Who are they?
The Gujjar are a pastoral community that used to be nomadic but many now live in settled communities. The word Gujjar is derived from the term gaucharana, meaning to graze cows. They are a well-built people, medium to tall in stature.
The origin of the Gujjar is debatable. While the historian V.A. Smith (Early History of India, 1924) traces their origins to the White Huns who came as nomadic hordes to India around 465 AD, Cunningham places them among the Indo-Scythian tribes, the Kushan and the Yueh-Chi, who overran northwestern India in the first century AD. Most likely they are the progeny of intermarriages between these early foreign invaders and the local inhabitants.
The ethnologist Ibbetson (1916) writes that a Gujjar kingdom existed in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Gujerat and western Uttar Pradesh around 5 AD up to the 8th-9th centuries AD. With the Muslim invasions from 11th century AD onwards the kingdom disintegrated and many Gujjar were converted to Islam, forcing others to flee to the foothills of Punjab and the hills of Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, etc. and lead nomadic lives.
Under the provisions of the Indian constitution the Gujjar are notified as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. This listing grants them special benefits like fixed quotas in government jobs and higher educational institutions as well as lower benchmarks in competitive examinations. The Gujjar regard themselves as equivalent to the Jat, Ahir and Rajput in social status, but are, in fact, considered below the Jat and the Rajput by these communities.
The Gujjar speak the language of the states they live in. In Chandigarh, Punjab, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh they speak Hindi among themselves and use the Devanagari script; while in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana they speak Gujjari, an Indo-Aryan language, as their mother tongue. In Jammu & Kashmir, Kashmiri or Hindi is their first language; they speak Marwari in Rajasthan. The Muslim Gujjar of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Punjab and Chandigarh speak Urdu as their first language and use the Persian-Arabic script to write it.
Numbers & Location
They are quite a large community, numbering around 5.6 million, distributed mainly across the states of Rajasthan (2.1 million), Uttar Pradesh & Uttarakhand (1.4 million), Madhya Pradesh (840,000), Haryana (640,000), Maharashtra (230,000), Delhi (210,000), Punjab (120,000), Orissa (13,000), Chandigarh (7,000), Himachal Pradesh (3,300), Jammu & Kashmir and Gujerat (2,800).
What Are Their Lives Like?
Traditionally the Gujjar were pastoralists, but now most of them practice settled agriculture and animal husbandry rearing cows, buffaloes and sheep. They sell milk and milk products in the market mostly through middlemen for cash and occasionally barter. The principal crops grown by the Gujjar include wheat, gram and maize. They also grow pulses, vegetables and sugarcane besides green fodder for cattle.
Some educated Gujjar are in government or private service, while a few work as daily wage labourers. In some urban centres like Delhi and Chandigarh many Gujjar run petty businesses like grocery shops, and some work as contractors and traders. In Punjab they have set dairy farms. There are also businessmen, artists, defense and police personnel, political leaders and professionals among the Gujjar.
There are many Muslim Gujjars in Bulandshahr, Saharanpur, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar districts of Uttar Pradesh and large concentrations in Dehradun, Tehri Garhwal and Haridwar districts of Uttarakhand. They migrated here at the turn of the 19th century and are landless and nomadic, living in rudimentary thatched huts in remote, inaccessible forests where they graze their cattle. They do not have any social interaction with other Hindu Gujjar or other Muslims, though they share mosques and shrines with them and occasionally participate in festivities and functions.
Since a large part of their habitat falls under the limits of the Rajaji National Park they are subject to the restrictions imposed by the forest department and are often victims of harassment. They have been canvassing against a proposed eviction from the National Park area and urging the government to hand over the park to them.
The Hindu Gujjar have a mostly vegetarian staple diet that consists of cereals like wheat, rice, gram, maize, pulses, vegetables, oilseeds and seasonal fruit as well as milk and milk products. They have a non-vegetarian diet in Chandigarh and Madhya Pradesh. The Muslim Gujjars are non-vegetarians and those of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand eat beef.
Alcohol is occasionally consumed by men except for the Muslim Gujjar of Himachal Pradesh for whom it is prohibited. The Gujjar chew and smoke tobacco from a hookah. Both men and women chew paan (betel leaf).
The level of literacy among the Gujjar is low especially for girls. The Gujjar in the prosperous states of Punjab and Haryana and Delhi have access to government development schemes for better health, electricity, irrigation, drinking water and bank loans. Some sections of the Gujjar are responsive to family welfare and family planning programs. However, the nomadic Gujjar of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir do not have basic facilities and are illiterate. Some nomadic Gujjar of Himachal Pradesh have been rehabilitated and settled in colonies.
