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Rajasthan People and Tribes

People of Rajasthan

The Rajasthanis are a sturdy, cheerful lot, despite their ecological adversities and their long feudal history which, while it made Rajasthan a fascinating land of palaces and forts, left it with very low agricultural productivity and a near-total absence of modern industry till a few decades ago. Nevertheless no visitor to Rajasthan will fail to notice the extremely good physique of the average Rajasthani male and the (often veiled) beauty and colorful dress of the women, who seem to counter the dullness of the round-the-clock drudgery of their daily routine not only by the brightness of their garments but also in their music and dance and in the murals they paint on their walls. It is not uncommon for large tracts of Rajasthan to face water, food and fodder scarcity for several consecutive years; even in years of normal rainfall, in many villages, women daily trudge several miles to fetch a head-load of water; yet the people have managed to evolve lifestyles which vibrate with hope, faith and cheerfulness.

Rajput - The Warrior Class

Valiant and chivalrous, Rajputs were the rulers of the land for a long time and the legends of their medieval concepts and acts of bravery are still sung in Rajasthan. The Rajput rulers were great patrons of arts and crafts and Rajasthan still boasts of monuments of the finest examples of architecture that sprung up during their reign. They still strictly observe their religion and offer sacrifices to their gods and goddesses in order to appease and please them. They have proved formidable foes from time to time. They rose to the elite class of the region and the only reason of their downfall can be attributed to their inter-clan rivalries and internecine wars that often came in the way of their offering a joint opposition to the forces of invaders. Later, Rajputs have been known to serve in the armies of their rulers and acquired land as their compensation not only as a payment for their services but often because they shared a friendly bond and were very loyal to the kings they served.

Brahmins - The Class of Priests

Unlike other parts of India, Brahmins in Rajasthan had to be content with the secondary position, as the dangerous area plagued by invasion and plundering, needed more warriors than intellectuals at the time. Besides the priesthood, Brahmins also served in royal courts and as administrators of the state.

Marwari And Jains - The Trader Class

As usual, the economy of the state mainly depended on its traders and merchants and they were often richer than the rulers themselves. The Marwaris originated in the Shekhawati region and used to serve in the courts of princely states. They were so called as they traveled with the armies of Marwar (now known as Jodhpur) to the eastern side of the country and thus capitalized on the opportunity of making profits in the new markets.

Even today, they constitute most of the major business and industrialist families of the country. Though, Marwaris were very rich they remained discreet on account of their loyalty and respect of the rulers, which they served, and their elaborately painted havelis never stood in competition with the affluent palaces of the royal class. It was their way of expressing their gratitude to the princes and kings who had honored them, time and again, with a title of tazimi-sardar, which was very rarely given to anybody as it made allowances for the title-owner to continue sitting in the presence of the Maharaja and to wear gold on his feet (a privilege accessible only to the immediate circle of the royal family).

Jains, the only other mercantile community that enjoyed as much influence in the courts of the Rajput rulers and often played an important political role, however, built some superlative marble temples dedicated to their tirthankaras at Ranakpur, Dilwara at Mount Abu, Chittaurgarh, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Bikaner. Though they observed austerity in their lifestyles, their temples and havelis at Jaisalmer were enviable and grander with delicate stone carving work than many of the palaces of the region.

Jats And Bishnois - The Pastoral Class

The importance of the pastoral side of Rajasthan that involved farming and cattle rearing cannot be underestimated considering the rough weather conditions and hostile climate of the region. There is much folklore about the local heroes, generally a sub-group of Rajputs known as Jats, who sacrificed their lives for the protection of their village communities. A hardworking race, these people are spread over in the regions of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and were once the rulers of Bharatpur and Dholpur and are known for their skills and farming practices of turning even the most arid lands into the fertile fields.

Bishnois, known for their passion to conserve both plant and animal life, follow the paths of a local saint, Jamboji, who instructed them to protect their trees and cattle even at the time of famine, some centuries ago. They gained popularity when innumerable Bishnois refused to let the soldiers cut the trees in their area and did not deterred even when they were dealt with an iron hand. They wrapped themselves around their beloved trees and welcomed death from the soldiers' hand rather than allowing them to cut the trees while they were still alive. Today, they have become the icons for the conservationists. Bishnois men wear a distinct white turban while their women dress up in colorful garments and an ornate nose ring.

