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THE TRIBES and CASTES of BENGAL.
Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press.
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Ahiri, Abhir,Abhiri, the cowherd caste of Behar and Upper India. The name also is sometimes used to denote a sub¬caste of Goalas. See Goala.
This article is an extract from
THE CASTES AND TRIBES
H. E. H. THE NIZAM'S DOMINIONS
SYED SIRAJ UL HASSAN
Of Merton College, Oxford, Trinity College, Dublin, and
Middle Temple, London.
One of the Judges of H. E. H. the Nizam's High Court
of Judicature : Lately Director of Public Instruction.
THE TlMES PRESS
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Ahir, Ahir (Sansk- Abhir) a large pastoral caste regarding whose origin there has been much controversy. Manu represents them as descended from a Brahman and an Ambastha mother, while; according to the Brahm Puran, they are the offspring of a Kshatriya man and a Vaishya woman. The traditions current among the people profess to trace their descent from the God Krishna, whose gay amours with the gopis, or milkmaids of Brindaban, are set forth at great lepglh in the Bhdgwat and Hariwansha Purdnas. These tradi- tions, as well as their sub-divisions Nandabansi, Yadubansi and Goalbansi, evidently called after Nanda, Yadu and Copal, seem to identify them with the Gopas, who were mentioned in the Buddhist Pali jatakas and Hindu Puranas, as a caste of cowherds, found in Mathura and its neighbourhood and settled down into an orderly community long before the Christian era.
These claims of Ahirs to be the descendants of Gopas are not, however, borne out by evidence. The Vayu, Markandeya and Matsya Puranas mention the Abhiras with Valhikas and Vatadhanas in the north and Shabaras, Pulindas and Vaidharbas in the south. The Bhdgwat Puran (II. 4-18) associates them with Kiratas, Hunas, Andhras and Pulindas as the tribes purified by Krishna. In the Mahabharata (Musulparva VII) the Abhiras are "described as Dasyu, or free booters who assailed Arjuna in the Panchanada Desh (the Punjab) and carried away the widowed wives of Krishna and Yadavas whom he was escorting from Dwarjca with immense riches.
The Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta also refers to the Abhiras as a tribe and places them on the frontiers of Samudragupta's kingdom. These facts evidently show that the Abhiras were originally a distinct tribe, outside the pale of Hindu Society, who dwelt somewhere in the Punjab and combined the character of banditti with that of herdsmen. This view is favoured by Professor Lassen, who describes the Abhiras as a non-Aryan pastoral race living near the mouth of the Indus, and also by Ptolemy who noticed them as occu- pying Pataline, the country about Tatta on the Indus. The word
Abhira ' is first given as a synonym for gopa (cowherd) in the Amarkosha (550 A.D.), from which it follows that the Abhiras, or Ahirs, became incorporated into the Gopa or Goala caste sometime before 500 A.D.
The Ahirs have not, for many centuries, been of any political importance. But the evidence of inscriptions shows that a dynasty of Ahir Kings once ruled over the Deccan and Gujarath. In a cave inscription at Nasik, reference is made to the reign of an Abhira prince named Ishwarasena, son of Shivadatta. Another inscription, found at Gunda and dated 181 A.D., in the reign of the Kshatrapa Rudrasinha, speaks of his General Rudra- bhuti, who is therein called Abhira. The Purdnas describe them as having ruled as paramount sovereigns after the Andhrabhrityas and in the 8th century, when the Kathis arrived in Gujarath, they found the greater part of the country possessed by the Ahirs. The old fort Ashirgada. in the Khandesh, testifies to their former im- portance and still retains the name of its founder Asa Ahir, or the Ahir prince Asa, who is said to have had 5,000 buffaloes, 5,000 cows and 20,000 sheep.
Immense numbers of the Ahir still cling to the nomadic life of their ancestors. Seeking the high grazing ground of Centnai India and the Deccan, they form encampments on the pasture lands, where they reside with their wives, families and herds, till the grass in the neighbourhood is exhausted, subsisting entirely on the prt- ceeds from their cows and buffaloes — milk, butter and 'ghee. The houses they use are constructed of large bamboo matst which can be taken to pieces and removed like tents.
