Who are they?
The name Kewat is derived from the Sanskrit word kaivarta, meaning fishermen. As the name implies, this is a community of traditional boatmen and fishermen. This people group is found throughout the states of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, West Bengal and Tripura.
According to eminent ethnologists, Russel and Hiralal (The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, 1916) the Kewat are a mixed caste and are almost certainly derived from the non-Aryan primitive tribes. H.H. Risley (The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, 1891) asserts that the Kewat of Bihar and Bengal belonged in the earliest times to an aboriginal tribe bearing the name Kewat.
The Kewat have various synonyms among the different states they inhabit. Some of these names have an etymological meaning, while some others are based on mythological stories. For instance in the newly-created, central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, where the Kewat are also referred to as Nishad, Jalchatri and Parkar, the word jalchatri is derived from jal (water) and chatri (control) and parkar means “to ferry.” In Assam, where they inhabit the Brahmaputra river valley, they were formerly known as Halwa Keot, but nowadays refer to themselves as Keot and consider the former term derogatory.
The Kewat community has a number of legends about the origins of their caste; these vary from region to region. For instance, in Chhattisgarh they believe that they originated from Guru Nishad who ferried Rama across the river Mandakini.
The Kewat speak the languages of their regions. In Assam, they use Assamese, and in West Bengal, Bengali, as their first language and these are written in their respective scripts. In Uttar Pradesh, they converse in the Awadhi language. In Rajasthan, Hadoti is spoken, and in Chhattisgarh, Chhattisgarhi, is their mother tongue. These three languages are written in the common Devanagari script. In Bihar, Angika is their first language, while in Orissa it is the Bhanjabhumia dialect of Oriya. In most states they are also conversant with the Hindi language.
The Kewat are placed among the Sudra class, which is the lowest class in the four-fold Hindu class system. This places them among those who are considered to be peasants, serfs and other serving classes. In Rajasthan they claim to be Kshatriya (2nd highest-class of warriors) but this is not recognised by the other communities. Traditionally, the Kewat do not accept food and water from the Dhobi (washer man), Chamar (cobbler) and Mehtar (sweeper) communities.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The traditional and, in some regions, primary occupation of the Kewat is ferrying people across rivers or fishing. In Assam and Orissa, however, ferrying and fishing are secondary; the primary vocation is cultivation.
The Kewat living in Bihar, West Bengal and Tripura are experts in making fishing nets and bamboo baskets. However, in most states many of the Kewat have gradually taken up other work like agricultural and daily-wage labour, share-cropping, rickshaw-pulling, petty business, mining and other such enterprises. Some of them are in service in the government and private sectors, while few entrepreneurial Kewat have started small-scale industries.
In Rajasthan, where they are mainly landless, the Kewat presently collect sand from dry riverbeds and supply it to the urban construction industry. Many of them are also contractors, truck drivers or truck labourers. In West Bengal the Kewat are normally itinerant traders of fish. Only a few of them, however, own ponds, while the others depend on the ponds of their rich, upper-caste neighbours to source their supply of fish. In Tripura they are primarily engaged as daily-wage labour in tea estates. Here and in West Bengal they are listed as a Scheduled Caste (SC) and this status grants them many benefits in higher education and employment.
The literacy levels of the Kewat are still quite low. The boys usually study to secondary level and the girls to the primary level. Although the people of this community are open towards the various official developmental programmes such as those concerning employment, they are yet to derive optimum benefits from them. They avail themselves of the facilities of clean drinking water, banking, irrigation and the Public Distribution System. Family planning programmes have had some impact on them.
The Kewat avoid beef and pork. They eat rice, wheat and jowar (millet) and pulses and vegetables. They consume seasonal fruits in moderate quantities and milk and dairy products. Smoking tobacco is very common among them, while alcoholic drinks are taken occasionally by the men.
The Kewat are an endogamous community who are divided into many subgroups and clans. These vary in number from region to region. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the Kewat have ten subgroups based on occupation and territory. In Assam there are two main divisions: the Kewat of Upper Assam, known as Haridhania as they do not engage any members of the Brahmin – the highest Hindu priestly caste – for their religious functions. They also have clans like Kashyap and Aliman.
