Bagdi, Bengal

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This article is an extract from


Ethnographic Glossary.

Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press.
1891. .

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Ritgtit, Mudi, a cultivating, fishing, and menial caste of Central and Western Bengal, who appear from their features and complexion to be of Dravidian descent, and closely akin to the tribes whom, for convenience of description, we may call aboriginal. A variety of more or less indelicate legends are current regarding the origin of the caste. One story tells bow Parvati disguised herself as a fisberwoman and made advances to Siva with the object of testing his fidelity to berself. When the god had yielded to the temptation, Parvati revealed her identity, and Siva, out of pique at her triumph, ordained that the child to be born from her should be a Bagdi and live by fishing. Another account lays the scene of this adventure in Kochh Behar, where Siva is represented as living with a number of concubines of the Kochh tribe. Parvati was moved by jealousy to come in the disguise of a fisherwoman and destroy the standing crops of the Kochhnis, and Siva could only induce her to depart by begetting on her a son and a daughter. These twins were afterwards married, and gave birth to Hamvir, King of Bishanpur in Bankma, from whose four daughters-Santu, Netu, Mantu, and Kshetu-the four sub-castes Tentulia., Dulia, Kusmetia, and Matia. are de cended.

Traditions of origin

According to a third tradition, the fir t Bagdi was accidentally begotten by Rama on a widow maid-servant in attendance on Sita, and, after undergoing some per¬secution at the hands of his reputed father, was recompensed by the promise that he and his descendants should be palanquin-bearers. and in that capacity should be trusted to carry females of the highest classes. From Orissa comes the still more grotesque tale how once upon a time the gods being assembled in council, a goddess suddenly gave birth to three sons, and feeling embarrassed by the situation, hid the first under a heap of tamarind (tent1£t) pods, the second in an iron pan, and the third under a hermit's staff (dancla). From these vicissitudes of.their infancy the children got the names of Tentulia. Bagdi, Lobar Manjhi, and Dandachhatra MilDjhi.

Itwill, of course, be understood that these traditions are quoted here, not for any light that they may throw upon the origin of the Bagdis, but as contributions to the modern science of folklore. Apart from any value they may possess as illustrations of the working of the myth¬making faculty among primitive folk, I may point out that all of them must have grown up after the Bagdis had ceased to be a compact tribe. Such traditions could only have been invented by people who had already in some measure attorned to Hinduism and felt the want of a mythical pedigree of the orthodox type. The last in particular furnishes an excellent example of a myth devised for the purpose of giving a respectable explanation of the totemistio name tentulia. A parallel case will be found among the Kumbars of Orissa.

Internal structure

In the district of Bankura, where the original structure of the caste seems to have been singularly well preserve ,we J1 t e ag IS VI e lI1to e following sub-castes :-(1) Tentulia, bearing the titles Bagh, Slintni, Rai, Khan, Puila; (2) Kasa i ku I ia, with the titles Manjhi, Masi'dchi, Palankliai, Pberka; (3) Dulia, with titles Sardar and Dhara;

(4) Ujha or Ojha j (5) Machhua, Mechhua, or Mecho j (6) Guli¬m{mjhi j (7) Dandamanjhi j (H) Kusmetia, Kusmatia, or Kusputra j

(9) Mallametia, Matia, or Matial. WithiI!. these again are a number of exogamous sections, among whioh may be mantioned Klisbak, the heron; POllkl'ishi, the jungle cock; Slilrishi or Salmach, the sal fi h; Ptdl'ishi, the bean; and KaclwMap, the tortoise. The totem is taboo to the members of the section; that is to say. a Kasbak Bagdi may not kill or eat a heron; a Patrishi, like the Pythagoreans accord ing to Lucian, may not touch a bean.

A Bagdi oannot marry outside the sub-caste, nor inside the section to whioh he belongs. 1'hus a TentuliA must marry a Tentulia, but a man of the Salrishi seotion, to whatever sub-caste he may belong, cannot marry a woman of that section. The section names go by the male side, and the rule prohibiting marringe witbin the seotion requires therefore to be helped out by a separate set of rules, which to some extent overlap the rule of exogamy. Marriage with any person descended in a direct line from the same parents is forbidden as long as any relationship can be traced. 1'0 simplify the calculation of collateral relationship, the formula. "Paternal uncle, maternal uncle, paternal aunt, maternal aunt-these four relationships are to be avoided in marriage," is in use. Ordinarily the prohibition extends only to three generations in the descending line; but if bhaiylidi or mutual recognition of relationship is kept up, intermarriage is barred for five or, as some say, seven generations. In counting generations the person under consideration is included.

