Who are they?
The generic term Shilpkar, or Shilpakar, is used for all of Indian people groups regarded as low castes. For generations they have produced ropes, fans and mats. A few are sweepers and scavengers (same as the low-caste Bhangi and Churha communities). The Shilpkar are also skilled artisans and performers.
The Indian leader and freedom fighter, Lala Lajpat Rai, was moved to see the terrible circumstances in which the Dom lived on his visit to the Kumaon hills in 1911. He found them to be highly skilled craftsmen and considered their exploitation by the high caste Hindus as extremely unjust. He declared that it was improper to call them Dom, therefore being identified with the outcastes such as the scavengers and sweepers, and thus named them Shilpkar – Hindi for craftsman. They were officially recognized as Shilpkar in 1925 by the British government. Today, they resent being called Dom, or Dum, hence this derogatory term is no longer used. They are synonymously referred to as Dom, Dum, Ram, Arya and Harijan. Ram, Arya, Tamta, Koli and Lohar are common surnames among this community.
The Shilpkar live mainly in the hilly areas of Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh, predominantly in the districts of Dehradun, Pauri Garhwal, Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Tehri Garhwal, Haridwar, Almora, Pithoragarh, Nainital, and Pilibhit. They number around 1.2 million.
Ethnologist, E.T. Atkinson (The Himalayan Gazetteer, 1882), wrote that the Shilpkar claim an exalted origin as descendants of a Brahmin (highest Hindu priestly caste) named Gorakhnath who was made an outcast because he ate ritually forbidden food. Atkinson writes that the Shilpkar are of an aboriginal, non-Aryan stock and were reduced to slavery by the Khasia and other immigrant high castes. He describes them as servants of the Khasia in the hilly regions of Kumaon, Garhwal and along the hills as far west as the Indus River valley.
They speak the language of regions that they live in, such as the Indo-Aryan languages Kumaoni, Garhwali and Jaunsari. Hindi is the common language of these regions.
Listed as a Scheduled Caste (SC) under the provisions of the Indian Constitution, the government grants them many privileges and benefits. These advantages, such as fixed quotas in government jobs and higher educational institutions, lower selection benchmarks in various competitive examinations, reserved seats in Parliament and the state legislatures are intended to assist the SC’s lift themselves out of the dismal life of poverty into which they are born.
The Shilpkar accept food and water from all higher castes but they in turn do not and treat them as a low caste, belonging to the ‘unclean’ Sudra – the lowest class of servants. They usually live on the outskirts of villages and hamlets, away from other communities.
What are their lives like?
Occupational subgroups of the Shilpkar still pursue their hereditary occupations like blacksmithing, coppersmith, basketry, bamboo mat-making, stone work, carpentry, masonry, oil-pressing, drum beating and leather work. They are also known for entertainment – dancing at weddings and religious functions for the upper castes, as well as making earthen or clay smoking pipes or wooden utensils, tailoring, weaving, pottery, woodcarving and wood-engraving and other crafts. Ferrying, fishing, making rope-bridges and washing gold dust out of sand are the traditional occupations of those Shilpkar who live near rivers.
Most are also simultaneously engaged in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry or small-scale poultry farming to supplement their meager incomes. Some work as sharecroppers to higher caste farming families. Some peddle bangles, combs, mirrors, toys or firewood or do odd jobs. There are also some teachers, businessmen, pharmacists and defense personnel among them.
The literacy levels of the Shilpkar are quite low. The dropout rate after primary school is high, especially for girls. Slowly, due to the impact of government-sponsored development programs, their socio-economic condition is improving. They have benefited greatly from schemes to provide drinking water, electricity, irrigation, nutrition, rural employment and self-employment. Many landless Shilpkar families have been the beneficiaries of government subsidies for house construction and have received free land as well. The Shilpkar utilize both traditional and modern medical treatments. They are open to family planning methods. They do not use banks for loans and remain dependent and in debt to shopkeepers and private moneylenders.
The Shilpkar marry as adults although child marriages are common among some subgroups. A man acquires his wife through negotiation, exchange, mutual consent or even elopement. He may take a second wife in cases such as barrenness. Among the Kolta Shilpkar, polyandry- the practice of having more than one husband at one time is also acceptable. Vermilion (sindur), nose-rings and nose studs are the marriage symbols for women. Unlike other castes, traditionally it is the groom who pays a bride-price to the bride’s father. This is still practiced by many subgroups of the Shilpkar, though some have taken to the custom of getting a dowry.
Nuclear families now predominate over extended families. Parental property is divided among the sons with the firstborn son receiving a larger share than the others. He also succeeds his father as head of the family. Shilpkar women are better regarded and play a crucial role in economic activities, family management and decision-making in addition to domestic duties. However, in some subgroups like the Beda or Baddi, the women become prostitutes due to dire poverty. Social control among the Shilpkar is in the hands of an informal council. This council consists of respected community elders.
The Shilpkar have a rich oral tradition. Some of these subgroups such as the Damai, Dholi, Bajgi and Hurkiya possess a great repertoire of folklore and narrate stories in dramatic detail. The Dholi Shilpkar sing the jhora on religious occasions accompanied by frenzied beating of drums, which induces a state of demonic possession or trance. Men and women join in folksongs and folkdances accompanied by their traditional musical instruments like the large, single-membrane kettledrum, cymbal and flute.
What are their beliefs?
The Shilpkar are Hindus and worship numerous regional gods and goddesses. Some of these deities are Nag (king cobra), Bhairon (one of Shiva’s attributes – terrible or fearsome), Kali (goddess and wife of Shiva) and many others. There is a strong belief in the occult. The shaman or medicine man is sought to deal with sickness, evil spirits and to appease the gods and goddesses. Along with the fortune teller, he acts as an oracle and foretells future events in a trance. Sometimes women act as exorcists. Animal sacrifices are performed either routinely as an act of worship or on the instruction of a shaman. As a ritually unclean community, they are not permitted the services of a Brahmin priest. Their ceremonies are therefore performed by a relative who acts as a priest. The dead are cremated and a period of death pollution is observed. Ancestor worship is observed.
The Shilpkar celebrate Hindu festivals like Diwali (festival of lamps), Maha Shivaratri (great night of Shiva), Holi (festival of colours), Navratri (festival of nine nights) and Ghee Teohar (butter festival). The new moon and full moon days of each month are also celebrated. Major sacred centers for pilgrimage are Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Nandprayag and Haridwar in Uttar Pradesh.