjar, Bazigar and Gouriya’. They are mainly distributed in Maharastra, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal States and living in all the other States except the North-Eastern States and Union Territories. Gor Banjaras speak their distinct language known as ‘Gorboli’ which is also called as ‘Lamani’ or ‘Lambadi’ or ‘Gormati’ or ‘Banjari’. They have their oral literature and traditions, but do not have any written literature because of not having script for their language. As their history and traditions are not in written form, it has become difficult for historians and social scientists to chronicle their past. It is said that even their subsequent history up to the Aryan invasion is shrouded in obscurity, as not much was discussed about them in the books of history and culture and no significant evidences were traced about them though they are survivals from the later prehistoric period.
The origin of the Banjaras has been a much-debated topic. One opinion is that they originate from what is now the state of Rajasthan, whilst another suggests their origins lie in Afghanistan, where there is both a province and a village called Gor. As with many nomadic communities of India, they have a myth of origin that claims Rajput ancestry and this provides a connection to the Mewar region of Rajasthan: they say that they were Rajputs in that area until the time of Mughal domination, when they retreated to the forests and vowed to return only when the foreign influence had gone. B. G. Halbar says they appear to be of mixed ethnicity, possibly originating in north-central India. However, Habib notes that their constituent groups may not in fact share a common origin, with the theories that suggest otherwise reflecting the systemic bias of nineteenth-century British ethnographers who were keen to create simple classifications. Laxman Satya notes that "Their status as Banjaras was circumscribed by the colonial state disregarding the rich diversity that existed among various groups".
Although not referred to as Banjara until the sixteenth century, Habib believes that the royal court chroniclers Ziauddin Barani and Shaikh Nasiruddin documented them operating in the Delhi Sultanate some centuries earlier, around the time of the rule of Alauddin Khalji. Halbar dates things earlier, suggesting that Dandin, a Sanskrit writer who lived in the sixth century, refers to them but, again, not by name.
Banjaras were historically pastoralists, traders and transporters of goods on the inland regions of India, for which they used boats, carts, camels, oxen, donkeys and sometimes the relatively scarce horse. The mode of transport depended upon the terrain; for example, camels and donkeys were better suited to the highlands which carts could not negotiate, whilst oxen were able to progress better through wet lowland areas. Their prowess in negotiating thick forests was particularly prized. They often travelled in groups for protection, this tanda[b] being led by an elected headman variously described as a muqaddam, nayak or naik. Such tandas usually comprised carriage of one specific product and thus were essentially a combined trade operation. They could be huge assemblies, some being recorded as comprising 190,000 beasts, and they also serviced the needs of armies, whose movements naturally followed the same trade and caravan routes. The Duke of Wellington used them for that purpose in his campaign against the Maratha Confederacy around the late 1790s and Jahangir, a Mughal emperor who reigned in the early seventeenth century, described them as
a fixed class of people, who possess a thousand oxen, or more or less, varying in numbers. They bring grain from the villages to the towns and also accompany armies. With an army, there may at least be a hundred thousand oxen, or more.
Some Banjara subgroups engaged in trading specific goods but most traded in anything that might make them money - the range was vast, encompassing plains produce such as oilseed, sugarcane, opium, fruits and flowers, forest products (for example, gums, chironji, mhowa, berries, honey) and items from the hills, including tobacco and grass. Some traded in specific goods, such as the Labana subgroup (salt), the Multani (grain) and the Mukeri (wood and timber). One common Banjara practice in Berar before the British colonial period was the movement of cotton out of the region and then a return journey with groceries, salt, spices and similar consumptibles into the region. In that area, the Deccan Plateau and the Central Provinces, the Banjaras had a monopoly on the movement of salt prior to the arrival of the East India Company. More generally, they also traded in cattle, moving the beasts around the country's bazaars, and they rented out their carts.Although some older sources have suggested that they did not use credit, Habib's analysis of historic sources suggests that they did and that some were reliant on it. Similarly, although the seventeenth-century traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier noted them as being Hindus, Habib finds that in fact a substantial number were Muslim, especially in northern India.
The peripatetic nature of Banjara life significantly affected their societal behaviours. Satya notes that it
generated tremendous diversity within the Banjara society in terms of language, customs, beliefs and practices. It developed in them a rather casual, unorthodox and open attitude towards religion, family, and women. Many of the practices which were prohibited in the mainstream orthodox Hindu and Muslim society were freely practised in the Banjara community.
Movement of goods around the country meant that the Banjaras had to be, and were, trusted by merchants, moneylenders and traders. Any disruption caused by the grazing of their livestock along the trade routes was tolerated because the same beasts provided manure to fertilise the land. However, many Europeans historically thought the Banjaras to be similar to Gypsies, although this was unjustified as there were significant differences. Habib notes that "Superstitions of all kinds, including suspected witch killings and sacrifices, reinforced the Gypsy image of the class".
