Who are they?
The Beldar, also known as Lonia, are construction workers who till, dig and carry earth and supply bricks, clay and sand to construction sites. Their existence as a distinct community can be traced to the reign of an Afghan ruler of Northern India, Sher Shah Suri (1539-1545 AD). At that time, people who were engaged in construction and road measurement were called Dhakbel. Beldar is derived from the words bel, meaning ‘hoe’, and dar, meaning ‘one who handles the hoe’. Thus, Beldar means ‘one who works with the hoe’.
Anthropologist William Crooke (1896) mentions in his study of the Beldar that, “Beldar is a general term for the aggregate of low Hindu tribes who make their living by earth work.” Another authority, Risley (1891), describes them as “a wandering caste of earth workers and natives in Bihar and Western Bengal, many of whom labour, the former digging the earth and the latter removing it in a basket carried on the head.
Today they are widely distributed throughout the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The Beldar speak the languages or dialects of the regions they live in. In Uttar Pradesh they speak Hindi and Bhojpuri. In Madhya Pradesh, the Baghelkhandi dialect and Hindi are used. In Orissa, Chhattisgarhi, an Indo-Aryan language, is their mother tongue while Oriya and Hindi are link languages. In Bihar and West Bengal they speak Magahi and Khotta, respectively, which are also Indo-Aryan tongues.
The Beldar are divided into a variety of subgroups or sub castes in different states, and these often have interesting distinctions. For example, there are three subgroups among the Beldar of West Bengal: Purha, Surha and Bhagalpuria. Those who sacrifice goats are called Purha, those who sacrifice pigs are called Surha, while the last claim Bhagalpur in Bihar as their original homeland.
The Beldar of Bihar say that they fled from Sambalgarh following a battle between the Rajput ruler of Delhi, Prithviraj Chauhan and the Turkish invader, Mohammad Ghori, to hide along the banks of the Sone river in Bihar. Hence, out of their two subgroups, one is Chauhan, named after the ruler.
The Beldar are listed as a Scheduled Caste in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. This status grants them many benefits under India’s affirmative action policy for the people of low caste. This is the largest affirmative action policy in the whole world. For centuries, these people have been discriminated against and degraded by upper castes. Advantages provided by the government include fixed quotas in government jobs, tertiary education scholarships to medical, engineering and other colleges, as well as reserved seats in all legislative bodies including the nation’s Parliament.
The Beldar at times use surnames from higher castes to suggest a higher status, but they perceive themselves as low in the local hierarchy and are seen as such by others. They belong to the fourth and lowest rung of the caste system. The Beldar maintain patron-client, landlord-tenant and cultivator-labour relationships with other communities. They accept food and water from castes higher than them such as the Rajput (warrior), Bania (trader), Kurmi (agriculturist), but not from those perceived as lower such as the Chamar (tanner), Dhobi (washer man) and Dom (scavengers and attendants at crematoria).
What Are Their Lives Like?
The traditional occupation of the Beldar is tilling, digging and carrying soil as well as supplying bricks, clay and sand for construction purposes. In Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, they use donkeys for carrying clay and sand. Excavating water tanks and moving the earth forms an important part of their traditional occupation. Today, their primary occupation is masonry and wage labour.
The Beldar are also engaged in subsidiary occupations like animal husbandry selling cow dung cakes, forestry, tapping trees and selling toddy (alcohol made from the sap of trees), industrial work, and unskilled labour. The few Beldar who own small plots of arable land are cultivators, while many of the landless depend on agricultural labour or are sharecroppers and their women work as maidservants. Some Beldar, as those in the state of Orissa, have taken up new occupations such as preparing parboiled rice from “paddy” (rice in the husk or rice) and making grinding stones.
Some educated Beldar have taken up service in government and private sectors as teachers, defense personnel, or are self-employed in businesses such as transport and as contractors. It is these Beldar that have helped relationships with other communities. Some Beldar are political leaders at village level.
The Beldar diet includes chicken, pork, mutton and fish, but they do not eat beef, due to their Hindu beliefs. There are some pure vegetarians. Their staple diet consists of cereals like wheat, rice, bajra – coarse millet that grows well in arid conditions, maize, barley and pulses. Seasonal fruit and vegetables also form part of their diet. Alcohol is taken mainly by men, and sometimes women. Alcoholism is noticeably common. They consume milk and milk products, smoke rolled and dried tendu leaves and cigarettes, and chew loose tobacco and betel leaf (paan).
Parents of this community would like their children educated but their education is usually up to secondary level. This is due to poverty and the need to have children work as well as lack of interest in continuing their studies. Hence, the literacy rate is still considerably below the national average and for their women it is virtually non-existent. They accept modern medicine although they still use indigenous cures. They are open to family planning in most states, except in Bihar where it is unpopular.
The Beldar make good use of services such as communication, irrigation and banking facilities. They have benefited from development programs such as the Integrated Rural Development Programme.
Endogamy is followed (i.e. they are restricted by custom or law to marry within a specific group) and marital alliances with paternal and maternal relatives are avoided except in the eastern states of Orissa and West Bengal where marriage with one’s mother’s brother’s daughter is permitted and preferred. Monogamy is the norm and marriages are settled by negotiation between elders of both the sides. Child marriages are prevalent among the Beldar but the bride only leaves for her husband’s home when she reaches puberty. Another ceremony called gaona is performed at that time. Marriage feasts are hosted by both the parties and consummation takes place at the groom’s residence. Dowry is given in both cash and kind, and sindur (vermilion mark) and toe rings are the symbols of marriage for women. Divorce is permissible with the approval of the caste council and either spouse can seek it. Also allowed are divorcee remarriage as well as widow or widower remarriage.
Nuclear families as well as mixed extended families are common among the Beldar. Paternal property is equally shared among the sons and the eldest son succeeds as the head of the family. Among some Beldar, as those of Maharashtra, the eldest son gets an extra share of property.
The status of women is subordinate to that of men. In addition to household chores, the women also help with agricultural work such as collecting fuel wood and fodder, and look after the animals. Women also participate in social functions, religious activities and decision-making. The Beldar have many traditional folksongs and folk tales, and they sing their songs to the music of a drum.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Beldar are Hindus. Hanuman (celibate monkey god) and Santoshi Mata (goddess of satisfaction) are their community deities. Sankara, (beneficent – one of Shiva’s 1008 names), Kali (goddess of destruction), Bhairon (terrible – another name of Shiva), Devi Mai (mother goddess) and Durga (another form of Kali, who rides a tiger) are some of the village deities worshipped by the Beldar.
Some clan deities include Renukadevi (mother of Parshurama, Vishnu’s 6th incarnation), Kalimata (Kali), Balimata (sacrifice mother), Jotimata (light mother), and Bhimsena (Bhima the fighter – one of the heroes of the epic, the Mahabharata). Ancestor worship is prevalent among them.
The Beldar visit all the prominent Hindu religious shrines and pilgrim centres such as Haridwar, Gangotri (at the source of the holy Ganges River in the Himalayas), Prayaga (ancient name of Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges River, the Yamuna River and a mystical underground River Saraswati) and Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh. They take part in all Hindu festivals like Ramnavmi (birthday of Rama), Holi (festival of colours), Diwali (festival of lights) and Rakshabandhan (literally – protection bond; when sisters tie a thread on their brother’s wrist, and their brothers pledge to protect them).
They believe in evil spirits and witchcraft and a sorcerer from their community, is consulted for exorcism and cures. The Ojha (sorcerer) and the Brahmin (highest priestly caste) perform all their lifecycle rituals. The Beldar cremate their dead and observe death pollution for a specified period.