Who are they?
The Barhai or Badhai are an occupational caste of carpenters and wood carvers. They make furniture, wooden ploughs, harrows, and other agricultural tools as carpenters for village and town people. Numbering around 4 million people, they live in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh.
The name Barhai is derived from the Sanskrit word vardhana or vardhika, meaning ‘cutting’. Ethnologists H.A. Rose (1919) and H.H. Risley (1891) describe the Barhai as carpenters or woodcutters. The Barhai trace their descent from the god Vishwakarma who is believed to be the all-accomplishing divine architect and carpenter who makes weapons and celestial chariots to the gods. It is believed that Vishwakarma created two groups of people- the Barhai who work in wood and the Lohar, who could work in iron.
In Uttar Pradesh (where they number 2.6 million), the Barhai are also called Chaurasia, Jangid Brahman, Khati, Kolash, Lote, Panchal and Tarkhan. In Bihar (850,000), they are Mistry, Sharmaji, Vishwakarma and Thakur. In Madhya Pradesh (430,000) they are known as Vishwakarma. In Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh they are popularly known as Tarkhan.
The Barhai speak Hindi and use the Devanagari script in all these states. Their also speak Bhojpuri, an Indo-Aryan in Bhar. In Madhya Pradesh they speak two dialects of the Indo-Aryan language which is called Pahari. They speak Punjabi in Chandigarh, with the Gurmukhi script.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Barhai continue to be carpenters. Some have set up flourishing furniture shops in market towns and cities like Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, they are a landowning community and practice agriculture and horticulture as a secondary occupation. The Madhya Pradesh carpenters supply wooden poles for the tents that are used at weddings.
In Punjab, the Barhai are also engaged in metallurgy and masonry in addition to carpentry. Some Barhai are daily-wage laborers while a few are in private or government service. In heavily-forested and hilly Himachal Pradesh, many Barhai are employed by the Forestry department as laborers to cut timber. A few educated Barhai are teachers and in the defense forces. Political leadership has emerged at the local level.
In Chandigarh they are strict vegetarians but other Barhai eat meat except beef. Staple cereals are rice, wheat, maize and millets, supplemented by a variety of pulses, fruit, vegetables as well as milk and dairy products. Alcohol is consumed occasionally. In Himachal Pradesh both men and women drink homemade liquor.
Literacy levels are low as they are unable to afford to send their children to school beyond secondary for boys and up to primary for girls. They use both modern and indigenous medicines and are quite open to family planning provided at least one son is born in the family. Many facilities are unavailable in the remote hilly regions of Himachal Pradesh in particular. Here, medicine men play a big part in healing the sick. The Barhai homes usually have electricity and drinking water.
The Barhai are endogamous, i.e. marriages take place only within the community. However, they are also, exogamous at the clan (gotra) and village levels. In Himachal Pradesh, cross-cousin marriages, i.e. those with father’s sisters or mother’s brother’s children occur. Marriages are arranged by negotiation between the parents and other elders of the two families. In Himachal Pradesh, however, it is not uncommon for a couple who fall in love to run away from their homes – usually at fairs, and this elopement is socially accepted.
Monogamy is common with the exception of barrenness, where a second marriage is socially sanctioned. To indicate she is married, a woman uses sindur (vermilion), churi (glass bangles), nose stud and toe-rings. Divorce is allowed on grounds such as maladjustment, impotency and cruelty, but it is rare. Remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees is permitted. The practice of dowry is prevalent and it is usually given in goods.
The Barhai live in both joint and nuclear families. All the sons inherit the paternal property equally, except in Madhya Pradesh where the eldest receives a larger share known locally as jethassi. The eldest son succeeds the late father as the head of the household. The status of Barhai women is lower then men except in Himachal Pradesh where they enjoy almost an equal status. The women attend to all housework including, in rural areas, collecting fuel and fodder and fetching water. They do embroidery or weaving and actively participate in social and religious ceremonies.
The Barhai have a rich oral tradition of folksongs, dances and tales that they often share with other communities. They love the dholak, a double-sided drum. In Himachal Pradesh Nati is a popular folk dance which both men and women participate in.
Social control is handled by elders and respected members of the community. In Himachal Pradesh the Barhai ask the help of their gods to resolve disputes.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Barhai are mostly Hindu except for some Sikhs in Chandigarh. Hindus worship all the major gods and goddesses of the Hinduism as well as various regional, village and family deities. Vishwakarma is especially worshipped during the monsoons around August to September as well as at Dussehra which celebrates Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana, and Diwali (Festival of Lights) during which the Barhai also bow down to their trade implements.
In Uttar Pradesh Bhawani Devi (Mother of the World) is revered as is a family and a village deity called Dih Baba. In Bihar their family deities are Gareybaba, Benimai and Vishwakarma, while the village deities are Mahabir (Great Hero – synonym of Hanuman) and Ugra Maharaj (Fierce King – synonym of Shiva). In Himachal Pradesh Shamsher Mahadev, Mahu Nag (Great Cobra) and Jigeshwar Mahadev are the local male deities. In Chandigarh Guru Ram Rai and Mansa Devi (snake goddess) are specially worshipped. Some Barhai living here belong to the guru-centric, Radhasoami sect. The Barhai are superstitious. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, the sight of a mongoose and of a light-grey pigeon or dove is seen as lucky omens.
The important pilgrimage centres of the Barhai are Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Puri in Orissa that is sacred to Jagan Nath (Lord of the World and a form of Vishnu). Pilgrimage is also made to Vrindavan, beside the Yamuna River near Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, which is sacred to Krishna. Kedarnath is a Himalayan shrine sacred to Shiva, and Badrinath is a shine in the Himalayas sacred to Vishnu. The Barhai celebrate all major Hindu festivals like Diwali, Holi, Maha Shivaratri and Durga Puja.
The Barhai engage a Brahmin priest to perform all birth, marriage and death ceremonies. The dead are cremated and the ashes immersed in a river – preferably the Ganges River which is considered holy. Both birth and death pollution for specific periods is observed. Ancestor worship is prevalent.