In 19th century, and despite some British officials such as Edgar Thurston praising their trustworthiness as carriers, the British colonial authorities brought the community under the purview of Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Edward Balfour noted in his On the migratory tribes of natives in Central India (1843) that the reduction in the number of wars by that time had contributed to their economic deprivation, whilst East India Company encroachment on monopolies such as salt also affected them. Many also lost their work as carriers due to the arrival of the railways and improved roads. Some tried to work the forests for wood and produce, some settled to be farmers, and others turned to crime. Earlier than this there had been British people who considered them to be undesirable because of their role in passing messages and weapons to armies as they went about their travels, and there was also a general trend among the British to treat criminality as something that was normal among communities without fixed abode.[c] They were sometimes associated by the British with Thugee and by the 1830s had gained some notoriety for committing crimes such as roadside robbery, cattle lifting, and theft of grain or other property. The women took a leading role in such criminality, led by the headman of the gang, and if someone was convicted then the other members of the gang would take care of their families. Poor, mostly illiterate and unskilled, the Banjaras were also resistant to improvement through education, which the British felt left no recourse other than tight control through policing. Their reputation for misdeeds persisted into the early twentieth century.
The status of the Banjaras as a designated criminal tribe continued until after the independence of India, when the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act caused them to be classified as one of the Denotified Tribes.
Gor Banjaras have a unique cultural life and practices that differentiate them from others. They also have their own language, food habits, body tattooing, dress and ornaments, art and dance and festivals and ceremonies, which have formed their culture. Gor Banjara culture includes their language, costume, marriage customs, festivities, folk and performing arts and many other capabilities acquired by them. Their culture with its language and professions seems distinct and different from other tribes. They have their own language called ‘Gorboli’ or ‘Gormati’ and a different and distinct culture of their own.
Some of the southern indian banjaaras practise a tradition of celebrating a special pooja called "GHAR GHAR ER POJA" in which banjaras worship Tuljabhavani goddess and Mariyamma Goddess and perform animal sacrifice and worship the gods whole night and invite all the relatives for the feast .
Banjaras speak Gor Bol; also called Lambadi, it belongs to the Indo-Aryan group of languages. As Lambadi has no script, it is either written in Devanagari script or in the script of the local language such as Telugu or Kannada. Many Banjaras today are bilingual or multilingual, adopting the predominant language of their surroundings, but those that continue to live in areas of dense Banjara population persist with their traditional language.
Gor Banjaras have their own mother tongue called ‘Gorboli’ and it is spoken by people living across India. According to their names their language is also known by various names such as, Lamani, Lambadi, Lambani, Labhani, Lemadi, Lumadale, Labhani Muka and variants. Regional dialects are divided between the Banjaras of MH (written in Marathi and Hindi by using Devanagari script), KK (written in the Kannada script), AP and TS (written in the Telugu script). They are bilingual and speak in Hindi or Marathi or Kannada or Telugu along with their mother tongue ‘Gorboli’, but there is an influence of regional languages on their ‘Gorboli’ language. As such the actual number of ‘Gorboli’ speakers is not known since the census is not being enumerated based on language for the last many years. The state wise census of Banjaras is also not available as they were listed under different categories in various states of India, though they are living across India. However, based on the unofficial sources, they have an estimated population of more than (4) Crore. ‘Gorboli’ has no script, but they have abundant oral literature, which is also not recorded much, and they are left with no written literature for the last many centuries. However, Banjaras are upkeeping their language and oral traditions by transferring them orally from one generation to next generation. On the other hand, their language and literature are in the danger of depletion due to modernization and influence of outer societies around them. Therefore, there is an urgent need to study the status of Banjaras ‘Gorboli’ language and explore the possibilities of adopting a script and protecting the linguistic identity of Banjaras.
Banjara art includes performance arts such as dance and music as well as folk and plastic arts such as rangoli, textile embroidery, tattooing and painting. Banjara embroidery and tattooing are especially prized and also form a significant aspect of the Banjara identity. Lambani women specialise in lepo embroidery, which involves stitching pieces of mirror, decorative beads and coins onto clothes. Sandur Lambani embroidery is a type of textile embroidery unique to the tribe in Sanduru, Bellary district, Karnataka. It has obtained a GI tag.
Banjara people celebrate the festival of Teej during Shravana (the month of August). In this festival young unmarried Banjara girls pray for a good groom. They sow seeds in bamboo bowls and water it three times a day for nine days and if the sprouts grow "thick and high" it is considered a good omen. During Teej the seedling-baskets are kept in the middle and girls sing and dance around them.