The Ahirs have 6 endogamous* divisions— Nandabansi, Yadubansi, Goalbansi, Lingabansi, Ghosi and Guiar, of whom the Nandabansi are found in very large Slumbers in these Dominions. The Nandabansi trace their pedigree to the cowherd chief Nanda and his wife Yashoda, the foster parents of Krishna. These are subdivided into a large number of exogamous sections, the names of which appear for the most part to have re- ference to locality rather than to descent. A few of these sections seem to be^ of the totemistic type. The following are given as specimens : —
The section names go by the male side. The rule of exogamy is strictly observed, i.e., a man cannot marry outside the subcaste nor inside the section to which he belongs.
The Ahirs exclude the section of both father and mother or, in other words, forbid a man to marry a woman who belongs to the same section as himself or his mother. Ordinarily, the prohibition extends only to three generations in the descending line and in counting generations, the person under consideration is of course included. Thus, a man may not marry a woman descended from his own pater- nal or maternal grandfather, or from his own paternal or maternal aunt. He may marry two sisters at the same time, provided that the elder is married first. Polygamy is permitted and there is nothing to prevent a man from marrying as many wives as he can maintain. It is unusual, however, for a man to take a second wife unless the first is barren or incurably diseased.
Ahirs practise both infant and adult marriage, according to their means, infant marriage being deemed the more respectable and adult marriages being resorted to only if the parents of the girl cannot afford to get her married earlier ft life. Sexual • licence before marriage, though not expressly recognised, is never- theless tderated, it being understood that, if a girl becomes pregnant, she will disclose the name of her lover and he will come forward to marry her. Intercourse with a member of the same sect is punished with a fine, and that with an outsider by expulsion from the community.
The negotiations leading to marriage are opened by the father of the bridegroom. After the bride has been selected, the bridegroom's people pay a visit to her house to ascertain whether her parents agree to the proposal. If the point is settled to the entire satisifactiop of both parties, the match is ratified by the bride's father providing liquor for the bridegroom's party and for the caste people present on the occasion, and distributing parched paddy and gram among them. This ceremony is known as Galikuchi. Then comes Sagai, which consists in the bridegroom's father going to the bride's house with a present of jewels, clothes, areca nuts and betel leaves for the girl, • and receiving from the bride's father a ring of gold or silver as, a present for his son. These clothes and jewels are worn by the , bridal pair on the wedding day. Sagai having been performed, a Brahman is called in to fix an auspicious day for the marriage. On the day previous to the wedding, the ceremony called Telchadhana is performed by the relatives of both the bride and the bridegroom. The betrothed pair, in their respective houses, are each anointed sepa- rately with turmeric and oil, the bridegroom a little while after the bride, and then bathed by married females whose husbands are living. The women touch the feet, knee and shoulders of the bride and bridegroom with their fingers, at the same time holding turmeric coloured rice in their hands. Offerings are made to the tutelary deities and the spirits of ancestors, who are invited to be present and witness the ceremony.
On the night of the wedding day a procession (karat) of friends, relatives and neighbours is formed, escorting the bridegroom, magni- ficently dressed and dagger^ in hand, to ^e bride's house, with as i much show, music, and noise as the means of the family permit. On arrival, the bride's mother comes out to meet him, waves an auspicious light round his face from a winnowing fan and makes a spot of sandal wood paste and red aniline powder (kunkum) on his forehead. The bridegroom is then taken to the wedding canopy (mandap), made of mango and other leaves with a post called medha planted in the centre. An earthen pot, crowned with a burning lamp, and containing rice, areca nuts, betel leaves and tur- meric, is placed at the foot of this post with some mango twigs. The bridegroom touches the booth with the point of his dagger and enters it. Here the bride, dressed in yellow clothes, joins him and both, seated side by side on low wooden stools, the bride on the left hand of the bridegroom, make offerings to Ganesh, represented by aft areca nut, and to Gouri, in the form of a cowdung ball be- daubed with vermilion. The clothes of the bridal pair are knotted together and they walk seven times round the sacred post (medha), the Brahman reciting mantras or wedding hymns, women singing songs, music playing and the assembly showering rice on the couple all the while. The seventh circumambulation, taken only on the consent of the bride's parents, is deemed to be the essential and binding portion of the ritual, and to unite the pair irrevocably as husband and wife. After this, the knot of their garments is untied, the Brahman and the hajam (barber) receive their fees and all the men retire leaving the bride and bridegroom to the care of the women, who then perform their own peculiar ceremonies, playing at the same time various tricks on the bridegroom. The rest of the night is spent in feasting and merrymaking, the wedded couple leaving for the bride- groom's house early next morning. All through the ceremony the bridal pair wear high crowns, or helmets, made of leaves of shend (wild date palm).
