Who are they?
The word Dhanuk is thought to derive from the Sanskrit dahnushka, meaning archer, or from the Hindi dhan (grain), alluding to cleaning grain which is one of their main occupations—or perhaps from dhanukali or dhanki, a bow-like instrument for carding raw cotton, referring to their weaving occupation.
The Dhanuk community is spread across 51 districts in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, and the union territory of Chandigarh. Although their language, vocation and customs vary, the Dhanuk share common cultural traits.
The Dhanuk people of Delhi prefer to call themselves Dhanak Julaha, or simply Julaha, because the Dhanuk are considered low in social hierarchy. Some claim that they are called Dhanuk because they are followers of the saint Dhanakamuni.
There many theories about their origin. The anthropologist Risley (1891) thought they were a clean caste who served the higher castes as personal servants, palanquin-bearers and farm laborers, descended from a Chamar (tanner) father and Chandal (unclean sweeper caste) mother, or from an outcaste Ahir (herdsman) father and a Chamar mother. William Crooke (1896) noted that the “Dhanuk are a low tribe who work as watermen, musicians at weddings and their women as midwives,” and trace their pedigree to many castes of Basor or basket makers. Ibbetson (1916) said, “The Dhanuk of Punjab are fowlers, archers, and watchmen, besides performing other menial service.” In Madhya Pradesh, Russel and Hiralal (1916) noted that the Dhanuk “were a low caste of agriculturists” whose origins, as given in the Padma Purana (a Hindu genealogical text) are the same as mentioned above by Risley.
In all states, except Bihar and Tripura, the Dhanuk are treated in the Indian Constitution as a Scheduled Caste. This guarantees them many benefits such as a fixed quota of government jobs, admissions to government medical and engineering colleges, and welfare schemes for economic and social improvement. There are reserved seats in Parliament for persons of Scheduled Castes status.
What are their lives like?
The Dhanuk people pursue a variety of occupations in the many regions where they live. In Uttar Pradesh, they rear pigs for sale. Women work as midwives. Some are farmers on their own land, while others are labourers. In Bihar, the Dhanuk are landless and work as casual and agricultural labourers. Child labour is prevalent. In Haryana, where they are mostly landless, with some sharecroppers, they do farming. Others are weavers who also dye and print on the cloth they make. Mostly, they work as farmers, or as construction, and roadside laborers, masonry, poultry farming and rearing animals.
In Rajasthan, they used to be watchmen in the stables of rich rulers, but are now engaged in agricultural labour. Some make baskets and weave mats. In Delhi, most are landless and are employed as peons in offices, garbage and sanitation workers, or as wedding band musicians, unskilled labourers in transport companies and tongawallahs (horse carriage drivers). The women sell vegetables, while some are midwives or domestic servants. In Tripura, where the Dhanuk migrated from Uttar Pradesh about seventy years ago, they are predominantly scavengers. In Punjab, they are mostly sweepers and weavers, while in Chandigarh they are watchmen, musicians and scavengers. In Madhya Pradesh, the majority is in agriculture or work as daily-wage labourers. The women sell cut-grass in the market.
They are mostly non-vegetarians, pork being a favourite, along with fish and mutton, but do not eat beef. Their staple food is dhal, roti (flat, unleavened wheat bread), rice and seasonal vegetables. Some fruit is eaten. Men drink a lot of alcohol, mostly cheap country liquor.
Literacy is low, as they cannot afford schooling. Boys are preferred over girls when it comes to education. They accept both indigenous and modern medicine. In Rajasthan, the Bhopa, or witch doctor, has the job of curing diseases.
The Dhanuk marry within their community but usually outside their clan (descended from a common ancestor). Child marriages were common, but today they marry in their late teens and early twenties. Arranged marriages, are organized by elders of both sides of the family. Monogamy is normal, but polygamy is allowed in exceptional instances such as barrenness. Divorce is permitted but rare. Remarriage is allowed for widows. Payment of a bride price by the groom has been replaced by a dowry, paid by the bride’s family.
Dhanuk women have a lower status than men, but their opinions are considered, and they are active in social, ritual and religious spheres. Some women participate in politics by canvassing for political parties in elections. In spite of the law requiring equal inheritance and succession, it is common for daughters to pass their inheritance to their brothers, who then divide it equally among themselves.
What are their beliefs?
Although the Dhanuk are Hindus and worship all prominent Hindu deities, their local gods, like their occupations, vary from region to region. In Uttar Pradesh they worship Kare Deo and Jakhai Devta, while in Bihar they revere Goreybaba and Mahabir. There are also specific deities for clans and villages.
In Haryana, prayers and requests are made to female deities, such as Gurgaonwali Mata (goddess of Gurgaon city), Pathriwali Mata (goddess of stones), Phoolam De Mata (goddess of flowers), and Beriwali Mata. The Dhanuk sometimes try to appease their gods by sacrificing a male goat. In Rajasthan, Bheruji (a form of Shiva, god of destruction) is worshipped, sometimes with liquor offerings.
The Dhanuk visit the main Hindu pilgrimage centres such as Haridwar, Allahabad and Varanasi. They celebrate all major Hindu festivals such as Holi (festival of colours), Diwali (festival of lights) and Janamashtami (birthday of Krishna). A Brahmin priest (highest Hindu caste) conducts all birth, marriage and death rituals.