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....

Harijans of Mehesana

Gajanan M. Patil

Untouchability has been described as a curse to Hindu society and, as such, Harijans occupy a special position in Hindu social organisation. There is a large number of castes, about 49 in all, which have been enlisted as the Scheduled Castes or the Harijans. Some of these are found only in some places, while some others exist at more than one place but are known by different names in different places. In Mehesana District, in Gujarat, this very wide term has a limited connotation and is restricted to six castes only, viz., Garoda, Vankar, Chamar, Turi, Shenma, and Bhangi. To the outsider they are Harijans, but, to the surprise of a student of sociology, there is hierarchy amongst these Harijans to the extent that some of the Harijans consider other Harijans as untouchables. Out of those mentioned above, the first four, viz., Garoda, Vankar, Chamar, Turi are considered as the higher classes, similar to Savarnas in Hindu society. The Shenma and Bhangi castes are untouchables according to the higher classes. The Shenmas in their turn do not even touch the Bhangis. Drinking water from their hands or taking food at their places is quite forbidden. The marriages are settled in the respective castes only, and innter-caste marriages do not take place amongst the Harijans.

From amongst these castes of Harijans, Garodas are the Brahmins or the priest-class who perform all the religious and other social rites of the rest of the higher classes, and earn their bread by the fees received from the performance of the acts of their office. The Vankars, who are next in rank, are the weavers, and maintain themselves by weaving the cloth on handlooms (hath-sal). The Chamars mostly live by the cobbler’s profession. The main occupation of the Turis is presentation of some drama-like performances and participating in the Bhavais and such other programmes. It is the Actor Caste. The Shenmas act as barbers in some villages while in some other places they live by the cottage industries, such as broom-making and basket-weaving. They alone amongst the Harijans possess arms such as the sword, spear, dhariyu, etc., like the Thakard caste of North Gujarat. This can very well be designated as a martial class. The Bhangis (Mehtar or Olgana) mostly do the scavenger’s work in the cities and towns, or otherwise they live by small cottage industries or by manual labour. They are treated as untouchables among the untouchables. It is evident from this that there is what may be termed as a regular Varna-samstha or caste-system among the Harijans: each caste having a definite and decisively specified duty to perform in society, and being prohibited from following any other vocation. The Garodas are the Brahmins or priest-class, the Shenmas are the Kshatriya or warrior-class, the Vankars, Chamars and Turis represent the Vaishya or business-class, and the Bhangis are the Shudras or untouchables. This very systematically outlined social hierarchy leads a student to think seriously about it. It cannot definitely be a mere chance that the Harijan society is divided in such well-arranged groups, doing things distinct from, and excluding, each other. Perhaps, theories about the origin of untouchability or of the Shudra caste will have to be revised so far as the Harijans of Mehesana District are concerned. The probable explanation, which needs much elucidation and support of evidence, might be like this. There might have existed, long , in this part of the country, the solitary clans of uncultured and un-civilised people, some of whom were clever artisans. Some Aryans, perhaps Brahmins, who were out-casted from their original group, might have joined them, and might have inculcated the spirit of hierarchy which they imported with them from the mother-society. They had brought with them the art of the priestly class, which they preserved for themselves, and became the Garodas, the priests of the Harijans, well-versed in the science and the technique of rituals. This inference is supported by the fact that these Garodas are generally literate; they know how to find out auspicious moments or muhurtas, for christening, marriage, etc., how to settle marriages with the help of the almanac or panchanga, and also to recite the mantras which have a mixture of Sanskrit and Gujarati in its Apabhramsha form. These mantras are very similar to the Sanskrit mantras recited by the priests among Savarna Hindus. The Garodas possess certain hand-written books in manuscript form, the language of which is known only to a few who are learned in the lore.