Widows are allowed to marry again. It is considered right for the widow to marry her late husband's younger brother or younger cousin. There is, however, no positive rule against her marrying an outsider and she incurs no social penalty by doing so; but in this respect she forfeits all claims to the share in her late husband's pro- perty or to the custody of Sny children she may have had by. him. Under no circumstances can she marry her husband's elder brother. The ceremony in use at the marriage of a widow is called Dharona and is a very simple one. On a dark night the bridal pair bathe and put on new clothes and a widow ties their garments in a knot. A feast, in which liquor plays a prominent part, is given to caste people, after which the bridal pair retire to a room. Neither Brahmans nor married women attend the ceremony. For three subsequent days the bride remains in concealment, as to see her face during this period is considered unlucky by married women..On the third day she puts on bangles and is free from the ban. If the man who marries a widow be a bachelor, he is first married to a rui or madar plant, [Cahtropis gigantea) and five stones are placed near the plant to bear witness to this marriage.
Divorce is permitted, with the sanction of the Panchayat, if the wife be proved unchaste or if the husband suffers from an incurable disease such as leprosy or impotence. A woman who has been guilty of a liaison with a man of a lower caste, is turned out of the community. Divorced women may marry again by the same rite as widows.
In matters of inheritance, the Ahirs follow the Hindu law, with this exception, that the father is the absolute owner of the ancestral property and the son cannot claim any portion there of during his lifetime.
The religion of the Ahirs is of the orthodox type in vogue among the Hindu castes of the same social standing, and presents no features of special interest. Their favourite deities are Kisanji, Balaji, and the Goddess Bhavani, the last of which is worshipped with offerings of goats on the Dassera, or the 10th of the light half of Aswin (October). They celebrate Janmashtami, or the festival of the birthday of Krishna, with great circumstance. A fast is observed throughout the day and at night a picture of Krishna is painted on the wall and an offering of flowers and sweetmeats is made before it. The fast is broken early next morning. For reli- gious and ceremonial purposes they employ Goud Brahmans; but when these are not available, any local Brahman, either Maratha or Telugu, is called in for the purpose. Besides the above mentioned gods, they pay reverence to Khandoba, Biroba, Hanuman, the Goddess of Tulja- pur and other minor local deities, whom they propitiate with a variety of offerings. They also make pilgrimages to Tuljapur, Pandharpur, Jejuri and other sacred places. When an epidemic breaks out among the cattle, the usual practice fof the Ahirs .is to kindle a fire and to throw on it the blood of goats and sheep sacri- ficed on the occasion. A swine is then buried alive with its head remaining above the ground and the cattle are made to run over it till it is trampled down to death.
Disposal of the Dead
Ahirs burn their dead, laying the corpse on ,the pyre with the head pointing to the west. The body is washed clean, wrapped in new clothes and carried to the cremation ground on the shoulders of four men. Bodies of unmarried persons of either sex are buried. The chief mourner alone remains unclean for 10 days. Sradha is performed on the 10th day after death, when caste people are feasted and presents of money and rice are made to Brahmans. The spirits of departed ancestors are pro- pitiated on any day in the latter half of the month of Bhadrapad (Stptember).
In the point of social precedence, Ahirs rank above Maratha Kunbis and all other castes of the same social standing. A Maratha KunbI will eat kachi cooked by an Ahir, but the latter will take cooked food only from Brahmans. Most of them eat fowls and mutton and indulge in spirituous and fermented liquors.
The hereditary occupation of Ahirs is to lend milch cattle and deal in milk, butter and ghee. Some of them enter Government service, mostly as police constables. Of late years a few have taken to agriculture.
