Who are they?
The Taga, better known as Tyagi, have been settled cultivators since ancient times and live in the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi. They claim their origin from the Brahmin which is the highest Hindu caste.
They acquired their name from the Hindi word tyag, or ‘abandoned’, which, it is said, indicates that at some point in the past they abandoned their traditional priestly function and took to agriculture. Supplementing this hypothesis, the colonial anthropologist William Crooke (1896) says that, “On the whole, it seems not unreasonable to believe that, like the Bhuinhar Brahmans of the eastern part of the province, the Taga may have actually been Gaur Brahmans, who lost status by abandoning priestly functions for taking to agriculture.”
According to a legend, when the Brahmin saint Parshurama killed the Kshatriya (second highest Hindu caste), the land was given to the Brahmin who started cultivating it. These Brahmin were the Tyagi.
In Uttar Pradesh the Tyagi, numbering around 5 million, are concentrated in the immensely fertile and prosperous districts of Bulandshahr, Moradabad, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Saharanpur and Bijnor. In Haryana, too, they populate the well-off Sonepat and Karnal districts. They converse in Hindi in the former state and in the local Haryanvi dialect in the latter.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Land is their main resource and is controlled by individual family ownership. In earlier times, they rarely used to plough the land themselves, since they were the land owners. However, that elitist rule is not followed strictly today, as the industrial revolution began to influence India with increased availability of farming machinery. Their farm produce is sold in the nearby market directly and the local market is fully regulated. Animal husbandry is also an important occupation with many in the Taga community.
Many Taga can also be found in private and government service. Some of them are shopkeepers, doctors and businessmen. In Delhi, the majority of the Taga have left working the land because it has been acquired by the Delhi Development Authority. As a result they too have found employment in government services, businesses or professions, while a few are industrial workers.
Political leadership has emerged at the regional or state level among the Taga. There are influential Taga Ministers in the state cabinets who actively promote the interests of the community in their state. There is also a streak of criminality among some of the Taga who have formed notorious gangs that usually operate in the urban and semi-urban areas and specialise in kidnapping, land-grabbing and extortion. In Uttar Pradesh, some elected Taga members of the State Legislative Assembly even have criminal records and court cases pending against them. In fact, during the British period , the Taga of Karnal district were officially identified as a Criminal Tribe, addicted to picking pockets and petty thefts in crowds and fairs.
Literacy rate among the Taga is high and formal education is favored for both boys and girls. Boys are usually sent for studies to college and post-graduate levels. They understand the advantages of a small family and demonstrate a favorable attitude towards family planning by having two or three children and using modern contraceptive methods. The Taga take full advantage of various official developmental programmes. They avail themselves of irrigation facilities, use organic and chemical fertilizers, and being relatively affluent can afford the use of mechanised farming aids such as threshers and tractors.
Traditionally these people are vegetarian, with some, as those in Delhi abstaining even from onion and garlic. But, increasingly a few – mainly men – have begun to enjoy meats. Cereals such as wheat, rice and maize, and pulses and beans are common to their diet. Milk and milk products are taken in ample amounts and fruit consumption is moderate while all types of seasonal vegetables are eaten. Some Taga men drink alcohol occasionally. Chewing betel and tobacco as well as smoking cigarettes and bidi is quite common among the men folk.
Both nuclear and extended family types exist among the Taga. However, the extended families tend to break up in urban areas either due to lack of residential space or lack of cooperation and adjustment between family members. Even so, in matters relating to occupation and socio-religious rituals, the Taga families often remain in close contact with each other through mutual cooperation.
Elders command great respect and an avoidance relationship is observed between the daughter-in-law and father-in-law; the husband’s elder brother and younger brother’s wife. Today however, conflict and confrontation are increasingly seen in the Taga families between the elders in authority and the youth who are challenging that authority and resisting the restraints placed upon the freedom they demand.
Inheritance is patrilineal and property is equally divided among the sons. The status of women is low even though they have a significant role in agricultural operations, animal husbandry, collection of fuel and bringing potable water. They are, however, respected in the family and have a crucial part in the ritual, religious and social spheres.
The Taga women are adept at embroidery and knitting and sing traditional folksongs on the occasions of birth and marriage. Only the women participate in dances. The Taga also have oral traditions in the form of folklore and folktales which they often share with other local communities. In them, heroic tales of Hindu gods, goddesses and saints are narrated. Dholki (small barrel shaped drum), Chimta, and a bamboo flute are some of the common musical instruments used by them.
The Taga have two subdivisions in their community. In Uttar Pradesh these are Dasa or Dasawan (ten), and Bisa or Bisawan (twenty). The former allow widow remarriage while the latter prohibit it. If a Bisa allows and approves widow remarriage he at once falls into the lower Dasa subdivision. There are, however, no restrictions on widower remarriage.
In Delhi the two subgroups are known as Bade (big) Tyagi and Chottey (small) Tyagi. Each of these subdivisions of the Taga is endogamous and within them are several exogamous gotras (clans) such as Bharadwaj, Vishvamitra, Gaur, etc. Marriages are arranged by negotiation among the elders of the two families. The earlier practice of child marriage followed by gaona (departure of the bride to the groom’s place after puberty) has been replaced by adult marriage. Once a girl marries, she wears the marriage symbols of vermilion, glass and gold bangles, and a dot on the forehead called bindi.
Polygamy is permitted only if the first wife is childless. However, most marriages are monogamous. Dowry, which can be heavy at times, is demanded (and given) in both cash and kind. Traditionally, divorce is not allowed among the Taga except under extreme conditions of maladjustment. Divorcee remarriage is socially approved for willing and young individuals.
Among the Taga a traditional caste council exists but is ad hoc in nature. It is formed as and when required to sort out inter-family disputes of various kinds. This body is, however, slowly losing its effectiveness. There are also larger, regional Tyagi Brahmin Sabhas in Delhi and Meerut. They take the issues concerning the broader interests of the community into consideration in addition to social regulation. However, these larger councils are falling victim to modernity’s individualism and liberalism.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Taga follow Hinduism and worship all Hindu gods and goddesses like Vishnu, Krishna, Siva, Durga and Kali. They have great reverence for Bhoomiya Devta (earth god). They have the same centres of pilgrimage and shrines as the other Hindus. Safidon, located in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana, is a place of great religious importance for them. Gurgaonwali Mata and Garh Ganga are two other sacred sites commonly visited by them. The Taga celebrate all Hindu festivals such as Holi, Dussehra, Diwali and Sivaratri.
The Taga believe in evil spirits and that the Brahmin priest protects them from these spirits. Brahman priests have a role in performing their birth, marriage and death rites, in addition to worship and religious teaching. The Taga consider themselves as Brahmin – the highest Hindu caste – however diminished or fallen they might be because of their adopted profession, but, unlike other Brahman, refuse to accept gifts or money from any patron. Instead, they give something to them. This trait is unique to the Taga people. A considerable number of the Taga in Uttar Pradesh, both individually or as a family, are affiliated to the Muslim saints of the mystic and ascetic Sufi order and visit their tombs.
The Taga cremate their dead and immerse the charred bones or phul in the Ganges River – which they consider to be holy – at Haridwar or at Garh Ganga near Meerut. Death pollution for thirteen or seventeen days is observed, and during this period the chief mourner must sleep on the floor, eat once a day and is not permitted to shave.
The Hindu purificatory and revivalist Arya Samaj sect has found adherents among the Taga of Haryana. A few of the Taga have embraced Islam and given up Hindu practices but the Hindu Taga maintain cordial relations with them and even attend their functions and festivals.