The Gujjar are an endogamous community but observe exogamy at the clan and, often, village levels. They have a number of subgroups and clans depending on the regions they reside in. The clan and surnames are often the same.
The Muslim Gujjar of Jammu & Kashmir has two occupational sections. The Jamindars are settled landholders and the Dodhi are pastoral nomads. These sections are further subdivided into gotras (clans). The Muslim Gujjar of Himachal Pradesh also are made up of two subgroups – the Bhatariye and Bhanariye. It is believed that these Gujjar were originally Hindu and converted to Islam.
Monogamy is practiced among the Gujjar, though polygamy is not unknown. Fraternal polyandry was predominant until recently among the Gujjar of Punjab. Adult marriages are slowly replacing child marriage and are arranged by negotiation. In Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, child marriage is still prevalent. Marriage by exchange is also practiced by some Gujjar of Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. In the latter two states, marriage by elopement has social sanction. The Gujjars of Madhya Pradesh conduct mass marriages.
Sindur (vermilion mark), bindi (coloured dot on forehead), glass bangles, nose and finger rings are marriage symbols for women. Dowry is given in both cash and kind. Divorce is rare, though permitted in cases of adultery. Widow, widower and divorcee remarriage is allowed except in Rajasthan. Junior and senior levirate and junior sororate are common among most Gujjar.
Extended families are more the norm and each son inherits an equal share of the parental property. Daughters have no inheritance except for Muslim Gujjar women who are granted the right according to the Sharia (Islamic law). Gujjar women have a secondary status to men but play a very important role in the economic activities of the family. Besides collecting fuel, fodder and water and cooking food, they work in the fields alongside their men and also help in taking care of the animals. In urban cities like Delhi a few women are employed in government service and in small-scale industries. They also have a vital role in the social and religious spheres.
Gujjar women are well known for their talents and interest in music and dance and have many traditional folksongs, dances and folktales. In Haryana, they perform khodia (a form of drama) on the marriage of a son and draw beautiful pictures of goddess on walls during the Dussehra festival. In Himachal Pradesh also Gujjar women are skilled in wall painting, as well as making idols of the Durga (militant goddess who slays demons). Tattoos are common among many older women. Gujjar women are skilled in embroidery. Gujjar men wear a special type of turban or a distinctive conical cap that is intricately embroidered and a dhoti (loincloth) and kurta (long shirt) and a waistcoat in cooler weather.
A community panchayat (council) exercises social control and resolves disputes regarding land, marriage, inheritance and other issues. In Delhi registered societies, (like the All India Gujjar Maha Sabha) whose objectives are to improve the community and amend outdated customs. Madhya Pradesh has regional councils that have formed strict rules for community members.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Gujjar are Hindu (68.4%) or Muslim (31.3%) by faith, with a small number (0.3%) of Sikhs. There are a few adherents to the Arya Samaj or the guru-centric Radhasoami sects. All Hindu Gujjar worship the gods and goddesses like Shiva (Destroyer), Vishnu (Preserver), Kali (wife of Shiva), Durga, Krishna (who has pastoral attributes), Rama (righteous prince), Hanuman (the monkey god regarded as a protector against danger) and others.
Punjabi Gujjar worship the sun as Surya Narain. The Gujjar of Chandigarh are primarily Shiva or Shakti devotees. They also worship Sitala (goddess of smallpox), Pyareji and Baba Sabha Ram. Kheda Devta, Khota, Satti and Bhumia are local deities propitiated by the Gujjar of Haryana. The Gujjar also venerate clan deities.
The Brahmin (highest priestly caste) performs all birth, marriage and death rituals. The dead are cremated and the ashes immersed in a river preferably the holy Ganges at Haridwar in Uttar Pradesh or in the Yamuna River. Death and birth pollutions are observed for specified periods. Ancestor worship is performed during the months of September-October each year. Tiny shrines dedicated to the memory of ancestors are commonly found scattered in fields. They celebrate all Hindu festivals like Holi (festival of colours), Diwali (festival of lamps), Dussehra and Janamashtami (Krishna’s birthday). At every new moon of each month, Teej and Mavasa are also celebrated by many Gujjar.
Muslim Gujjar belong to the dominant Sunni sect and follow the tenets of their faith. A mullah, imam or maulavi performs all rituals relating to life cycles and teaches religious truths to children and is also an exorcist. They celebrate Id-ul-Fitr, Id-ul-Zuha, Shab-I-qader, Miraj-alam and others. The dead are buried and a mourning period is observed.
What Are Their Needs?
The Gujjar are a hardy community who understand deprivation due to their nomadic existence. Their existence is caught up in the daily struggle of making a living in unstable and difficult conditions. Their needs are for better health, literacy, stability and a reliable source of income.