When the word ‘Banjara’ comes up in any conversation, the image it conjures up in one’s mind is that of a woman with heavy metal jewellery, armful of ivory bangles, and clothes embellished with tiny pieces of mirrors. Today, the Banjara tribe may live on the fringes of society, but, historically, they played a very important role everywhere they went. In a country with a diverse cultural heritage, the Banjaras are best known for their migration from one place to another in search of trade.
Historical records are not very clear as to the origin of the race, but typically, Lambadi-Banjaras are a strong and virile race with tall stature, oval face, black and brown eyes, long silky hair, straight nose and fair complexion. The men and women are strong, muscular and hard-working, and are blessed with a lot of endurance.
In the foreword of the book Banjara Sahityam – Jeevanachitrana written by Dr Surya Dhanunjay, Dr C Narayana Reddy wrote, “The word ‘Banjara’ is derived from Sanskrit, meaning ‘vanchar,’ van means forest and char means wanderers.” It is believed that during the British rule, Britishers used to call Banjaras as ‘Long bodies’, since they were tall and healthy. The term ‘Long Bodies’, later, became the Indianised version ‘Lombadi’ which got further corrupted into ‘Lambadi’.
Unfortunately, owing to their nomadic tendency, there is no written record as to how the tribe migrated down South. However, there are facts which, to some extent, give us some idea on the origin and occupation of Banjaras. The three appellations — Lambadi, Sugali and Banjari are derived from Lam (Luskar, army) or Lavana (salt), su-gwala (good-cowherd) and Banijar (traders) respectively. About the origin of this people, GA Grierson mentions in ‘Linguistic Survey of India, Volume-IX’ that “The tribe has been known in India from centuries. It appeared to be a mixed race and its origin and organisation maybe due to the wars of the Delhi emperors in Southern India, where they carried the commissariat of the armies.”
Mixed bag, in every way
“Usually nomadic in nature, the tribes of Rajasthan are called Banjaras, they migrated and settled in this locality. Since the area was a hilly one, it became known as Banjara Hills. While there is no evidence in the history that Banjarans served Qutb Shahi kings, one of the gates of Golconda was given the name ‘Banjara Darwaza’.
The local terminology could have influenced the Qutb Shahis,” says Anand Raj Varma, a historian. Theories abound about how they came to Hyderabad, among them being this one.
According to PhD scholar, Guguloth Shankar Naik, Qutb Shahis were fascinated by Sevalal Maharaj’s miracles and built his temple at one of the entrances to Golconda Fort. Since Sevalal was a Banjara, probably they named the gate as Banjara Darwaza. Shankar Naik further adds, “Bhagyanagar was named after a Banjaran dancing girl, Bhagmathi who belonged to the village Chichlam. When Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah was a prince, he fell in love with her. A few years later, after his accession to the throne of Gloconda, he founded a new city and named it Bhagnagar.”
Moving from one place to another also had a trickle-down effect on the language spoken by the tribe. Banjaran language known as Goar boli is a confluence of Sanskrit, Hindi, Marwari, Gujarati, and bears the influence of the regional language of the place where they stay. For example, members adopt a few words from the Telangana dialect in their speech, if they don’t have that particular word in their language.
A language which doesn’t have a script is considered as an under-developed language. Since Goar boli lacks a script, their literature, songs, and culture have been carried forward orally from generations. Debate continues over whether the tribe should have one common language as their script. But, logistically speaking, it is a tricky situation.
“They could have developed their literature if they lived together. But, due to their spreading all over, they were not able to develop their script and hence the adherence to keeping their existing literature alive orally. I personally feel Devanagari script should become our script, since it is easy for most of us to read and understand,” says Dr Surya Dhanunjay, Head of Department, Telugu, Osmania University.
