Who are they?
The Gaddi are a Muslim community of cow herders. They can be found throughout the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar and Rajasthan.
William Crooke describes them as a “community of cow-herders” in his Tribes and Castes of North-Western India (1896). They are said to have migrated from the hills of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir or possibly from the plains of the Punjab. The Gaddi of Bihar migrated from Uttar Pradesh along with the British soldiers when they were fighting the Muslim rulers in the 18th century.
Crooke, along with Denzil Ibbetson (1916), mentions them as a subgroup of the larger Ghosi Muslim community, and suggests that they are converts to Islam from the large Ahir community of shepherds who are spread throughout India. In fact, the Gaddi of the Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh claim that they originally belonged to the Gwalbansi (milkman lineage) subgroup of the Ahir, and that they embraced the Muslim faith during the reign of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707).
In Bihar, where they are also known as Goala (milkmen), they claim that they are the descendants of the first elderly learned person called Gaddi Salauddin Rahmatulla Alam. In Rajasthan, the Gaddi claim that their forefathers looked after Emperor Akbar’s throne or gaddi and were named the same.
This community has good relationships with other communities and also accepts food and water from them, both Hindu and Muslim. The exceptions are certain lower caste groups like the Chamar (tanner), Bhangi or Churha (sweepers and scavengers), and Lohar (ironsmith).
Urdu is their first language but they are also fluent in Hindi. In Rajasthan, however, they speak a blend of Urdu and Hindi, while in Bihar they speak a local Indo-Aryan language, called Sadri. They use the Persian – Arabic script to write Urdu and the Devanagari script for Hindi.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Although many do not own land, their traditional and primary occupations are cultivation and animal husbandry. The more prosperous among them use equipment like tractors and grain threshers, and employ newer methods to farm. They work on other people’s farms, as contracted laborers in the construction industry and sell dried cow dung cakes for fuel. There are a few who own small businesses or work in offices. In Bihar, some are domestic servants.
The Gaddi eat all meat, including beef and buffalo, but do not eat pork for religious reasons. The Biharis do not eat beef. They eat wheat, rice, lentils, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Only men drink alcohol occasionally. Paan (flavored betel leaf) is chewed by women and men. A sweet known as bakarkhani made of milk, semolina, flour, sugar and eggs is a special treat at marriage feasts.
Education is important to them and it is common for their sons to be allowed to study to secondary or college levels, and their daughters to secondary level. An average family has three to four children as not all favor family planning. They help themselves to the facilities provided for them like self-employment schemes, electricity, irrigation, chemical fertilisers, insecticides, bank loans and the government-subsidized Public Distribution System for essential groceries.
The Gaddi marry within their community. Marriages are arranged for them by family members. Marriages between closely related persons are permitted and it is common for cousins to marry. They believe in monogamy and polygamy, though sanctioned by Islam, is rare. There are no obvious symbols to show that they are married except for jewelry. Widows do not wear red glass bangles unless they have remarried. Dowry is given to the bridegroom’s family in cash and household goods. Divorce is allowed as is remarriage of the divorced and widowed of both sexes.
The average Gaddi family is restricted to a smaller unit of parents with their children, with only a few choosing to stay as extended families. After the father’s death, the eldest son succeeds as the head of the family and the parental property is divided equally among sons only. Daughters do not inherit a share, except in Delhi where they are given a lesser amount.
Women of this community are almost equal to men. They do housework, work to earn a living by preparing dairy products for sale as ghee (clarified butter), paneer (cottage cheese) and yoghurt. A few of the women work as laborers for a daily wage. They participate in social and ritual activities but do not go to mosques, praying at home instead. The Gaddi have an oral tradition of folk songs and folk tales and are fond of music and dance.
The Gaddi have a council made of a selected leader and five members. The council or Panchayat is not very active in states like Delhi. In Rajasthan they meet four times a year and exists to initiate social reform and resolve internal disputes.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Gaddi are Muslim by faith and belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. Like other Muslims, they adhere to the Five Pillars of their faith – recital of the creed, prayer five times a day, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage. The all-important creed is there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah. Fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset for forty consecutive days during the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when the archangel Gabriel is believed to have recited the Koran to Prophet Muhammad.
They observe festivals like Id-ul-Zuha or Bakr Id (feast commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice during which a goat is slaughtered), Bara Wafat (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), and Id-ul-Fitr (Feast of Alms). The main places of pilgrimage are Mecca which has the Ka’aba mosque, considered the holiest Islamic shrine, and Medina (City of the Prophet, where his tomb lies) in Saudi Arabia.
The Gaddi have great respect for Sufi saints and are devout visitors to the mausoleum shrines of these saints. Sufi was a popular Muslim mystic and ascetic. Commonly, offerings of money, ornate satin and silk sheets and flowers are brought to such tombs with a firm belief that whatever they will be granted their wishes by the saint. The shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi and that of Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti in Ajmer, Rajasthan, are two of the most prominent shrines visited by them.
The Maulvi who leads prayers at the mosque and Imam are priests from other communities who perform birth, marriage, death and other ceremonies such as aqiqa (tonsure), khatna (male circumcision) and whispering of the azan (summons to prayer) in the newborn’s ear. The Gaddi observe birth pollution for a total period of forty days, which includes a period when the mother is not allowed to cook and another when she is not allowed to offer ritual prayer. Both the mother and the child remain confined inside the house for forty days. The dead are buried and a forty-day period of mourning is observed at the end of which relatives and the poor are fed and the Koran is read.