Who are the Gadaria?
The Gadaria are also referred to as Baghela or Pal, are a community of shepherds. The word Gadaria is derived from the Hindi word gadar meaning sheep and denotes “one who keeps or tends sheep”. Ethnologists, Russel and Hiralal (1916), describe them as “an occupational shepherd caste of northern India,” while another authority, William Crooke (1896), calls them “a caste of shepherds and blanket weavers.”
The traditional occupation of a majority of the Gadaria continues to be herding and rearing of sheep and goats for their wool, milk and meat. They also sell their animals in the local markets and fairs. Most of them own small-to-medium sized plots of land, or have acquired them under one of the official land-for-the-landless schemes in the post-independence period, and practice agriculture as a subsidiary occupation.
The Gadaria of each region have different accounts to explain the origin of their community. In Haryana, legend has it that during the reign of King Rama (7th incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu trinity) they were sent into the jungles, where they gradually took to rearing goats and sheep. In Uttar Pradesh, where a majority (4.5 million) lives, they derive their synonym, Baghela, from the Baghela River which flows at the state’s border and trace their descent from a Baghela ruler.
In Maharashtra they are also known as Kurumwar and Dhangar, while in central Madhya Pradesh, where they number around 740,000, they are known as Gadri. The Gadaria of Maharastra claim that their first ancestor was created by Mahadeo (synonym of Shiva, the Destroyer in the Hindu trinity) to tend his rams. In Rajasthan (290,000) the Gadaria are commonly known as Gairi (from gaira, meaning sheep in the local dialect), and claim to be co-wanderers of Krishna, one of the most popularly worshipped gods who was a cowherd. Their oral tradition recalls their migration from Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, where Krishna lived. In Delhi (33,000) their synonyms are Pal or Pal Shari.
The Gadaria people consider themselves as middle social ranking but other communities consider them to be of a low social standing. The Gadaria do not accept food and water from certain low caste communities like the Chura (sweeper), Chamar (tanner), Nai (Barber) and Dhobi (washer man).
They live in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the union territory of Chandigarh.
They speak the language of the regions they reside in. Therefore in Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, it is Haryanvi, Rajasthani dialects and Hindi (which only the literate among them speak). In all these states, the Devanagari script is used except in Maharashtra, where their second language, Marathi, is written in its own distinct script. In Punjab and Chandigarh, the Gurmukhi script is used by Punjabi speaking Gadarias.
What Are Their Lives Like?
For the majority of the Gadaria, the primary occupation continues to be herding and rearing of sheep and goats for their wool, milk and meat. They sell their animals at local markets and fairs. Most of them own small-to-medium sized plots of land which have been acquired through official land-for-the-landless schemes in the post-independence period, and practice agriculture as a subsidiary occupation. In the hilly and forested state of Himachal Pradesh they have retained permission to collect firewood and graze their flocks in the forests. They also weave woolen blankets.
However, in states like Haryana and Delhi the Gadaria have virtually abandoned their traditional occupation and are engaged as laborers, masons and practice animal husbandry. In Haryana, the men push the handcart for transporting construction material and sand from riverbeds. They provide non-skilled labour in the industrial and private sectors. A few Gadaria make it to higher levels of government service – in defense and police services. Some of them are teachers in local schools.
The Gadaria approve half heartedly of formal education for their children, which results in low literacy levels. They may continue to study to the secondary school level and then drop out because of economic or social reasons. They use both indigenous and modern medicines and are fairly open to family planning. The government has an Integrated Rural Development Program which assists the Gadaria by providing subsidized credit facilities for animal husbandry, agriculture and other benefits.
The Gadaria are endogamous, i.e. they marry only within their community, and, usually, also observe the rule of village exogamy, i.e. marrying outside one’s village. A number of subgroups or sub-castes and clans are found among the Gadaria of different states. In Haryana, there are four subgroups, namely Nibbhar, Dhingar, Kanchane and Saila. The first two marry among themselves but not with the latter two. They are further divided into thirteen exogamous clans like Hirenwal, Saraswal and Kastur.
In Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra there are two endogamous subgroups named Dhangar and Nikhar, each considering itself superior to the other, and a number of clans. In Himachal Pradesh a third subgroup named Ochre is also sometimes added. The Gadaria of Madhya Pradesh have two subgroups called Disori and Larsia, with five or six clans each. In Punjab, Chandigarh and Rajasthan, they have five to twelve exogamous clans.
The Gadaria are monogamous but a second wife is allowed in exceptional cases such as barrenness of the first. Child marriage was practiced earlier, but this is changing. Marriages are arranged by negotiation between the family members. The matrimonial symbols for women are sindur (colored vermilion powder streaked along hair parting), bindi (coloured dot in the middle forehead), nose-studs and bangles. Dowry is given in cash and kind; and bride price is customary in Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. Divorce is only strictly sanctioned on grounds of adultery, impotency and mental sickness. In Haryana, divorce is not permissible under any circumstances. Remarriage is allowed.
Parental property is divided equally among sons only; the eldest son succeeds as head of the family. Daughters have no share unless the family has no male heir – in which instance, the son-in-law is invited to manage the property. The women have a low status in Gadaria society. Besides domestic chores, they tend the animals, grow vegetables, collect firewood, water and perform religious duties. They are adept at embroidery and weaving floor coverings. The community has a rich tradition of folktales, folksongs and dances. They use percussion and wind musical instruments; both men and women love to dance.
The Gadaria have a traditional caste council consisting of five to seven elders. In Rajasthan, headmen of 10 villages constitute the caste council. The council exercises control over the community and deals with family quarrels, divorce, adultery and elopement. The council levies cash fines and excommunicates the guilty.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Gadaria are Hindu. They worship all the major deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Rama. Vaishno Devi is held in special reverence. (She has attributes of all the three deities of the Hindu trinity.)
As is the norm with Hindu communities – each community can also worship a specific regional god or goddess. In Uttar Pradesh, Shakti worship is prevalent. (Shakti meaning power or energy) Wednesday’s are Gaumata (“Cow-mother”) day for worship. In Haryana, Khera Devta, a village deity is highly venerated and a lavish annual feast is celebrated for him.
In Rajasthan, the main regional deity is Bheru (“Sheep”), while Kalkamata (“Black mother” or Kali, goddess of destruction) is their village goddess. In Maharashtra local deities are worshipped for the welfare of livestock, while in Haryana and Chandigarh, Talokpara, whose shrine is near Kala Amb town, is a much-propitiated clan deity. In Chandigarh, idols of Sati (virtuous women who immolated themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre) are worshipped for the wellbeing of the family.
The Gadaria believe in evil spirits, ghosts and magic. Witchdoctors (Bhopa) are consulted for guidance and for curing diseases. All major festivals are celebrated. The dead are cremated and a period of death pollution observed; ancestor worship is prevalent.
Some Gadaria of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Chandigarh have become followers of the Arya Samaj and Radhasoami sects which are egalitarian and non-idolatrous, though conceptually Hindu. A few Gadaria have adopted the Sikh religion.
What Are Their Needs?
These shepherds poor living circumstances and literacy levels; the hard life the women endure keep them bound to their rituals and power gods.