The Kewats of Orissa have different subgroups like Mahashiya, who are purely agriculturists, and Das Kaibarta, who were given landholdings by feudal chiefs. Their clans are Nagesh or Nag, Beneshar, Karkat and Benatur. In Chhattisgarh the Kewat are divided into a number of endogamous subgroups, viz., Manjhi Kewat, Kosowa Kewat and Bengali Kewat. Of these, the Manjhi subgroup, whose occupation is fishing and ferrying, occupy the highest social position followed by the Kosowa, whose prime occupation is silk production. Clans like Tuma, Rawat, Vinayak, and Sonwani have also been identified among them.
The Kewat inhabiting Rajasthan are divided into as many as eighty-four clans which regulate marriage, and each clan also has groups called kutumbs that have socio-ritualistic obligations. In Tripura there are four endogamous subgroups and only one clan, while in Bihar there are four subgroups. In West Bengal the Kewat have a number of clans, such as Anrashi, Nagrashi, Palashi and Shankharashi, which are mostly totemic.
These people are monogamous as a rule with polygamy being a rare exception. Both child and adult marriages are found among them, though the latter are the most common choice today. In Uttar Pradesh, however, child marriage, followed by gaona (departure of the bride to her husband’s house on attaining puberty) is generally practised. Spouses are mostly acquired through negotiation among family members of both sides, but other modes of marriage such as courtship, intrusion, elopement and exchange are also practiced by some Kewat.
Bride-price is prevalent among them but is gradually being replaced by dowry, both in cash and kind. However, in Rajasthan cash dowry is not paid, while in Assam both dowry and bride-price are absent. Divorce is socially sanctioned, as is remarriage of divorcees, widows, and widowers. Junior sororate and junior levirate are allowed.
The Kewat have both nuclear and extended families, with the former becoming increasingly common. The eldest son succeeds to the late father’s authority and the ancestral property is shared equally by all the sons; the daughters do not receive any share. The Kewat women have an inferior status vis-à-vis their men though they do have significant roles in social and ritual spheres. In addition to doing the household chores they participate in agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing and fuel collection.
The oral tradition of the Kewat speaks of the origins of the community. They also have their folk-lore, folk dances and folk songs which are often region-specific. The Kewat have their traditional councils to resolve intra-community disputes and exercise social control. In Orissa there is the Jati Samaj (Community Society) with elders as its members. In Rajasthan the Jati Panch Sangha (Community Five) rule with a hereditary head called Patel; while in Bihar there is the Nishad Kewat Swajatiya (Own Community Assembly) consisting of eleven members who are elected for a one year term by voice vote.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kewat are Hindu by faith and worship all Hindu gods the Kewat of Rajasthan, who regard themselves as Raghuvanshi, specially venerate Rama and the other incarnations of Vishnu. Those of Tripura belong to the Shaivite sect, i.e. they worship Shiva as the supreme god, and also revere Kali as their village deity. In Assam the Kewat are the followers of Shri Shankaradeva, a revered Vaishnavite saint.
The Kewat also worship a number of lesser deities as their family and clan deities in the different regions they live in. For instance, in Bihar, Bisahari (poison-remover), Narsingh (man-lion), Chaurasidevi (boat-dwelling goddess, who they believe keeps them from sinking), and Koilbaba are their family deities and Bhaduria and Kashyap are their clan deities, while Manasa (Snake goddess who protects devotees against snakebites) is the family deity in Bihar. Bhagabati (share distributor) is worshipped as the village deity in Bihar. There are also regional deities which receive worship.
All major Hindu festivals are celebrated as well as a number of local ones like Jitia in Bihar and Bandana Parab and Palagan in Orissa. Brahmin priests perform their life-cycle and religious ceremonies. Ancestor worship is prevalent among these people and there is a potent belief in witchcraft and evil spirits.
What Are Their Needs?
Poor literacy levels must be addressed. The Kewat have embraced the assistance of the government in many areas of their lives. Thus, although many are still poor, they have the means to improve their economic status.