Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Agaria

S. Srikantaiya

The Agaria*

This companion volume to the Baiga on the life, customs, jurisprudence and other aspects of the life of the dwellers of the Maikal Hills and the lonely zamindaries of Bilaspur, whom Mr. Elwin calls ‘The Agaria’, i.e. black-smiths or iron smelters, is a distinctive contribution to Indian, Ethnology–a result of close association, steady perseverance and intimate personal knowledge., Though the several customs and habits of the Agaria are similar to those of the primitive tribes of the neighbourhood, still the Agaria have distinctive features of their own, particularly in regard to the highly developed and significant totemistic features; and their vitality, striking mythology and their magic practices and superstitions provide a fascinating study to the anthropologist.

Iron smelting and manufacture of high grade steel is an ancient Indian industry, practised successfully in different parts of India. It is, however, difficult to believe that iron engines of war were in use between BC 2000 and B.C. 1000, as Neogi has suggested. But we may gather from Herodotus that the Indian soldiers in Xerxes army had arrows of cane tipped with iron. The famous iron column of Qutb Minar near Delhi thousands of years old perhaps, and its seven or eight tons of metal were manipulated with mysterious and amazing skill. The ‘steel of Hyderabad’ is of very great antiquity showing remarkable qualities in workmanship and the art of damascening was very widely practised in ancient India, particularly in connection with arms, India exported high grade steel to Rome, Egypt, Abyssinia, etc., as we find from references in the Periplus. The Phoenicians were familiar with our bright iron and stee1 the manufacture of which was a preciously guarded secret, unknown to the Romans who imported it. The King of Persia had two wonderful swords of Indian steel and Alexander the Great received a hundred talents of Indian steel. The Hindus had workshops in which were forged the most famous sabres in the world even as recently as the seventeenth century.

In Mysore, as elsewhere, the smelting of iron and manufacture of steel were by similar processes as employed elsewhere. Four bellowsmen to work by turns, three men to make charcoal, three women and a man to collect and wash the sand containing iron were required. A furnace was built in which was put a basketful of charcoal, measuring about a bushel adding on to it twice the quantity of black sand which his two hands held like a cup could hold together. Covering this with another basketful of charcoal, the furnace would be fed by the bellows to increase the heat, similar quantities of sand and charcoal being added again and again so that the quantity of sand put into the furnace in one smelting would be 617 cubic inches, i.e., 4½ lbs avoirdupois, when dry, yielding 11 wedges or 47% of malleable iron. The forging house would require three hammer men, of whom one was a foreman, and four men to supply charcoal from the bamboo. In one day, three furnaces were smelted and 33 wedges forged. The workmen were paid every fourth day. Of 132 pieces prepared, the proprietor took 35 the panchala or blacksmith got 10, the foreman 8, the bellowsman who removed the dross and ashes 5, two women who washed the sand 5 each, and the remaining 16 persons 4 each. The blacksmith found the iron implements anvil, hammer, etc. the proprietor met the expense of the 276 fanams needed.

The Agaria are a class of people who are absorbed in their craft and their material, with little life apart from the roar of the bellows and the clang of the hammers upon the iron they smelt. Generally, they are short-lived, their memories are poor and they have left no outstanding personalities. In stature they are short, sturdy, square-headed with broad heavy noses, thin-lipped, very dark in colour with straight hair and unattractive. They are rather stupid, dull and heavy, but pleasant and mediocre. In origin non-Aryan, they may be connected with the Dravidian such as the Korma described by Dulton and Risley, the Pharia and the Mandala Agaria. All sections of the Agaria, wherever living, posses distinctive physical and cultural characteristics; they follow the same profession, and technique, and believe in the same mythology, gods and magic. They are a hard-working lot and have no politics.

Myths, confused and contradictory, lie at the root of their social relations and form the basis of the religious and economic structure the Agaria society, myths and rituals not unoften influencing and reaction on one other to a considerable extent. Their heroes blend into to one another, changing their character and even their sex, reminding us of the Babylonian myths.

The term ‘Agaria’ is probably derived from Ag or fire. The Agaria as we are told, are not a Homogeneous tribe, form many different sects living in areas far removed from one other, diversified by small customs and even by name, owning no relationship to one other, yet united by a uncommon appearance, mythology and technique. They extract iron from the ore in small clay furnaces, using the bellows of a particular kettledrum pattern, which are covered by cowhide and worked with their feet. They worship the tribal gods or demons who are clearly associated with the ancient Asuras, such as Lohasur, Koelasur, and Agyasur. The heroes of their elaborate mythology are the Logundi Raja, Jwala Mukhi, and Kariya Kuar. They are ignorant of the Hindu Vulcan, Tvashtri or Visvakarma. It is said that the Pandavas attacked and destroyed their iron city and the old kingdom of Logundi Raja. Other accounts narrate that Bhagavan Sri Krishna destroyed their city. The Agaria are hard-working fellows, proud of their craft and devoted to their work.