Dance and music
Fire dance and Chari dance are the traditional dance forms of the Banjaras. Banjaras have a sister community of singers known as Dadhis or Gajugonia. They are traditionally travelled from village to village singing songs to the accompaniment of sarangi.
The majority of the Banjara people profess faith in Gor sikhwadi. They are known to worship deities such as baba lakhisha Nayak,sevalal maharaj nayak , Jagadamba Devi, Bhavani and Mahur,. They also hold Guru Nanak in great respect. However, the Banjaras have been "ambiguous" with regard to religion and were "tolerant and syncretic", according to Satya. He notes, like Habib, that some are Muslim and that those who had settled in the Wun district of Berar must have annoyed local Brahmins by preferring to use the services of their own priests rather than of that priestly caste. Further, they were associated with the Mahanubhava sect which led to a belief in Krishna and "a casual attitude towards cohabitation".
Sevalal or Sevabhaya is the most important saint of the Banjaras. According to their accounts, he was born on 15 February 1739 and died on 4 December 1806. A cattle merchant by profession he is said to have been a man of exemplary truthfulness, a great musician, a courageous warrior, a rationalist who fought against superstition and a devotee of the goddess Jagadamba. The colonial British administrators also quote his stories but they place him in the 19th century and identify his original name as Siva Rathor.
Although the Banjaras were traditionally a migratory people, they did historically mostly settle each year in fixed village accommodation during the monsoon months of June - August and their elderly people are usually permanently settled. Although the introduction of modern modes of transport largely made the community redundant from their traditional occupation, forcing them into economic distress from which they sought relief by turning to agriculture and other unskilled labour, V. Sarveswara Naik notes that as recently as 1996 many still retain a nomadic lifestyle on a seasonal basis to supplement their income. They also retain common traits among their exogamous clans, including strict tribal endogamy, use of the Gor-Boli language, referencing themselves as Gor, settling in tanda groups, using tribal councils called Gor panchayats to resolve disputes and, in the case of the women, dressing in their traditional clothing. However, the men have largely given up their traditional attire of a white dhoti (shirt) and a red turban, along with the wearing of ear-rings, finger rings and kanadoro (silver strings worn around the waist).
Aside from retaining their practice of endogamy, V. Sarveswara Naik records of Banjara customs in 1990s Andhra Pradesh that they follow forms of marriage that include monogamy, serial monogamy and bigamy, whilst polygamy is rare but accepted. Marriages are permitted between cousins and between uncles and nieces, widows are allowed to remarry and divorce is accepted provided it has the consent of the Gor panchayat. The marriages are usually between people who live fairly close together, within the same taluk or, occasionally, district; the exception to this is the relatively rare case when the man has some education, in which case it is becoming more common to see them making arrangements that involve a longer distance.
It is the boys' fathers who initiate marriage proposals, usually when the child reaches the age of 18 and is considered capable of running an independent household. Women and girls, including the prospective bride, have no say in the matter but he father takes advice from the naik of his tanda and from close relatives. The girls are usually prepared for this arranged marriage from the onset of puberty and her parents will make a show of resistance when a proposal is made before her father agrees to the advice given by his naik and village elders. Horoscopes are consulted and information gleaned regarding the boy's prospects. Sometimes the arrangement is made earlier and may even be solemnised with a betrothal ceremony, called a sagai, but the girl will remain in the household until she does attain puberty. When agreement is reached and both sides make a promise to that effect in front of the Gor panchayat, the boy's family distribute liquor, betel leaves and nuts nuts for the tanda and girl's family. She is presented with a full set of traditional dress upon marriage, which is made by her mother. Women's dress varies according to marital status, as does their ornamentation. Although the ornamentation was once made of ivory and silver, reduced economic circumstances have caused it to become plastic and aluminium. The extremely elaborate nature of their dresses, comprising glass pieces, beads and sea-shells on a mainly red material, means that they are worn for months between careful launderings.
The practice of paying a bride price to the girl's father traditionally applies on betrothal, which is a community celebration, although the payment of a dowry by the bride's family is becoming evident. The value of this transaction is set by the Gor panchayat and is now a monetary figure; it was traditionally eleven rupees and either four bullocks or one bullock and three cattle unless the groom's family was particularly wealthy. The theory was that this payment compensated the bride's family for their loss of her domestic services, although the money was then spent by them on the marriage ceremonies and one of the animals was decorated and given to the bride after the marriage.
The marriage is usually arranged for a time when there is little work, so the months of April and May are common as they fall just after the harvest period. It is a elaborate ritual that takes place over several days and differs somewhat from a Hindu ceremony.
