Who are they?
Traditionally, the Teli are an occupational caste of oil-pressers. The traditional wooden oil press was driven by blindfolded oxen around a mill. This labour intensive mill has been replaced by motor operated mills. However, many of today’s oil mills are owned by other communities. Consequently, the Teli have been forced diversified into other vocations.
They are a large group numbering around 17.5 million and are distributed in one hundred and twenty-one districts throughout India and spread across fifteen states.
They derive their community name from the Hindi word tel which means oil. The Sanskrit word for oil, tailika or taila, is also derived from tilli, meaning sesame. The mythological origin of the Teli is traced to Shiva. Legend has it that he created the Teli to destroy five demons. The Teli have many other legends concerning their origin, one being that the first Teli was created by Shiva to massage him with oil. There is another belief that when Mahadev (a synonym of Shiva) needed oil he created a man from the dirt of his body and gave him a bullock and told him to produce oil. Yet another myth maintains there was man who had three sons and fifty-two mahua (Bassia latifolia) trees whose produce he decided to divide among the sons. One son picked up the leaves; another collected the flowers, while the third took the fruit kernels and crushed oil out of them, thereby becoming the founder of the Teli.
The Teli’s mother tongue varies from state to state. In Uttar Pradesh they speak dialects of Hindi, while in Chandigarh (where the Teli are known also as Malik), Punjabi or Hindi is spoken. In Madhya Pradesh, where they are also known as Sahu, and in Delhi, they speak Hindi. Other regional languages are Mewari, Magahi, Bengali, Chambiali, Marathi, Haryanvi, Punjabi and Oriya.
Most of the Teli perceive their caste position as Vaisya – the third highest class of traders in the four-fold Hindu class system and other communities acknowledge this. However, some Teli, like those of Delhi and Rajasthan, place themselves in the Kshatriya or second highest class of warriors which is not accepted by others, especially the higher castes. The Teli accept food and water from similar or higher ranking people but not those lower down the hierarchy.
What are their lives like?
The traditional occupation of oil pressing has virtually disappeared and the Teli have taken to trade and agriculture on which they now largely depend. In fact, today land is the main economic resource for the majority of the rural Teli community. Some have taken up animal husbandry as a vocation while others rear sheep and goats.
Many of those who are landless, like those of Haryana, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, work as labourers on farms, industrial areas and construction sites, or as hand-cart pullers, load carriers, sharecroppers, metal workers and such. In Bihar ladhi (transport of food grains, onions, potatoes and other food stuffs) is also treated as a traditional occupation of the Teli and is still practiced extensively.
A number of Teli are businessmen, like those of Delhi who deal in milk and milk products. In Rajasthan, they are oil traders. There are some moneylenders, a few run small hotels and some such as those in Punjab who manufacture scissors and others in Haryana who make harrows and trolleys for tractors. Quite a number can be found in service in both the government and private sectors at various levels. The Teli participate actively in modern politics and MPs and MLAs (Member of Legislative Assembly) have been elected from among them.
The Hindus avoid eating beef and Muslims avoid pork. Wheat, maize, rice and millets are staple cereals. A variety of pulses, seasonal vegetables and fruit form their diet, as well as dairy products. Mustard oil is the main cooking medium. Alcohol is consumed occasionally by men; though some segments of the Teli community abstain completely. Both men and women chew betel and tobacco.
The Teli generally favour formal education for both boys and girls, but literacy levels remain low and drop out rates are high especially in rural areas, as higher education is denied to daughters. In some states graduates and postgraduates are becoming common. They have benefited from modern medicine and are conducive to family planning, except some who oppose it on religious grounds.
The Teli are endogamous, i.e. they marry only within their community. Many times they are also endogamous at the subgroup level, as in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.
Teli marriages are mostly monogamous and adult marriages are common. Marital alliances are arranged by family elders on both sides. Marriage by exchange is also seen in some states like Rajasthan. Junior sororate and junior levirate are permissible and practiced. To indicate that they are married, women wear a vermilion mark in their hair parting called sindur, glass or conch-shell bangles, toe rings and a nose stud. Dowry is paid in both cash and kind. Divorce is socially sanctioned in certain cases like adultery, barrenness, impotency and cruelty. Remarriage of divorcees, widows and widowers is also permitted.
The Teli live in joint or, increasingly, in nuclear families. Usually the parental property is divided equally among sons only and the eldest son succeeds as the head of the family. However, among the Teli of Orissa, and all Muslim Teli, daughters also receive a share of the inheritance. Women have a status secondary to that of men. In addition to doing all the domestic chores, the women contribute to the family income. They also take a leading role in social, religious and ritual activities. The women of Himachal Pradesh are famous for a particular style of embroidery called ‘Chamba embroidery’. The Teli people have many folk songs and tales, and the women sing and dance to the accompaniment of the dholak (barrel-shaped, double-sided drum) on auspicious occasions.
In some states the Teli have an informal community panchayat (council) consisting of elderly and respectable members of the community. These councils deal with intra-community disputes and look after the welfare of their people.
What are their beliefs?
In Haryana and Punjab, the Teli are Muslims while in Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi there are both Muslim and Hindu Teli. The Hindu Teli makes up 86%; they worship all the gods and goddesses of Hinduism.
At birth of a child and at marriages, clan deities are worshiped. Regional deities like Mansa Devi or “wish-fulfilling goddess” are also propitiated. The dead are cremated and ashes immersed in a river, preferably the Ganges at Hardwar, Uttar Pradesh, which is considered to be holy.
Ancestor worship is prevalent among them and they have a strong belief in evil spirits. They celebrate all major Hindu festivals like Holi (spring festival of colors), Diwali (festival of lights) and Ramnavmi (Rama’s birthday) among others.
The Muslims of this community believe in Allah and Prophet Mohammed and most belong to the Sunni sect. They bury their dead according to Islamic edicts, revere the dargahs (tomb shrines) of Muslim saints; the tombs of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Ajmer Sharif as sacred places of pilgrimage.