Who are they?
The Basor are a community of bamboo workers who have been marginalized by society. They are from the low Sudra caste (lowest class of servants and peasants), in the lowest tier of the four classes. They live mainly in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. They are also known as Bansor, Basar, Dumar, Bansphor, Bansodi, Baskar and Burud. The name of the Basor people is thought to be derived from the Hindi word bans, meaning bamboo.
Ethnologist William Crooke (1896) mentions that the Basor are “a tribe found only in the Bundelkhand Division, and usually regarded as a sub-caste of the Dom (low caste of scavengers, sweepers and cremators). Some of their men are occasional visitors to Mirzapur and other towns, where the men work as musicians and basket-makers, and the women as midwives. The name of the tribe seems to mean ‘worker in the bamboo’, and to be the same as ‘Bansphor’.” Russel and Hiralal support Crooke’s findings in their Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India (1916) and say that “the word Basor is a corruption of bansphor, meaning ‘a breaker of bamboos’.”
The Basor trace their legendary origin from Raja Benu of Damoh, Madhya Pradesh. He was believed to be so devoutly religious that he did not take any taxes from his subjects, but worked to earn a living by making and selling bamboo fans. Though he did not have an army to protect him, he had magical powers to defeat his enemies. He could destroy his enemies just by breaking a bamboo fan.
The Basor are listed as a Scheduled Caste (SC) under the provisions of the Indian Constitution. These castes have been considered low or ‘untouchable’ and been oppressed by the upper castes. The SC status grants them many benefits such as specified quotas in government jobs, reserved seats in college-level courses like engineering and medicine and reserved seats in Parliament.
The Basor of Madhya Pradesh speaks the Indo-Aryan languages, Bundelkhandi or Jabalpuri, with its Devanagari script. Those living in Uttar Pradesh speak Bundelkhandi at home and local dialects of Hindi with others in the community. Marathi and Hindi is spoken in Maharashtra.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Basor continue in the traditional occupation of weaving baskets and other bamboo products like winnowing fans, mats, sieves, flutes and rattles which they sell at local markets and fairs. Some keep cattle and pigs, and are drum-beaters for the village. Some work as daily-wage casual laborers and one subgroup, the Dumar work as scavengers (somebody who looks through discarded rubbish in the hope of finding something usable that can be sold). They will not work with horses as horse-dung is considered as a pollutant, and if touched, requires them to be temporarily excommunicated from the caste. A majority of the Basor are landless, while some have small plots of land which they farm.
In Madhya Pradesh they play musical instruments and have formed bands that play at social celebrations. The women work as midwives. The younger generation prefers the security of permanent salaried jobs in the government or private sectors.
The Basor will eat all meat except beef and carrion (meat of a dead animal). They eat rice, wheat, lentils, seasonal fruit and vegetables as well as dairy products. Alcohol consumption is high and many are addicted to it. They accept cooked and uncooked food from castes higher than them in the Hindu caste hierarchy but avoid accepting the same from those considered inferior like the Chamar (tanner), Bhangi (sweeper) and the Dhobi (washer man).
Literacy levels are much lower than the national average, especially for girls. They are entitled to basic utilities such as electricity and drinking water and the government also provides fair-price shops. These shops sell grocery essentials at subsidized prices for poorer families. Ration cards are issued which specify the number of family members and how much each family can purchase every month. As they are illiterate, they are ignorant of saving schemes or bank loans and other facilities available to them.
They use both traditional cures and modern medicine. Those who live in rural areas, however, report that they are often neglected at the government health centres and dispensaries. They do not practice family planning.
The Basor are divided into various subgroups such as Purania (old), Deshwasi (countrymen) and the Gohar or Gudha (derived from pigsty). These divisions are based on territorial or occupational affiliations. These subdivisions are further divided into exogamous clans whose main function is to indicate descent and regulate marital alliances. Clan names relate chiefly to the territory from which their ancestors originated or gods worshipped by their ancestors.
Adult marriages are the norm except in Uttar Pradesh where child marriage still occurs. This is followed by gaona (departure of the bride to her husband’s house after attaining puberty). Marriages are arranged through negotiations between the parents of both families, and monogamy is the usual practice, though polygamy is allowed in certain cases. Bilateral cross-cousin marriages (first cousins) as well as junior levirate and junior sororate are practiced. Bride-price is gradually being replaced by the custom of dowry.
Divorce is permitted for maladjustment, violence, impotence, barrenness and adultery. It is made legal simply by the wife smashing her glass bangles in public. Under Basor law and custom, widows and deserted women may remarry. Among some Basor, when a widow does marry again, the narasingha, a peculiar kind of crooked trumpet, is the only instrument which may be played at the marriage ceremony. A man who elopes with another man’s wife is first made to pay a specified amount as fine and then accept her as his wife. The Basor prefer to live in extended families. The parental property is inherited by all the sons, with the eldest receiving a slightly larger share. He also succeeds as the head of the family. A widow may inherit her husband’s property and it is retained by her until her remarriage or death.
Although the status of the Basor women is secondary to that of men, their opinions are taken into consideration. In addition to housework, the women contribute to the family income by working but are forbidden from doing certain types of work like making roofs, ploughing, sowing, breaking coconuts and participating in worship in the village or at panchayat (council) meetings. They are not permitted to wear nose-rings and can be excluded from the caste.
The Basor have community councils that administer law and order. The council consists of a mukhia (chief), a secretary and a five-member assembly. This council also enforces traditional caste rules and settles problems related to marriages.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Basor are Hindu by faith and worship most Hindu deities and female deities at the clan level. The villages have shrines dedicated to Kali, Durga, Khermata, Mediamai, Shiva, Bhairababa (Shiva in his most terrible form), Hanuman (the celibate monkey god), Chandi (another form of Durga), Bajarimai (gravel goddess) and Natbaba (Shiva as lord of dance).
The primary festivals are Dussehra, which celebrates the killing of the demon king Ravana by Rama with Durga’s help, and Diwali (festival of lights, commemorating Rama’s return to Ayodhya after a 14 year exile). The goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, is also worshipped at this time. They celebrate Holi, the festival of colours – ceremonies include the lighting of huge bonfires during which all evils are symbolically burnt.
The celebration of Sankranti is another highlight in the Basor calendar. The monthly entry of the sun into a zodiacal sign is called sankranti. Four sankranti, in particular, are considered auspicious and are observed as festivals. The most important is the winter solstice, the Makara Sankranti (from Makara, Capricorn).
The Basor worship the Bankar (heavy curved knife used in making bamboo products) at Diwali. Each clan worships the object, animal, plant, or other natural phenomenon revered as a symbol by their clan. For example the Bandrelo clan, (the name is derived from monkey), worship a painted monkey; the Katarya (dagger) clan worship a real or painted dagger, while the Kulhantia (somersault) clan members do a somersault at the start of their worship.
A Brahmin priest is paid to perform all religious services. The Basor believe in ghosts, spirits and the evil eye, and exorcisms and healings are necessary to cast these out. Hey worship their ancestors with food and water offerings. The dead are cremated; some in Madhya Pradesh also bury the dead and observe death pollution for a specific period.