Saying it with clothes
Banjara women’s attire is very fancy, colourful and attractive. One can identify them from a far distance due to this. Their jewellery is made out of silver; in case they lack the funds to buy silver, they make their jewellery with rupayi billalu (coins), steel and other metals. The only gold accessory they have is the nose pin.
A typical Banjara woman wears a dress made up of three pieces – Phetiya, kaali, tukri commonly known as ghagra (skirt), blouse (top) and dupatta. The dazzling mirrors synonymous with their attractive clothes also have a logical reason behind them. They acted as reflectors to animals and were used to scare them away when the men were away. “We have different names for the accessories we wear too, like maang tika is called tiki, short neckpiece (choker) is called hasli, and long neckpiece as haslo. Being forest wanderers, our bangles were made up of ivory; they are called hai-dante-baliya which means elephant teeth bangles. However, today, we do not get them; only white plastic bangles are worn now,” says homemaker Saalamma Guguloth, a resident of Bhojya Thanda, Mahabubabad.
Women use tattoos as embellishment, but for Banjaras, tattoos are compulsory and they believe in it for various reasons. “We believe that tattoos help us escape from an evil eye; they also help us in identifying people from our community. There is a belief that one has to take something from the earth after death; so, we get a dotted tattoo done on our face, below the chin, and beside the eyes in keeping with that,” adds Saalamma.
Their men, on the other hand, have it fairly simple in terms of clothing. They wear dhoti and a kurta with a bright-coloured turban which is designed according to the climate of the desert. But, with time, the youngsters have taken to western clothes. Now, only the older generation wears such clothes; only 20 per cent wear the traditional attire and most of them are above 60 years of age. Maybe in another decade, one might have to check books and browse the internet to find their traditional attire.
“There are many in the industry who does not like to reveal their caste until and unless they are successful, but, in my case, the caste gave me a career and recognition. Today, if people recognise me, it’s only because of my costume. Even in events, they expect me to be dressed in Lambada attire; otherwise, I’m nobody for them,” says anchor and singer Mangli.
Talent in their being
Banjara art is rich and includes performance arts such as dance, music, folk and plastic arts like rangoli, textile embroidery, tattooing and painting. However, it is their embroidery and tattooing which form a significant aspect of the Banjara identity.
Lambadi women specialise in Lepo embroidery which involves stitching pieces of mirror, decorative beads and coins onto the clothes. The Sandur Lambani embroidery is a type of textile embroidery unique to the tribe in Sanduru, Bellary district, Karnataka, which has a GI tag.
“There are traditional musicians and bards in Lambadis called ‘Dappans’. There are three divisions among Dappans – Bhat, Dhadi and Dhalia. Bhats and Dhadis sing songs on family history by playing musical instruments called ‘Jange’ and ‘Kinjri’ during marriage ceremonies. Dhalia or Dapdiya play dappu.” shares a senior official from the Tribal Museum, Hyderabad.
While their songs are not recorded, they do have a striking similarity to other songs. During a conference over Banjara language, Dr Surya Dhanunjay recalls singing the song, ‘Dabda marevalo kwarchigh, Gwar chi dabda maarebeti akalethi, nakala banjavu bhagaleti.’ The moment she started to sing, everybody in the conference hailing from different parts of the country joined her with the same tune.
Banjaras are hardcore meat lovers. They enjoy eating their traditional dish, Solloai, which is prepared on most of their festivals. Solloai is a dish made with goat blood and other parts of goat. Their staple diet is bati (roti), jowari roti, rice, jonna gatka, dalia with sambar. Banjaras also enjoy homemade traditional liquor. Among their favourites is Ippa puvvu saara, which is mostly served on special occasions. However, today the traditional liquor has been replaced by store-bought whisky.
While there has been a constant increase in the population of Banjara tribe, there is a huge difference in the numbers of male and female.