The Agaria are made up of a number of endogamous divisions, have a distinctive method of fixing the material of their covering, the nature of their totem; and the kind of bangles which Agaria women should wear mark them off from the others. Between these different tribes, there is very little social intercourse, their geographical distribution perhaps rendering it difficult. The Agaria society is divided into septs which are exogamous and hereditary though the male line for succession to property, and totemistic. Clan-incest and kinship-incest are rare, while common amongst their non-totemistic neighbours. Their origin can be traced to the classic heroes of the tribe rising in the dim antiquity of their famous myths. The reverence to be paid to the plant or animal totem of the sept is obvious; for example, the members of the Jal Sept should not eat fish, the Kewachi should not pick the flower of that name, the Kukra should not eat the cock, the Nagas should not kill a cobra, not only because of the sign of mourning resulting from it but because that is defiling the ancestor and progenitor of the family. An Agaria myth gives the economic basis for the cult of demons or godlings of the smithy, establishes a tariff of sacrifices and suggests reasons for possible failure of the required output of iron. Religious observances find their sanction in myth and legend and folklore, on which also depend social relationships, concerning the origin of fire, human sacrifices, and so on. The Agaria creation myths, the kingdom of the Logundi Raja, the war with the sun, the origin of gods,–all make interesting reading. Lohasur, he godling or demon of the furnance, has the appearance of a child inside the kilns, according to a most popular myth. Fire is his friend and he knows no other. Evidently, the black smith is an admixture of reverence and fear.

The author believes that by whatever name they are known in the different places which the Agaria or the people belonging to this and its subsects inhabit, the whole of the Agaria are all ultimately one tribe. He even considers that the Agaria and Asur are descendants of one tribe which is represented by the Asura of Sanskrit literature, i.e., the metal-workers who are said to have brought to an end the stone age in India, though there is a considerable body of opinion opposed to this view. It is possible that this ancient Asur tribe invaded the Munda country in Chota Nagpur, were driven by the Maratas rallying under the standard of their deity Sing Bonga, to the very borders of Bihar, and thence spread west and north through Surguja and Udaipur, Korea and north of Bilaspur, while a weaker branch filtered down to Raipur, until the Agaria found a congenial home in the Maikal Hills, with a plentiful supply of iron. The Agaria in this belt, called the Agaria belt, numbering about 11000, represent a cultural stratum different from that of the Munda and other agricultural Kolarian or proto-Austroloid tribes and different also from that of such hunting proto-Austroloid tribes as the Birhar, Baiga etc. Between the Agaria and the Asur, and the Mundas of whom the former are often regarded as a branch, quite apart from certain distinct physical and, cultural resemblances among all sections of the Asur-Agaria which is noticeable, there is enough to indicate, from their professional technique and mythology, that perhaps the Asur-Agaria came originally from the, proto-Austroloid Munda stock or the different branches of it, or that the Asur-Agaria, as we know them might have been formed by a few stray survivors of the ancient Asura in Chota-Nagpur, swelled and consolidated by accretions from different branches of the Munda stock who took to iron-smelting as their occupation. We regret with Mr. Elwin that sufficient prominence is not given in the census reports to the Agaria as a caste or tribe, owing perhaps to faulty methods of inquiry and inaccurate and erroneous statements found in the information furnished. Russell and Hiralal suggest that the Agaria may be an off shot of the Gonda tribe but this is obviously incorrect, not being based on scientific investigation conducted on the spot.

To the Agaria, iron is magic iron, vestal iron that is powerful to protect him from earthquake and lightning and every assault of the ghostly enemies. This aboriginal iron has brought the law of plenty to the jungle and gives food, not weapons of war. Absence of coal, water and iron in the near neighbour hood has let this primitive industry survive amongst the Agaria, since the big iron industries have been founded elsewhere. So, neither foreign competition nor famine, neither poor technique nor pitiful earnings have destroyed these little clay furnaces in many parts of India,–perhaps also because of the villagers preference for tools made from the soft and malleable ores and by the village smelters.

The Agaria especially use virgin iron in marriage ceremonies and as a protection against evil spirits. Iron is often buried with the dead and iron nails are driven to the door as charm and to trees to make them fertile. Iron rings are a protective ornament for man and, like a horseshoe, used as talismans. While iron has an important effect on material objects believed to be possessed by spiritual beings, virgin iron is regarded valuable against cosmic dangers or acts of God and the Agaria make rings, anklets and so on for magic ases.

Quite appropriately, Rai Bahadur S. C. Ray, the great ethnologist, whose demise recently we so much mourn, wrote the foreword to this book, alas, his last, and no student of Indian ethnology can look for a better recognition than that from this patient and exact scholar and ardent champion of the aborigines.

* By Verrier Elwin, published by the Oxford University Press, Indian Branch, Price Re. 12–8–0

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