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Synonyms: Baredi, Brajwasi, Gauli, Gwal, Raut, Yadav [Madhya Pradesh and/or Chhattisgarh] Ahiri Haoli, Gaolan, Gaoli, Garhe, Golkar, Holkari Gaolar, Rawat, Gayla, Ghosh, Goala, Goar [West Bengal] Chandabans, Goalbans, Madanbans, Nandbans, Natbans, Raghubans, Suryabans, Yadubans [Madhya Pradesh and/or Chhattisgarh] Goro, Pallav, Paschima, Sad Gope, Sadgop, Yadava [West Bengal] Apharia [H.H. Risley] Boricha, Gujar Ahir (in Kathiawar), Machhua (north Kathiwar), Nesak, Prakhalia, Sorathia (R.E. Enthoven] Ghosi, Goalbansi, Gujar, Lingabansi, Nandabansi, Yadubansi [S.S. Hassan]
- Subcastes: Bharotia, Gowalvansi, Jaduvansi, Jhadia, Jijhotia, Kaonra
Ahirs, Kosaria, Nandvansi, Narwaria, Rawats [Russell & Hiralal]
- Sections (endogamous group): Gvalbansi, Jadubansi, Nandibansi [W.
Crooke] Surnames: Ahir, Gokhle, Kabali, Kolhapure, Kotwal, Pariwale, Ghosh [West Bengal] Exogamous units/clans: Kaushal, Shyamla [Madhya Pradesh and/or Chhattisgarh] Ilishi, Kasiva, Nilesh [West Bengal] Abalia, Baradia, Bhadia, Bhenda, Bhibha, Bhoria, Bhuthar, Chavda, Chetaria, Chhuchar, Chudasame, Gagia, Gogham, Gohel, Goria, Jogal, Kachhot, Kamalia, Kanara, Khava, Khunti, Nandania Pidaria, Pithia, Ravaliya, Sanjva, Sindhav, Sisotia, Vadhia, Varsa, Vijva [R.E. Enthoven]
- Got: Abhiryaa, Bachhwalya, Balwan, Bhankarya, Bhuslaa, Chasya, Chura, Datarli, Harbala, Jadam, Jarwal, Kalalya,
Kankar, Khiswa, Khosa, Kosalya, Lanba, Lodiya, Mohal, Sanp Solangia (of Jadubansi subcaste), Thokaran [HA. Rose] Gotra: Goutam, Kashyap, Sandilya [Madhya Pradesh and/or Chhattisgarh] Aliman, Kashyap, Madhugulla, Sandilya [West Bengal]
This important Hindustani pastoral caste is frequently met with in Eastern Bengal, the members assuming a superiority over the Goala, and refusing to hold any social intercourse with it. The Ahir forfeits caste privileges by settling in Bengal, but if he only resides for a short time, a wife can be got from his home in Bihar.
In Gorakhpur the Ahir stands immediately below the Kayath, being regarded as a pure Sudra; but in Bengal he is impure in the eyes of Sudras and Gop-Goalas.
Ahirs are generally handsome, with fine delicate features, retaining in Bengal their ancestral love of spirits and pork. The tribe is known everywhere by a ceremony, peculiar to itself, called Gae-dagha, Gae-dhar, or Gokrirah. On the day after the Diwali, and on the day before the new moon of Kartik (Sept.-Oct.), Ahirs place a cow, which has lately calved, within an enclosure where a pig is confined. They beat drums, sing, and shout outside until the cow, maddened by the din, gores or butts the pig to death, when the carcass is removed, cooked, and eaten.1
The flesh of the wild pig is also esteemed a great delicacy by Ahirs, and when procurable is made the occasion of much conviviality.
In Bengal the subdivisions of the Ahirs are�
As with other composite castes the subdivisions vary according to locality, and clannish prejudices disappear in a foreign land. For instance, in Dacca the Mungirya and Gauriya intermarry, although it is forbidden in Bihar.
All Ahirs in Dacca belong to a "gotra," called Kasyapa, and the majority worship Krishna, only a few following the Sakta ritual. Ahirs observe the Sraddha on the eleventh day after death, and their funeral service is performed by the Maha-patra, or Kantha, Brahman.