In the more eastern districts the organization of the caste seems to be less elaborate, and has clearly been affected by closer cuntact with Hinduism, inducing the adoption of Brabmanical cuetoms. In the 24-Parganas only five sub-castes are found¬Tentulia, Kusmetia, Trayodas, Manjhi, Noda j while the sections are reduced to three-Ka yapa, Itaucho, and Dasya-the members of which profess to be descended from Vedic Rishis, and have abandoned the totemistic observances which are common further west. Traces of totemism, however, still survive in the names of sub-castes. 1'entulilis admit that they are cailed after the tR.marind tree, and Kusmetias that they take their name from the kusa grass, but neither show any reverence for the plants in question. The system of exogamy bas also been developed in the direction of closer conformity with the usages of the higher castes. The mother's section is excluded in addition to the father's, and marriage with Sapindas is prohibited.


In Bankura, Manbhum, and the north of Orissa, where the example of the aboriginal races is prominent, Bagdis practise both infant and adult marriage ill differently. In the case of girls who are not married in infancy, !'exualliceme. before marriage is virtually tolerated, it being under¬ stood that if a girl becomes pregnant she will find some one to marry her. Further east, infant-marriage is the rule and adult the exception, while the Bagdis of the 24-Pargamts, J essore, and N adiya pretend entire ignorance of the custom of adult-marriage. polygamy is permitted. In theory, a man may marry as many wives as he can afford to maintain: practically, however, the standard of living of the caste limits him to two. He may also marry two sisters at the same time.

Marriage ceremony

Among a mass of ritual borrowed from the Brahmanical system, the marriage ceremony (bibriha or byah as oppose to sanga Bengal has preserved some interesting usages, which appeal' to belong to a different, and perhaps more primitive, order of symbolism. Early on the wedding morning, before the bridegroom starts in procession for the bride's house, he goes through a mock marriage to a maliua tree (Bas8ia latijob'a) . H e embraces the tree and bedaubs . it with vermilion; his right wrist is bonnd to it with thread, and aHer he is released from the tree this same thread is used to attaoh a bunch of mahua leaves to his wrist. The barat or procession of the brid groom's party is usna.lly timed so as to reach the bride's house abo'ut sunset. On arrival, the inner courtyard of the house is defended by the bride's friends, and a mimio conflict takes place, which ends inthevictory of the banit.

Symbolic capture having been thus effected, the bridegroom himself is seated with his face to the east on a wooden stool (JJird) placed under a bower of sat leaves, having pots of oil, grain, and turmerio at the four corners, and a small pool of water in the centre. When the bride enters, she marches seven times round the bower, keeping it always on her right hand, and seats herself opposite to the bridegroom, the pool of water being between the pair. The right hands of the bride, the bridegroom, and the bride's eldest relative are tied together with thread by the offioiating Brahman, who at the same time recites sacred texts (mantras) , the purport of which is that the bride has been given by her people to the bridegroom and has been accepted by him.

The priest then claims his fee, and, after receivin g it, unties the thread and knots together the scarves worn by the married couple. This part of the ceremony is called gotJ'dntal', c the change of gotJ'a,' and is supposed to transfer the bride from her own seotion or exogamous group into that of her husband. It is followed by 8induJ'ddn, when the bridegroom takes a small cup of vermilion in his left hand and with his right hand smears the colour on the parting of the bride's hair. By the Bagdis, as by most of the aboriginal tribes of Western Bengal, sinduJ'dan is deemed to be the esseutial and bindiug portion of the marriage ceremony, and they know nothing of the" seven steps" of the Brahmanical r;te. Garlands of flowers are then exchanged by the parties, and the rest of the night is spent in feasting, the manied couple leaving for the bride¬groom's house early next morning. The knotted scarves are not untied until the fourth day after the wedding.


All sub-castes, except the Tentulia Bagdis, allow widows to marry again by the ceremony known as Sanga,-a maimed rite, at which no Brahman officiates,l no rnantms or Vedic texts are recited, and the sacred fire, which from the days of the Rig-Veda has formed the dis-tinguishing feature of the maniage ritual, is not kindled. In the Sanga ceremony as practised by the Bagdis of Central Bengal, the bride and bridegroom sit face to face on a mat, and each daubs the other's forehead with a paste of powdered turmeric and water. A sheet (chacla?') is then thrown over the heads of the pair, so as to cover them entirely, and under this the bridegroom puts an iron bracelet (lohar klui?'u) on the left wrist of the bride. The proceedings are finished by a feast to the caste brethren of the village. If the newly-married couple are too poor to afford a feast, they pay a fee of Re. 1-4. A widow may marry her late husband's younger brother, but she is not compelled to do so.