Most of the social problems of the caste are decided by the social organisations of different castes. A group of some villages, the number of which may vary from 11 to 15 or more, is called Godh; certain rules of a social nature for the Godh (Gol) are formulated. These rules decide the Takka to be charged for the settlement of the marriage, the Dapu or the dowry to be paid by the bride-groom’s side to the bride’s father, the meals to be served to the bride-groom’s marriage party, the number of persons to accompany a marriage party, and such other important problems. As could seen be from this list of matters, these are the most elementary and essential problems touching each individual and his family. A rational consideration is given in fixing rules for the smooth working of the social order by attempts to remove the economic disparity so far as the more important events of social life are concerned, and by attempts to conform to the convenience of every one. These rules are confirmed or changed and decided otherwise by a larger body of the caste, called Nat or the Caste-Conference. The rules once accepted are to be obeyed by all, and the breach of these rules results in fines imposed by the Nat, and sometimes persons or families are declared as out-caste for not carrying out the orders.

For about 500 villages in Mehesana District, there are eleven Godhs of the Vankar caste, each Godh having a certain fixed number of villages. For instance, the one in Jaswa village relates to twelve villages. There are different Godhs for different castes.


1. Birth of the Child:

The birth of the child, especially of a son, and more so of the first one, is celebrated almost universally. The Harijans are not an exception to this. On Patan side the birth of a son is announced by beating a metal dish (thali), and that of a daughter by beating a winnowing basket. There are different traditions in different castes in different parts. The Patasa, coconut dhana, and sweet-meats are distributed by some. Some celebrate the same by distributing churmu in the Mehlla only. The delivery generally takes place at the woman’s father’s house, and is in the charge of illiterate elderly women. Medical aid was hardly available in former days. The birth of a son is reported to the woman’s husband’s household through a special messenger, while that of a daughter is conveyed by a mere message.

After a week, a black or blue string is tied round the waist of the child (kandoro) with the idea to protect it from evil spirits or from the evil sight (najar) of some suspected individuals. Among the Vankars, after a month and a quarter, the new mother, together with other married and elderly women, goes to a well. On a leaf of the pipaltree kumkum is spread, and it is worshipped. The juwar (jar) is spread on the earth for the birds and insects, and jaggery is distributed to those present. The mother can thereafter carry out her routine work in the household and outside.

2. JIYARU or the Farewell:

After about two or three months, the woman’s father sends a message to the father-in-law of his daughter to take away the child with the mother. The husband of the woman, her father-in-law and some other people come to the woman’s father’s house. The son-in-law is presented with a golden ring on this occasion; the father-in-law gets a turban. The new mother wears all her ornaments, and the young one is entitled to the lion’s share of attention. It receives a golden necklace, silver anklets (sanzar), a bed, a bed-sheet, a cradle, one small basket, a few utensils and a lota.

3. ZEM or the Christening:

This takes place at the age of about seven or eight months for the child; or according to tradition. The child is weighed with jaggery, which is then distributed in the locality. The child is placed in the lap of the aunt (Fai) or the grand-mother. The Garoda recites some mantras and performs solemn religious rites. The womenfolk enjoy the occasion by singing various songs. In some villages, the child is taken to the temple of Hanumanji. The ladies sing songs, and put the child in front of the deity. The Dhokda or the fried cakes of Adad are offered to the god, and distributed to those present and to the nearer relatives.

4. PATLE BESADWU or the Initiation:

Social barriers and religious impediments have been the main causes of a remarkable practice among the Harijans. In spite of the unfailing promise of Lord Shri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita that, “even women, vaishyas and shudras, they also reach the summum bonum,” (Glta: IX, 32) the upper classes debarred the Harijans from following the usual course of religious practice. But the thirst for spiritual attainments recognises neither untouchability nor any other type of limitation. It cannot be suppressed by external restrictions banished by imperial orders. Having been prohibited from all sides, the Harijans took to the choice of a spiritual preceptor or Guru to satisfy their spiritual needs. In fact, to remain without a Guru is not allowed among the Harijans. Every child is initiated sometime between the age of five and eleven. On a day fixed for the ceremony, the child takes a bath and wears new clothes. It is made to sit on a wooden seat, and the Gor (family priest) or Waiwancho (reader of records) performs certain religious rites. He reads the genealogical table to the child, informing him about his fore-fathers, family, caste, lineage and such other details, and also enters in his records the name of the child. The record-keeper generally visits the villages, makes new entries and collects his annual fees.