Banjara families prefer to have both sons and daughters. The son is considered necessary because they are a patrilineal society, whilst at least one daughter is deemed desirable because she can look after the parents in their old age if the son is too pre-occupied in his marriage. Daughters also contribute greatly to the running of the family unit prior to their own marriage and are prized by their mothers for that reason, being trained in various domestic tasks that benefit both the unit and their future married life. Aside from strictly domestic tasks, they are an economic boon because they help with herding and grazing the family's cattle and with work in the crop fields.
A Banjara wife is subservient to her husband and is expected to perform daily tasks for her parents-in-law. Whilst she and her husband live with her parents-in-law, she is also subservient to her mother-in-law. This period of co-habitation with the extended family usually lasts until the husband has helped to arrange the marriages of his brothers and is often the cause of arguments between the wife, the mother-in-law and any sisters-in-law. Once the husband is free of his obligation to his brothers, his wife will apply pressure to achieve a separation from the joint household, which grants her a measure of independence although she remains economically reliant upon her husband. The separating of the households causes her husband to receive some property from his parents, such as land, livestock and money, but it is a patrilineal society and so the wife has nothing.
Banjara men take the lead in religious festivals, with women playing a subsidiary role. The men sing the devotional songs and perform the temple rituals but it is the women who do most of the singing and dancing. The women are also expected work with men when groups go to enact performances in front of non-Banjara audiences to raise money for the celebration of festivals, but most of that money is then consumed by the men in the form of liquor. The one religious function in which the women are paramount is the preparations for marriage, a ceremony which usually takes place in the house of the bride's family.
It is the men who also perform political functions, settling disputes and dealing with other problems through the Gor panchayat. Any matter that involves a woman is dealt with by the men and it is a man who represents her interests, an example being the dealings for marriage proposals which always require the consent of the Gor panchayat. If a woman leaves her husband and the marital abode then that, too, is a matter to be judged by the men.
Banjara men are poorly educated and the women are worse still. Little value is placed on education, in part because children are needed at home to help women run the household. A wife whose husband has sufficient education to become an employee[d] finds herself displaced from the Banjara tanda community, having to live instead in a multi-caste area, perhaps learn a new language and abandon the customs with which she is familiar, including her traditional dress. It is in this circumstance, where the husband has some education, that the trend is to favour the dowry system over that of bride price involving cattle.
V. Sarveswara Naik, herself a Banjara, notes of the situation for Banjara women in Andhra Pradesh that
Her activities are restricted within the family and community. She should not refer to her husband by name but with a respectful word Gharwalo who leads the family. Her speech in low and submissive in front of their men in the community. Women consider the men as wise because they have the ability to learn many things. It is the responsibility of men to learn many skills. The women have to follow the path as directed by their men.
Banjara women can face discrimination when away from their tanda. Their relative innocence, linguistic barriers to communication and traditional dress all attract attention and ill-treatment. They have been advised to wear saris to counter this but it was noted by Halbar in the late 1970s that doing so made them more vulnerable to prostitution. On the other hand, there are also cases where adopting the dress of the wider Indian community provided opportunity for them to meet and marry non-Banjara men, sometimes divorcing in order to do so.
As of 2008, the Banjara community has been listed as a Scheduled Tribe in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha. They were designated as an Other Backward Class in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, and as a Scheduled Caste in Karnataka, Delhi and Punjab.
- Sumahan Bandyopadhyay says something fairly similar - "Derived from ban and charan, therefore they were wanderers of forest".
- A tanda refers to a caravan of bullocks but was also used to describe a Banjara encampment.
- The association of wandering groups with criminality was neither a colonial notion nor necessarily one that first arose during the British era in India. The British treated vagrants as criminals in their own country and, whilst evidence is sketchy, it seems that the Mauryan Empire, Mughal Empire and Brahmins of the late medieval period all had a fairly similar attitude before the arrival of the British in India.
- Halbar notes some examples of government jobs taken by Banjaras in Karnataka as teachers, police constables and clerks, and that some others might gain work in factories or shops, and very occasionally in administration.
- Burman (2010), pp. 13-14
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- Naik (1983), p. 17
- Satya (1997), pp. 317-318
- Dr. Dhananjay Naik Mood and Dr. Surya Dhananjay, 'Gor Banjara - An Enduring Tribe', 2020, ISBN 978-93-5419-112-1, p.1-2.
- Burman (2010), pp. 14-15.
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- Satya 1997, p. 317
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- Bhukya (2010), p. 233
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- Dr. Dhananjay Naik Mood and Dr. Surya Dhananjay, 'Gor Banjara - An Enduring Tribe', 2020, p.352.
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