In the matter of divorce, the practice of the caste seems to vary in different parts of Bengal. Hinduised Bagdis follow the example of the higher castes in denying that such a thing is possible. The general opinion, however, seems to be that a wife may be divorced for barrenness, unchastity, or disobedience, duly proved to the satisfaction of a council of elders of the caste. When the council have given their assent, the husband closes the proceedings by the symbolical act of breaking a straw in two, or by taking away the iron bracelet which every married woman wears on her left wrist. A divorced wife is entitled to claim maintenance from her late husband for period of six months after the divorce. She may marry again by the SangO, form, and in some distriots such marriages are exceedingly common. Oases, indeed, have come to my notice in which a wife has taken steps to get a divorce with the avowed obj ect of marrying another man. As a rule, however, the initiative is supposed to be taken by the husband.

Admission of outsiders

Like the Bauris, all sub-castes of Bagdis, except the Tentulia, admit into their circle members of any caste higher than themselves in social standing. No regular ceremony is appointed for suoh occasions: the new member merely pays to the caste panchayat a sum of money, varying from Rs. 10 to Rs. 15, to be spent on a feast, in whioh for the first time he openly eats with his adopted caste brethren. When admitted into the Dulia sub-caste, he is made to take the palanquin on his shoulder to signify his acceptance of the charac¬teristic occupation of the body to which he has joined himself. The origin of this singular practice, which is entirely out of accord with the spirit of the caste system at the present day, is apparently

1 Among the Bagdis of the Tributary States of Orissa, I am informed tbat Brahmans do attend at the sanga ceremony for the purpose of chantlDg mantra.! and sanctifying by their tOlicb the lleW cloth and iron bracelet whicb the bridegroom presents to the bride. to be sought in the lax views of the Bagdis and Bauris on the subjeot of sexual morality. In every other caste a woman who has an intrigue with an outsider is punished by expulsion from the caste; but Bagdis and Bauris not only allow their women to Iive openly with men of other castes, but receive those men into their own community when, as frequently happens, they are outcasted by their own people for eating rice cooked by their mistresses.


The religion of the Bagdis is compounded of elements borrowed from orthodox Hinduism and survivals from

the mingled Animism and Nature.worship which prevails among the aborigines of Western Bengal. Siva, Vishnu, Dharmaraj (Yama), Durga, the Saktis, and the myriad names of the modern Hindu Pantheon, are worshipped in a more or less intelligent fashion under the guidance of the degraded (patit) Brahmans who look after the spiritual welfare of the lower castes. Alongside of these greater gods we find the Santali goddess Gosain Era and Barpahar, the "great mountain" god (Marang Buru) of the same tribe. According to the Bagdis themselves, their favourite and characteristic deity is Manasa, the sister of the Snake-king Vasuki, the wife of J aratkaru and mother of Astika, whose inter¬vention saved the snake race from destruction by Janmejaya.

Manasi is worshipped by the caste with great pomp and circum¬stance. On the 5th and 20th of the four rainy months-Ksar, Sraban, BMdra, and Xswin (middle of June to middle of Ootober)-rams and he-goats are sacrified, rice, sweetmeats, fruit, and flowers are offered; and on the Nagpanchami (5th of the light half of Sraban =end of August) a four-armed effigy of the goddess, orowned by a tiara of snakes, grasping a cobra in each hand, and with her feet resting on a goose, is carried round the village with muoh discordant music, and finally thrown into a tank. The oult of Manasa is of course by no means confined to the Bagdis. In Eastern Bengal all castes, from the Brahman to the Chand aI, adore her, and no class is more strict in attending to the details of her worship than the Kulin Brahmans of Bikrampur in Daoca.

Bagdis, however, regard her with peouliar respect, and say that they alone among her votaries make images in her honour. Some add that the pllJa hastheeffeot of seouring the worshippers from snake-bite, which is naturally more frequent during the rains; and this notion finds a cUTious eoho in the promise given by Vasuki to Astika in the Mahabharata, that those who call upon his name, be they Brahmans or common folk , shall be safe from the attaoks of the snake race. On the last day of Bhadra (middle of September) the Bagdis of Manbhum and Bankura carry in procession the effigy of 0. female saint named Bhadu, who is said to have been the favourite daughter of a former Raja of Pachete, and to have died a virgin for the good of the people. The worship con ists of songs and wild dances, in which men, women, and children take part.