There is still another custom prevalent in some areas. Over and above this religious teacher, there is a family preceptor, different from the Gor or the Waiwancho. He may not belong to the same caste, or even be a Garoda. He is a Bawa or some other person recognised as an authority in spiritual training. Whenever he arives in the family, the new child or children are initiated. There is no age-limit for this. In honour of the arrival of the Guru, the Pat or the Satyanarayana Katha is performed. The Guru makes the child sit on the Patla and performs certain religious rites, and the child is initiated into the sect. The members of the family, the relatives and the Garodas are given a feast, and an offering of gifts is made to the Guru. The Guru is supposed to be the incarnation of Brahma, the Creator. But, of late, these Gurus are losing their prestige and position, due to their exorbitant demands by way of the preceptorial fees.

KANTHI BANDHAWAWI or Group Initiation is still another practice in some areas. There is a spiritual preceptor of the whole locality in a village (Was or Mehlla) as distinguished from the Guru of the individual. He comes after about twenty-five years to each village. It is a very big festival in the Harijan society. The women given in marriage to other villages, and the men serving in other places, are specially invited for the occasion. All the daughters-in-law in the locality must remain present. Funds are raised by contributions from all the houses in the Was; and the expenses of gifts, dinners, etc., are met from this fund. The individual who offers half a maund of ghee and other necessary things, and can make other arrangements satisfactorily, becomes the host of the Guru It is his duty to offer to the Guru whatever he demands by way of fees (Dakshina). After the arrival of the Guru, a day is fixed by the leader for the initiation. All the leading members, accompanied by the Guru go to fetch the essentials for the ceremony. The whole procession returns, singing songs and reciting the Bhajans. A big pandal is erected at the host’s house. All the members of the locality take their meals here only. Cooking in individual houses is prohibited on this day. After the meals, the Guruji tells various stories, and delivers sermons on different topics. New members of the locality, including young children, sons and daughters-in-law, are introduced to him. In the evening; all get ready with new gorgeous clothes, and a procession starts, with the males in front, the Guruji in the middle and the females in the rear. Males recite Bhajans, and females sing the songs meant for the arrival and the reception of the Guruji. The procession goes round the locality, and then halts at a place where a small reception ceremony takes place. The host and the hostess worship the Guruji, present him with new clothes and gifts, and fall at his feet, to win his blessings. The procession returns to the host’s place where the Bhajan-Kirtana continues throughout night. At about three o’clock in the morning, all persons to be initiated return home to take their bath, and return wearing new clothes, with fresh minds to receive the new sacrament. They bring with them money to be paid to the Guruji as Dakshina. The Guruji makes each one sit on a Patla, himself recites, and makes them recite, certain mantras, performs rites, and recites very slowly a certain secret mantra in the ear of each one so that others do not hear the same. He gives the Prasad. They pay the fees. He offers the sacred water of his feet (charanamrita). They fall at his feet. He ties the sacred thread (Kanthi) to all. The daughters of the Was who are married outside it, and the visitors not belonging to the Was do not participate in the sacred ceremony, as they belong to the other Was, and hence to the other Guruji. All the same, at the farewell function, these ‘outsiders’ pay their homage to the Guruji, together with Dakshina, and he in return gives them Kanthi. The Guruji gets his fees from the fund, and also gifts from others. At the farewell function, all go in procession to a certain distance, singing songs and reciting Bhajans, and, after the departure of the Guruji, the festival and the great rejoicing and enthusiasm come to an end.

5. Marriage:

Early marriages prevail among Harijans, and they are settled by the parents. There are certain limitations in this regard. Amongst the Bhangis, the bride and the bride-groom cannot be from the same village, and yet they cannot be from outside the Godh. The immediate relations of the parents, like aunts and uncles, should not settle the marriage.