Love for nature
Banjara festivals are nature-based. They rejoice in the crop yield and celebrate the occasion as a festival. A nine-day festival, Teej, is one such celebration where all the young girls along with women of the community come together and take active part in the festivities. Teej is similar to Bathukamma which is celebrated by planting saplings of wheat instead of flowers. Otherwise, they celebrate all Hindu festivals. They look up to Lord Ram and greet others with ‘Ram Ram’. They worship Santh Sevalal Maharaj and all other Hindu gods.
Lambada tribes are divided into five gotras — Bhukya (Rathod), Vadthiya (Jadhav), Chowhan, Pamar, Banoth (Ade). These gotras are further divided into a number of sub-castes called ‘Pada’ or ‘Jath’ (clan) in their dialect. Bhukya consists of 27 clans, Vadthiya 52, Chowhan 6, Pamar 12 and Banoth 13. Members of the same gotra cannot marry as they are considered brother and sister, known as bhaipan (brotherhood). Members of different gotras may marry, and this state is known as kai-laageni (can marry). Traditionally, the jaaths of prospective couples are checked by experts called dhadi bhaat who know the gotra/jaath system and can identify proper marriages.
“Banajara wedding generally goes on for a month. Once the marriage is fixed, they sagayi karero (fix the engagement day) and have thopro gud (coconut and jiggery) to celebrate the occasion with saarai (homemade liquor). After engagement, bridegroom goes to the bride’s place and has to listen to her and carry out the entire household chores. If the bride likes him, they proceed to wedding. Also earlier, elders of the thanda used to act as purohit and take care of rituals. But, today, Brahmins are taking care of it,” says Guguloth Shankar Naik, a PhD scholar who recently got married in Banjaran style.
There is also a culture of marrying husband’s younger brother, if the husband dies. Purna Chander Badawath, a documentary filmmaker, says, “It is believed that after the husband’s death, if the woman marries some other man, she won’t be accorded with the same respect. She will be seen as the second wife there and her children will be left alone. To prevent all this, they created a rule that a widow marries the younger brother to keep the children safe. The woman need not go to another family and lose her self-respect.”
Traditionally, joint family is the norm among Lambadas, but now it is breaking down gradually into nuclear families.
Reservations were given according to profession and status of the tribal people. In Rajasthan, Banjaras are considered as OC, Karnataka SC, Maharashtra BC and Telangana STs. “The inclusion of the Lambadas in the list of Scheduled Tribes in 1976 was done under an order of the State government issued in the then composite Andhra Pradesh,” says Purna Chander.
Birth and death rituals
Banjaras celebrate the birth of a child by singing and dancing on the occasion. After the birth of the child, the mother and her baby are considered to be impure. Hence after five days, the mother and child take a purification bath. The house is also purified with water and cow dung. After the purification ceremony, the mother and the child visit the shrine of the family deity and then take blessings from the elders of their community.
On death in a family too, the body is shifted to thanda only for performing the necessary rituals. Most still the practise and ensure the final rites happen within the community in the thanda and close to water bodies, and not in other places.
Among the Banjaras, it is customary to bury an unmarried person and burn the married ones. Earlier, they used to burn the bodies unclothed, but, today, they are following the Hindu tradition. Even they consider that death causes impurities; hence, purification rituals are conducted on the tenth day. After the death, all clothes and houses are washed. The male members shave their heads, beard and moustache. Thereafter, a purification feast is organised among the community members.
Azmeera Chandulal, Tourism and Tribal Welfare Minister, Telangana, says the State government was ensuring all possible support and care for the welfare of Banjaras in the State.
“They are supported in every possible way and orders have been issued to turn thandas into gram panchayat (village council). Here, one can discuss their root-level problems and help the thanda develop with respect to all basic facilities such as drinking water, drainage system, and proper electricity. They are also eligible for various schemes such as foreign education loan, and marriage scheme. Even children in the tribal hostels are provided good quality of rice. Under the Telangana government, Lambadas are living happily without any fear. They are earning a name globally and doing Telangana proud,” says Azmeera Chandulal.