Ahirs sell milk, but are degraded by making butter, curds, or clotted milk. Bullocks cannot properly be used by Hindus in the plough or oil-mill, but the Ahir has no compunction about selling a vicious or unmanageable bull to the Muhammadan Kolu.
Bengal Ahirs never prepare the yellow paint called "Pewri,"2 as is done in Mungir, although the Palasa tree (Butea frondosa) is one of the commonest jungle trees.
The Gauriya is the most numerous subdivision of Ahirs in Bengal, and to it belong the Uriya palanquin bearers of Calcutta, and the professional Lathials, or clubmen, of Kishna-ghur and Jesore.
In Eastern Bengal they are reckoned a very impure race who castrate bulls, brand cattle, and act as cow-doctors, being on this account generally styled Go-baidya, or Daghania Goalas.3
1 This cow baiting exactly resembles the Binda-parab of the Bhumij. Dalton, "Descriptive Ethnology," p. 176.
2 Sanskrit Go-rochana, and used for painting Hindu sectarial marks, and walls of bungalows.
3 In Northern Bengal the cow-doctor is called Hadiq.
These Ahirs, chiefly residing in Jessore, have become naturalised in Bengal as cultivators, resembling in physique and appearance the common Bengali peasantry, though they still employ a few Hindi words when speaking the vernacular. It is alleged that in Jessore the Gauriya is reckoned a pure Sudra caste, but farther east utterly abominable. A Patit Brahman ministers at their religious ceremonies, which are distinct from those observed by the Goala of the Ballali country. No genuine Sudra Goala would do the menial work of the Go-baidya, nevertheless, a fallen tribe of Goalas in Tipperah is said to practise as cow-doctors.
The Gauriya have only one gotra, the Aliman.
During the cold season the Go-baidyas wander throughout the country, and in villages may be distinguished by the cry "Goru dadha ba!" or simply "Kemon!" How is it?
Preparatory to branding or operating on animals, the Go-baidyas always invoke Krishna and the two Pandava brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva. They use skewers and awls of different shapes and sizes for opening abscesses and puncturing swollen houghs, but deny that they ever castrate bulls, and certainly no cutting instrument is ever found in their wallets. The Rishi and Hajjam, however, who undoubtedly do so, positively assert that the Go-baidya is the recognised operator.
Go-baidyas brand the cattle of the peasantry, and treat the diseases of domestic animals with a few simples. In swollen joints they administer mashes of wild fig leaves and salt, or of the Arum, heated with salt, while they wrap the joint with poultices of pounded leaves. In oedema of the head the forehead is freely cauterised with two red hot iron hooks (dagh), which are also employed in making the common reversed semicircular marks on native cattle.
In small-pox (Basanta) Go-baidyas trust to a mash of "Nim" leaves, wild ginger, green turmeric, and the pounded bark of the Seorha tree; while in catarrhs wild fig leaves are said to be very beneficial.
The Mahisha, or, as they are called in the Dacca dialect, Maisan, Goalas, derive their name from Mahisha, the Sanskrit for a buffalo, and were originally Ahirs from Patna and Mungir, who have been settled for several generations in Eastern Bengal. In towns, having ceased to keep buffaloes, they own dairies, and sell milk.
On the uncultivated "chars" or islands of the Dhullaserry, these Bengali-speaking Ahirs tend herds of buffaloes belonging to Saha merchants, and sell the milk to Gop-Goalas, who pay in advance for it. The herdsman keeps a daily account of the quantity sold, and at the end of each month his tale of milk is balanced, and compared with that kept by the purchaser.
Buffaloes give from four to five pounds of milk daily, a smaller quantity than in Bihar; but the "ghi" prepared from it is more highly priced, and more palatable, according to native taste, than "ghi" made from cow's milk. Bull calves are always sold as victims for sacrifices, the Bhuinmali and Rishi eating the flesh, and the latter tanning the hides. As the annual inundation subsides, wild bulls from the neighbouring jungles of Bhowal visit the herds, and after remaining several weeks with the cows, revert to their wild habits.
Widow marriages, and the Gae-dagha ceremony, are no longer observed.