Every caste has in every Godh a fixed Takka and Dapu. One Takka is three pice and one Rupee. This varies from one Takka to five Takkas. The Dapu or dowry is to be paid by the bride-groom to the bride’s father. This varies from Rs. 200/- to Rs. 450/- or as decided by the Godh or the Nat. For settling the marriage (Wewishal or Sagai) elderly persons from the bride’s side go to the bride-groom’s house. They get the meals mostly of Kansar, a sweet dish of wheat flour, and the marriage is settled after payment of the Takka; as prescribed in the caste.

On a day fixed for the marriage, the relatives are invited by both the sides. The general invitation is circulated by the Gor, but Mama is to be invited by the parents themselves. The maternal uncles go to their respective parties (Moshal) and distribute the clothes, ornaments and gifts (Mameru) to those concerned. The Gor announces these presents, and songs are sung in praise of the Mama.

The females from the respective Mehllas gather together to sing songs, as the nearer female relatives prepare the auspicious and fragrant aromatic powder (Pithi). This pithi is anointed on the body by the bride and the bride-groom, and the sacred bath is taken. On the eastern or northern wall of the house a representation of Ganeshji is drawn and is coloured with Kumkuma. But, now-a-days, a picture of Ganapati is drawn or a picture-frame is put up for worship. The maternal uncle takes him (or her) in front of the deity. Songs in praise of the god are sung, a dish full of Modakas and five and a quarter annas are offered to Ganapati. The blessings are received . The Gor takes the offerings to his place.

Then, as prescribed by the Nat, twenty or more or less members from the bride-groom’s side, including family members and relatives form into a marriage-party (Jaan). Among the Bhangis, females are included who sing the songs. The Jaan gets the prescribed meals at the bride’s place when it comes and then it goes to take rest at a house in the village fixed for them which is called Jaani-Waas. A group of men (Warghadiya) from the bride’s side must go to invite the Jaan for the marriage; otherwise there is a fine. Before the Jaan comes to the bride’s place, the Shenma, who receives a rupee and a quarter, ghee and jaggery from the bride’s mother, ties the Torana made of leaves of the mango or ashoka tree to every house in the Mehlla. When the Jaan comes near the Torana, the bride’s mother comes first to receive the son-in-law. She brings a lota full of water, with a mango-leaf in it and a coconut on it, all covered with a piece of cloth. The Gor performs some rite, the mother of the bride puts a kumkuma-tilak (Chanlio) on the forehead of the bride-groom and makes him take a mouthful of water (Koglo). This rite is called War-Pokhnu.

The Jaan then returns to the Jaani-waas, and in the evening the bride-groom is brought to the bride’s house. The Gor takes the bride and the bride-groom to the quadrangle called the Chori. If any gifts are to be made from the bride’s side, they are finished by this time. The union of hands (Hasta-melap) takes place in the presence of the sacred fire, kindled along with mantras by the Gor, and the Gor recites four Mangalas (auspicious verses). There are some offerings to the fire, and then seven or four rounds (Saat Phera or Chaar Phera) around the sacred fire are made by the couple. This sacramental rite takes place late in the course of the night, at about 4 or 5 a.m. The son-in-law gets a silver girdle (Kandoro) and a golden ring from his father-in-law, and the daughter receives a pair of clothes, anklets (Kadla), necklace (Handi), nose-ring (Kati), copper vessels (Bedu), a lamp and a vessel of ghee from her father. After a few minor rites the marriage ceremony is over. The Jaan stays for two or three days only and is entitled to get the prescribed meals, the failure of which is fined. The Garodas do not perform the marriages of Bhangis, and therefore these are carried out by a bawa, a sadhu, a guru, a son-in-law or a gor.

Along with the new bride, her brother goes to her husband’s house in the returning Jaan to fetch her (Anu). He is then called Ansar. This going to the husband’s house and coming to father’s house (Anu ) takes place three or four times, till the bride reaches the age of puberty. At that time the message is sent to the daughter’s father-in-law. Either the brother-in-law or the father-in-law arrives to take away the bride. They have to pay a small sum, similar to Dapu, to the bride’s father. Anu stops after the woman is pregnant.

