Who are they?
The Lohar or Luhar are an occupational caste of traditional traveling blacksmiths that number more than 7.5 million people. The term Lohar is derived from the Sanskrit word lauha-kara, meaning ‘a worker in iron’. In Rajasthan, they are called Gaduliya (which refers to the open carts in which they travel and live) and Shilpkar in Himachal Pradesh.
The Lohar are spread over 68 districts of India. They live in Uttar Pradesh (2.1 million), Bihar (1 million), Jharkhand (200,000), Madhya Pradesh (940,000), Orissa (900,000), Maharashtra (510,000), Haryana (370,000), Gujarat (350,000), Rajasthan (330,000), Punjab (210,000), Himachal Pradesh (170,000) Jammu and Kashmir, and West Bengal (230,000).
One legend regarding the caste’s origins written by R.E. Enthoven (The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, 1922), states that the Lohar of Gujarat claim descent from Pithuo, who was created from dust by Parvati, to make weapons for her husband, Shiva, which were used by him to fight with two demons, Andhir and Dhamdhkar. The Lohar of Orissa, tell a similar story according to which Kamar, the celestial architect, had twelve sons. The eldest, who was accustomed to propitiating the family deity with wine, once drank some of the wine himself which led to his rejection by his siblings. He then became a worker in iron and laid a curse upon his brothers that they should not be able to practice their calling except with the implements he made.
However, in most of the states, the Lohar attribute their origins to the god Vishwakarma. According to the ethnologist William Crooke (Tribes and Castes of the North-Western India, 1896) this god is believed to be the architect and handicraftsman of all gods, the maker of ornaments and the most eminent of artisans. It is from him that craftspeople get their talent and who they offer worship to. He is believed to have made the chariots of the deities.
They are also known as Vishwakarma and Panchal in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. In Rajasthan and Gujarat their synonyms are Panchal or Shree Panchal. In Orissa, they are called Lohura and Nar in West Bengal. In Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra they are also known as Mistry, and in Jammu & Kashmir as Khar or Ahangar.
They speak the languages of the states they live in – Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kashmiri, Oriya and Pahari in Uttar Pradesh. They also speak Hindi.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Lohars are traditionally iron-workers and blacksmiths, along with a subsidiary occupation of agriculture. They are skilled at making and repairing agricultural implements like the sickle, spade, hoe, axe and plough, as well as buckets, pans, knives, scissors, grills and cages. They also fix iron shoes on the hoofs of bullocks. Some of those living in cities work in government and private service or industrial work. The landless among them are increasingly are migrating to urban centres in search of employment. They supplement their income by selling bullocks and cattle. Some Lohars keep camels.
Some of the Lohar practice share-cropping and work as daily-wage laborers. In some towns and cities, some Lohar own workshops that are fitted with modern machinery for making fine implements. In the prosperous states of Punjab and Gujarat, where many run small-scale industries, some have become wealthy industrialists. At times the Lohar do woodwork or carpentry, as in Chandigarh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, or weaving, as in Jammu & Kashmir. The community also has teachers and administrators.
Literacy is low, but their attitude towards formal education ranges from favorable (Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra) to partly favourable (Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat) to unfavourable (Orissa). They use both modern and traditional medicines and generally are open towards modern family planning methods. They also make use of various official development programs and the Public Distribution System.
They marry only other within their community but select spouses from another clan to their own. The number of subgroups varies from region to region. The Lohar are also divided into a number of exogamous gotras or clans of equal status. In Orissa the clans are Kaithwas, Hanswar and Soken which are based on certain sacred totemic objects.
All marriages are arranged for them by their parents when they are still children but officially marry when they are older. A dowry of cash and household goods is given by the bride’s family. Monogamy is the norm although a second wife is permitted in exceptional circumstances (such as barrenness of the first wife). Divorce is rare although socially sanctioned as is the remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees. Junior sororate and junior levirate are accepted forms of remarriage. Women wear sindur (vermilion), ivory, glass or plastic bangles, toe-rings and nose-pins as symbols of their married status.
Both nuclear and joint families are found among the Lohar. Property is equally inherited among sons only, and the eldest son succeeds as the head of the family. The women grind the grain and cook, raise the children, but unlike many Indian women, they are permitted contact with other people, including men. Despite this, they are considered lower than men. This is because the women work with the men, a wife often swinging the hammer or working the bellows for her husband until her sons are old enough to help. In West Bengal the women catch and sell fish while in Chandigarh and Punjab they are good in embroidery and knitting woolens. Both men and women sing folk songs and the women dance during festivals. In Bihar women sing at births and weddings and traditional stories and folk tales are told exclusively by men.
In most states the Lohar have a Biradari Panchayat (Community Council). This informal committee looks after their social welfare and works to improve their circumstances. In Delhi this body is called Panchal Mahasabhat.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Lohar are primarily Hindu by faith, though some are Sikh and Muslim. The Muslim Lohar of Jammu & Kashmir belongs to the Sunni sect of Islam and revere Muslim saints like Maqdoom Sahib and Miraj Shah. The Lohar of Haryana, even though they are Hindu, revere a Muslim saint called Googa Pir. Many Lohar, such as those of Delhi, have see themselves as Brahmin. Others, as those of Chandigarh, rank themselves next to the Brahmin. However, among other Hindus, they are considered to be of middle or low rank in the caste system.
They are a fervent Hindu community, worshipping Ram and the goddess Kali of Chittorgarh. They carry a small image of her in a cupboard where small stores and valuables are kept on their carts. In addition each clan worships its own deity and offers daily prayers to the god of the anvil. They celebrate all Hindu festivals. A Brahmin priest conducts all rituals relating to births, marriages and death. The dead are cremated and the ashes immersed in a river, except in Orissa, where the dead are buried. In Rajasthan a stone pillar is erected in memory of the deceased. Both birth and death pollution for specified periods is observed. Ancestor worship is prevalent.
What Are Their Needs?
As the Lohar move from place to place in their carts and need the help of their children to earn a living, education is not an option. There is a need to provide education, health awareness and to use their skills as ironworkers in other ways as it is difficult for them to compete with factory-made products. They need a better self worth and identity and to overcome the limitations of the caste system and their traditions.