Friday, February 5, 2010
Banjaras, also called Lambadis or Lamanis, originated centuries ago in the Johdpur and Jaisalmer desert areas of Rajasthan. Today they live and migrate throughout the length & breadth of India which makes their exact count difficult: it is estimated between 3 and 20 millions people (!).
Banjaras are basically nomads who raise and herd animals. They earn their living by selling goods and services to surrounding mainstream populations. In the process, they have developed complex traditional sets of adaptive mechanisms to live in peace with their neighbours and customers.
But at all times, they keep their own language, religion and ethical code. This mysterious duality and intriguing separateness is a most integral part of their being. It is also what makes them frighteningly different to urban Indians and have earned them the categorization as a “criminal” tribe by the British and accusations of all manners of atrocities: thievery, kidnapping, murder and witchcraft.
They are also described by the same as hardworking, ingenious, powerful, self-assured and honourable.
They started as bullock cart transporters supplying the rulers, from the Moghuls to the British army with food grains, army equipment and other supplies. When the building of railways and roads deprived them of this traditional means of subsistence, they retained their tradition of monument building (they are seen on Moghul miniatures as manual labour constructing the red fort of Agra) but have taken up since every other profession, both intellectual and manual.
One thing all Banjaras have in common: they work hard in activities that are usually lucrative and migrate where work is available.
Their second common feature is that no matter their level of education, they manage to meet with their social obligations to the community, be it rites of passage and festivals and to maintain their separate identity.
They maintain a strong ethnic identity through their strict endogamy. They follow the Rajput system in marrying only with members of the opposite sub castes or clans, known as gotras. Each Banjara therefore can immediately identify the lineage of another Banjara by looking at his waist string that is composed of tassels and lead beads.
They maintain a marked religious identity: Though nationwide Banjaras trace their origin through a complex lineage to the Hindu cow-herding god Krishna and his consort Radha, they are animistic and retain allegiance to local and pan-Banjara heroes, gods and goddesses, pilgrimage sites and rites. They deify ancestors and worship saints and have their own priests, or Bhagats, and miracle men, or Janyas. They maintain specific shrines dedicated to some of the legendary dogs they use to watch their herds but have included Rama, Hanuman and Ganesh in their tribal pantheon.
They possess a strong linguistic identity: Though they speak regional languages of every part of India, they retain their own that relates to Hindi, Rajasthani, Punjabi or European Rom that is called “Ghormati”, “Lubanki” or “Banjaraboli”.
They also keep their habitat identity by staying away from the mainstream in separate villages called “tanda”.
The Banjaras’ separate identity is best demonstrated by their embroidery aesthetics and related women’s attire.
Though intriguing, the Banjaras’ identity has not been researched by many. Little has been published on it and virtually nothing about their embroidery has been disseminated.