6. KHOLO BHARAWU or Rites after pregnancy:

When the woman is pregnant, the message is sent to her father. In a fixed month of her pregnancy, the father or the brother goes to her house with one and a quarter seer of rice, one coconut, five betel-nuts, KumKuma and one Takka. He stays overnight; the next morning these things are tied to the end of the saree of the woman. She falls at the feet of the deities and the elderly persons, and receives their blessings. The sister-in-law gets a saree from her, and the former makes the Chanllo to her Bhabhi. Then the woman goes to her father’s house for the delivery.

7. Remarriage and Divorce:

The custom of widow-remarriage prevails among the Harijans. The young widowed daughter stays with her father. The prospective husband fixes the terms of Dapu, etc., with the widow’s father, and a day is fixed. Either on Tuesday or on Wednesday, at night, he arrives, pays the amount, puts the Chudi on the hands of the widow, presents to her a saree which she puts on, and gives to her a necklace (Hahdi). This is remarriage. No rite is prescribed.

Chhuta-Chheda or Divorce is allowed among Harijans. No specific reasons are required for divorce. If the wife does not desire to stay with the husband, she has to pay Rs. 313 or the sum decided by the rules; and if the husband wants to break the marriage tie, he has to pay Rs. 51 or Rs. 101, or as decided by the rules, to the other party. In the presence of the Nat-Panch, the Gor prepares two copies of the document of divorce, one for each, and they are given to both of them. This brings about divorce among, the Harijan castes.

8. SARAD HAKHWU or Funeral Rites:

The funeral rite is the most expensive custom among these castes. After the death of a person, the body is burnt, and the ashes are collected for immersion in the Saraswati river. In the case of a child’s death the body is buried, but the nails and the bones are preserved for immersion. Among Bhangis, on the twelfth day, the relatives and other people come to weep over the death of the person. They eat Kansar and Khichdi, and go home. This is called Barmu Karwu Among Vankars, there are three different forms of this rite. In the first, on the twelfth day, all the people from the Mehlla take food at the house of the dead person. In the second, called Nat, all males from the Godh come and stay in the village for two days and take the caste dinners at the house of the dead. In the third, called Kalshiyo Bharwu, all males, females and children from all the villages in the Godh assemble for one day, and dine at a caste-dinner. This last form is more a matter of prestige and position than a rite. Sometimes, the dinners go on for two or three days, the dishes being Khichdi, Shiro and Mag, Presents are offered to the nearer relatives. This rite must be performed even after 20 or 25 years. If it is not celebrated, the family is declared as out-caste, and the soul of the dead does not go to heaven. Thus, the mourning for the dead turns to a festival. These dinners are given only at the death of elderly persons.

The remains of the dead are taken to Sidhpur on the banks of the Saraswati river. There is a big fair on Kartika Purnima day. The fuel is collected, the Gor performs some rites, offerings are made to the fire, the remains are cremated in the fire, and the Sarad is complete. The relatives weep for the dead. They stay for three days and finish other minor rites, give gifts to the poor in honour of the dead, and return home.


There are many other customs and beliefs among the Harijan people. Tulashi-Puja, Gokul-Atham, Ganesh-Pujan, the great Satnarayan Katha on Bhadrapad Sud 11, the worship of Matas in Nora days, the festivities of Dashera and Dhureti and the like need a more detailed study; Their belief in ghosts and spirits requires special analysis. Their various occupations can be the subject of a scientific economic study. Their dresses, their stories of deities, their marriage songs and several other topics relating to them require research by experienced scholars of anthropology and of the social sciences.

The more one lives among them and studies their ways, the more one realises that all human society is one, and that no group is so advanced or so removed from another as not to realise that

“Their gods are as their fates assign:
Their prayer is all the world’s–and mine.”

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