Who are they?
The Lunia were traditionally salt makers. They are also known as Nunia, Sambhri, Sambhri Chauhan and Jhumaria Parmer.
They number more than 1.5 million in Uttar Pradesh and are said to have migrated there from the Sambhar salt lake region in Rajasthan. They live in the fertile central and eastern districts of Lucknow, Kanpur, Farrukhabad, Rai Bareilly, Sitapur, Lakhimpur, Azamgarh, Varanasi, Deoria, Gonda, Gorakhpur, Ghazipur and Jaunpur. These districts are known for high crime rates. They also live in Bihar and in smaller numbers in West Bengal, where they are constitutionally listed as a Scheduled Caste. This status grants them many advantages.
The name of the community is derived from Lun or Nun which is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit word Lavana, meaning ‘moist’, and which occurs in one of the most important and ancient sacred texts of early Hinduism, the Atharva Veda, as a word for sea salt.
The Lunia claim that they are descended from the Kshatriya, the second highest warrior caste. According to legend, some Kshatriyas hid in order to escape persecution at the hands of Parshurama (Rama), who was destroying the Kshatriya’s domination over the Brahmins. On being discovered by an enraged Parshurama, they lied that they were not Kshatriya but Lunia. This saved their lives but came to be called Lunia from then.
Another caste legend of the Lunia indicates a mixed past. According to this version, many centuries ago, a marriage party made up four persons of each of the four castes – a Brahmin, Rajput, Bania and Gosain went to a place near Ayodhya, a holy city in Uttar Pradesh. After the ceremony, as the bride was being taken to her husband’s house she scraped some earth with her fingers, tasted it, and finding it salty spat it out. This misdemeanor enraged and insulted the goddess of the village. She cursed the bride, condemning her descendents to making a living by excavating salt and so the Lunia was born.
The Lunia consider themselves as equal to lower groups of the Thakur (Rajput), Teli (oilman), Gadaria (shepherd) and Lodh (landowner and cultivator). They see themselves as superior, however, to the Dhobi (washer man), Dhanuk (cotton carder), Kahar (palanquin-bearer), Nai (Barber) and subordinate to the Brahmin, Rajput and Bania. Hindu society however, classifies them as Sudra, the lowest of the four castes of peasants and serfs.
They speak Hindi and use the Devnagari script to write. In Bihar they speak Maithili and Khotta is spoken in West Bengal.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The traditional occupation of salt-making is not practiced today. The British government monopolized the production of salt. Additionally, they began importing salt from Cheshire, England in the early 1900’s. These policies very nearly ruined the Lunia and consequently led them to become unskilled laborers. They do any work that kind of daily wage labor and work in farms, making bricks, building roads, railways, construction work, dig wells, and make stone chips from boulders. Many of them are subsistence farmers of small plots that they own.
There are a few employed in lower to middle level salaried jobs in both the private and government sectors, while some educated Lunia are businessmen, lawyers and doctors. Political leadership has emerged among them at the district and state levels.
The Lunia enjoy meat when they can afford it. Some eat pork but beef is taboo by religion. The impoverished among some of their subgroups are said to dig rats from their holes in rice fields at the beginning of the cold season for meat. Their simple diet consists of cereals like wheat and rice, as well as the coarser, cheaper grains like jowar and bajra, or millet with lentils and seasonal vegetables. Alcohol is drunk by men only, as is tobacco in various forms.
The literacy level of the Lunia is quite low as compared to the national average as poverty often hinders their formal education. The children make it to primary level. They are open to family planning methods and use both traditional and modern medicines.
The Lunia do utilize the benefits of official development programs like Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), Prime Minister’s Rojgar Yojana (employment scheme) or PMRY, midday meal program for school children and other benefits. They also receive basic facilities provided by the state and federal governments such as clean drinking water, electricity and fair-price shops under the public distribution system. In rural areas, in spite of the provision of electricity, they continue to use dried leaves, sticks, firewood and cow dung. Their financial problems are not helped by much indebtedness to moneylenders and shopkeepers.
The Lunia are endogamous at the community as well as at the subgroup level. This means that they marry among their sub-caste or subgroup only. The three subgroups in Uttar Pradesh are Sambhri Chauhan, Muskhawa and Beldar who are traditionally engaged in salt-making, masonry and brick-making, respectively.
Both adult and child marriages are common and follow the ceremony where the bridegroom goes to the bride’s house in a wedding procession, marries her and brings her to live with him at his parental home. Though marriages are generally arranged through negotiation, marriage by purchase is also practiced by some Lunia.
In the Lunia marriage ceremony, the bride’s father bows down to touch the feet of the bridegroom. Another important part of the marriage ceremony the groom’s long cloth scarf or shawl is tied together with the sari of the bride into a ‘sacred knot’. This is followed by the couple circling a pillar in the ceremonial marriage booth to the chanting of Sanskrit mantras by the priest.
Marriage symbols are sindur (vermilion) and lacquer and glass bangles. Divorce (Chutauti, meaning liberation) is permitted and can be initiated by either spouse on grounds of adultery and maladjustment. Remarriage is also socially sanctioned and widows are often married off to their younger brothers-in-law.
Nuclear families are now more common among the Lunia. At the death of the father, the eldest son assumes headship of the family. Unlike most other Hindu castes, both sons and daughters equally inherit parental property. Another difference is that the widowed mother receives a share of her husband’s property if she does not remarry. The status of women remains subordinate to that of men in all areas of life. Their opinions are given due consideration in family matters but the final decision is invariably taken by the men.
The Lunia women collect firewood and fodder, perform all the housework and participate in social, ritual and religious affairs. They also contribute to the family income. The women decorate the floors and walls of their houses on religious occasions. Both men and women sing folksongs at festive occasions and at ceremonies, but only women dance.
The Lunia have a regional association, the Rajput Maryada Sabha, in Kanpur as well as Delhi, which lobbies for their overall well-being and progress with the government.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Lunia are Hindus and worship a many regional, village and family deities. Shiva and Durga are their main god and goddess. They also worship other prominent gods and goddesses such as Krishna, Parvati (Shiva’s wife, a form of Durga), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth), Rama and Sita.. Bran Baba is worshipped as a family deity while Nakte Mama and Jakhi Baba are village deities. In eastern Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar the god Mahabir, or ‘great brave’ is appeased with ritual offerings of food and sweets while other deities like Panchonpir and Ghati Miyan are appeased by animal sacrifices. A local goddess Amina Sati is offered cloth with a red border and the god Palihar liquor and roosters. Ancestors are also worshipped.
The festivals of Holi, (spring festival of color), Navratri and Shivaratri (Shiva’s Night) and Diwali (festival of lights) are celebrated. Varanasi, a holy city sacred to Shiva, is one of their main pilgrimage centres. The Lunia uses the services of a Brahmin priest to perform their rituals of birth, marriage and death. The dead are cremated, but children below five years are buried. At the cremation ground common Hindu death rituals like kapal kriya (a ritual involving the cracking of the burning deceased’s skull with a stick) are performed by the chief mourner who also has to have his head ritually tonsured. A purification rite, tija, is performed on the third day after death. Death and birth pollution is observed for specific periods.