Muslims - The Craftsmen Class

Muslims came to Rajasthan as invaders but soon deserted the arid land to more luring places in the east. However, there were some who settled down here and indulged in agriculture such as Kayamkhanis and Meos, especially in the Shekhawati belt, where the Kayamkhani nawabs once had substantial influence. However, only one Muslim kingdom of Tonk survived in the region marked by its feudal system. It has now become a flourishing commercial area. Muslims also served in the courts of the princely states under the Rajput rulers and both the religions flourished together quite amicably.

Yet, undeniably, most of the Muslim population were artisans of good repute and master craftsmen and were kidnapped from the trading caravans passing through the area to serve the princely kingdoms and even today, they dominate the artistic side of Rajasthan, in the fields of painting, dyeing, printing, bangle and jewellery making and paper manufacture. The Bohras, mercantile Muslims who came from Gujarat occupy southeast Rajasthan in large numbers.

The Tribals

Natives of the barren hills of Rajasthan, these tribals are known for their bravery and zest with which they celebrate their festivals. Minas were once the rulers of the region, which Kachchwahas won through treachery, to create Amber. Largely agriculturists now, they still hold the honor of anointing the head of the Kachchwaha clan and used to serve as guards to the Kachchwaha treasury kept inside the Jaigarh fort, while the reigning Kachchwaha rulers were led only once a year to the treasury to choose anything from the vast collection of jewellery there and that too blindfolded.

Bhils of Chittaurgarh, Banswara and Dungarpur, still lead a primitive life and are poverty stricken. Known to be brave and trustworthy, they once helped the Sisodia rulers to escape from the Mughals and taught them the art of concealing themselves in the hills.

Other tribals include the Sahariyas, people of the forest who have degraded from being the elite class to that of severely poverty stricken and the Gerasiyas, who have managed to survive by singing and dancing for their guests.

Nomads - People With No Homes

These people are akin to gypsies who travel in large groups, often on a cyclical, seasonal basis, and move around providing their particular services for people in settled communities. Most of them are Gadoliya Lohars, blacksmiths known for their decorated carts. They repair and work with iron and other metals,and make everything from a shovel to a pair of scissors.Banjaras, were nomadic caravan runners who traveled with balaads or oxen-laden caravans. A lakhi or one hundred thousand bullocks leading a caravan has also found its mention among their caravans. However, as these caravans are of no use today, they now live a semi-nomadic life and drifted to other means of livelihood. Rabaris travel in the desert in search of pastures for their flocks of sheep and camels while there are Nayaks who are entertainers, Kanjars, Sansis, Nats and the well-known Kalbeliyas, a group of snake charmers who have gained immense popularity for their unique dance forms and no more travel on foot or in carts but around the world in jets.

Gadia-Lohar - The Blacksmith

The colourful Gadia Lohars are perhaps, the only nomads who have their origins shrouded in legend. It is said that their ancestors who were blacksmiths to the army of the Rajasthani chieftain Rana Pratap Singh of Mewar, moved from place to place with him, manufacturing weapons for the army. When Rana Pratap’s army was defeated at the battle of Haldighati in 1576, the Gadia remained loyal to him, following him into the forests to which he fled, skirmishing with the Mughal army in a long drawn out struggle that continued even after his death. After the fortress of Chittor, the capital of the Mewar kingdom, fell to the Mughals, the Gadia Lohars took a vow never to return to their homeland, and never to settle anywhere else until the Rana’s hegemony was restored. Yet for all their wandering, the Gadia are unmistakably Rajasthani.

Small Lohar groups can be seen on the outskirts of any large city in the north where they live in small settlements centered around their beautiful carts. Low mud walls enclose each cart, demarcating a place of residence but now ownership. Even their name – Gadia – originates from the bullock carts which are their homes. Gadia Lohar, literally meaning metal workers of the bullock carts. Notice a Gadia settlement and you will see lithe laughing women in swirling skirts, often with mirror studded garments and silver jewellery glittering as they go gracefully about their business, bending to kindle a small fire in the most casual fashion or working a pair of bellows with practised ease. Their men, tough and sturdy, lounge beside the makeshift smithies, occasionally getting to their feet to work alongside their wives. The children play in the dust beside the clutter that surrounds them. It is a hard life yet despite the vagaries of weather and the uncertainties of their trade they are a handsome and cheerful lot, and remain buoyantly dignified, unmindful of their hard life. They breed cattle, sharing and selling the milk, and in their tiny smithy they forge various soft iron wares needed in our daily life. When the weather turns hostile, they spread sheets of plastic or tarpaulin over their mobile homes, taking shelter within. During winter, thick patchwork quilts protect them from the chill of the nights. A tribe of happy and upright people, the Gadia remain children of the desert committed to braving the hazards of nature and environment.