The story of its origin may well have some foundation in fact, it being notorious that the Rajas of Pachete, like mo t of the pseudo-Rajput families of Chota Nagpur, find great difficulty in arranging suitable alliances for their daughters, and often have to keep them at home unmarried until they have long passod ihe age of puberiy. Begarded from this point of view,thelegend adds one more to the numerous instances which may be citerl ill support of the theory propounded by Sir Alfred Lyall in his essay on the origin of Divine Myths in India.1

Disposal of the dead

Bagdis burn their dead and throw the ashes into a stream or tanlc. The bodies of persons who die of small-pox or cholera. are either buried or e'xposed. Infants under three years are buried. In parts orissa. the universal practice is to bury the dead on the left side with the head towards the north. The sradclh ceremony is performed a. month after death under the supervision of a Brahman and in general conformity with the standard Hindu ritual.


Bagdis profess to foHow the Hindu law of inheritance, but their legal bnsiness, as with most of the lower casies, is of a very simple character, and is generally disposed of by their own caste councils (panchayats) without the intervention of the Courts. In making a division of property the eldest son gets an extra share (jetlt-angs), which seems to be intended to enable him to support the female members of the family, who remain under his care. A similar provision was recognised by early Hindu law, but it has since become obsolete, and entire equality or division is now the rule among all the higher castes, unless perhaps where some special family custom can be proved.


Opinions differ regarding the original occupation of the caste. . Some say fishing, others personal service, but The question clearly no one on W• 10 we can hope to an-ive at any definite conclusion. At the present day the Tentulia and Kasaikulia Bagdis work as masons, and 0.1 0 prepare the lime which is mixed with betel and areca nut. Dulia Bagdis carry palanquins or dulis, and, in common with the other sub-castes, earn their livelihood by fishing, making gunny-bags, weaving cotton, :md preparing the red powdflr (aM'I') used in the Holi fe tival. The Bagdi fisherman uses the ordinary circular cast-net described in the article on Mulo, but swings the net round his head beLore casting it -a practice which is supposed by the regular fishing castes of Bengal-Tiyar, Malo, and Kaibartta-to be peculiarly dishonourablc. Most of the Bagdis are also to some extent engaged in agriculture, usually as k1ll/n or under-raiyats, and comparatively few have attained the more respectable position of occupancy tenants.

In Western Bengul we find large numbers of them working as landless day¬labourers, paid in cash or kind, or as nomadic cultivators, tilling other men's lands on the bhay:jot system, undor which they are remunerated by a definite snare of the produce-sometimes one-half, sometimes less, as may be arranged with their immediate landlord. I can recall no instance of a Bagdi holding a zemiudari, or even a superior tenure. sncb as lJatni or muka1'(ll'i, of any importance; but some of the Uanbhum zemindars, who now claim to be H.ajputs, are said by Colonel Dalton to be realiy Bag(1i~, and the conjecture is likely enough to be true. In the neighbouring district of Bankura, Bagdis must have been among the earliest settlers, if not the actual aborig¬ines, of that part of the country, for at the present time there are 14 Bagdis holding the tenure of sa1'c!ll1' yltatwal, 6 are sf/dials, 2 are village sa1'cla1'S, 178 tdbicl(I1's , and 117 chtikl'an c/taukirl(f1'8. In Mfmbhum one Bagdi holds a village Sarna1"S tenure, and four are employed as tdbidd"s. In Central Bengal, Bagdis are frequently met with as chaukidars.

Social status

Their social rank is very low. They are usually classed with Bauris and Bhuiyas as dwellers on the outskirts of Hinduism, Some Bagdis eat beef and. pork, and all indulge freely in flesh of other kinds, and are greatly addicted to drink. Tentulia Bagdis, however, will not eat beef, and many members of this sub-caste have become Vaishnavas and abstain from all sorts of flesh. By abstaining from beef they consider themselves to be raised the BaUl'i, Muchi, and Oraon, and the beef-eating' members of their own caste.

Dulia Bagdis eat tortoises. In Western Bengal the Bagdis eat and drink with the Mal; in Orissa they eat rice with the Lohar Manjbi and sweetmeats with the Bhuiya.

The following statement shows the number and distribution of Bagdis in 1872 and 1881 :¬

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